I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Chicago and I’m still floating around my apartment missing it. To be honest I only spent one day in Chicago proper; I was in town visiting my cousins one of whom was the victim of a baby shower—congratulations Angela! —and another had just opened a restaurant in the city.
I had a pretty basic list of must do’s for my trip and managed to cross them all off in one day: eat a Chicago style hot dog, eat an Italian beef sandwich, and get a drink and a double cheeseburger at the original Billy Goat Tavern. Like I said, a pretty basic list and, as in everything else I do, I tried to keep the bar pretty low.
You’ll see there is no mention of pizza. Chicagoans should be ashamed for what they’ve done to pizza.
I arrived in the city just before 10am on the train from New York. Yes, I took the train. I love taking the train. In just under 28 hours I ate the four turkey sandwiches I brought, read an entire book, and slept for 23 hours. I arrived rested, happy, and ready to explore.
First stop was Fatso’s Last Stand. I found Fatso’s by typing in hot dog into google maps after I dropped my bags off at my cousin’s restaurant in the Ukranian Village. I’m not sure if they make the best dogs in the city, probably not. But, I at least got the idea what the Chicago hot dog is all about.
I have been converted totally; the Chicago way is the only way to serve a hotdog. All the cold veggies add a nice crunch, and that with the snap of the sausage casing really gives you something to sink your teeth into. I was dubious about the celery salt but I totally get it now, especially with the pickles the salt makes the dog supremely savory, like biting into a can of vegetable soup. Fatso’s, I was surprised to learn, is also famous for their shrimp. I ordered, and ate a whole basket. They were fine. Fried shrimp are great.
Five sandwiches, a basket of fried shrimp, and a hot dog in just over one day with almost no water left me feeling somehow both bloated and desiccated. So, I decided to get the blood flowing by walking to my next destination, The Billy Goat Tavern.
It turns out Chicago is big. Living in Hong Kong really screwed up my sense of scale and I haven’t walked more than a handful of blocks since high school and my only shoes were my slightly too tight cowboy boots, so as you can imagine when I limped through the tavern door an hour and twenty minutes later I was desperate for a drink.
Lucky for me, there may not be any place better to quench your thirst, not Billy Goat Tavern in particular but Chicago overall. If I lived there I might not even get an apartment, just live in bars and I don’t care what you think. In Hong Kong I complained constantly about the state of the bars there and how much I missed no nonsense, concept free, salt-of-the-earth American community bars. Well it turns out bars like those are few and far between in New York too. Not so in Chicago where as far as I can tell there is an inviting, down to earth tavern on pretty much every block of the city.
The Billy Goat Tavern has branded itself “The World Famous Billy Goat Tavern” because the classic Jim Belushi Saturday Night Life skit "Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” was based on the guy who mans the grill there. And yes, he is still there yelling “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” and taking pictures with people in the line. I didn’t really care about that. I was interested in the bar’s history as a journalist hangout. It’s basically directly under the Chicago Tribune Building and everyone who has ever made a name for themselves putting pen to paper in Chicago has gotten drunk there; their bylines paper the wall behind the bar. I enjoyed my beers very much, and lingered looking at all the pictures of newspapermen but it actually was the cheezborger that stole my heart in the end: two wide flat almost-certainly-previously-frozen beef patties, salted, griddled under American cheese, and stacked without ceremony on two toasted butter brushed buns. Next to the grill was a little station with chopped white onion, yellow mustard, and a pot of pickles. Amazing. Really one of my favorite burger experiences ever. How come this is so hard to replicate in other countries?
After the Billy Goat I made the uncharacteristically intelligent choice of cutting myself off. I wanted my full appetite for the dinner at my cousin’s new restaurant. I’m glad I did.
The Cotton Duck is the brainchild of Chef Dominic Zumpano and his partner, my cousin, Cecelia Lanyon. The Cotton Duck is a restaurant art gallery, not restaurant and art gallery mind you. The menu changes four times a year along with the exhibition. The food is designed to compliment the art and diners are encouraged to enjoy both the meal and the art on the walls as part of one holistic experience. Plus, if you get drunk enough/ are rich enough you can leave with a painting. It’s a cool concept and getting a lot of attention in Chicago. There were a few art restaurants in Hong Kong but they weren’t exactly funky: black-suited bodyguards would stand around guarding the art while diners quietly at their wagyu beef, topped with foie gras, topped with caviar, toped with gold leaf. The Cotton Duck is much more laid back and more fun.
Dominic handles the food, while Cecilia (who also runs a gallery in nearby Lake Forest) curates the art. On the night I went the art was a series of paintings of shipwrecks by Illinois artist Renee McGinnis, a ballsy hopefully non-metaphorical move for a restaurant just a few weeks old.
Judging by the food I think they should be able to weather any storm. I was in family mode so didn’t really take any notes or pictures but a few dishes are seared in my culinary memory. Like the crispy fried oysters that started off the meal, topped with fruity tomato jam and vinegar spiked whipped cream.
And the scallops. I almost never order scallops and I'm not sure why, these were candy-sweet under piled salmon roe and nuzzling a half-hidden rice crepe filled with duck confit (duck confit is the only thing about winter I can tolerate). Finally, family bias aside I honestly think the dessert--bomboloni, or Italian donuts, filled with hot burnt caramel and served with fresh parsnip ice cream--was the best I've had all year.
I am of course extremely proud of my cousin for playing a part in such a dynamic restaurant, and I am especially delighted that the Cotton Duck gives me an excuse to visit Chicago more often. This is a city that really gets me. Just not in winter. I will never ever visit in winter. See you in six months Chicago!