Having lived in the US for my entire adult life, it’s amazing to me that I had never been to Chicago! A total foodie city, it had been on my bucket list forever. As in recent years, I found myself free for a few days after Christmas, as did my brother Luke. “Want to go on a trip somewhere with me?”, I asked back at in November. “Sure” was the reply. So then came the quest to find the perfect place for two siblings in their forties to spend a few days together. “How about Chicago?”, I texted him one day. His response was a resounding “yes!”. Decision made! Both of us have worked in the restaurant business for most of our careers so far, so heading to a city chock full of amazing restaurants was perfect. A couple of days later, a text to Kerry and Bart asking them if they wanted to come too, resulted in them booking within hours!
The advantage of traveling to Chicago in winter, is that it’s low season for hotels. Book on Cyber Monday and you can snag a great deal for a luxury hotel for the same price as an average 3 Star. The obsessive researcher that I am, after days of looking, I landed on The Hotel Gwen smack in the middle of the city, just north of the river and adjacent to the Magnificent Mile. Newly renovated, the former Conrad Hotel is now part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection. Named for the Sculptor whose work is a prominent feature in the lobby, the hotel is chic with an Art Deco flair found in the many details of its decor. We loved it. Gorgeous heavenly beds and spa-like bathrooms, friendly staff, a great bar and even a curling ice and little chalet on the patio overlooking the city! I love beautiful hotels. I appreciate luxury. And I especially do so when acquired for less than $150 a night!
So now for the main theme of our trip…..FOOD! Luke and I arrived a day earlier than the others and after a good flight and a 40 minute Lyft ride to the hotel, we were ready for a bite to eat. Across the street from the Gwen, was the famous Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab. I had read about their excellent happy hour and as if by magic, we arrived on the dot at 2:00, the start of it. Moscow Mules, Buffalo Cauliflower and a petit Shrimp Po’boy, fortified us. We then had a nice walk around the area, realizing how much there was right outside our front door. Great shopping and tons of restaurants albeit somewhat touristy.
The evening was the best part of our day and indeed one of the highlights of our trip. An old friend of Luke’s, Scott Worsham, who along with his lovely wife Sari, owns two restaurants in Chicago and invited us to meet him at their newest place, Bar Biscay in West town, recently nominated for a 2019 Jean Banchet Award for Best New Restaurant. A sleek modern restaurant in a more residential neighborhood, Chef Johnny Anderes cooks food inspired by the “simple, direct approach of Basque cuisine and the classic rusticity of the French Countryside”. My kind of food. We were in for such a treat.
Firstly, there is nothing like being reunited with an old friend, so to witness Scott and Luke catching up after so many years was a pleasure in itself. To do so accompanied by a veritable journey through the menu and wine and drinks list was perfectly divine. We started with Anchovy Toast, Razor Clams with Radish, Garlic butter and Toast, and Manchego Gougeres with Garlic Aioli washed down with a lovely white wine. Then, on to Veal Sweetbreads with puréed parsnip and maple-espellette glaze, Cockles in sherry and paprika butter served with a crusty baguette, then I believe a salad.
On hearing that I planned to resume my tee-total life after the trip Scott declared that we must drink something good with our Braised Oxtail (that reminded Luke and I of our grandmother’s version), Confit Carrots, Tilefish and Chorizo stuffed Peppers. A gorgeous Bordeaux was chosen. There are few things in life that make me happier than experiencing that perfect marriage of food, wine, atmosphere and the company of others. A celebration of flavor, carefully crafted combinations and great banter. The best part of which is that the owners and their SUPERB crew, are taking you on that ride, showing their exquisite artistry. Brilliant. I know there are literally thousands of restaurants to choose from in this city but I instantly fell in love with this place. I wish them all kinds of success as they certainly deserve it! I can’t wait to go back and try their other restaurant, mfk, as well as coming back here!
After a blissful slumber in our double queen bedded room with a view of the Magnificent Mile, and countlessly recalling the dishes we had sampled and how fabulous our evening was, we turned our thoughts to Kerry and Bart’s arrival. We greeted them at the lovely bar in the hotel lobby and after checking in, we headed out to do what we felt was an obligatory food experience…the famous Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. We found ourselves at Pizzeria Due, at the bar with beer and red wine, sampling their meatballs and garlic bread while the famous pizza was being prepared. They take 45 minutes. Was this my favorite food experience of the trip? Probably not, but it was certainly fun to sit at the bar in this loud but cozy place and soak up the atmosphere along with the 5,000 calories that surely each slice contained. The four of us split a medium size and couldn’t finish it! It was certainly decadent; a very thick almost pastry-like crust filled with cheese, tomato sauce, sausage and pepperoni. So, so heavy… tasty but now that I’ve done that, it’s checked off the list and I can continue on to other delicacies.
