CHICAGO’S BEST PICK-UP TAPAS BAR AND BOARDING HOUSE
(This may be a bit dated, as it was in 2015…but you may still pick up a point or two)
A wedding invitation provided an opportunity to re-visit America’s second great City, Chicago. And what better time to go than in the Arctic weather of mid-March – the perfect season for full-time bar and restaurant hopping. We had a great time following my two rules for travelling: 1. careful planning, and 2. surrendering to the universal god of good-times. Simply put, ‘find a good place, and lock into cruise control from there’. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
Kato had earmarked The Purple Pig as a must-do so after some pretend shopping on Michigan Ave – the spiffy Northbridge Plaza (Nordstroms), and the uber-cool IT&T flagship store – we got down to business a block south at The Pig. Chaos reigned in this tapas-style place so we ignored calls for an ‘hour waiting’ and grabbed a few stools at the bar and got into drinking. Ever since our visit to London’s St. Johns, the original ‘pig’ restaurant, we now go straight to these places for the fun of simple, creative dishes at everyday prices.
The Pig has an amazing wine list – far too extensive, so I asked about the Rosés, which are always good with pork. “Let me offer you tastings – all our wines under $40 are open for tasting.” Instant happiness. A Spanish wine got us stared, along with a salad of pig’s ear and poached egg. Yummy. The beauty of sitting at the bar was we could see all the food dishes coming out – a visual menu. As well as rubbing shoulders with folks left and right. Who knew they would become our new best friends – at least for a day!
The smart-looking dude on my left was also drinking Rosé, so we engaged. Turned out Carlos was local, but hailed from Brazil. To Kato’s right, a guy from Rome was drinking Sicilian white, and lamenting the corruption in Italian soccer. And the church. Wine, food and conversation flowed for several happy hours. Our server kept coming up with interesting wines and foods – without the slightest suggestion that maybe we had had enough, and should move on. We did of course fulfill both categories, but not before hugs and photos, and all the mushy stuff that follows long, happy meals at restaurants.
Carlos agreed to join us for some afternoon activity/drinking and off we went. We were also joined by Darleen from Toronto, who had replaced the Roman on Kato’s right. Vinum wine bar at the Intercontinental was tempting, but looked too dark and serious for an afternoon stop. A more appealing sight was Bloomingdales ‘Home’ store located in a handsome Moorish-looking, restored Masonic Lodge. Gotta check-out architecture when in Chicago! Turned out to be a fantastic showcase for contemporary home design. A fun art and architecture stop for sure, and it included a complimentary ‘Nespresso’ coffee bar. Now that we were ‘respectably’ sober it was time to call on the gods of good times (remember I mentioned them) to find our next stop. Turned out to be almost next door – Pops, Champagne Bar.
I had been to Pops many years ago and didn’t really care for the ‘old clubby’ atmosphere, but this was a new, more modern take, and location. What is it about wine bars and sommeliers that make a drinking situation feel like a bank visit? Intimidating! A pink bubbly more than compensated for our snobby server. Who really dissed us when I ordered beer chasers. Belgium beer, with second fermentation in bottle – same technique as Champagne. Carlos and Darleen enjoyed the exercise in recognizing yeastiness. “A little sweatiness.”
The Brazilian was getting hungry, so it was time for another of Kato’s must-see restaurants, The Boarding House, with amazing ‘wine-related chandeliers‘ that fill the entire ceilings (the bottle one is shown here). This big, theatrical, second floor restaurant was buzzing with Saturday night diners – sensible people who had made reservations weeks ahead. But the hostess was smitten by our Brazilian charmer and promised a table – providing we didn’t mind spending a little time at the street level bar. “No problem, that’s what we hoped you’d say.” Glasses of Cava all around made the campers happy as I explored what we might drink with dinner. The bartender suggested I taste the six open reds to see if there’s “one for you.” Love American bars. Even if I did get strange glances from my drinking mates, who must have thought I’d ordered six wines! My work never ends. A very grand dinner followed – lamb, accompanied by Santa Barbara Syrah. You can only have so much pork and Champagne. Back on the street, an Irish-looking corner bar seemed like the perfect place for a nitecap, but it turned out to be a loud, throbbing night club. Aborted glasses of Jameson is something I was grateful for the next morning. Can’t be too wrecked for a family wedding.
Sunday Brunch at Mercat got us back on track thanks to the world’s best Bloody Marys. Honest. The bartender hands you a huge glass with vodka and ice, and you choose the rest from an amazing line-up of juices and garnishes. No boring Motts clamato, but thick, strong killer gazpachos made from watermelon, tomatillos and the house tomato version, which is not like anything you’ve ever tasted. I made a dynamite blend of all three. Best $5 drink I’ve ever had. Mercat feels like a Spanish night club – lots of dark red and yellow, and the food is a modern take on classic Spanish dishes. Very flavourful – we had a fantastic 3 course tasting menu for brunch. It’s a perfect spot before visiting the Art Institute up the street (where we also enjoyed a very good lunch!) One of the world’s best art galleries – in a beautiful park setting (would be so lovely in the summer).
Thanks Chicago, for the most fun one can have ‘pigging’ out in freezing weather. And thanks Doreen and Carlos for being good sports. Best way to get to Chicago? Porter airline from TO Island Airport. Complimentary Steam Whistle on board. And priority security on arrival.
THE PURPLE PIG 500 N. Michigan Ave. (at Illinois)
POPS FOR CHAMPAGNE 601 N. State St (at Erie)
THE BOARDING HOUSE 720 N. Wells St (at Superior)
MERCAT a la Planxa 638 S. Michigan Ave
ART INSTITUTE of CHICAGO S. Michigan Ave