Story and Photos by Deborah Grossman.
My first visit to Chicago years ago was spent in crowded meeting rooms representing my company at an IT conference. In my current role as a food, drink and travel writer, I’ve been hungry to return. This summer, with a group of friends, I explored the city for a few days from high up and on the river and fell in love. At every destination, I was enchanted by the beauty and energy of the city. Along the way, Chicago gave me a generous taste of its heritage, its amazing attractions and most of all, its lively food and beverage scene.
As soon as I arrived at my hotel, the London House, I knew my traveling companions and I were in the heart of the city. From the hotel’s hip LH on 22 patio, we sipped drinks and peered at the bridges and skyscrapers of the Magnificent Mile along the Chicago River. On a calm summer night, the cold winds driving in from nearby Lake Michigan seemed unreal. We could visualize the stiff breezes flowing from the north as they spread throughout the Windy City, giving credence to Chicago’s well-known nickname.
Bright and early our first morning, we rode the elevator up 103 floors to The Skydeck at Willis Tower. At 1,353 feet, I could finally see the varied expanse of Chicago with views of four states. The Skywalk’s easy-to-follow visuals depicted the city’s growth and attractions from Wrigley Field, the only place beyond the Convention Center I previously visited, to the Loop, the world-famous rectangle of commerce from shops and theaters. At The Ledge, a series of glass-floored nooks on the Skydeck, I followed the crowd and snapped a selfie on the tallest stomach-dropping viewpoint in the U.S.
Lunch was a journey to sample world-class Peruvian food at Tanta Chicago. Celebrity chef Gaston Acurio, who gained fame at Astrid & Gastón in Lima, Peru, opened the casual restaurant to continue his mission of informing people about Peruvian food and culture. The lively restaurant features a festively decorated bar, restaurant and patio to share the tapas style meals.
The meal may begin with cheers all around as your group is served their Caipirinhas and Pisco Sours—or a gin and tonic which boasts their own special menu. The ceviche lived up to its all-star recognition with the Ahi tuna noted as our crowd favorite.
The causita Limena with Peruvian purple potatoes, roasted chicken salad, huacatay sauce and quail egg, a casserole with the classic yellow herb sauce, was an excellent introduction to the regional food. For larger sharable dishes, I enjoyed the lomo saltado with stir-fry tenderloin, onions, potatoes and sunny side up egg featuring an intriguing blend of flavors.
In the afternoon, we discovered the launch pad of the great Chicago blues scene at the museum of the Chess Records Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. As a fan of the blues, I was thrilled to be in the studio of Chess Records, the epicenter of Chicago blues, Founded in 1955, musical greats from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry flocked to the current location from 1968 through the 1980s to hone the Chicago blues sounds. Even the Rolling Stones belted out a recording or two on the site. After the grandeur and breadth of the Willis Tower, the intimate setting of the museum and the knowledgeable tour guide brought the blues alive as it did for those who recorded here.
At supper clubs, aka Chicago-style steakhouses, you’ll find a comfortable setting with generous portions of food and drink, and a bar with live jazz and blues bands.
When we sat down at the Tortoise Club, I smiled broadly as the server placed classic relish tray on the table. This complimentary touch was a genuine treat. a rare occurrence these days. The house-made spiced nuts, marinated cheese and cured meats, beets and pretzel toast made an excellent pairing with the classic martinis enjoyed by for our hungry table.
I dove into the club’s renowned French onion soup with with its smooth blend of provolone and Jarlsberg cheese. While my friend enjoyed her baked shrimp scampi and smoked trout Caesar, I relished my filet with traditional sides. Desert followed. With a selection of pies from cherry to peanut butter, my rational choice was the tortoise pie with nuts and Bourbon-caramel sauce. This was accompanied by what was labeled as an “adult milkshake,” a decadent Grasshopper, best described as an after dinner cocktail of brandy, crème de menthe and crème de cocoa.
We capped off the evening listening to a few sets of blues at Buddy Guy’s Legends. For twenty years Rock and Roll Hall Famer Buddy Guy has brought local and national bands to the corner venue. We enjoyed the blues by a local group and felt surrounded by satisfied fellow blues-lovers
First Lady: For a different look at the city, we began our next day with a view from the ground up by embarking on a First Lady Cruise. Sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center with well-trained and entertaining guides, we spent 90 relaxing and informative minutes on the Chicago River. We learned about the city’s Native American roots, recovery from the Great Fire of 1871, and its major role in the westward expansion of the U.S. Chicago’s strong architectural heritage was highlighted along the way from the site of the world’s first skyscraper in 1885 to the modern Aqua skyscraper, the world’s tallest building designed by a woman architect. I wanted to walk miles along the Riverwalk, stop at the historic monuments and gaze at the structural marvels.