A walk was needed after that indulgence so we headed to the Navy Pier area. On our way we truly understood why this place is called the Windy City! Freezing wind means that warm coats, hats and gloves are essential. We needed the walk and it was nice to see the lake and view the skyline. Navy Pier had lots of shops, a tropical garden (?!), a big Ferris wheel and a Children’s Museum. When we had seen enough we headed back to the sanctuary of the hotel bar to enjoy the delicious cocktails.
For dinner, we attempted to get into the Purple Pig but the hostess rather proudly told us that it was a 2.5 hour wait….thanks, but no thanks! So we opted for Shaw’s Crab House for martinis, two dozen oysters and bowls of clam chowder in their more casual Oyster Bar. Perfect!
Just as I research hotels to death, I of course do the same for restaurants. I do not just go straight for the number one rated restaurants, give me a smaller, independently owned place over a large corporate franchise ANY day. I had found out about Lula’s and was happy to get Scott and Sari’s endorsement for my choice. Famous for their brunch for which they don’t take reservations, we hopped in a Lyft on Saturday morning for the 15 minute ride out to Logan Square. Located on a wide avenue with grand houses, it was great to get out of the city centre into a neighborhood. As expected, there was a wait, so we added our name to the list and checked out the local bookstore a few doors away. We were greeted by a parking lot of strollers inside and the sound of music coming from a kids story time hour here. Quite charming. After a couple of purchases we headed back to Lula’s for Bloody Mary’s made from scratch and deemed “nice and clean” by our experts aka Bart and Luke. We were seated shortly thereafter and proceeded to enjoy an outstanding brunch. The key to success in most businesses is attention to detail. This place has it in its drink ingredients, the art on the wall, the cool expert service and oh my, the food…..freshly made pastries followed by Royale sandwiches with the addition of bacon for the guys, a beautiful White Sweet Potato Hash for Kerry, and Smoked Lake Trout Scramble with the crispiest potatoes for me. Sublime, we were all ridiculously happy with our choices. At the end I ordered a pot of tea, and even that was impeccably served, down to the server letting me know to please let it steep for three and a half minutes.
Our only downfall was our plan to visit the Institute of Art after this boozy brunch! Whilst a nap was likely in order, we battled on regardless! A quick breezy stop at the “Bean” revived us somewhat. The only place which felt truly crowded and touristy during our trip. The Institute, however, was everything and more! One could spend days there. Bart and Luke opted for a shorter tour, ducking out to search for football viewing and beer….Kerry and I stayed on to enjoy the Contemporary wing which looked out on the skyline with its window frames mimicking the buildings. Very cool. Definitely need to go back. The Drag Docent was a fantastic addition to the experience! We loved it all.
A Facebook comment by our friend Denise lead us to the lobby of the nearby Palmer House Hotel. Wow! So beautiful. Well, most of it anyway. The modern addition of escalators was a less than perfect choice despite its necessity?! We thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere though and had yet another cocktail…
Dinner tonight was another Facebook comment suggestion by our friend Terry. Bart had really wanted to have an authentic Italian dinner. This we found at Quartino’s. A huge two-story bustling restaurant a short walk from our hotel. Yes, the food was fabulous, but the best part of this meal was watching Bart in his element, ordering up a storm, reviving his Italian and clearly taking a trip down memory lane from his time spent in a Italy. This is what eating is all about. The joy of the time, the place, the company and the tastes. How it makes you feel, transcending you to a happy place. We ate a ridiculous amount of food, without complaint! Antipasti to start followed by Broccolini, a delicious Arugula Salad with orange and hazelnuts, Beef Carpaccio, then Linguine with Clams, Gnocchi with Arugula Pesto, Braised Pork Shank…..AND a pizza!!!! Pure gluttony. One would think that there would be no room for dessert, but we bravely ordered some and loved our Tiramisu and had hysterics when Kerry bit into her cannoli and the icing sugar exploded over her, and Luke. Oh and there was wine…of course. What a great day!
