(but not deep-dish pizza)
Chicago's Revival Food Hall
Photo by Jennifer Merrick
“Have you tried the pizza, yet?” my family asked whenever I phoned home on a recent visit to the Windy City.
“Not yet,” I’d reply. “But I will.”
I had fully intended to try a few slices of this thickly layered pie with the sauce on top. After all, it’s a quintessential tourist experience of Chi-town, and it’s even listed on the “Chicago Bucket List,” located at Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) 110 stories above the city.
Having braved the first item on that list, which was taking a photo while standing on the tower’s glass Skydeck (easy, as long as you don’t look down), I vowed to tick off number seven and sample the city’s famous pizza.
I didn’t end up keeping my promise. Why not? Well, there was simply too much other fabulous food to try and not enough hours in a day.
Here were some of the culinary highlights we enjoyed on our Chicago getaway.
Bertha Palmer, an eminent turn-of-the-century businesswoman, socialite, and philanthropist has a legacy that lives on today in more ways than one. She promoted women’s rights, brought kindergarten to Chicago, and collected art, especially Impressionist paintings. Bertha amassed an impressive collection of Monets, Renoirs, Degas, and others, which now form the core of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionist galleries that hold the largest collection of these works outside of France (a truly inspiring and a must-see attraction).
The Queen of Chicago, as Bertha was known, is also given credit for something more frivolous but equally enduring—the brownie. According to local lore, she desired a new treat for the 1893 World’s Fair, and so she directed the pastry chef to create a confection denser than a cookie but not quite a cake. An American classic was born. We tasted the original recipe in the kitchen of The Palmer House Hilton on a “History Is Hott!” tour led by historian (and I would add entertainer), Ken Price.
The gilded and lavish Palmer House was brimming with stories, and Price brought them to life with flare. Quoting Kipling, he believes that, “If all history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Personally, the intriguing stories of the extraordinary Bertha Palmer will be remembered for quite some time, as will the taste of her chocolaty creation.
A Foodie Haven
Chicago’s cuisine is legendary, and the city has consistently been named on best food lists for years, including “Best Restaurant City in America” by Bon Appetit in 2017. Based on the restaurants we tried, these accolades are well-deserved. At Quiote, a mescal-themed eatery, we savored the flavors of Mexico in a neighborhood restaurant teeming with locals even though it was a Monday night. Once we tasted the crab tostada, chorizo verde and chicken en mole, we understood the attraction. Downstairs, the mescal bar showcased the spirit of the agave plant with crafted cocktails and an extensive collection of Mexico’s smoky tequila cousin.
For a classic Chicago dining experience, head to Gene and Georgetti Steakhouse. The waist-coated waiters, décor, and traditional recipes transported us to an Italian village restaurant circa 1960. It’s no wonder celebs from old-time legends like Frank Sinatra and Lucy Ball, to modern-day stars, including Russell Crowe, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell, have dined at this third-generation eatery.
The most memorable meal of our trip, however, was at a brewpub. But unlike any other brewery, the Band of Bohemia has a Michelin Star.
“We didn’t expect it,” explains co-owner Craig Sindelar. “We just wanted to create something special for this neighborhood.” Now, visitors from all over come to experience beautifully presented and delicious food with impeccable service in an unpretentious atmosphere. My mouth waters just thinking back to the dry-aged beef and crispy pork belly. Dishes can be paired with wine or beer brewed on the premises.
This is a food court? Wow!
With no big chains and a variety of local start-ups, Chicago’s food halls are a great option for first-rate food on the go.
The Chicago French Market, located in the Ogilvie Transportation Center, is a favorite with commuters and boasts more than thirty individual specialty vendors. “Many chefs get their break here,” says Leslie Cahill the market’s director. One example is the Aloha Poke Co., which opened its first Hawaiian eatery in this market and has since expanded across the city. Other popular stalls include Pastoral for artisan cheese, bread, and wine, Raw for great-tasting vegan fare, and Lolli and Pops for sweet treats.
At the Revival Food Hall in the heart of the business district, there are fifteen outposts of Chicago-based neighborhood restaurants, including the Furious Spoon, famous for their ramen, Smoque BBQ, Antique Taco Chiquito, and Black Dog Gelato. When I spied a pizzeria, my hopes were high for a deep-dish pie, but there was only a Detroit-styled option, which just didn’t seem appropriate on my first visit to Chicago.
3-1 Chew Food Tour
“Grab it with two hands and lean over your plate,” advised Kat, our friendly guide, at the starting point of our food tour of Bucktown and Wicker Park. Ten yeas ago, this neighbourhood northwest of downtown was rough around the edges, to put it nicely; but you’d never know it today walking through the streets filled with patios, coffee shops, hip hangouts, boutiques and, of course, eateries. You could explore on your own, but it’s more fun when someone fills you in on all the popular hangouts, and fills you up with ample-sized samples at every stop.
At Jay’s Beef, we leaned over our plates to enjoy a classic Italian beef sandwich, slow-cooked and dripping with sauce. We sampled falafel at Sultan’s Market, indulged in a sugary treat at Stan’s Donuts, and sipped on a rich, creamy cocoa concoction at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate Bakery and Dessert Bar. Between the food stops, we toured local landmarks and historic houses while learning more about the neighborhood (it also allowed us to digest the food a bit). I almost forgot to mention our stop at Piece Pizzeria, where, once again, my Chicago deep-dish ambitions were thwarted. At this popular sports watering hole, the pizza, though tasty, was thin crust.
“Thin-crust outsell deep-dish in Chicago three to one,” Cat told us, which consoled me somewhat, but I’m still determined to return to the Windy City and tick the rest of the items off the Chicago Bucket List, including number 7.
Chicago’s Bucket List as signposted at Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)
1. Experience Skydeck and get a photo on the ledge
2. Try a Chicago-style hot dog
• 3. Get inspired at the art institute
• 4. See the city via Segway or double decker bus
• 5. Walk the Magnificent Mile
• 6. Take a photo at Cloud Gate (the Bean)
7. Fill up with a few Slices of deep-dish pizza
• 8. Glide along the river on an architectural boat cruise
9. Attend a Chicago Sporting Event
• 10. Admire the Chicago skyline from museum campus at the Shed Aquarium
11. Ride the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier
12. Ice skate at Maggie Daley Park’s skating ribbon
13. Catch a concert or movie at Millennium Park
14. Experience the taste of Chicago, blues festival, or jazz festival
15. Explore the inside of a submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry
If you go: We stayed at The Robey Hotel located in Wicker Park. This historic Art Deco tower, one of the first skyscrapers built in Chicago and the only one for miles around today, was an ideal base to explore the artsy district surrounding the hotel. Steps away from the El, the city’s subway, it’s an easy ride to downtown attractions. Be sure to check out its thirteenth-floor rooftop lounge for stunning skyline views.
We took advantage of Chicago’s CityPASS, which offered significant discounts and faster access to the city’s most popular attractions, including the Willis Tower and Art Institute of Chicago.
Chicago Greeters is a volunteer-run program, providing guided walks in Chicago and is completely free to visitors. Pre-register at ChicagoGreeter.com.
Plan your visit to Chicago at www.choosechicago.com
Jennifer Merrick is a freelance writer and avid traveler based in Toronto.