It used to be if you wanted to attend a dinner at a “three star” restaurant in Chicago, you’d get out the mortgage papers and prepare to sign over the house or it’s possessions for an extraordinary meal. Forget the $130 10-course prefix menu, tax and tip not included. By the time you added beer, wine, and/or a mixed drink or two, you could be up to nearly $300 per person. If you wanted to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle[s]), the usual choice would have been a hole in the wall in a neighborhood less than savory to the average consumer. You could go, have a decent meal, and then take your life in your hands attempting to get to the car afterward. Not anymore.
Today in this fair city, there are 2 top shelf restaurants serving $90 and $110 prefix menus owned by chefs who honed their skills with the likes of Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan, and those places, believe it or not, are BYOB. There are many other eateries that have garnered numerous awards and accolades from food pundits far and wide where you’d be hard pressed to spend over $20 per person.
BYOB is just what the named suggests. “Bring Your Own Bottle/Beverage.” The group of misfits I hang out with are all members of the alcoholic beverage industry so it’s usually off to the “wine storage area” (cellar, closet or corner) to grab a bottle of red, white, rosé, or sticky (dessert wine). We can also grab a few bottles of one’s favorite IPA, porter, or whatever suits our tastes that day — but mostly it’s wine (hunting for great microbrews at a nearby tavern to continue the social interaction often occurs after the meal). Then I get a count on the attendees and bring the appropriate number of Reidel wine glasses to the restaurant. Every individual or couple will bring at least one beverage, so if there are seven of us meeting for dinner, there will be at least five bottles and it’s usually a pretty diversified selection.
1. The first rule of thumb when selecting a place is to find out what everyone is in the mood for. I always send an email out with three or four restaurant selections, including their website/menus attached so everyone can get an idea of what’s offered.
2. Before making the reservation, ask about their “corkage fees” (that’s the price per bottle, if any, charged by the place to open it for you); some don’t have one , yet others can go higher than $12 per bottle. Then there are those that, like our favorite north side “Dim Sum” haunt, Furama, have liquor licenses but don’t charge corkage when you bring in your own bottles.
3. Bring a good corkscrew as well as your own stemware if you’re going to an inexpensive ethnic eatery. (Glassware in some places is a juice glass and the corkscrew is the one with metal wings on the side that will destroy older wine corks).
4. Make a reservation if you’ve got four or more people.
5. Always ask if the place accepts credit cards. I know you know this, but in the restaurant industry it may be more prevalent than you think, and in this age of plastic and on-line currency, we often forget about these possibilities.
6. And finally, when the bill comes, treat the BYOB as if you BOUGHT THE WINE FROM THEM BY INCLUDING IN THE TIP A PERCENTAGE OF WHAT THE WINES WOULD HAVE COST above the total cost of the meal. (Example: if the alcohol would have added $80 to the bill, and you tip 15%, add at least an extra $12 to the normal tip you’d give.)
THE BIG DOGS:
These places are where you’ll shell out the most cash, usually have a Prix Fixe menu and price, and the staff will attend to you with the highest elements of care and service that you’d expect from the top restaurants in the city. You’re splurging by going to these places, so don’t short yourself on the wines or other alcoholic beverages you choose. Bring bottles to match the courses and if you aren’t sure what will work, copy the menu and go to your favorite retailer for suggestions. A bottle of wine that may cost you $10.99 or less will not work. Spend the money on great bottles (you can usually find some really spectacular selections in the $25-$35 per bottle range) and be rewarded with an amazing experience.
Schwa – Chef Michael Carlson has worked with Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia, then on to several stints including Sous Chef to Alinea’s Grant Achatz at Trio in the late 1990s. The restaurant was awarded a fabled one star from the prestigious Michelin Guide this past November. They offer a nine course, $110 per person Prix Fixe menu and charge $2.50 per bottle corkage. Their current (winter) menu offerings include tagliatelle pasta with huckleberries,black truffles and veal heart; tiger fish with carrots, marshmallows and cardamom; and a course of sweetbread biscuits and gravy.
Goosefoot – Chef Chris Nugent opened the latest in high end BYOB joints with this Lincoln Square storefront. Chris honed his skills at such Chicago fine dining establishments as Prairie, MK, and Park Avenue Café, before becoming the top chef at Les Nomades, a Chicago institution of classic French cuisine. (Nugent departed Les Nomades a week after being awarded this year’s Zagat top chef honors to open Goosefoot). They currently offer a 9-course Prix Fixe menu for $90, with courses including roasted quail with spiced beluga lentils, and compressed apple and cinderella pumpkin nougatine with spicy meringue. Shortly, they will also offer a 12-course. Their emphasis is on locally sourced ingredients. Goosefoot does not charge for corkage and even offers neighborhood suggestions of where to buy your alcohol – they even suggest what matches their menu.
Ruxbin Kitchen – From the kitchen of Thomas Kelleher’s Per Se in L.A., to stints in New York and Seoul, South Korea, Edward Kim’s 36-seat bistro has had the city buzzing for well over a year. They don’t take reservations and limit parties to four or less on Friday and Saturdays — groups of six or less the rest of the week. The average tab is about half of what you’ll pay at the two restaurants mentioned above, and they offer a half dozen choices from both the appetizer and main course sections. Highlights include a pork belly salad and sablefish with maple and soy, barley, pickled vegetables and black tea broth, and a couple of dessert courses. Like Goosefoot, Ruxbin has a list of places from which to purchase your libations before arriving for dinner, and no corkage fees are mentioned on the website.
