Location – The Art Institute (111 S. Michigan)
In one word – Serene
Food – Given that the chef of TP comes from Spiaggia, it should not be surprising that I will only rave about the food. My eating partner and I started with the flatbread with burrata (cheese), spaghetti squash, olives and brown butter. This was my favorite part of the meal – I would order this again in an instant. Then I took on the Mizuna salad, which included avocado, chicken, lime and cashew. This did not blow me out of the water, but I could tell that all the ingredients were super fresh. My eating partner chose the steak salad, which she seemed to enjoy. Then we went crazy with dessert. You must try the chocolate semi-freddo with peanut nougat and salted caramel. Just do it, you can thank me later. We also sampled the holiday cookie assortment. If you have to choose, go with the semi-freddo.
Drink – My eating partner and I were celebrating, so I had a glass of the Gruner Vetliner and she had the Bourdeaux. We were both satisfied with our selections.
Service – We had attentive, but slow, service. Given we were not in a rush, this was not a deal breaker. I was thoroughly amused by the busser who commented after each course on how much or how little we ate. We had a little snafu with the bill at the end of the meal. However, as soon as we mentioned it, things were corrected.
Scene – The restaurant is in the new Modern wing of the Art Institute. Like the rest of the wing, the atmosphere is bright, clean and spacious. Being inside an art museum, the clientèle is…wise, sophisticated…some might say senior. This makes this an ideal location for a ladies lunch or a date.
Dress – The space is nice, but I wouldn’t sweat it on the attire front. During lunch, we were fine in our “Chicago Snow Day” sweater, leggings, boots combo. In the evening, you probably should make a bit more of an effort, but not over the top.
Cost – For wine, shared appetizer, entrée sized salad and dessert, we paid $60 including tax and tip. Pricey yes, but not crazy given the amount of food we ordered.
If you like, try…Cafe Spiaggia, Naturally Peninsula (at the Peninsula Hotel)
Location – 51 W. Hubbard (Dearborn and Hubbard)
In one word – Manic
Food – By going at lunch, I ensured that I could focus on the food and that there was not a wait. I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to approach the menu: They have sushi and tacos and sandwiches. It was a bit manic for my taste. After interrogating our server about her favorite dishes, I settled on the Crispy Baja Fish Sandwich. Fish sandwiches are always risky; you run the chance of the overfried or old fillet. I was pleasantly surprised, the fish with its cornmeal crush was crispy but not oily. The jicama adds a cooling aspect to the meal. My eating partner chose the Sonoma salad (spinach, grapefruit, avocado, walnuts, sunflower seeds and cranberries) – it’s huge, totally shareable.
Drink – So this place can turn into a scene, but not at noon on a Tuesday. We kept it clean and ordered diet Cokes all around.
Service – The server indulged in my Q&A session when I felt overwhelmed by the menu. Points for that. She did seem to forget our table when we wanted to take care of the check. Not ideal when you have lunch hour clientele trying to get back for a 1 pm meeting…
Scene – With that Rockit vibe, you feel hip without the place being inaccessible to the average person.
Dress – You ought to show some effort when you come here. Jeans are fine, but spray a little extra Febreeze on them this time.
Cost – With an entree, soft drink, tax and tip, you can have a $22 lunch. No cheap, but you’ll be full when you leave.
If you like, try…Rockit, Sushi Samba Rio
Location – 130 E. Randolph (Randolph and Michigan)
In one word – Attentive
Food – I’d dub the menu as “upscale bar cuisine.” You have your fish and chips (made with tilapia) and the chopped steak cheeseburger. Upon a raving recommendation by a frequent diner, I decided to partake in TATP’s equivalent of sliders – “Tavern Teasers, ” where you can choose from Carolina pork, sirloin and/or prime rib. These sliders are served with shoe string fries. Maybe I wasn’t hungry enough, but I didn’t think it was worth all the hype. The bun was soggy with the Carolina pork and my sirloin was a bit too rare for my taste. I barely made a dent in the dish. My eating partner chose the special, a steak with bleu cheese. He polished that off, but didn’t seem so wowed by the dish.
