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Chicago Dining, Then and Now

TravelMuse’s editorial director shares her favorite family restaurant memories from when she lived in Chicago along with some recommended new venues.

 

Locals have always known that Chicago is a fantastic food town—something I worked hard to convince New Yorkers of when I moved there several years ago.

I grew up in Chicagoland (as the locals like to call the area that falls within about a 50-mile radius from the city) and fell in love with the city’s immigrant food scene at an early age: from the Polish restaurants on the Northwest side (try the Red Apple buffet) to red-checkered-tablecloth Italian joints on Taylor Street (Rosebud remains solid) and the wonderful Greek establishments on Halsted west of the Loop. (I'm partial to the stewed octopus served on Fridays at Rodity’s.) 

One of my first “adult” meals, at 10 years old, was at The Berghoff, a bustling German restaurant in downtown’s Loop that had been a Chicago landmark for more than a century. I remember it being surrounded by businessmen in suits while male waiters (new to me at the time) pushed large carts of steaming meats around.

It closed in 2006, and the owners’ daughter has established a more casual place serving traditional Weiner schnitzel and sauerbraten mixed in with paninis, salads and other lighter fare in what had been the restaurant’s bar—the very same one that served men exclusively until the National Organization for Women helped end the segregation practice in 1969, just six years before my first meal there.

Other longtime favorites have bitten the dust over the years, including Ambria, which until last summer had been an elegant French restaurant in the art nouveau Belden-Stratford building, overlooking Lincoln Park.

There remain, however, several traditional Chicago dining experiences, especially for families, that made an indelible impression on my young palate and still remind me of home, along with a few new places that are worthy of beginning new traditions.

Fondue

Big in the ‘70s and occasionally making a retro comeback every few years, Chicago has managed to keep not one, not two, but at least three fondue restaurants operating. Kids of any age will enjoy dipping chunks of food into pots of hot oil or melted cheese, or fruit and marshmallows into a well of rich, bubbling chocolate.

• The small, Spanish-flavored Geja’s Café in Lincoln Park is a staple of the neighborhood and is more suited to families with teens, as children under the age of 10 are not allowed. I was a teen when I first dined here and easily recall the dark lighting and live classical guitarist. Classical and Flamenco guitarists still perform nightly.

340 W. Armitage Ave. (bet. Clark St. and Lincoln Ave.), tel. 773-281-9101, www.gejascafe.com

Fondue Stube brings a bit of Teutonic flare to the dipping experience. It’s located in the revitalized Northwest Side neighborhood Lincoln Square, which was once part of Chicago’s Germantown.

2717 W. Peterson Ave., tel. 773-784-2200, www.fonduestube.com

• The family-friendly Melting Pot chain has a branch in the River North neighborhood that also offers chess, checkers and shuffleboard. Three additional locations are in nearby suburbs.

609 N. Dearborn St., tel. 312-573-0011, www.meltingpot.com

Pizza

Most people think Chicago pizza means deep dish. But I’m partial to that “other” style from Chi-town: stuffed. A 2-inch crust rings your choice of ingredients and cheese, with another crust on top, piled on with tomato sauce and even more cheese, then baked. One slice is a meal in itself.

Giordano’s is the most well-known of this breed of pie, with more than 40 locations in the Chicagoland area.

Bella Bacino’s, the downtown branch of the original Bacino’s in Lincoln Park (which hasn’t changed at all in the 25 years since my first visit), delivers regularly to the growing number of hotels surrounding its Wacker Drive location near the Chicago River.

• For a healthier option, try Edwardo’s Natural Pizza one of the first to offer whole-wheat crust and stuffed spinach with cheese filling.

Mexican Faves

You can’t live in Chicago and not fall in love with Mexican food. At least I couldn’t. While some people rave about Frontera Grill for fine Mexican dining, as does our contributor Cindy Richards in our Chicago family-friendly dining article, I’m partial to these more casual, affordable Mexican dining experiences.

Arturo’s Tacos on Western Ave. in Bucktown, open 24/7, was a frequent stop when I lived in the neighborhood 20 years ago—before gentrification made it a haven for young families buying their first homes. I still return for a satisfying quick and cheap meal every time I visit Chicago. The place is now twice the size, but the bright lights and colors and loud Mexican music remain the same. Especially great for messy kids and those traveling with big appetites, you can’t go wrong with the $3 tacos or $5 jumbo burritos, stuffed with your choice of tasty marinated carne asada, chicken or pork. Wash it down with the cinnamon-flavored rice drink, horchata. For adults, there’s a full bar with plenty of cerveza, but don’t expect top-shelf liquor choices.

2001 N. Western Ave. (at Armitage Ave.), tel. 773-772-4944 

Tecalitlan is a couple steps up from Arturo’s, having wooden tables and chairs as opposed to plastic, and linen tablecloths and napkins, but offers nearly the same tremendous value as Arturo’s. CitySearch Chicago recently named it Editorial Winner as Best Burrito 2007, and I whole-heartedly say, “Olé!” The burritos are indeed delicious, but the chicken in mole sauce ($10.50) and enchiladas suizas ($9.50) are my favorites. My first visit was for a quinceañera (a coming-of-age celebration for Hispanic girls when they turn 15) for an Ecuadorian friend’s sister. On Sundays, the place fills up with families and hipsters alike from the surrounding West Chicago/Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

1814 W. Chicago Ave. (at Wood St.), tel. 773-384-4285

New Favorites

Looking for something to suit a more refined adult palette for those vacation "date nights" when the hotel provides baby-sitting services for the little ones? 

• A few restaurants I’ve become quite fond of in recent years include Custom House at 500 S. Dearborn Street in the Printer’s Row neighborhood south of the Loop. Chef Shawn McClain favors artisanal, sustainable and locally sources ingredients for his consistently tasty New American menu. I'm partial to his braised meats that melt in your mouth. McClain also heads up the kitchen at vegetarian Green Zebra in West Town, not far from Tecalitlan. 

• For very special occasions, however, I strongly recommend Rick Tramonto’s Tru, where I celebrated a milestone birthday a couple years ago. Aside from loving the minimalist décor in the dining room—soaring ceiling, long white curtains, rich blue-velvet banquets, Frette table linens and a smattering of contemporary artwork—each of the seven or so dishes I tasted were phenomenal.

The menu changes regularly, however, and none of the dishes I had are currently available, save for the caviar sampler, which is now a $250 item on the Luxury menu. (A smaller version had been an appetizer option on the prix fixe menu, which is $95 and comes with more than its advertised three courses.) No matter—any current combinations of the fresh flavors, ingredients and artistic presentation are sure to impress, served by an excellent waitstaff whom you don’t even realize are there.

A nice finishing touch: a rich, chocolate brownie handed to you in a little while gift bag on your way out. “For breakfast,” said the hostess. Or a surprise gift for your little one waiting for you at the hotel room. 


Destinations: Chicago

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat


User Comments

Delicious Never knew Chicago was such a foodie town; am now convinced.

Hungry! The picture of the burrito plus the restaurant descriptions have made me so hungry! I'm adding this to my Chicago restaurants list.

Yumm Having lived in Chicago and now the burbs outside of Chicao, your picks are right on target. Plus there are a couple that I have not tried with my family... going!

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