Still on the lake, I managed an afternoon visit to lakeside Grant Park for the Taste of Chicago festival. Chicagoans are fond of festivals with more than 70 Chicago festivals highlighting food, art, and music, many held in outdoor venues in the summer. The annual Taste of Chicago cooks up an array of tasty, reasonably priced bites. Admission is free and food coupons are reasonably priced. Popular stops range from Chicago’s Dog House, Eli’s Cheesecake, to African and Vietnamese specialties—plus food trucks and Goose Island Brewery. To pair well with the Goose Island beer, I especially enjoyed the Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza.
I then walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago. From ancient face masks to El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin and Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic, I enjoyed the beauty of diverse cultures and artistic styles. After seeing so many grand masters from Chagall to Monet, I missed viewing smaller specialties such as Thorne Miniature Rooms and Paperweights Room which are now bucket-listed for my next visit.
From the museum, I ambled over to adjacent Millennium Park where the famous The Bean statue stands. I followed others in snapping the ultimate selfie as I walked around the mirror-like oval structure, formally named Cloud Gate. Given the near-magical reflection, I marveled at this novel way to view the city.
As a lover of Italian food, I was delighted to dine at Monteverde where Chef Sarah Grueneberg excels at crafting delicious and creative food. A James Beard Foundation winner of her region in 2017, she also won the Menu Masters Innovator of the Year in 2020. You understand these accolades when you bite into the “piattini” or small plates. My favorite piatinno was the spring pea and prosciutto salad with pecorino, mint, radish and lemon with its burst of flavors and textures. It was fun to watch the action of pasta making station behind the bar.
The menu lists “typical” pasta such as tortellini Bolognesi—but the twist here is a mix of mortadella, prosciutto, peas and cheese fonduta. The “atypical” pasta may be wok-fried arrabbiata with tagliolini, a thinner version of tagliatelle ribbons with ground Texas Gulf shrimp.
Save room for Monteverde main courses to share “for the table.” My top pick was the wild halibut spiendino with marinated clam, crispy potato, and tomato—the dish looked and tasted like lobster. The skate schnitzel sounds like an oxymoron. Skate is a flavorful white fish which has little in common with German cooking, but it makes sense given Grueneberg’s German heritage. For dessert, I wisely chose the caramel-pecan budino pudding.
When I returned to the hotel, I was ready to relax with a nightcap at the chic and expansive Bridges lobby bar near reception. I reprimanded myself for not settling down for the LH afternoon tea service served daily in the lobby bar, a shout-out to the original building owners, the British London Guarantee and Accident Co.
Renovated in the historic commercial building, the hotel is centrally located with 452 rooms and suites. I was comfortable with the many modern, high-design touches, quality amenities, and the tall windows overlooking the river. The hotel offers the Land and Lake Kitchen for All-American fare and Ocean Prime for steaks and seafood. But for brunch on the sunny morning of my departure, I revisited the LH on 22 patio. I feasted on the short rib burrito. My friend shared her house-made donuts with Jeppson’s Malört sauce. Jeppson’s Malört is a spirit long produced in Chicago with a strong, unique flavor profile. Finding it somewhat bitter, I chose a Pink Negroni. Other menu items that attracted my attention were wood-fired pita and pizza and ahi tuna crudo.
What a memorable impression Chicago makes when not trapped in conference rooms. I want to return to learn more about the city’s neighborhoods, famous citizens and commercial and artistic innovations at museums such as the Chicago History Museum and sample more of the festivals and artistic performances.
As for the restaurants, sigh, I’ll plan for an entire week’s visit and walk more of the city’s many parks, which, by the way, encompass the largest municipal park service in the U.S. After all, another nickname for Chicago is “The City That Works.” I hope my plan works well enough that I don’t gain too many pounds.
IF YOU GO
The following links (provided above) are summarized here: London House; LH on 22; Magnificent Mile; The Skydeck at Willis Tower; Wrigley Field; Tanta for Peruvian food; Blues Heaven Foundation; Chess Records; Tortoise Supper Club; Buddy Guy’s Legends; First Lady Cruise; Riverwalk; Taste of Chicago;Chicago festivals; Chicago’s Dog House; Eli’s Cheesecake; Goose Island Brewery; Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza; Art Institute of Chicago; Millennium Park; The Bean; Monteverde restaurant;Land and Lake Kitchen; Ocean Prime; Chicago History Museum.
Similar to your experience, my trips to Chicago have always been a flying visit to a conference or a customer. I did squeeze in one afternoon at the Art Institute and was pleasantly surprised at the breadth and variety of the collection. Your story tempts me to return for a longer stay.