Drink – I had a glass of the pinot grigio, which was affordable and tasty.
Service – When I walked in, I made a joke to the host at the front of the restaurant. And he laughed at my joke. Automatic points when you laugh at my humor. My only qualm was that at the table, my water glass had lipstick on it. Once I told our server, he was quick to replace it and apologized profusely. The service, otherwise, was uber attentive. Over the course of the meal, I was asked twice by the manager how the meal was. And the server continually came over to check on us.
Scene – It’s a little stuffy here. I think it’s a frequent haunt for those who work in the Aon building, so you feel very corporate here. I think it’s a good place to bring a client for lunch. They have a private dining area if you have a larger group to entertain.
Dress – Because of the corporate vibe, you kind of should look the part. I wouldn’t come here in jeans. Dress in business casual at a minimum.
Cost – We split the bill and paid $34.50 each for food, drink, tax and tip. Given that I barely ate my meal, it wasn’t worth the cost for me. Given that my eating partner had a steak, the place was a bargain.
If you like, try…Harry Caray’s
Location—186 North Wells Street (Lake and Wells)
In one word—Variety
Food—If you could use a break from typical lunch time fare in the Loop, Crepe Bistro is exactly what “ze docteur” ordered. Crepe Bistro offers a big list of savory and sweet crepes that are a great deal for dinner and an even better deal for lunch (there’s about a two dollar difference per item between the lunch and dinner menus).
For savory, try the Ratatouille ($8.00 lunch, $10.25 dinner). It’s a plump crepe about the size of a mouse pad, that’s stuffed with thick, garlicy slices of stewed zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes and onion, plus your choice of ooey-gooey melted cheese (I got mozzarella, on the recommendation of the owner). The veggies are softened but still have a bit of a crunch—as though they’ve been freshly sautéed—and they’re packed with delicious flavors of garlic, tomato and herbs. Bonus: all savory crepes come with a simple side salad of fresh field greens and tomatoes that are dressed up with a zesty sherry vinaigrette.
For sweet, you can’t go wrong splitting the classic Nutella crepe ($6.50)—rich, melted, hazelnutty chocolate that’s folded into a soft, delicate crepe and then crowned with fresh, sweet, homemade whipped cream. Mmmm, get over here you sexy thang! As an alternative, try the surprising Lemon crepe ($6.50), which contains freshly squeezed lemon, powdered sugar, and butter. The sugar, butter, and lemon all melt together and taste like the best lemon bar you’ve ever had. Yum.
Drink—Very affordable wine and beer selection, as well as vodka and cognac. Plus, gourmet coffee options and good ol’ Orangina
Service—The service here is fast and friendly. You can be in and out in an hour—not bad for lunch in the Loop. At the same time, Crepe Bistro is more hospitable than your typical lunch spot. For example, the carafe of ice water with big, bright lemon slices that’s brought to each table is a unique touch.
Scene—The décor here is homey-French and gives Crepe Bistro a charming, casual feel. Eclectic old-school French music (accordion, I believe?) plays in the background. All of this, plus the accents of the owner and some of the waiters, and Crepe Bistro comes across as little piece of Paris right under the El.
Dress—Given its location, during the week you’ll see business to business casual to casual at lunch. Jeans and a dressy top and you’ll fit in without any problems. On the weekends, you can go all-out casual.
Cost—with tax and tip, about $12 for lunch, $15 for dinner (without drinks).
If you like, try…Coffee and Crepe Palace
Location – 517 S. State (State and Congress)
In one word – Refreshing
Food – Having just finished Omnivore’s Dilemma, I am a bit wary of my food of late. Lucky for me, Epic Burger has arrived in the Loop. EB dubs itself as the place with a more mindful burger. Finally, we have a place to get all natural burgers in Chicago, I am home! When I ordered my junior all-natural beef burger, I was asked if I wanted a wheat bun (yes), if I wanted grilled or raw onions (grilled), what kind of cheese I wanted (Wisconsin cheddar), if I wanted nitrate-free bacon (obvi) and if I wanted a cage-free fried egg on top of the burger (not this time). I finished the burger fast, it was delicious and didn’t leave me with that “I ate too much grease, roll me to my bed” feeling. The fries come with sea salt (sizable portion). If you don’t do the beef, you can get a turkey burger, chicken sandwich or a portabella mushroom sandwich.
