Easy, If Breezy, Chicago: A Brief Guide For New Yorkers

Say the words "Windy City" and by free association, we all think: Oprah, Obama, deep-dish pizza, Da’ Bears, and "brrrrr."  But there’s so much more!Dazzling architecture, outstanding city views, cordial Chicagoans, quirky neighborhoods and sunny, 60-degree mid-November weather––those are just some of the highlights of my recent 48-hour family trip into town. By "family," I mean me, a thirtysomething free spirit, and my parents (just imagine the crazy side of The Fockers). Could Chi-town handle us?

Upon arrival into O’Hare, we jumped on the easy-to-navigate, not to mention uber-clean CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and transformed quickly from savvy New Yorkers to dopey tourists, as we tried to understand the no-change metro machine policy. Luckily a CTA employee was helpful and midwesternly, and got us through the turnstyle gracefully.

We landed at our hotel, the JW Marriott––the baller of all Marriott’s––in the bustling, business-oriented Financial District. Located in a renovated historic national bank building, the shiny, marble hotel lobby and lounge was a nice, warm welcome.At nearly 500 square feet, our airy room offered everything we needed: two beds draped with fluffy duvets, a spa bathroom clad in Italian marble with a stand-alone tub, and supersized terry cloth robes.

Service was top-notch. For example, after some slight confusion over our room temperature (I’ll take full credit for that one), the front desk immediately had an engineer at our door. We called down a few other times for more bathroom products and additional pillows; everything was "no problem." The concierge helped us with maps and routes constantly––we wouldn’t have made it far without him.

At night, we’d sit with our laptops or novels in front of a cozy gas fireplace in a quiet corner of the lobby. How charming for a hotel we assumed was strictly a corporate hang. Good people watching too––wedding parties, football fans, first dates. Refreshing (and free!) orange cleansing water in the lobby kept us hydrated and happy.

But let’s discuss beyond the hotel. 

The first place we went was Magnificent Mile; about a 15-minute walk away, which initially, alarmingly, sort of felt like Times Square. Streets were crowded, tourists were crammed together. I worried we’d entered a bit of a migraine. That is, until we stumbled upon the iconic Wrigley Building. Powerful, stop-in-your-tracks, absolutely stunning!

Lunch was at the famous Giordano’s Pizza. While we wanted to try Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza, they only offered deep-dish crusts stuffed to the nines. This concept, us pizza purists found unappetizing, so we chose a basic thin crust pie. It was decent, but we’ve had better, like Grimaldi’s in Dumbo. Just a small strike, Chicago. (By the way, what’s a New Yorker doing in Chicago if not to say our pizza is better?!)

We were then off to Wicker Park, an edgy neighborhood dotted with vintage stores, cute coffee houses and loads of shopping options. The locals were a mix of real-deal artists, grungy hipsters and Lululemonized stroller moms. One trendy term that could be applied? Très Brooklyn. We felt right at home.

We hopped the subway after a few hours, and then took a bus to Hyde Park to see the Obama’s house. This was really exciting, especially to be there right after the election! We tried to bribe the secret service at the edge of his street for more personal scoop, but no luck. Alas, we were perfectly content just checking out the nice-but-modest digs.

Meanwhile, Chicago and the Chicagoans were really growing on us! Locals kept helping with directions and advice, and everyone was just so nice and patient. Every so often, we’d catch a glimmer of glamour on the regal streets. My mother alluded to Champs-Elysées more than once.  

We stopped at the Willis Tower SkyDeck—in the former Sears building—and rode up to the 103rd floor. I pushed my fear of heights aside as much as I could, and I’m glad I did. The view was breath-taking as we could see about 40 miles of city landscape, plus Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Don’t think my dad didn’t try to also re-enact the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that was filmed here.

For dinner, we shared plates at the celebrated Sable Kitchen & Bar, a gastro-lounge in the center of the River North neighborhood adjacent to Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar. Spearheaded by Top Chef alum Heather Terhune, her seasonal dishes were out of this world. The menu was well balanced, as there was something for all of us, which, with a vegetarian mother and a meat-n-potatoes father, doesn’t happen often.