I’d guess close to 80% of the city’s Asian restaurants are BYOB and for those that don’t list it anywhere, you can give them a phone call to see if they’ll allow it; more than likely, they will. Alcohol suggestions vary with the specifics of this cuisine but as a whole, our group likes dry whites from Alsace (Pinot Gris, Riesling, or Gewürztraminer), Italian Albarino, Portuguese Vihno Verde, French Muscadet (especially with seafood), and reds like Spanish Tempranillo, Cote du Rhône, or Cabernet Francs. Dry rosé also tends to be the favorite wine to match with Asian foods in our circle with a large variety from Spain, France, and Italy; many for under $12. Try high alcohol lagers from Japan or German Kolsch beers with some Asian foods. IPAs will probably work with seafood and the hotter end of Thai, Korean, and Szechwan Chinese dishes.
Urban Belly/Belly Shack– I love Chefs Bill Kim and Yvonne Cadiz-Kim’s cooking. Sometimes described as a Ko-Rican fair, Urban Belly and their “fast food” cousin Belly Shack offer a different concept at each location. Urban Belly offers communal tables and dumpling and noodle selections, with amazing combinations like Soba with Bay scallops, oyster mushrooms and Thai basil broth, for about $14. Belly Shack is more of a sandwich, soup, and salad joint on hallucinogens. (Try the Asian meatball sandwich stuffed with Somen noodles, Korean chili paste and mint in a pita pocket and the amazing Brussels sprouts with chorizo appetizer.) Both locations have been tagged with the Michelin’s Bib Gourmand award, given to fine restaurants whose offerings for two courses and dessert total under $40.
Another Asian Bib Gourmand winner, Han 202, offers a 5-course Chinese Prix Fixe with numerous selections in each category for $25 per person. The main course forces you to pick one item, like the standard Mongolian beef, or the more adventurous rack of lamb in plum sauce, from a list of 10 entrees…decisions, decisions! They are located just off the Dan Ryan expressway in the Bridgeport neighborhood on 31st Street.
Double Li in Chinatown has incredible Szechuan string beans, garlic pea pod shoots, frog legs, and the most amazing black pepper garlic beef I’ve ever eaten in my life – and their “Hot Pot” selection will cause you to stare jealously at the other table who ordered it.
As mentioned above, our favorite Dim Sum hangout is Furama restaurant, on Broadway and Argyle on the North side. Go around noon on Sunday and experience Dim Sum in the upstairs banquet hall (capacity 400) and it’s like you’re visiting Hong Kong. The family’s teenagers and wait staff push the famous Dim Sum carts around to the table and you can select from an array of dumplings or try the pork buns, curried baby octopus, or shrimp stuffed Chinese eggplant. I was there with three other friends and we got stuffed for $18 bucks apiece. They have their own alcohol selection, but don’t charge for corkage and encourage BYOB.
For the best Thai, it’s either our long time friends at Opart Thai, yet another Michelin “Bib” award winner, where their beef salad, Chinese sausage salad, numerous noodle and curry dishes are simply amazing, or
Sticky Rice, whose emphasis on Northern Thai cuisine adds some interesting selections like Northern Thai sausages and fried bamboo caterpillars that border on adventurous to some. (The caterpillars are excellent and taste like toasted almonds). Both are located on the north side on Western Avenue.
For Korean, we all head back to Lincoln Square for the oldest Korean restaurant in the city, Cho Sun Ok. Actually, it was YBN’s Beer Doctor, Carol Westbrook, and her husband Rick, who turned me on to this place over a decade ago. It’s still one of my favorite “go to” BYOBs. Mr. Lee has been cooking for Korean families since 1981 and you’re hard-pressed to find a space some nights with the table top portable gas burners cooking an array of Korean specialties and local Korean families packed around the tables. I love their Bul-Go-Gi (barbequed beef), Bebim Bap (assorted veggies in a bowl with meat, rice, and sunny-side-up egg) and Nakji Bokkeum (stir-fried octopus and veggies with chili paste).
And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Vietnamese standouts in the same neighborhood as Furama. Café Hoang has an additional location in Chinatown, with Pho soups and crispy pancakes filled with veggies among the savories here. Vietnamese spring rolls are made by you and your friends as they provide bowls of warm water to dip dried, round rice paper into, with sprouts, shaved carrots, lettuce and beef or shrimp to roll inside. It can be fun for the first few minutes but after consuming several glasses of alcohol, the process becomes problematic.
Tank Noodle offers Pho and other specialties as well. Both of these restaurants are “don’t misses” and reasonably priced.
In part two we’ll delve into Mexican, Central, and South American cuisines, and tell you where you can find the best Middle Eastern and Indian BYOBs in the Windy City. In the third and final installment, we’ll look at barbeque and comfort food BYOBs.
Ed: Paul Ciminero is a wine expert, having worked in the industry for 30 years, a former DJ and current musicologist, a cartoon aficionado, and a skilled, award winning photographer. The only compensation Paul receives is our undying gratitude.