City of Big Tables: A Worldly Guide to Chicago Group Dining

by Ari Bendersky August 14, 2018

Chicago is known for big things: scale-tipping deep dish pizza, towering skyscrapers (the structure was born here, after all) and enough heart for hometown sports teams to fill Lake Michigan.

So it comes as no surprise that for generously sized spaces where you can break bread with 25 of your closest friends, the city boasts some fantastic options. But not all party rooms are equal. Luckily, you came to the right place first: this insider's guide uncovers the truly standout restaurants with room for your whole crew.

Pacific Standard Time
 

141 West Erie Street / River North

Chef Erling Wu-Bower and his partners envisioned a warm, welcoming house when they designed the California mid-century modern-inspired Pacific Standard Time. (No wonder guests tend to linger as though in a close friend's home.) The main dining room accommodates parties as large as 20, and there is a private room for 58 seated guests or 100 for cocktails. But even for cozy groups of 12, PST private events manager Jessica Syburg will step in to help coordinate pre-set menus. Groups can enjoy everything from the main menu, like just-out-of-the-hearth pitas with ahi tuna and green chickpea hummus, pull-apart crispy-crust pizzas, and large-format plates such as whole roasted duck or local Slagel Farm rib-eye. The real fun happens when Syburg helps plan immersion experiences such as a cocktail demo or a crudo making lesson. "Our culinary team has so much knowledge," Syburg says. "I work next to these people daily and I always learn something new when I sit in on the immersions."

Oyster Bah
 

1962 North Halsted Street / Lincoln Park

Step into Oyster Bah and you're whisked away to a salty New England fishing village. Its nautical themed private rooms — the intimate subterranean Crab Cellar seats 34; the upstairs High Tide Lounge can host 100 standing — create the perfect setting to dive into all things seafood. Snack on crunchy shrimp cocktail, lobster rolls or ply a bucket of mussels. Opt for set menus or go for interactive stations for oyster shucking, build-your-own fish tacos, wine tasting, cocktail classes and more. If your crew loves unlimited Alaskan king crab and prime beef burgers, you can get that, too. Prepare for a serious seafood coma.

The Beer Cellar at Dusek's Board & Beer
 

1227 West 18th Street / Pilsen

You push through a movable bookcase, speakeasy-style, to enter the Beer Cellar at Dusek's. This quirky hidden gem of a space, which holds the restaurant's large-format beers and wines, can seat up to 30 (or 45 milling about). Start with hand-passed apps like roasted chicken, black truffle and foie gras aioli sliders, scallop ceviche or rosemary lamb brochette. Move on to meander various stations set with New York strip and olive oil smashed potatoes, seasonal vegetable tagine with couscous and harissa or cheese and charcuterie boards. Pair all of the above with the array of large-format punch bowl drinks from the adjacent Punch House. You'll be hard-pressed to push back through the bookcase into the real world at the night's end.

Z Bar
 

108 East Superior Street / Gold Coast

Like everything at the Peninsula Hotel, Z Bar offers sophistication to the nth degree. The private salon is this newest addition to one of the world's chicest hotels, and can accommodate up to 12 in an intimate cocktail setting styled with marble tables, brushed suede couches, a glowing fireplace and a private outdoor terrace overlooking the city. Sip cocktails inspired by global cultures crafted with rare spirits and fresh fruit while nibbling on an elevated menu of Malaysian-style beef and chicken satay with lemongrass, ginger and Sarawak peppercorn, caviar "ants on a log" or savory fried chicken brioche buns.

The Dearborn
 

145 North Dearborn / The Loop

Smartly situated for a pre-theater or post-work gathering, The Dearborn's private Rialto Room with its vaulted ceiling, crystal chandeliers and pink-washed walls, evokes a bit of Miami or pre-embargo Havana in the heart of the Loop. The room and its private bar can accommodate 24 seated or 40 for cocktails and passed appetizers with a customized menu created by Chef Aaron Cuschieri. Don't pass up the chance on having Cuschieri's grilled Spanish octopus with artichoke, banana peppers and a rich caper-beurre blanc, or the peri peri shrimp tacos. But if you want a real treat, make sure you add the pasture-raised beef Dearborn burger with Hook's one-year-aged cheddar and special sauce.

Fulton Market's culinary boom
 

Speaking of going big, over the past 10 years, the district known as Fulton Market has become one of Chicago's hottest dining destinations, and it's where to discover some of the most desirable tables tucked away in semi-hidden spaces.