Beverages – They have milkshakes and smoothies! A burger and a smoothie, I’m not sure if I could think of a better combo. One of my eating partners tried the Lemon Squeeze; it seemed like it hit the spot.
Service – There’s not all that much to it, you order at the counter and pay. Then they bring your food to you (Corner Bakery style). However, even with that little of interaction, I was impressed. The staff was really courteous.
Scene – It’s a burger joint, so there’s no one to impress here. Given that it’s near the DePaul Loop Campus and Columbia College, you can expect to see students here as well as South Loop locals. All the stuff in the restaurant is eco-friendly: the cups, the plates, the chairs, everything. I appreciate that; you feel like EB is trying to make a difference in the world. And by patronizing it, I have completed my ecological duty for the day.
Dress – Again, you’re seeing students here. Anything more than jeans is too formal.
Cost – You can get a burger, fries and a drink for $10. I think that’s a deal for healthy fast food.
If you like, try…Veggie Bite
Location – 21 E. Hubbard (Hubbard and Rush)
In one word – Premium
Food – We came here for a work lunch, so I wasn’t the one shelling out dough for the bill. Right now I’m on a kick to eat healthy. Perhaps you’ll see that reflected in my menu choiced. I started with the chopped salad. I was expecting something bland and was pleasantly surprised. The salad, with cherry tomatoes, bacon, croutons, a light vinegrette and a little bleu cheese, felt really fresh. My eating partners opted for the cold appetizer combo, it was a tower of crab, shrimp and oysters. It came with a frozen sauce they really seemed to like. For my main, I chose the Grilled Gulf Yellowfin Tuna. It was covered in this soy ginger dressing and served with crispy rice noodles and peanuts. This dish packed a whole lot of flavor. We sampled the desserts. I LOVED the peppermint ice cream. There are chunks of the candy cane in the ice cream, and it’s served with chocolate sauce.
Drink – I had a glass of their pinot grigio. It went down really smooth.
Service – It’s Shaw’s, so there’s old school service. I liked our server, though he wasn’t really willing to give us definite opinions when we asked for recommendations.
Scene – When we were there, a lot of groups from work were dining. A Chicago faux-lebrity sat behind our table, Corey McFerrin, the sports anchor from Fox Chicago. I always get giddy when I see even the smallest celebrity and almost texted my father at the table to let him know about the siting.
Dress – You could wear a suit here, but I don’t know if it’s absolutely necessary. Definitely no jeans.
Cost – I already noted that I didn’t pay. My guess is that my meal was about $45.
If you like, try…Joe’s Stone Crab, Ditka’s
GB Note – I went back to Midtown yesterday and now feel like I need to update my review from December 2007. New thoughts are in italics.
Location – 203 N. LaSalle (LaSalle and Lake)
In one word – Appalling
Food – This Americana menu is decent, but I have always felt it’s better on paper. What I’ve liked here – Cheeseburger sliders and mini quesadillas with brie, apple and lime sour cream. Today I tried the veggie burger. The best part? The fries. The burger was all mushy. I couldn’t finish it.
Drink – They have a variety of martinis and cosmos. I’m not really a fan of either. Luckily you can get a decent number of beers on tap.
Service – While a bit slow today, the service was good. We’ve had a large work event here and rented out the entire top floor. They seemed to pull that off well too. It’s interesting that I initially noted that they were slow back in December 2007. The situation has only gotten worse. Here’s a timeline:
12:05 I walk into Midtown and seat myself.
12:10 Our drink order is taken. We tell our server we need a minute to decide on food.
12:20 Waiting for our server.
