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Tulips on Chicago's Michigan Avenue

Mr. Harper's Travel Guide

The most demographically diverse state in the Midwest is home to thriving ethnic communities, pleasant college towns and unexpected pastoral escapes. But it is the grand port of Chicago, linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi via the Illinois River, that continues to capture the ...

The most demographically diverse state in the Midwest is home to thriving ethnic communities, pleasant college towns and unexpected pastoral escapes. But it is the grand port of Chicago, linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi via the Illinois River, that continues to capture the nation's imagination. The Magnificent Mile is the glittering stretch of Michigan Avenue that runs from the Chicago River to Oak Street. In addition to the traditional cavalcade of upscale retail stores, this frenetic length of asphalt boasts a number of architectural wonders, from the gothic-style Tribune Tower to the sleek John Hancock Center.

Chicago can be used as a base for delightful day trips to destinations such the sublime Mies van der Rohe-designed Farnsworth House in Plano, the idyllic 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden in Skokie and the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in nearby Oak Park. Farther afield, the state’s capital, Springfield, was the home of Abraham Lincoln for 24 years.

bird icon Recommended Luxury Hotels in Illinois

All Andrew Harper-recommended hotels offer impeccable accommodations and high levels of personal service. Only the best of the best make our list, so we rate them on a scale from bird icon 90 to 100.

Best Restaurants in Illinois

Chicago has no shortage of fine steakhouses, but the candlelit atmosphere of Bavette’s makes it more appropriate for couples than for businessmen. We had a wonderful dinner of cognac-infused foie gras with a blackberry compote, garlicky shrimp de Jonghe, tender lamb T-bone with rosemary and garlic, and flawless filet mignon with roasted tomatoes and spicy watercress. Our side dishes of creamy elote-inspired corn and flavorful roasted butternut squash with sage proved equally delicious. 

218 West Kinzie Street Chicago $95

This restaurant helmed by Noah Sandoval, the former executive chef at Michelin-starred Senza (now closed), serves a tasting menu of about 15 courses. Its location on a warehouse-filled side street looks unpromising, but inside, past the freight elevator that serves as a vestibule, the exposed-brick interior feels stylish and welcoming. 

The food remained grounded, with beautiful but accessible presentations that never lapsed into theatrical gimmickry. My favorites included a jewel-like assembly of langoustine, rich lardo, briny Kristal caviar and white asparagus, served on a plate that concealed the next course, a bowl of jamón Ibérico with candied black walnuts, creamy egg yolk and savory Campo de Montalban cheese. A perfect piece of A5 wagyu beef, dusted with char-flavored onion ash and accompanied by a decadent Béarnaise, melted in my mouth. The four dessert courses were equally delightful. Pacing was mercifully quick — the experience lasted only about two hours. Staff here proved to be attentive, cheerful and attitude-free.

661 W. Walnut Street Chicago US$190

This tiny BYOB restaurant hidden in an unpromising northside neighborhood is no longer a secret, since its acquisition of two Michelin stars. Tickets purchased through the website include the tasting menu, tax and tip, as well as seats at either a 10-person communal table or a counter facing the open kitchen (our preference). A wildly creative dish of asparagus gelato, salt-cured tuna, sea buckthorn cream, wood sorrel and apricot kernels created fireworks of flavor, as did courses such as triple-seared Miyazaki wagyu beef with baby bok choy, Japanese pickled plums and rich crumbs of dehydrated beef marrow. Well worth the taxi ride. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

4662 North Broadway Chicago Ticket: $260

The view here, from the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, is magnificent. Chef Jean Joho hails from Alsace, and he combines that heritage with top American ingredients, as in a starter of crusted Berkshire pork cheeks with a choucroute salad. Among the main courses, you could find fillet of sole meunière with mousseline potatoes and petite capers, or Wisconsin veal with wild Michigan morels and spring peas à la Française. The wine list contains more than 1,600 selections. Closed Sunday and Monday.

440 South LaSalle Street Chicago $110

This stylish and expensive restaurant comes with leather chairs, fine linens and soft lighting. Chef Curtis Duffy previously worked at Charlie Trotter’s and The Peninsula’s Avenues, and he now helms one of Chicago’s two Michelin three-star restaurants. Each night, he creates two prix-fixe menus, one vegetarian. Look for dishes such as English peas with huckleberry, sea beans and yarrow leaves; bigeye tuna with caviar, coconut and miner’s lettuce; and short rib with watercress, lime and Vietnamese herbs. Partner/sommelier Michael Muser’s fascinating wine list emphasizes the Loire and the Rhône. Closed Sunday and Monday.

652 West Randolph Street Chicago $300

The city’s finest Italian restaurant overlooks Oak Street Beach and showcases the talents of chef Tony Mantuano. The seasonal menu changes but includes exquisite pastas such as spaghetti with fonduta, peas, ramps and beech mushrooms; or potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce and black truffles. Main courses might include salmon with red cabbage and pea tendrils; or duck with foie gras, green walnuts, carrots and speck. 

980 North Michigan Avenue Chicago $130. Six-course tasting menu, $125

This is one of the prettiest restaurants in the city, set in a turn-of-the-century brownstone. The menu is contemporary French. Look for the rich assortment of house-made pâtés served with cornichons and toasted brioche. Main courses might include Alaskan halibut with quinoa, saffron potato cakes and morel mushroom sauce; or braised wagyu beef short rib with root vegetables and trumpet royale mushrooms in a Bordelaise sauce. The extensive wine list has 17 selections by the glass. Closed Sunday and Monday.

222 East Ontario Street Chicago Four-course menu, $125; six courses, $140

Celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ newest venture is already a tough reservation. The kitchen cooks everything over a woodburning grill, and the Baja-inspired menu offers strikingly complex flavors. One appetizer combined the sweet and charred flavor of roasted pineapple with creamy goat cheese, tangy orange-lime broth and spicy hazelnut salsa macha. I also loved our main courses, such as black cod with savory “pastor” marinade and sweet pineapple-shiso salsa. Bayless’ engaging daughter, Lanie, arranged for a superb selection of mezcals to pair. Closed Monday.

900 West Randolph Street Chicago $70
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