Best Dining Bets

Charlie Trotter's (816 W. Armitage Ave.; tel. 773/248-6228): Charlie Trotter is the city's original celebrity chef, and his intimate restaurant, inside a town house, is the first place I steer foodie visitors. The formula may be rigid (tasting menus only), but the food is anything but: fresh-as-can-be ingredients in dazzling combinations. The service lives up to Trotter's legendary perfectionism; the chef himself has been known to come out of the kitchen and ask diners why they didn't finish a certain dish.

(1723 N. Halsted St.; tel. 312/867-0110): Widely considered the town's top restaurant of the moment, Alinea has gotten national press for chef Grant Achatz's revolutionary twist on contemporary dining. Each course of the ever-changing prix-fixe menu showcases Achatz's creativity, whether it's duck served on a scented "pillow" of juniper or a complete reinvention of "wine and cheese" (frozen grape juice rolled in grated bleu cheese and served with red-wine gelée). An added bonus: service that's friendly, not snobby.

Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse
(1028 N. Rush St.; tel. 312/266-8999): Chicago has no shortage of great steakhouses, but Gibsons has a great scene, too -- a mix of moneyed Gold Coast singles, expense-account-fueled business travelers, and the occasional celebrity. This is the kind of place to live large (literally): The portions are enormous, so you're encouraged to share, which adds to the party atmosphere.

Foodlife (Water Tower Place, 835 N. Michigan Ave.; tel. 312/335-3663): This is my top pick for a quick, affordable, family-friendly meal downtown. Leaps and bounds beyond the standard mall food court, foodlife offers a wide range of nonchain food stations at affordable prices. Get everything from Asian noodles and vegetarian fare to more standard options such as pizza and burgers.

The Italian Village
(71 W. Monroe St.; tel. 312/332-7005): The old-school fettuccine alfredo won't win any culinary awards, but eating at this Chicago landmark is like taking a trip back in time, from the so-tacky-they're-cool twinkling "stars" on the ceiling to the vintage waiters (some of whom look like they've been working here since the place opened in 1927).
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