Luke was determined to have a classic Chicago Hot Dog, and we achieved this the next day, at Portillo’s, an institution here. It’s a large place with just counter service so as Bart and Luke ordered hot dogs and Italian Beef sandwiches, Kerry and I grabbed them goldfish bowl beers from the bar counter where the menu included Beer, Wine….and Mai Tai’s!? Not sure about the story behind that…. We lovingly devoured our classic dogs; sliced onion, sliced tomato and a pickle with chili on the side. The Italian Beef sandwiches were delicious too, as were the fries! What a well oiled operation, we were in and out of there, happy as we could be, in about 40 minutes. We grabbed a Lyft to head to the river for our Architecture Boat Tour.
Were we quite mad to do a boat tour in these temperatures?! Quite possibly, but the tour was fantastic, and packed. It was also luckily on the only sunny day of our trip. Our guide was great (he’s a therapist when he’s not a tour guide) and we got a wonderful hour-long overview of the magnificent architectural styles that are represented here. The buildings towered above us, gleaming in the sunlight. We absolutely loved it despite almost freezing to death. It is such a beautiful city and seeing it from the canals was the perfect way to do so.
We returned to the hotel and the guys decided to go in search of a pub to watch football again. Kerry and I opted for quiet time before the grand finale of our culinary adventure! We met up with Scott and Sari at La Frontera, a Rick Bayless establishment serving traditional Mexican fare with modern interpretations. Having visited Austin in September, Kerry and I had fallen in love with the authentic higher-end Mexican cuisine that we found there. La Frontera was the first of several restaurants that Chef Bayless owns. Naturally, we hit the bar first and while we didn’t go for their famous $30 Splurge Margarita, we all tried various other kinds. I had a Mango Picante, followed by the Champagne Margarita. The latter was served in an oversized champagne flute, topped off with Taittinger Champagne. I kid you not. Couldn’t let up on the decadence, not when this was the grand finale, right?
It’s funny, I’m usually a bit of a control freak when it comes to food ordering, but for most of this trip, other people took care of it. And you know what? It was great. So fun to sit back and have things appear in front of you. Scott commandeered the wine list, not only ordering a lovely Albarino which balanced with the food superbly, but also shots of Mezcal and a tomato juice concoction which arrived in separate champagne flutes. More decadence! A dozen oysters and their Ceviche Trio appeared. I love ceviche and tasting three different kinds was a treat; the Classic Frontera included Hawaiian albacore, lime, tomatoes, olives, cilantro the green chile. The Shrimp and Scallop Ceviche Verde was combined with avocado, cucumber, jicama, serrano and onions. The Tuna Ceviche Tropical consisted of Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, fresh Mexican Papaya, spicy salsa roja, jicama and avocado. Delightful. We also enjoyed two-bite Tostadas de carnitas, Puebla-style chicken enchiladas and baked cheesy cauliflower. So much fun to indulge in so many flavors and share that experience. When two slices of their Chocolate Pecan Pie with Kahlua whipped cream appeared, our decadent repast was complete. Good grief. What a meal in a great, colorful and lively restaurant, oozing with flavors and fun!
While Kerry and Bart decided that they had reached their limit, Scott suggested one last stop. So where does one finish a decadent food tour of Chicago? In a dive bar, of course! This is where it pays to be with a local, we would never have had this experience on our own. Rossi’s is, I understand, a bit of an institution. A full bar, no food, one bartender, cash only, a juke box and the walls are plastered with mementos showing its history. It opens at 7 am. Closes at 4 am, I believe. Oh, if those walls could talk. I nursed one drink and happily chatted with Sari while Luke and Scott talked away until we had all simply reached the point where we simply had to retire. It was a really fun way to finish off another wonderful evening and yet another great experience.
It’s an understatement to say that this was a wonderful trip. We had an absolute blast and can’t wait to go back. To spend time with my brother, especially at this time in our lives, was a really lovely thing to be able to do. Having Kerry and Bart along for the ride was the icing on the cake. I realize that we saw just one side of this magnificent city, but boy did we love it. Upon my return home, the boys and I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Chicago and saw a very different but fascinating side to the city. I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface which means now I’m itching to return. Good times, good eats, good company… my favorite way to end a year! We’ll be back.
The Gwen, A Luxury Collection Hotel