An eating tour of River North – Chicago's most restaurant-heavy neighborhood

Easily the most restaurant-heavy neighborhood in the city, River North is a natural dining destination for tourists and suburbanites, not only for its visible and recognizable restaurants–“Hey, there’s a Red Lobster!”–but also for its amenities, which is to say, its hotels and parking decks.

Any Chicagoan who skips River North for fear of being surrounded by people in white tennis shoes and Hawaiian shirts, however, is missing out. This is the place where fine dining in Chicago began back in the 1970s, when Gordon Sinclair ran his eponymous eatery in the space now occupied by Naha, 500 N. Clark St., 312-321-6242. There, chef Carrie Nahabedian turns out seasonal American fare influenced by her Armenian roots. She is one of the best chefs in town, as is her neighbor across the street, Rick Bayless.

Bayless heads the kitchen at Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434), Chicago’s (perhaps the country’s) most upscale Mexican restaurant. And yes, that very well may be an oxymoron. But what Bayless understands is that with strong flavors, balance is required. And that is where his talent lies. For a less expensive repast, try Topolobampo’s more casual sibling restaurant next door, Frontera Grill. Same address, same phone, same chef, same balance.

Keefer’s (20 W. Kinzie, 467-9525) does steak as well as anyone in town and offers a classic atmosphere softened by a curved wall of windows overlooking the Dearborn street hustle. Keefer’s also has hand-made blue water glasses and pitchers that are for sale if taking home a doggie bag is not enough for you.

It’s a restaurant, it’s a market, it’s a wine bar, it’s a cheese bar! It’s Bin 36, 339 N. Dearborn St., 312-755-WINE (9463), and it can be any of those things, or all four at once. In a thoroughly modern space with soaring ceilings, Bin 36 has an extensive wine-flights program, a corresponding cheese-flights program, and a full dinner menu. It’s the kind of place you just show up to, and decide what you will do there as the night progresses. There’s also a small retail shop near the entrance in case you like what you’ve tasted and want to take home a bottle or two to keep the night rolling.

More River North restaurants tomorrow.

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