Beyond the Banquet

In November, the Paris-based Michelin company unveiled the MICHELIN Guide Chicago 2011 to showcase the finest restaurants in the region, including two 3-star, three 2-star and four 1-star establishments. Previous to this, the only American cities with dedicated Michelin guides were New York and San Francisco.

The awards validate what residents have known for years: Chicago is a world-class food town serving haute cuisine on par with the best kitchens in existence. Presently, only 93 restaurants worldwide hold the vaunted 3-star ranking.

The 3-star restaurants are Alinea and L20. The latter is located in the Lincoln Park area north of downtown with several private dining spaces hosting 8-56 diners. Or go ahead and buy out the place on Tuesday for 75 seated/150 reception. The breezy little menu serves up items such as lamb tartare layered with sweet shrimp and pickled peaches under a salad of purslane and edible peonies.

Comfort food, it ain’t.

“I moved here in 1993 and since then, the food scene has just exploded,” says Pattie Monahan, Sr. Account Executive at the DMC, Chicago Is. “You can’t pick up a Bon Appétit or Food & Wine without Chicago being featured prominently.”

She’s quick to point out that groups of all budgets will find a fit in the Windy City.

“There are just so many options here, from high and low,” she says. “It allows groups to be super creative. We have restaurants that offer true experiences. There are very few chains here, making it easy for planners to think outside the box with the variety of venues.”

Monahan says she’s recently seen an upswing in planners willing to spend on food but skimp on décor to satisfy increasingly discernible palates.

“These days, people want a lot of bang for their buck. A lot of times, they’re more willing to put money into food and not other elements. Spending on food is a big trend, but everyone wants an experience to go along with it.”


Todd Stein is a locally-raised executive chef famous for his work at the highly regarded restaurants Sunda and MK. He’s now heading up the ovens at The Florentine—managed by the brazenly good BLT Restaurant Group—located in the brand new 610-room JW Marriott Chicago. The Italian joint features dishes like shortribs braised in red wine with mascarpone creamed polenta and cippolini onion ($29).

“Chicago is a great place to be a chef,” says Stein. “The food community is very friendly and there is no animosity.”

Consider group meals for up to 50 pax in the private dining room divisible by two. For larger functions, the JW’s 44,000 sf of event space includes the gorgeous 6,000-sf, barrel-vaulted Burnham Ballroom, which just begs for creative F&B events.

“We’re getting a lot of requests for special food events,” says Steve Conklin, Director of Sales/Marketing. “I really think the Food Network has changed everything for groups. Now, delegates want to interact with chefs. They hate chafing dishes. Instead, they want action stations where they can talk to chefs about ingredients and where the food is from.”

Stein agrees, saying that in the past three years he’s seen groups wanting to “eat a lot of small things…. They want to grab a little of this and a little of that. They want to be wowed with small stations, not in a buffet line.”