Allow me to veer off topic to brag on my hometown.  Last night, on the Travel Channel in the US, Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" highlighted all that is great and wonderful about the Chicago culinary scene.  It was an amazingly well-produced episode, both in terms of the subject matter as well as visually.  If I was ever to visualize a travel show capturing the essence of Chicago and its food, this was it.

You'll get no argument from my waistline that restaurants in Chicago are among the best in the world.  While dining at one of the best restaurants in town, if not in the world -- L2O -- Bourdain, chef Eric Ripert, and local writer Louisa Chu discussed why.  The answer was essentially that Chicagoans are happy to enjoy what chefs turn out here, rather than project our expectations or dictate our experiences.  That resonates with me.  My wife Deborah and I have dined at L2O as well as Moto, both featured on the show -- and in both cases, we went with a tasting menu completely out of our control.  That's also been our approach at another of our local favorites, Sweets 'n Savories, the first place I ever actually ate foie gras (when it wasn't supposed to be sold in Chicago...they made it "complimentary" to get around the ban).  In all three scenarios, we had some of the most incredible food we've eaten, anywhere in the world -- and it just took a short drive (and, well, a bit of cash) to experience it. You don't have to get pricey, though, to get good -- Burt's pizza was a worthwhile hole-in-the-wall, and through local foodie chat boards like lthforum.com, we've discovered amazing Chinese cuisine and shared our own local discoveries.

What's even more interesting is how far Chicago has expanded beyond some of our stereotypical staples -- hot dogs or deep-dish pizza -- to a worthy spectrum of everything.  Among the 20 best places Deborah and I ate locally in 2008 were everything from seafood to Spanish, Mexican to Memphis barbecue, Chinese to chops.  When even Tony Bourdain, a New Yorker if there ever was one, goes on TV and says the hot dogs are better here, though, you know you're going to be eating well in the windy city.

Years ago, before the term "foodie" was on everyone's, er, tongues, I had a hard-and-fast rule about my travel -- no chain restaurants (at least no national chains...a local place with ten outlets in a metropolitan area was OK).  In some parts of McMerica, that was a difficult rule to abide by.  If you are visiting Chicago, though, I'm here to tell you -- skip the chains.  Don't eat at Cheesecake Factory in the John Hancock building.  Skip the Chili's on State Street.  Pay no attention to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company with the pretty view of the river.  Be thankful that the Red Lobster on Grand has closed.  And send me mail instead -- I will give you twenty good restaurants to choose from, in any price range, pick your genre.  After last night's "No Reservations", though, I realize there are probably twenty more I'd love to recommend -- we will be making reservations for those, soon.

Link: Chicago Sun-Times: Tony's kind of menu (what Bourdain ate on last night's show) >

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