Here are five critically acclaimed spots lighting up the neighborhood, including one of the hardest reservations to get in the city and two showing off glittering Michelin stars.

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Fulton Market has become one of Chicago's hottest dining destinations.
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Girl & The Goat
 

809 West Randolph Street / Fulton Market

Getting a reservation at Chef Stephanie Izard's flagship restaurant can take months, but for a group up to 26 people (around either one or two large tables), the rustic wine cellar below the main dining room can be yours for an evening — and finding it is half the fun. To get there, guests pass through a door marked 'Do not enter,' before arriving into the secret space to be greeted with a welcome cocktail. Izard and her team then craft a family-style meal with staples from the Goat's menu, like roasted cauliflower with pickled peppers or wood-oven roasted pig face balanced with rotating seasonal dishes. The celebrity cooking show winner strongly encourages groups to order the whole roasted goat leg served with naan, sauces and sides to complete the meal. "It's an experience completely unique to Girl & the Goat," Izard says. "And guests should come hungry, because we never hold back!"

Fulton Market Kitchen
 

311 North Sangamon / Fulton Market

One of Chicago's most distinctive dining spaces is also a working art gallery with murals, photography, paintings and more set throughout the restaurant. The private 12-seat grand table crafted out of 100-year-old oak slabs, sits beneath a mirrored ceiling and among reclaimed wood panels and artwork by local Joe Miller. Need more space? The adjacent salon, set apart by iron-and-glass French doors, opens up to hold 20 seated or 25 standing. Chef Chris Curran is the artist behind the globally inspired menu that may include rabbit ragout over cavatelli, striped black bass with white corn grits and braised rainbow char. Or, simply leave it all in Curran's hands to select a multi-course feast for the senses.

Smyth & The Loyalist
 

177 North Ada Street / Fulton Market

The Loyalist and its sister restaurant the two Michelin-starred Smyth, share a private dining room that recalls a cozy North Woods lodge, complete with leather couches, a long blond wood table, exposed brick and an outdoors motif along the wall. Either kitchen can cater your meal, and with space for 28 seated or 40 in a cocktail setting (but 14 max for a Smyth tasting menu), the room perfectly accommodates a shared dining experience. Long tables are best filled with aged rib-eye, clams over linguine, Skuna Bay salmon with grilled mustard greens and, of course, the drool-worthy Loyalist cheeseburger. You can also tap sommelier Richie Ribando to set up a special wine dinner with reserve wines for your meal, which can also include Smyth's 10-course tasting menu ... with a twist. "We steer guests in a direction that's best for their experience," says co-owner and executive pastry chef Karen Shields, who works alongside husband, executive chef John Shields. "But it's also fun to curate it for their needs and how they envision it — like doing a round of burgers in the middle of a tasting menu."

Momotaro
 

820 West Lake Street / Fulton Market

Accented with white marble, brass, teak and vintage corporate photos of Japanese business people, the Boardroom is meant to resemble a contemporary conference room in Tokyo. Chef Marc Hellyar, who perfected his sushi skills working in top Tokyo restaurants, crafts one of the most exceptional sushi experiences in the city. No matter if the menu focuses solely on supremely fresh fish or gets a boost with grilled A5 Miyazaki steak or king crab, the room, which can seat 20 or 30 for a standing reception, makes the experience feel all the more cool. If looking for something more chill, the basement Izakaya Room can seat 14 for a casual, yet no less intriguing, Japanese street food experience.

Elske
 

1350 West Randolph Street / Fulton Market

Chef/owners (and spouses) David and Anna Posey had cred long before opening their Danish-inspired New American restaurant Elske (which means love in Danish) on the far edge of Randolph Street's restaurant row. But after? Elske earned a Michelin star and accolades from top dining critics around the country. So round up your most discerning dining crew to enjoy the private room above the main floor, where you can have up to 24 people seated to enjoy three-, four- or eight-course seasonal tasting menus ranging from $80 to $110 per person (go big and add the $50 wine pairing for the largest menu). The Poseys surprise and delight with their sublime presentations like David's savory fermented black bean agnolotti with spongy morels and crisp sugar snap peas and Anna's inventive desserts, such as frozen hay mousse with rhubarb.

Ari Bendersky truly believes the key to a perfect meal is sharing delicious food and drinks with a group of friends. The Chicago native has written for the New York Times, WSJ magazine, Men's Journal, Departures, Wine Enthusiast and Crain's Chicago Business.

 

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