We started with the Butter Lettuce & Apple Salad with radicchio, grapes, smoked cashews & almonds and sherry-apple cider vinaigrette. Easily, the best salad of our lives. Our other favorite dishes were the brick oven flatbread with rosemary, brie, and house-made ricotta, butternut-squash apple soup, mini wild mushroom veggie burgers with red onion jam, and short rib sliders. This would definitely, no question, be our new family go-to spot if it were in New York. The food was fresh, flavorful and mouth-watering. Service was exceptional as the food came out perfectly timed to give our stomachs a brief rest. The dining room felt both calming and luminous. The staff was professional, warm and had serious culinary swagger. If you go to Chicago, you’d be crazy not to run here!  

We also had a lovely breakfast at Hoyt’s Chicago, inside Hotel 71, near Millennium Park. A sweet spot, with a nice street view. I very much appreciated that Hoyt’s is also part of my illy coffee cult.

At the end of our stay, we didn’t want to leave. Chicago embraced us New Yorkers in a way we never expected. I’m happy to say, it’s a city I’m now totally in-sync with and can’t wait to touch down here again.

Boozy Dispatches from Tales of the Cocktail

From the outside, it looks like a fancy moustache convention. Many of the world’s best craft bartenders (and their wide array of fancy facial hair and clever tattoos) descend each year on New Orleans, Louisiana, for the week-long gathering of drinking, lecturing, networking, partying, and drinking some more known as Tales of the Cocktail. Most of the major spirit brands also attend the event in what ultimately becomes a Lolllapalooza of Booze.

No human being can manage to catch all of the events that surround this libation fest, and concurrent parties lure bartenders with bigger and more outrageous events. It’s sort of like watching Mumford and Sons only to find out that Arcade Fire is playing on the main stage. Here’s a roundup of what went down in NOLA—what we remember of it, anyway.

image Girl in A Ball at Beefeater’s Opening Party This year, the biggest and most outrageous parties were sponsored by Pernod Ricard, whose dueling gins (Beefeater and Plymouth) bookended the week with parties so jam-packed, you simply couldn’t see it all. The Beefeater party was a lavish masquerade ball complete with masks and ballerinas dancing inside bubbles. Along with the pomp and circumstance came some heavy-hitting bar tending. Audrey Saunders, owner of the Pegu Club in New York City, hit it out of the park with her Fir & Gin Fizz (Beefeater 24, fresh lime juice, ginger, simple syrup, club soda and Douglas Fir Eau De Vie). Saunders was joined by Eric Castro, who was the bar manager at Rickhouse in San Francisco before he became a brand ambassador for Beefeater, as well as a host of over 20 other bartenders each making their own drink.

image William Grant transforms the National WWII Museum into party central William Grant & Sons (the folks behind such brands such as Hendricks Gin and Sailor Jerry) blew the doors off the The National WWII Museum with a party that filled the mammoth museum with level after level of bars and drinks. In one of the most absurd moves we’ve ever seen in the business, the William Grant party had cows staged outside which were milked to make the famed New Orleans Ramous Gin Fizz.

image Andrew Bohrer chainsaws a monster block of ice in The Chainsaw Shift Like any great summer camp, Tales of The Cocktail isn’t just wall to wall partying. Ok, it is, but there’s more to it. Tales hosts a wide array of seminars presented by some of the most notable people in the industry. Want to learn about barrel aged cocktails from the master of barrel aged cocktails? From Jeffrey Morgenthaler (who bartends at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon) you can. How about learning to use lab equipment like rotovapors and centrifuges to make cocktails? Tony Conigliaro, owner of 69 Colebrooke Row in London, England, will teach you how.