12:25 Still waiting…
12:28 Grab the nearest employee (who happened to be the General Manager). We give him our order. We also tell him we’re in a rush.
12:40 Waiting for food. I alert our original server that we’ve been waiting for a while for our food. He said he’ll comp our drinks. We ordered Cokes and Ice Teas. How generous. I tell him that we weren’t waiting on drinks. We were waiting on food.
12:47 Our appetizer comes and we finish it in about 2 minutes flat.
12:55 Our entrees come. One of my eating partner’s burgers is all wrong. They have to take it back. I tell our server that I need a box because DESPITE THE FACT THAT I CAME HERE TO EAT AN HOUR AGO, I will not have time to eat my lunch in their establishment.
1:00 The new burger for my eating partner comes out. It’s still wrong. He tells our server about the mistake but still eats it. I receive my box, pack my lunch and leave.
1:20 The rest of my eating partners pay (entrees were half off and drinks were comped). Had I been there, I would have put up a stink and not paid for any of the meal. It’s lunch time in the Loop, properly staff your restaurant.
Scene – I love the decor of the place – simple with mahogany-looking wood. It feels rich. The scene is more lunch/after work, so you’ll see suits and business casual at the tables.
Cost – I paid $18 for a beer and a burger. It was more than I wanted to spend…
If you like, try…Sidebar, Bin 36
Update: I went back to Mercat last week and was still as impressed by the cuisine as I was at the time of the original review. I also recommend the Estrella Damm Inedit – a beer they serve that was developed by El Bulli’s Ferran Adria. I was more astonished by the high price point during this visit, but I want to think that the quality of food legitimized the cost.
Location – 638 S. Michigan (Michigan and Balbo)
In one word – Experiential
Food – Here’s my disclaimer: Moons ago, I spent three months in Barcelona where I indulged in Catalan cuisine everyday. You can imagine my glee when I heard a Catalan restaurant was opening in Chicago. Colcots, creme catalana y croquetas, que bueno! Would this place live up to my memories of Barce? Yes, it most definitely did. You’ll order tapas style, so let me just run through the gamut of what we ate: pan tomate (one of our favorite dishes from Barcelona, which lived up to our memories), Cadi Urgelia cheese (it’s served with a lavendar jam, which tastes AMAZING! If this is what flowers taste like, count me in), Mitibleu cheese (it’s gorgonzola gone wild served with this ridiculously fantastic mustard), the olive assortment (it had a strong marinade, which worked for me), croquetas de jamon (which were my least favorite because they seemed too pan fried, but I still ate ALL of them), alcochofas y setas flatbread (flatbread served with artichokes and mushrooms, it has this super roasted flavor, the table loved it!), setas al horno (roasted mushrooms, I barely got a bit because my eating partners were such heathens and devoured it quickly), patatas bravas (these potatos aren’t smothered in the spicy sauce like they are at most places, this made the dish feel lighter), colcots (eating these roasted green onions really did make me feel like I was back in Spain). Enough food for you? What about dessert? We did it up right: Crema Catalana (their version had jam at the bottom which so worked for me), the quatro chocolates (which included this white chocolate hot chocolate, and this chocolate made me feel like I found my life partner in a tea cup) and goat milk’s cheese mousse on a chestnut cake with grape (sigh). I wish I could have filmed my eating partners and I attacking the desserts. True survival of the fittest.
Drinks – They had my favorite beer from Barcelona, Estrella Damm. We also sampled their seasonal sangria, which tasted nice but wasn’t potent.
Service – JC, our server, treated us us well. By the end of the meal, JC was speaking to us in Spanish. It was like we had known him forever. He recognized that we knew a little bit about Catalan cuisine and brought the chef over to meet us. I don’t tell anyone that I write about food when I go into a restaurant, so I appreciated that the chef wanted to meet a group of barely getting by-2o somethings. The chef, Jose, was so down to earth. This is his third restaurant and he’s going to be on Iron Chef. I felt like I was meeting a celebrity!
