‘Burritos as big as your head’. So glared the big red neon sign in a downtown Chicago eatery.
No surprise that everywhere you turn it’s staring you in the face. I am, of course, talking about obesity. Whilst this piece is not intended as a social commentary on the problems of this hideous condition, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that portion control in this spectacular city does not exist for the poor.
The ‘windy’ city, coined by The Cincinnati papers as a place full of bluster, is a cornucopia of the arts – if you can’t take pleasure from this eclectic metropolis, you must be a Grinch. From one of the most celebrated orchestras in the world in situ at the magnificent Symphony Centre, to the spit and sawdust atmosphere of ‘Blue Chicago’, this alpha + world city boasts a spectacular music, culinary and cultural scene.
If you happen to arrive at night, dump your bags and head straight down to ‘Sable’ on North State Street. Order the small plates (yes, for the well off small plates exist) of tuna tartare on tostadas served with spicy tomato salsa and the veal meatballs with walnut and gorgonzola cream. Sit at the bar because you’ll be mesmerised by the mixologists, two individuals who look as though they took a wrong turning and were subsequently ousted by the Amish community. No amount of smiling will encourage them to serve you until they’re ready. A word of warning. No huffing. They’ll just ignore you. In the meantime, watch them extract drops of orange oil into a cocktail glass and marvel at their dexterity. It is so surreal it has to be experienced.
If your tastes lean toward something a little more down to earth, Maggiano’s on North Clark Street is for lovers of simple Italian food. Their $20 deal was rather off putting due to its Gargantuan size, but the four cheese ravioli was so sublime I would have paid $20 for that single dish. Instead we were given a choice of starters, a pasta dish, dessert and another pasta to take home in the ubiquitous doggy bag. I kid you not. Picture Paul Newman eating his 50th egg in Cool Hand Luke and you get the picture.
By contrast, the Italian restaurant Quartino’s on North State Street serves small plates of exquisite authentic food that was just sensational. Heralded as one of the top one hundred restaurants in the USA, two things struck me as we eventually got to our table after a long wait. The number of items on the menu (normally a bad sign) and the sheer volume of traffic going in and out. If you want a chat with your diners, take a loudhailer. Chewing the fat over a bowl of spaghetti is not an option here. It’s worth it for the food though. The $25 tasting menu allows you two items from the cured meats menu, two choices of cheese and three ‘spuntini’, snacks to you and me. We had the duck prosciutto, bresaola, gorgonzola, pecorino, roasted beet salad, summer peas and the pickled vegetables. Glorious fare. Then we scarpered before our eardrums burst.
If there was one tour that I would urge you to take it’s the architectural tour which is taken on the Chicago river. It’s a wonderful way to discover the imposing towers and breathtaking art deco buildings.
If you’re a film buff, you can take a two hour tour of the city and see where iconic moments within various movies were shot. Even if you’re not a keen film goer, it’s a good way to take in the city.
In the mood for a spot of decadence? Look no further than the Channings Day Spa on Oak Street. I normally wouldn’t mention taking in a beauty treatment on a city holiday, but I enjoyed the best service and facial I’ve ever had. Bar none. Buffed and sparkling, I wondered down Oak Street but left very quickly. Beautiful, coiffed, bone thin women reeking of Prada and pots of cash tottered up and down this designer laden street. I didn’t blend in.
As Chicago is so small, you can walk everywhere and take in a lot of sites. If you enjoy walking, there a number of walking tours which are run by very knowledgeable guides. If you want to wander round the city by yourself, make sure to include The Millennium and Lincoln parks and the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the world’s largest art venues.
Chicago has something for everyone.
Maria Kuehn is a chef, writer and winner of The Observer Food Monthly Awards 2011 based in London and has her own food and recipe website and blog