Eating and Drinking in Chicago - A Tourist Report
1. Spectrum on Halstead. The bartender was a good fellow who tended his bar in a very literal sense. He served us two-dollar draft Budweisers just to remind me how badly they gouge you in Los Angeles. I ordered the chicken soulvaki and my wife ordered the pork soulvaki. Two more beers in fresh cold mugs and the sandwiches arrived, mine on flatbread, my wife’s in a pita. Which was confusing. Is there some subtle culinary distinction between kabobed chicken and kabobed pork, requiring different breads, or had they simply run out of pitas? It turned out not to matter since my wife’s pita basically exploded on impact, as they will, and we both forked and knifed our way through the meal. Excellent food. Excellent fries. I would go back to Spectrum.
2. Bennigan’s. I really can’t explain this absurd decision, other than to say I was in a delirium of art museum-fatigue and hunger. I used to work at Bennigan's in Boston. I recognized the odor of stale bar-funk and sticky countertops marinated in lager. I recognized the distant familiar scent of kid’s crayons melted on the floor heaters. I ordered a large beer, which was served warm and flat in a nice hot glass. Perfect. My wife had the half-Monte Cristo (“Molto Crisco”, we used to call it) with a side salad. She had never had one before (a Monte Cristo) and she loved that deep-fried pastry thing with jam and fatty meat and gooey cheese. I tried to go with something they couldn’t screw up, a half-club sandwich and a Caesar salad. When they set it down I knew there was nobody to blame but myself. I will never go back to Bennigan’s.
3. Miller’s Pub. Maybe a tourist trap, maybe not. Great beer selection. Nothing more to say.
4. Franklin Tap. This was a loud crowded bar focused on the baseball game. The guy next to me got his check and my beer was on his bill. “I thought you guys were together,” the bartender told us. We looked at each other. “I’ve never seen this jerk in my life,” he told her. We knocked glasses. I gave the guy a five for my beer. Nice people, nice place.
5. South Branch Tavern. Nice comfortable bar/lounge. Good wine list. Didn’t eat here. Nothing more to say.
6. Blue Line Grill, Wicker Park. This place was packed with attractive youngsters, well dressed, mellow and modest. There wasn’t an empty table in sight, but we did score two empty bar stools. We order nachos. Chicago is a real nachos town. These nachos had braised buffalo. They were delicious. I think every group at the bar had an order. So the food was great. The drinks on the other hand…well, I just should know better. Never order Mojitos just because they’re on special. Especially in a crowded bar. It’s a labor-intensive drink for a busy bartender, so they’re not made right. I ended up with a sour mouth and a bellyful of sugar. And a guaranteed hangover. I would go back to the Blue Line Grill.
7. Malnati’s, River North, lunch. I was skeptical about whether or not I actually needed this deep dish Chicago experience. But it was going to happen. There was a line at Malnati’s and we stood and waited. We were given the option to pre-order the pizza so we picked the Classic Chicago and waited until they called our name. We got a table and ordered two beers and the house salad with crunchy blue cheese stuff and bits of cured meat. Then the pizza arrived and it looked great. I hadn’t eaten since buffalo nachos. The waiter handled the hot pie pan with a clamp and set it on the table. He used a spatula to separate each slice. We watched. He shook nervously. He moved a slice onto my wife’s plate, cheese ribbons falling across the table, steam rising. This thing was looking great. Then the next slice came out of the pan, into the air, over to my plate…and then disaster! Titanic-grade disaster! The slice was somehow flipped on the descent. Upside down, it landed with a table-shaking thud, half on the plate, half on the table. Sent the waiter away. I stole a fresh plate from an empty table and scooped out a new slice from the pan. What can I say? The pizza was damn good. Especially the inch-thick layer of sausage. This thing had density! I would not go back to Malnati’s. But I might order it to go.
8. Eno, Magnificent Mile. We came upon this ingenious little place, located next to a steakhouse owned by some famous Chicago basketball player. I forget his name. Anyway, Eno served wine, cheese, chocolate, and a few other small plates. There were lots of windows looking out on busy streets. This was the perfect restaurant concept to plunk down in the middle of a tourist shopping district. They offered several different wine flights from various countries, all reasonably priced. They also had chocolate flights and cheese flights. I would go back to Eno.
9. Macello, Fulton Market (I think). It’s a very good sign any time you have to walk through an Italian delicatessen to get into a restaurant’s dining room. The place was packed. It was dark and loud and there was a roaring pizza oven built into a brick wall. This was the place. This was the place I imagined I’d eat in Chicago. They quickly served up fresh bread with pressed garlic and Parmesan cheese, with vinegar and oil. I mixed it all up into my own tasty dipping sludge. I ordered some kind of cioppino hybrid, one of the daily specials. It was great. It had fish and clams and scallops and lobster in a light broth with some pasta too. Other meals looked delicious as well. My wife had pasta gamberi, which I didn’t even try because my own meal was so spectacular. The waiter, apparently, had messed up most of the other orders. But nobody cared, least of all the waiter. That’s really all I remember (lots of wine). It was the perfect meal, the perfect Chicago experience. I would go back to Macello (as long as someone else is paying).
10. GEB on Randolf. Here, we got a different take on Chicago food. Instead of the dark, Old World charm of Macello, we got the hipster bistro. I ordered eggs Florentine and my wife got the biscuits and gravy. I was emasculated in my favorite way to be emasculated when the waitress set the biscuits and gravy in front of me and I had to tell her I ordered the something Florentine. The egg dish had Irish rashers and a toasted crumpet. The biscuits and gravy towered high above the plate and were topped with a poached egg. The gravy was red-eye gravy, meaty and gooey and awesome. I would go back to GEB.
11. Haymarket Brewery, Fulton Market (I think). A big, obvious place I was expecting to underwhelm (so why did I go in there?), but I found it to be quite nice. It was loud and busy, and the beers were all great. I had all of them. I didn’t eat there. I would go back to The Haymarket Brewery.
12. RL., Magnificent Mile. I was told I had to go here. We drank a couple glasses of wine, sat, and watched. It was certainly a beautiful space, but I must have missed something. The highlight of RL was the trip to the bathroom, past the rich old people, the dressed-up miserable kids with their forced hair-parts and cowlicks, the old wooden elevator, which was oddly sadistic. Every bladder knows exactly how long it has until the moment of voiding. Throw an occupied elevator into the mix and you’re got a lot of people standing around doing a little dance and humming to themselves. I would not go back to RL.
13. Zinc, North Rush. We were also told to eat at Gibson’s. On a Saturday night. Yikes. What lagging economy? Every inch of the place was stuffed with people. We hung out for a few seconds to see if a bar table would open up, and then we left. We wandered along North Rush, looking for any place with seats. We ended up at a French restaurant called Zinc. I like to keep it simple in a French restaurant. I ordered the roast chicken and my wife had a Croque. We also had a special gnocchi appetizer with brown butter and sage and seasonal squash. Best gnocchi ever, according to my wife. A nice French restaurant like any other nice French restaurant. Good service and good coffee. I would go back to Zinc.
I left out a few other bars whose names I didn’t catch. Hope this helps.
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Thanks for the report. You visited an interesting selection of restaurants.
>> 3. Miller’s Pub. Maybe a tourist trap, maybe not.
Absolutely NOT. Miller's is a longtime Chicago institution. Most of the customers are locals who have been there dozens of times, usually either for a quick lunch near their downtown office, or for a comfortable drink and/or dinner after work before heading home.