Chicago Special Occasion Dining

Michael Nagrant / 12.01.16

In the pursuit to review as many new restaurants as humanly possible, I rarely have the opportunity to stop and tell you about the places I go to celebrate special occasions, the restaurants I visit when I have no agenda except personal satisfaction. Though people will always want to know what’s hot and new, they also ask about those dependable mainstays that make excellent backdrops for life’s momentous occasions (birthdays, anniversaries) and regularly occurring but important circumstances (Sunday brunch). Whether your hard-to-please parents are in town for the weekend or you’re scheduling a second Tinder date, there’s something here for every dining dilemma.

Entertaining clients: GT Prime

707 N. Wells St. 312-600-6305
When potential business partners visit Chicago, they want to eat three things: deep-dish pizza, Chicago hot dogs and steak. Such meals are fish stories to tell the neighbors upon return. (“You should have seen this slice. It was bigger than James Van Der Beek’s forehead. I had to use a knife and fork to eat it.”) For locals, these meals are a chore. Enter GT Prime in River North. They’ll be dazzled by the expense account wagyu, plump banquettes and Studio 54-worthy chandelier. And you’ll be blown away by the ingenious mozzarella-sauced arancini and bone marrow-infused bourbon cocktails.

Dinner with visiting parents: Imperial Lamian
6 W. Hubbard St. 312-595-9440
Whether your parents are 50 or 70, they probably appreciate enough light to read their dinner menus and a low-noise ceiling so they don’t have to turn off their hearing aids. And while they’re probably not craving pig ears or sauteed brain for dinner, I’m willing to bet they’re looking for something a little more adventurous than Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Imperial Lamian fits the bill with hand-pulled noodles, made-to-order dumplings and a side of exotic fancy. The flavors of smoked hoisin barbecue-lacquered ribs or mango- and passion fruit-sauced crispy prawns have a sweet and salty appeal for the fussiest of palates.

Second Tinder date: Giant
3209 W. Armitage Ave. 773-252-0997
Let’s face it, the first Tinder date isn’t going to be at a restaurant because you want an easy exit strategy if your companion turns out to be a dud. But if everything goes according to plan, you’ll need to find a second date spot where you can swap embarrassing childhood stories and confess your love for collecting Canadian bands on vinyl. Suggest a place that says you’re cool as hell but isn’t too expensive or complicated. Giant is a solid bet. You’re in Logan Square, bosom of hipsters. You’re eating food from one of Chicago’s best chefs. There are cool vertical record players mounted over the bar. If you bring your copy of Neil Young’s “Harvest,” who knows, maybe they’ll play it? And if not, there’s still buttermilk-brined onion rings, sweet and funky fried uni shooters and killer sugar-coated biscuits to keep the conversation going.

652 W. Randolph St. 312-234-9494
Even if you can’t really afford it, by the time you’ve spent three decades—or more—on this earth, you’ve earned an unforgettable culinary experience. Of course, you can’t go wrong with heavy hitters Alinea or Acadia for this kind of occasion. However, if you’re a vegetarian, you won’t find a better or fancier veg meal than what Grace is offering. Even if you’re not a vegetarian, there’s something about Grace’s naturalistic plate-scapes and comfortable service that make it a touch more approachable and chill, albeit still extra special, for a milestone birthday.

Any old birthday: Naoki Sushi
2300 N. Lincoln Park West 773-868-0002
It’s hard not to go with Red Lobster here. After all, they give you a free slice of cake and sing “Happy Birthday.” But I won’t fall prey to the siren song of all-you-can-eat cheddar bay biscuits. Instead, I’ll assume you want to celebrate somewhere that’s a little glitzy and makes you feel special for surviving another year. Still, you don’t want to break the bank, because there are many more birthdays to come (see above). For you, Naoki Sushi is where it’s at. Hidden behind Intro in Lincoln Park, the place feels like a Japanese speakeasy. The raw and cured fish preparations are some of the best in the city, and there’s plenty of sake to go around.

Swiss army knife for any occasion: Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf
218 W. Kinzie St. 312-624-8154
Bavette’s is so versatile and cool it could fulfill nearly every scenario listed here. As such, I’ve created a cheater category, but it’s a very fair title. There’s something about the River North restaurant from Brendan Sodikoff that feels transformative, like you’re stepping into an old movie. It’s so powerful that when dinner is over and you find yourself outside on the sidewalk, you might feel a bit sad about returning to everyday life. But inside, 1920s and ’30s singers croon, red leather gleams and gauzy golden light falls on seafood towers and some of the best sourdough bread in the city. After a few cocktails, you’ll find yourself in a jazz-age haze you’ll never want to leave.

837 W. Fulton Market 312-733-9555
What better place to bring the whole crew than a spot that looks like a viking dining hall. Better yet, The Publican in West Loop is a viking dining hall that overflows with tankards of craft beer, mountains of oysters, beef suet-fried frites and eminently shareable plates of country ham.

Brunch when you don’t want to wait: Uncle Mike’s Place
1700 W. Grand Ave. 312-226-5318
Even the most mediocre brunch spots seem to require you to spend an hour sucking down Starbucks on the curb with your homies before you’re allowed to spend $20 on an egg and a slice of bacon you could have made at home. Uncle Mike’s can get a little busy on weekends, but you can often slide right into this low-key West Town diner without much ado. They serve the usual suspects—egg specials and pancakes—but also offer fantastic Filipino breakfasts featuring garlic rice, sweet anise-cured pork shoulder and fried eggs.

Anniversary dinner: North Pond
2610 N. Cannon Drive 773-477-5845
Celebrating an anniversary is about stepping away to reflect on the past and plan for the future. If you’re sticking around the city but seeking an escape, look to North Pond, hidden inside Lincoln Park behind a lush pond in an old city ice skaters’ warming hut. The prairie style-designed restaurant often has a roaring fire going in the winter months and is bathed in golden candlelight. Though seasonal and local foods seem to be everywhere these days, chef Bruce Sherman works directly with some of the best farmers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and beyond to create refined plates that truly taste of the field and stream.

Celebrating a promotion: Boeufhaus
1012 N. Western Ave. 773-661-2116
Mo’ responsibility usually comes with mo’ money. Getting a career bump can make you feel like a baller. And when it comes to balling out at a restaurant, menu items like a 55-day dry-aged ribeye, short rib beignets, escargot croquettes and rivers of sparkling champagne should fit the bill. You could go to a big fancy spot downtown, but you wouldn’t get the personalized, intimate service you’ll find at this Humboldt Park meat palace.

Dinner before a bachelorette party: Bohemian House
11 W. Illinois St. 312-955-0439
If you’re about to get married, there’s a good chance you’ll be drinking out of penis-shaped straws and singing Bon Jovi covers at Howl at the Moon. Before all that, treat yourself to something better at Bohemian House in River North. The vibe inside is chill and sexy, and the rich fare—think pierogies, schnitzel and spatzle—will help absorb some of the impending booze. Rest assured, most of these plates are lightened up and modernized by chef Rob Sidor, so you’ll still be able to hit the dance floor later.

Entertaining college friends: The Angry Crab
1308 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-687-9929 and 5665 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-784-6848
Whether you’re reuniting with your freshman dorm-mates or the fraternity brothers who eventually saved your life after trying to poison you with alcohol, there’s always a laundry list of demands. It must be unique, inexpensive and, of course, booze-friendly. With two locations, The Angry Crab is a raucous party of high-quality crab, lobster, shrimp and crawfish. Best of all, it’s BYOB, so you can get your party on at a reasonable price.

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.