Scene – It was hip! They did a nice job with the asthetics of this place. It felt rich and contemporary. I liked that the decor has a touch of Barcelona while staying true to Chicago style. The bar is downstairs and the dining area is upstairs. There was this interesting table on the third floor of the building, it’s isolated at the top of the restaurant. I’d like to sit there one day, you get to oversee all that’s happening in the restaurant from that angle.
Dress – I thought that all the other patrons were attractive and really well put together. You better, too. Work on your hair and make-up before walking in. However, don’t feel like the place inaccesible. Even though you have to comb your hair, you should still come.
Cost – For all of that food, sangria and tax/tip, I paid $42. Yes, it’s not cheap, but I considered it to be a bang for my buck (did you read how much we ate?).
If you like, try…avec
Location – 180 W. Washington (Washington and Wells) or 233 N. Michigan (Illinois Center)
In one word – Gourmet
Food – Hannah’s Bretzel was recommended to me by a GB reader, and I was not disappointed. It provided me a gourmet lunch alternative to Corner Bakery and Quiznos. I decided to order Sergio’s Special with French Madrange ham and Swiss Gruyère cheese with avocado, sliced jalapeños and tasty mango chutney on a bretzel baguette. Every other sandwich in the Loop feels so run of the mill after you devour a Hannah’s Bretzel sandwich. Another plus of Hannah’s Bretzel is that they sell great teas and European chocolates. When I was in Barcelona, I ate my weight in Kinder (a European chocolate). I thought I would never see my beloved Kinder this side of the Atlantic and low and behold, it’s there at Hannah’s Bretzel!
Drinks – Since this is both a breakfast and lunch place for Loop workers, come here for your tea and coffee.
Service – You order at the counter. My order was right; that’s all I can ask for.
Occasion – There’s not a whole lot of seating at Hannah’s Bretzel, so it’s better if you’re on the go. Run in and out with the other cube dwellers in the Loop.
Dress – You’re going on your lunch hour. Whatever you have on is fine.
Cost – So, you’re going to pay $7 – 11 for a sandwich. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
If you like, try…L’Appetito
Location – 175 W. Jackson (Van Buren and Financial), 835 N. Michigan (Water Tower) and 1 W. Wacker (Lake and State)
In one word – Bun-elicious
Foo d – As I was surveying my latest credit card bill, I realized there was an alarming trend – six purchases from WowBao in one month! Obviously I have an addiction. You might be familiar with the Wow Bao’s concept, the Chinese bun (meat inside a doughy bun). I know initially it sounds weird – meat in a steamed bun, but I beg you, don’t judge it until you try it. If you aren’t feeling bun-ny, try one of their rice bowls. I turn to the teriayaki chicken rice bowl but have also heard good things about the kung pao chicken rice bowl and the vegetable rice bowl. Ready for dessert? Order the coconut custard bao (bun). I have yet to have something there that I do not like and find that it is perfect for lunch when I’m at work. I’m really curious about the Breakfast Bao. If anyone has tried it, please let me know your thoughts.
Drink – If you like real ginger, try their ginger ale. I love it because it makes you feel energized without any caffeine. You can also order a pomegranate ginger ale, but that felt a little too Jamba Juice for me.
Service – This is essentially a healthy fast food spot. Their attempts to create efficient lines sometimes backfire, but I forgive them. If your wait for food is long, they’ll offer you a free drink. I feel good about places that give you free stuff…I mean, show they appreciate you as a customer.
Dress – Looks don’t matter at Wow Bao. Wear whatever you want. However, here’s what to expect of your fellow patrons. If you’re in the Loop locations, you’ll see the working crowd – suits, button-down shirts and skirts. At the Water Tower location, it’s all shoppers (many of them from out of town). Look for teenyboppers wearing sweatshirts, tight jeans and Uggs.
Cost – I usually get a rice bowl and a dessert bao, which I save for the afternoon. Total cost is about $7.50. That’s average if you’re looking for lunch in the Loop.
If you like, try…the bakeries of Chinatown, Big Bowl (one guy developed the recipes for both Wow Bao and Big Bowl)