Perhaps the coolest (quite literally) of the seminars was Andrew Bohrer’s The Chainsaw Shift. Bohrer, who owned the Nagal Lounge in Bellevue, Washington, and has managed the bar at the famed Mistral Kitchen in Seattle, is a pioneer in the field of booze and ice. Bohrer demonstrated how, with a Home Depot chainsaw, you can transform a three hundred pound block of ice into hand cut cubes that fill your glass and make your cocktail sing. Or was that us singing after too many cocktails? Hard to say, as every seminar had a cocktail or two attached. The one at The Chainsaw Shift was a Maker’s Mark Sazerac, with a great chunk of hand cut ice.

image Look out Patron. Don Julio has you in its sights Tales of the Cocktail is also a place where spirit companies introduce their new products to the bartenders, press, cocktail enthusiasts, and everyone in between. Don Julio showed off their new Don Julio 70, the first ever “Anejo Claro,” which is a clear aged tequila. The Don clearly has Patron in his sights, as the tequila is a lot sharper and spicier than their traditional Blanco, with a pepper kick Patron drinkers will love.

image Brooklyn Bitters leaves its mark William Grant & Sons showed off their superb Reyka Vodka, with bitters, made exclusively for them by buzz-worthy Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. Jason Rowan, a frequent contributor with the New York Times, Out magazine, and writer of Embury Cocktails, runs the bitters company, which had a super-secret launch tasting at the event. Brooklyn Bitters has some out of this world flavors, including Rhubarb, Meyer Lemon, Black Mission Fig and Sriracha (yup, cock sauce bitters!). Although the bitters company kept things on the down low, it was one of the more impressive launches of the festival.

image Russian Standard Dinner at the Eiffel Society Booze wasn’t the only focus at Tales of The Cocktail. After gorging on po’ boys at Johnny’s, jambalaya at Coops, or fried chicken at Mother’s, festival goers could chose from over twenty Spirited Dinners, featuring copious amounts of food and cocktails. While most of the dinners featured cocktails, the Russian Standard Dinner at the Eiffel Society took a contrarian view, and poured straight spirits to accompany caviar, foie gras, and flatiron steak seasoned with $300 whiskey. Tough life, we know.

image Drew Levinson and Aisha Sharpe crash Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Bridget Albert’s dinner As highbrow as the spirited dinners sound, Tales is still a grouping of some of the greatest partiers in the world, typified by Aiesha Sharpe and Drew Levinson’s 3rd Annual Spirited Dinner Crawl. Aiesha Sharpe (founder of Contemporary Cocktails Inc. in New York) and Drew Levinson (mixologist at Wirtz Beverage in Las Vegas) buzzed around New Orleans in a bright green Leblon Cachaca van crashing seven of the twenty spirited dinners at Tales and kidnapping diners (along with this journalist) to join them. It’s this kind of spontaneous revelry that defines Tales.

image A rare bartending session with David Wondrich Tales of the Cocktail attracts a lot of luminaries to the event and provides a rare chance to catch a drink and a story. Notable bartenders behind the stick at Tales included: author and cocktail historian David Wondrich; King Cocktail and one of the legendary bartenders at the Rainbow Room in New York, Dale DeGroff; Steve Olson, owner of Aka Wine Geek in New York; Misty Kalkofen, owner of Drink in Boston, Massachusetts; Jason Littrell from Death & Co. in New York; Jim Romdall from Vessel in Seattle; and, Tommy Klus from Kask in Portland. Diageo seized on the opportunity and threw a happy hour party with forty of these mixologists and forty cocktails.

image The liquid equivalent of 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G. You can’t get this many bartenders together with this much ego and not have a competition, and the Bar Room Brawl was the centerpiece of all that bravado, pitting six bars against each other in a winner-take-all-or-at-least-get-us-all-drunk competition. The contenders were: Eastern Standard from Boston, Little Branch in New York, Sable in Chicago, The Roger Room in Los Angeles, and Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon. It was an East Coast/West Coast brawl that was the liquid equivalent of 2Pac vs. The Notorious B.I.G. Teardrop Lounge and The Roger Room tied for fan favorite, and Eastern Standard picked up the judges award (although our cards had Teardrop with a TKO in the last round).

image R.I.P. Long Island Ice Tea Tales of the Cocktail begins with over-the-top parties, and it ends with a funeral. Each year, festival organizers and key bartenders decide which drink’s time has come and gone. This year, it was the get-trashed-in-a-glass Long Island Ice Tea, which was laid to rest, complete with a second line band and a march through the city of New Orleans. The funeral had its own wake in the form of Plymouth Gin’s Bartender’s Breakfast, a closing night party that starts late and goes even later.

Geoffrey Kleinman is the founder and author of Drink Spirits