Sometimes I just want to be heard.
I’m exhausted from dining out in of-the-moment restaurants and shouting “conversations” at my dining partner. True story: A few summers ago, we were dining in a then-new, pricey Fulton Market restaurant with friends, and the music was so egregiously loud that we asked the hostess if it could be turned down a bit. Her reply — “The chef likes it that way” — was unsatisfactory at best, even though she seemed embarrassed to relate that information to a paying customer. All around us, millennials were screaming happily at each other as they methodically polished off the (admittedly scrumptious) fried chicken. My husband the tech whiz immediately downloaded a sound-level meter app and took a reading, which was the equivalent of a plane landing. So the restaurant sound pollution has gotten a little out of hand, no?
Aside from having an actual dialogue with my dining companions, I have a confession to make. I love children. I do. But it does not enhance the dining experience to have children playing tag in between the tables, or crying because they are (justifiably) bored/ignored at a restaurant that is clearly not intended for them. One night I saw a 3-year-old boy lie down next to the table while the oblivious parents finished a bottle of wine. This forced a polite attempt by the maître d’ to request the parents to retrieve their child for the safety of all involved. Predictably, the parents were outraged by this suggestion of negligence, although last time I checked, the one thing not provided by the restaurant is a babysitting service. I hope they tipped bigly.
And guess what? You’re paying good money for a dining-out experience. It’s not enough for the food to be spectacular or the atmosphere buzz-worthy. That doesn’t make up for a lack of civility. Fear not, because there are still a number of restaurants in Chicagoland where one can dine in relatively quiet splendor. So, arm yourself with this list, and schedule that business meal. Dine with your friends (or parents!) of a certain age. Enjoy the company and adult conversation of your companions. Listen, and be heard. What a revelation.
1639 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago
You can hear yourself thinking about the two-star Michelin fare at this South Loop stunner. Serene surroundings with plenty of room between tables and gorgeous service mean life is stress-free — at least within these walls. Chef Ryan McCaskey understands graceful, understated elegance, and serves it up in an eight-course tasting menu that changes with the seasons. The last gasps of summer gave tomatoes, corn, zucchini, and melons their final due; autumn ushers in pumpkin, brascia, wild mushrooms, apples, and pears. McCaskey’s spiritual connection to his Maine upbringing is signaled by his loving treatment of lobster, oysters, and other shellfish. Craving a little less of a time commitment? Belly up to the bar menu for Peekytoe Crab Toast, Blue Hill Bay Mussels with herby coconut green curry, or the prize-winning, mouthwatering Acadia Burger with umami-laden bacon-onion jam, Gruyère, and truffle-scented Mornay sauce. Bartender, keep those Manhattans coming.
Rear 1016 Church St., Evanston
Tucked away in an alley in downtown Evanston is this modern “meaterie,” a contemporary speakeasy overseen by owner Amy Morton (Found Kitchen and Social House) and a painting of a beatific llama. New executive chef Bradford Phillips has shaken up the menu a bit, adding more steak options (in homage to Morton’s late, great father, restaurateur Arnie Morton). Nightly specials include Monday’s Smoked BBQ Ribs and Thursday’s succulent Seared Scallops with Saffron Beurre Blanc. Sitting at a comfortable seat at the zinc bar, sipping your French 75, you’ll feel a million miles away from the North Shore.
1729 N. Halsted St., Chicago
The Boka Restaurant Group’s flagship restaurant is a study in comfort and ease. The dining room, all deep browns and bronzes with the added shock and delight of a lush green wall, exudes cool and comfort in equal measure. The tables are generously sized, the leather booths padded and plush. There’s enough light to see, but you’ll still look gorgeous. The featured cocktails are thoughtful and well balanced, and Executive Chef Lee Wolen’s oft-lauded way with a roast chicken is no exaggeration. Save room for Executive Pastry Chef Meg Galus’ glorious seasonal desserts.
534 N. Clark St., Chicago
Co-Owner and Executive Chef Carrie Nahabedian, along with her cousin, Co-Owner and Wine Director Michael Nahabedian, have created an oasis of beauty and sophistication in River North, a seemingly insurmountable feat. After closing the much-missed, Michelin-starred NAHA, Chef Nahabedian is focusing her formidable creative attention on Brindille, her love letter to Paris. The James Beard Award-winning restaurant design is complemented by attention to detail in the selection of luxe linen, china, glass, and silverware. You won’t find a kid’s menu here, thank goodness, just sophisticated fare like a Fondue of Soft White Corn Polenta, accompanied by Burgundian snails, wild mushrooms, green garlic, and roasted leeks, gilded with aged Comté cheese. Pastry Chef Craig Harzewski’s desserts are plays on classic French patisserie, such as a Hazelnut Praline Éclair with violet ice cream, lemon, and caramel.
Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, 12 S. Michigan Ave., 2nd Floor
Atmosphere doesn’t get much clubbier than inside this sexy spot, where you and your dining partner are bathed in a golden glow while cuddled up together in a cozy (yet spacious) booth. Executive Chef Pete Coenen has a deft hand with red meat, and his Catalpa Farm Roasted Leg of Lamb for Two, lacquered sinfully with a pomegranate glaze and cooked to a juicy turn, is a jaw-dropper. Order an adult beverage from the tableside cocktail cart and revel in your maturity.
4400 Golf Road, Skokie
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite hideaways, Charcoal Oven in Skokie. Blink and you’ll miss it as you zip down Golf Road on your way to Westfield Old Orchard or Northlight Theatre. But if you’re a supper club fan, you’ll love this throwback to the ‘60s heyday of the Rat Pack. Even when the restaurant is full, you can clearly hear both the server and your seatmates, praise be. Greek-accented favorites — like oven-roasted chicken or fish bathed in olive oil, lemon, garlic, and oregano, and plump, rosy-centered grilled lamb chops — come with an appetizer (usually pastitsio or a well-seasoned lentil soup), ice-cold salad (with an A+ blue cheese dressing option), butter-dipped rolls fresh from the oven, and vegetable side dishes served family style. All this, plus a fine dry martini? Sinatra would approve.
425 South Financial Place, 40th Floor, Chicago
There are many reasons why Chef Jean Joho’s elegant culinary aerie has stood the test of time, chief among them the consistent excellence of food, wine, and service — and the astounding view looking west over Chicagoland from high above the Loop. The art-filled room is one of Chicago’s most romantic; countless proposals have taken place here, fueled by the fine wine list stocked with Joho’s Alsatian favorites and your choice of three- or four-course prix-fixe menu, or a set seven-course degustation. Traditional French dishes find new life here, and so will you.
505 Main St., Evanston
Chef/Owner Mark Grosz came up at Le Français under the legendary chef Jean Banchet himself, and he has carried those lessons to this charming Evanston storefront boîte. Remodeled five years ago for a sleeker, more contemporary look, the restaurant serves some of the very best seafood in the Chicago area, and their wine list has won the Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence” for nearly a quarter century. Order a la carte or splurge for the chef’s seven-course tasting menu; sit in the dining room or grab a surprisingly comfortable seat at the bar and slurp down an oyster or six, or perhaps some Wild Japanese Day Boat Scallops in a kimchi-lobster-soy broth. If the world’s problems can’t be solved over a fine plate of sustainably caught seafood, at least you can hear the debate.
201 E. Delaware Place, Chicago
Just a few blocks east of Michigan Avenue lies this Italian haven overseen by the Mafricis, Chef Mauro and his wife, Architect/Designer Kimberly Anguil. Everything about this restaurant oozes luxe sophistication and comfort. There’s an intimacy here, and a feeling that you can truly sit back and let the meal happen. Of course, the service is impeccable, from the cunning stool for your purse to a personal escort to the restrooms, located in the hotel lobby. And the food! All of the pasta is “fatto a mana,” made by hand in-house, as are the contents of the basket of warm rolls and focaccia brought to the table. The airy Gnocchi virtually float off the table, anchored to earth only by the venison ragu sauce that dresses them. All the pastas are spectacular, but don’t overlook the branzino with spinach and roasted tomatoes, or the juicy veal loin chop, topped with a sauce of oyster mushrooms enriched with veal demi.
64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka
The 2018 Michelin stars have been handed out, and once again, Michael Lachowicz has been unjustly passed over for recognition. It’s no reflection on the beautiful dishes that come out of his Winnetka kitchen, or the impeccable service, but rather that Michelin’s definition of “Chicago” is somewhat limited, not even extending to the city’s own borders, much less beyond, so suburban restaurants get no love. Happily, Michelin’s loss doesn’t have to be yours. Dishes like a seafood cassoulette with scallops, lobster, and fava beans, or a Moroccan-style braised lamb shank with couscous and candied figs can be ordered a la carte, or as part of a three- or four-course prix fixe. If you’re a hazelnut fan, be sure to order the Hot Frangelico Soufflé — it’s a treat.
123 N. Jefferson St., Chicago
Michelin DID smile (again) on Chef Andrew Zimmerman, who also owns the global street foods-focused Proxi next door (which tends to be quite a bit louder, although still crazy delicious). Here, the menu feels like a modern classic. No small plates, per se, but starters and entrées that call to you through the gracious dining room, urging you to sit and enjoy your meal like an adult human. Seasonal, local, and global ingredients wind through the menu in inventive pairings, like the Rohan duck with fermented ramps, olives, and herby chimichurri sauce, or a vichyssoise touched with lavender. Pastry Chef Sarah Mispagel will make you sit up and take notice with her scrummy take on upside-down cake, here flavored with pears and almonds, topped with tangy crème fraîche and served with a deeply purple Concord grape sorbet.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.