“Chicago’s not the city of big shoulders, it’s the city of pig shoulders,” said Phil Ponce, television news anchor on Channel 7 and a local celebrity, peering into the new, up-scale Gene’s Deli in north Chicago’s Lincoln Square, at the amazing array of sausages dangling from overhead racks. It was Sunday afternoon and the streets were jammed with strollers enjoying what was once the enclave of Germans and eastern Europeans but now it was a more diverse neighborhood with a new steel archway proudly announcing “Lincoln Square” and dozens of shops and galleries.
Here sustainable urbanism applies to restaurants, since they are one of the city’s great draws. Xoco, a mile north of the Loop, was designed for a chef renowned for his Mexican dishes, a television show, and ecological and social concerns, Rick Bayless. His restaurant was a bright, narrow space with a kitchen in the front window, full of wonderful smells of chiles and slow-cooked meats, packed with people waiting for sumptuous caldos and tortas baked in the wood oven. Electricity costs were kept down by substituting a combination of incandescent and LLD lighting for more efficiency without losing the friendly glow. And the vents over the stoves were specially designed to reduce heat loss, a revolutionary step. “All materials used come from within 500 miles of here. You can’t tell, but it makes me happy.” He added, “People don’t get lectures on environmental ethics, just good food.”
Next door were two other Bayless restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera, an ecologically-concerned Mexican culinary island a mile north of the Loop. Bayless’s offices were upstairs, where he wore a chef’s jacket even when behind his desk. “If we don’t manage our resources better, we’ll run out. Our children will face much harsher realities.” He supported the “locavore” notion of buying food from within that 500-mile radius, including vegetables grown within city limits.
That included those from City Farm, started by social activist Ken Dunn in the impoverished Cabrini-Green neighborhood, part of what Dunn called “addressing the community’s needs,” a concept he wanted to see applied to the whole city. “This was once the poorest tract in the nation,” said Dunn, driving me in his little red Honda to an intensely cultivated truck garden next to a housing development. This formerly abandoned property belonged to the city and was a real, and profitable, horto in urbs. “It will stay this way as long as we can sell hand-grown arugula, Brussels sprouts and rainbow chard to up-scale restaurants.”
For context I decided to visit a couple of Chicago’s old-line eateries not known for their ecological concern. The one favored by pols and sports stars, Gibson Steakhouse, was the prime venue for 10-ounce Martinis and red meat. “Have you seen the show?” asked the waitress, showing me a tray on which are arranged slab of raw protein. I chose the charcoal broiled “W.R. Chicago Cut,” an extra thick rib-eye with bone attached, and it arrived between layers of carcinogens like book covers. But in between was some of the best beef I’d ever tasted, accompanied by a potato the size of a small football, under a blanket of melted Wisconsin cheddar, sort of local, but definitely not lo-cal. Then came a slab of “Texas” pecan pie too large for the saucer. “Don’t worry,” I’m told by a woman sitting nearby, “food hanging over the edges of plates is very Chicago.”
Another hoary stand-by, the Cape Cod Room in the historic Drake Hotel, had low ceilings and lots of nautical art on the walls. It was a favorite port of the good ship Metameucil, judging by all the gray heads hovering over scallops wrapped in bacon, and snapper in papillote. Enough of the old stand-bys, I thought, on to the new, like Avec, west of the Loop, like a boxcar paneled with natural wood and packed with thirty-somethings, shoulder-to-should at community tables, knoshing on the famous medjool dates stuffed with chorozo and wod-oven braised pork shoulder with Prince Edward Island mussels and tripe. I was beginning to realize that eating out in Chicago is a complicated endeavor that transcends politics and ecology, and traditional favorites having their own spin and fierce defenses.
Like the Reuben egg roll from a local vendor in the Richard Daly Civic Center Plaza; the strong, creamy cappuccino from Intelligentsia cafes; crispy fried Lake Erie perch and tempura-like lemon slices in the airy Terzo Piano restaurant at the Art Institute; enchiladas with pork and red chile sauce in Leon in the Latino quarter known as Pilsen, south of the Loop. And sausage in most any guise, most anywhere in the Second City, a name settled on Chicago back in the 1950s, in a New Yorker article by the late A.J. Liebling suggesting that Chicago couldn’t measure up to Manhattan.
Well, Chicago has given the world the car radio, mail-order sales (Montgomery Ward), the television remote, and the Otis elevator that enabled Manhattans, too, to ascend, and… the North Pond Café in Lincoln Park is near the zoo, the Lincoln Park Conservatory, and the relatively new Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The ambitious menu could be perused while overlooking North Pond, and seared fois gras with wild huckleberries and roasted wild wood pigeon happily consumed in the cozy atmosphere of earlier times. This stand-alone structure isn’t just surrounded by parkland, but its interior is also done in natural wood, with a quote on the wall from Thoreau: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
Excerpted from my piece for National Geographic Traveler