Chicago – It’s Not Always for Sport
This is a sports blog but even the best of us can’t always travel for sports. It may be that sometimes you’ve got to travel and not include a sporting event. My most recent trip is proof that you can make a sport out of anything. Although no football, golf or tennis were involved, on this trip I got the same rush from finding great food and great bars with a great friend.
One of my best friends from college called me a few months back and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. She was traveling to Chicago for work and if I joined her I could crash in her hotel. The deal was sealed when I realized I had frequent flyer miles. Flight and hotel for $40? Not bad. I immediately checked to see if the Cubs were in town because a game at Wrigley Field is on my bucket list. Hello Cubs? Why doesn’t it ever seem to work out? I’m just not as jazzed about U.S. Cellular Field. It was then I realized I would be sportless.
I arrived via taxi from Midway airport at the Hyatt Regency on North Wacker St. Situated on the Chicago River, the Hyatt couldn’t have been in a better location. From the outside, the Hyatt was nothing to write home about especially compared to the beautiful architecture that downtown Chicago is known for. What I found on the inside more than made up for the exterior. At the “Big Bar” everything is big including the ribbon board of TV’s, almost all tuned to sports. If I couldn’t go to a sporting event, the Big Bar would more than make up for it with an overload of sports information. I felt immediately schizophrenic but after ordering some good beer like Southern Tier’s 2X IPA and Lagunita’s Lil Sumpin Sumpin Ale I started to feel quite normal again. I even walked by a table of guys that had martinis as big as my head. Come to find out, Hyatt provides the ingredients and you do the mixing. OK Chicago, you just birdied.
I knew that my friend had little time for play as she was in town for work. I limited my restaurant and bar choices to the downtown area. This made my research more difficult but it paid off big time.
Meaning “with” in French, Avec is the perfect restaurant for old and new friends. It’s like being in a wooden shoebox with a wall of green bottles at one end. Some people might find this claustrophobic but only those who are boring too. The seating is made up of a bar that runs down one side and several long tables on the other. Upon being seated you can tell that Avec is loud, hip and modern. The waiter quickly brought us some wine and explained that their food was portioned like tapas but not really. I have encountered this a lot lately, like tapas are suddenly taboo. Whatever, bring on the tapas and bring it they did! Seared shrimp with corona beans, radish top pesto, roasted radish and limoncello vinaigrette. Oyster mushrooms with roasted artichokes, goat feta, endive and black garlic vinaigrette. Wood-fired pizza with spicy capricola, fresh figs, pistachio pesto and arugula. Touchdown!
Afterwards, I knew we had one more place in us before my friend threw in the towel. I had narrowed it down to about three bars and then relied on a technique for selection that almost never fails, ask the hostess. If the restaurant I have just eaten at is a winner then the people who work there are sure to know where to go for drinks. Where did we end up? Three Dots and a Dash, the coolest tiki bar speakeasy known to man. Yes, I just said tiki bar speakeasy.
Three Dots and a Dash
Enter Bub City, a sports bar type place and head directly to the back exit. You’ll find yourself in an alley lined with tiki torches and on the left is the entrance to Three Dots and a Dash. Descend the stairs lined with skulls to find the thatched roof bar and the best beach inspired cocktails nowhere near a beach (unless Lake Michigan counts). Try the ones with a skull next to them which indicates a drink of impressive strength. I had the Poipu Beach Boogie Board which included Rye Whiskey, Overproof Rum, Guava, Maraschino, Grenadine, Pineapple and Lemon. Home Run!
The next day, after walking the length of Michigan Avenue otherwise known as the Miracle Mile, I was hungry. Having been turned down for dinner reservations on a Tuesday night, I decided to try out Frontera Grill and Topolobampo for lunch. Most restaurants open for lunch don’t usually reinvent themselves, instead serving smaller less expensive versions of their dinner menu. Upon arrival I noticed that the restaurant was full, a good sign. The host quickly explained that Topolobampo was upscale Mexican and Frontera Grill was like Mexican street food, I let him choose for me and Frontera Grill it was. Chef Rick Bayless did not disappoint.
Frontera Grill – Dzotobichay
This is Dzotobichay, probably one of the best Mexican dishes I have ever had. Pronounced ts’o tobil chay the dish is a tamale of fresh-ground corn masa with Nichols Farm Swiss chard, creamy pepita butter, egg, tomato-habanero sauce and ground cherry salsa. I also imbibed a Topolo Margarita: Herradura añejo tequila, Torres orange liqueur, house made limonada, shaken tableside. Goooooooaaaaaaaaaaal!
That evening was the final, championship point if you will and for the occasion I selected Piccolo Sogno. Piccolo Sogno translates to little dream. Chef Tony Priolo says, “You go to Italy for simple food, prepared by hand with local ingredients and served with local wines. That’s why people love eating in Italy, and we wanted to bring that experience to Chicago.” That’s exactly what he has done. It’s not often that I can order Barolo by the glass. Fresh made pastas, grilled vegetables, baked whole fish in salt, waiters with Italian accents coupled with outdoor seating and a check for two less than $150? Game, Set, Match!
Good food tastes great with great company. I wouldn’t fly to Chicago by myself just for food and drink. If you have to go somewhere and it’s not about sports, make the best of everything else the city has to offer. Do your research and hunt down those awesome local finds and make sure you’ve got someone to share it with.
Chicago, you’re my kind of town! You made it easy to take what limited choices I had and make them worth the trip. You may be my new favorite. Shhhhh…. don’t tell NYC.