Thursday, February 16, 2012

AWP Descends Upon Chicago...Where to Eat?!

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) will be holding its annual conference in Chicago from February 29-March 3.  Imagine 10,000 writers wearing black milling around, morosely trying to impress each other.  It’s fun!  Really, it is!

Next week I’ll repost and update my helpful survival tips for the conference, but now, the important thing is figuring out the food situation.  Chicago is one of my favorite food cities, but I confess that because I went to college in the Chicago suburbs in my ancient life way back, some of my choices are geared toward a certain budget and lifestyle.

No matter:  we can call these “Chicago Classics.”  You’ll have to find the new-fangled, up-to-date, super -trendy sushi place elsewhere.  But here are some of my favorite, not-to-be-missed places that will give you a flavor of Real Chicago.

First, the essentials--

--You must have a hot dog.  No one makes a hot dog better than the good people of Chicago, and I’d say no one on earth cares more deeply about their hot dogs.  Gold Coast Dogs is my downtown favorite, but seriously, any hole-in-the-wall place will be fine as long as there’s a yellow Vienna Beef sign displayed prominently.  And yes, the “astroturf relish” is supposed to be that color.  Don’t be a wimp or a tourist—get everything on your dog:  mustard, onions, relish, tomato, pickle spear, celery salt, sport peppers.  And yes, of course fries.

--You must have pizza.  I’m not here to start a war because people in Chicago feel very strongly about their favorite pizza place.  (And please, don’t expect that skinny New York-style pizza here…the way to go is deep dish or stuffed, unless you have a car and can get yourself out to Chicago’s famous thin-crust places like Home Run Inn.)  My personal favorite for deep dish is Lou Malnati’s.  I would also be happy with Gino’s East, Pizzeria Uno & Pizzeria Due (do NOT even think about the terrible chain restaurant Uno’s Chicago Grill), and Giordano’s (stuffed pizza).  My secret favorite pizza place that I shouldn’t tell you about is Edwardo’s, which serves the best stuffed pizza; get the spinach.  There’s a small branch in the Rush Street area.  Don’t clog it up talking about sonnets on the night I go there, please.

--You must at least think about having an Italian beef.  I love the sloppy-slurpy-mess-of-a-sandwich that’s a good Italian beef, but I admit that I’m often vexed by the Italian beef because it is not a dish that can be “squeezed in” the way a pizza or hot dog can.  It’s a hugely filling extravangza, not necessarily in size alone, but in grease quotient and density(I mean this in a loving way).  Think “French bread” filled with sliced roast beef, dunked into “gravy” until it’s sopping wet, with your choice of sweet or hot peppers (get both) strewn on top.  You have to hunch over until your forehead’s almost touching the counter to eat this thing, and I don’t advise going for a beef with a new love interest, unless this is a very special person.  Anyway, if I haven’t terrified you, go to Al’s Beef.  And if you really want to impress me, get the combo, which is the beef sandwich I’ve just described with an Italian sausage tucked in there.

--If you’re my husband, you must go to the Billy Goat Tavern.  I don’t know why he loves this dark, dingy, touristy place under Michigan Avenue.  It’s certainly a sight to see, with the photos and tattered newspaper clippings on the wall; it’s famous from way-back-when John Belushi/Bill Murray sketches in “Saturday Night Live.”  Anyway, get the cheeseburger and an Old Style beer—“no fries!  Chips!”—and go during an off-hour and sit at the bar.  Say hi to Steve when you’re there.

And here are some places to think about once you have those essentials out of the way:

--I shouldn’t tell you about this place because I plan to spend a fair amount of time here, and it’s convenient to the Palmer House.  Miller’s Pub is a great place for the kind of drink that doesn’t rely on infused anything.  It’s also a great place for lake perch.  I’m not giving you the website for this one…if you want to go here, you’ll have to work for it.

--Chicago is a city of hearty appetites.  The Berghoff is a German restaurant where you can get your sausage fix.  It’s been open forever, then closed, then reopened, but the food is still good.  Nice bar, excellent German beer.  I think there’s a lunch buffet—afterwards, you can waddle back to the Hilton and take a nap during your former professor’s dull panel you promised to go to.

--If you’re going to splurge, you’ll want to splurge on a steak (sorry vegetarians…if any of you are still with me here; I think the only vegetables I’ve mentioned thus far have been French fries and peppers as relish).  I recommend this place only to the hardy:  Gene & Georgetti.  Totally old-time, with cigar smoke embedded in the paneling, curt service for non-regulars, high prices.  And yet!  Where can you find a place like this anymore?  The way to go is to have a reservation (a must!!) for 9:00 or later and finagle your way into eating at the bar or in the front room.  They’ll try to stick you in the back; insist that you want the front room and that you’re willing to wait.  They’ll be impressed though they won’t show it, and they might be slightly nicer to you.  Order a GIN—!!—martini and enjoy the, um, interesting clientele in the front room.

--Special occasion?  In recent years we’ve been to Henri on Michigan Avenue, with its elegant and smart cooking, and Tru, which had amazing service, a beautiful setting, and fabulous wine pairings.  Lots of $$ but both of these are so worth it.

--Lou Mitchell’s is the place for breakfast:  yes, their crazy coffee really is that good.  Get an omelet, and don’t forget the homemade orange marmalade for your toast.

--One trendy-ish place that I like is The Purple Pig.  It’s crowded and noisy and cramped and things add up fast pricewise, but the food—small plates—is otherworldly.  Lots of excellent meat, but I suppose you might find a vegetable or two here.

--Here’s another one I hate to recommend because I like to keep it to myself:  Russian Tea Time.  Vodka flights and dumplings.  Aren’t those the most beautiful words in the English language?  The infused vodkas are good, but try the one from Poland with bison grass.  Support my people!

--I only mention the Italian Village because it’s been around forever and is classic in its own horrid way.  When I was setting up a dinner date with some friends, this place was mentioned as a possible meeting place, and I related my sad story of having gone there in college in a group of giggling freshman; we were treated so rudely that we left a 52 cent tip and vowed never to go back.  Two of the three other women had made similar vows never to return after the nasty service their groups received.  And yet the place is still in business.  Anyway, it’s not too far from the hotel, so if you stumble into it, be forewarned.

--If you want real Italian food and you don’t mind traveling, definitely head over to La Scarola.  Order yourself the appetizer portion of sausage and peppers.  It’s petite, only about four whole sausages and half a dozen peppers, so you’ll probably need more food almost immediately.

--Buy yourself and/or your loved one a box of Fannie May chocolates on the way home, and you’re set for a great road warrior’s welcome…just remember to save your “fat pants” for the last day.

--Good Lord, how could I almost forget Garrett Popcorn?  What the heck is wrong with me?! Better than any caramel corn you’ve ever had…get the Chicago Mix:  half cheese corn, half caramel corn.  Sounds weird, but it’s truly an inspired combination.  And the beauty of this treat is that it’s best eaten immediately, so you won’t feel awful about not having any left for your roommate back at the hotel.

--After reading this, Steve has now insisted that I must include the Original Pancake House, even though it’s not all that close to the hotels.  But it’s worth the trip up to the Gold Coast if you love a homey, diner-style setting and PANCAKES!  Some of the best I’ve ever had.  Chocolate chip are always tempting, but even a basic stack will make you feel warm and cozy.  And they’re famous for their apple pancake which might as well be called a dessert.  Depending on the day/time, you might have to wait in line and then practically sit on a stranger’s lap.  No worries—everyone is cheerful around these pancakes!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.