Best Dessert: Jeni’s Ice Cream
What to Get: Pineapple Upside Down Cake
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Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner (at some locations)
Neighborhood: River North, West Loop, The Loop
Address: 540 N Wells, Chicago, Illinois 60654
Phone Number: (312) 517-1850
Price Range: $8-17
Our Rating: 3 out of 5
What We Tried: Vegetable Omelet, Vegan Salsa Stacker
Our Take: The best way that I can describe the vibe at Meli Cafe is that it is like a Coney Island restaurant, which is unfortunate, because if you aren’t from Michigan, you probably have no clue what a Coney Island restaurant is. Well anyway, similarly to Coney Islands, Meli Cafe is a Greek restaurant. Also similarly to Coney Islands, Meli Cafe isn’t really sure what it wants to be (Coneys are known for Greek food, breakfast food, and chili dogs. Just sayin.). Coney somehow nails the whole seemingly random collection. Meli, on the other hand, could use some direction. Trying to make crazy outlandish dessert-like pancakes, Greek fare, tofu scramblers, Cajun food, and seafood all while using farm-fresh ingredients may have been just a little too much for their kitchen to handle.
To be fair, my choice of meal probably has something to do with my less-than-stellar impression. I thought I’d go out on a limb and order something unique as a true test of Meli Cafe’s cooking chops, so I asked for the Vegan Salsa Stacker. Unfortunately, I’m an idiot and forgot that eggs aren’t vegan, so I was a little disappointed when they weren’t included in my stack. The salsa verde was incredibly fresh (and spicy – be warned!), but the rest of the dish was kind of… meh. The tofu could’ve used a little TLC (because let’s be real, tofu always needs TLC), and given the watery nature of the ingredients, the english muffin got pretty soggy.
My mom’s Vegetable Omelet, however, was spectacular. While many veggie omelets end up a watery mess, this one was perfectly fluffy and chock full of vegetables. The mozz added a surprisingly delicious twist – I really didn’t think I wanted it there until I tried it.
My mom also said that her coffee was out-of-this-world and worth a trip alone, so she was evidently making all of the right choices at this spot.
I have to say, if I stumbled upon this place in my small hometown in Southeast Michigan, I would most probably make a return visit, but given the wealth of eclectic, inventive, and out-of-this-world brunch spots in Chicago, I probably won’t be back any time soon.
Summer House Santa Monica
Brunch (Sat, Sun), Lunch (Thurs, Fri), Dinner
Neighborhood: Lincoln Park
Address: 1954 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL 60614
Phone: (773) 634-4100
Price Range: $15-30
Our Rating: 4 out of 5
What We Tried: Fresh Burrata, Hot Mess of Fries, Spicy Calamari, Caramelized Butternut Squash, Caramelized Brussel Sprouts, Maine Lobster Orecchiette, Grilled Atlantic Salmon, Wild Mushroom Enchilada Stack, Grilled Chicken Tacos, Pork Shank (a special), S’mores Cookie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookie with Brown Butter Ice Cream, Caramelized Pan Perdu
Our Take: I think we can all agree that winter in Chicago can get pretty brutal. Luckily, Summer House Santa Monica is here for us. The restaurant takes us to the sunny beaches of Santa Monica with its sky lights, life guard chair bar stools, white walls, and pockets of greenery around the restaurant. Summer House gives off an open-air vibe without opening a single window (because even though it doesn’t feel like it, we are still in Chicago). While themed restaurants run a high risk of feeling tacky and contrived, Summerhouse keeps things subtle and genuine.
Our wait was longer than expected (okay with us because it gave us time to stop at the Marquee Lounge for drinks), but the host staff felt terrible and offered us complimentary appetizers and a round of drinks as an apology. Totally unnecessary but definitely a way to win us over right off the bat, especially if you make drinks like the Acai Basil Smash (originally a “zero-proof cocktail” but best with the addition of vodka or rum, in my humble opinion).
We started with the fresh burrata, the spicy calamari, and the “hot mess of fries” because who can turn down al pastor, pico de gallo, queso fresco, and a sunny side up egg all piled on a stack of fried potatoes? Not these kids (and one mom), and we would recommend that you don’t either. I’m not typically a seafood girl (or a spicy girl for that matter), but the calamari was also stellar.
Being the sharers that we are, everyone tried a little of everything and unanimously decided that the Pork Shank with Roasted Fennel and the Maine Lobster Orecchiette were the winners of the entree category. The extremely tender and oh-so-succulent pork fell right off the bone (and was promptly devoured). I’d say it even rivaled the pork shank at Girl & the Goat, which is saying a lot. The pasta was just as rich, and the lobster was incorporated generously.
My friends, mom, and I will likely never settle the debate over what was better: the Sea Salt Chocolate Chip cookie or the Caramelized Pan Perdu with roasted local apples, cinnamon custard, and brown butter ice cream. The Pan Perdu was my personal favorite (think a giant piece of French Toast) with its crisp, caramelized exterior and soft, pillowy interior that somehow evaded the sogginess trap. Even my mom, who usually doesn’t bother with dessert unless it involves chocolate, was infatuated. The cookies are a house specialty, though, and worth a trip in their own right. Carolyn and I have considered Ubering all the way up to Lincoln Park just to grab one (or five), if that tells you anything.
As fantastic as Summerhouse was for dinner, I’ve heard their brunch is just off the charts. We’ll surely be back for that, ya know, for the blog (#ftb).
Note: I’ve heard that if you check in on Yelp, you get a free cookie a la mode. Just sayin.
Market, Lunch, Dinner
Neighborhood: The Loop
Address: Daley Plaza between Dearborn, Washington, and Clark
Price Range: Pure, Unadulterated Joy is FREE!!!
Our Rating: 4.4 out of 5
What We Tried: Bratwurst, Cinnamon Roasted Almonds, Gluwhein
Our Take: Christmas Spirit is the Christkindlmarket. The Christkindlmarket is Christmas Spirit. Seriously, if I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought that Buddy the Elf commissioned this thing. Recommended to me by a native Chicagoan friend, the Christkindlmarket has been a tradition for his family and many others since its inception in 1996. Each year, the Christmas Market is put on by the German American Chamber of Commerce and pays homage to the traditional Christkindlesmarkt held in Nuremberg, Germany. Vendors from all over the world come to bring you hand-crafted goods, traditional German food, and lots of holiday cheer.
I met my friend Molly at the market after work, and we couldn’t stop smiling. Our first stop was the gluwhein stall because gluwhein is German mulled wine so, obviously. The wine itself was delightful and surprisingly smooth, but the real winner was the decorative ceramic mug that the wine came in because GUESS WHAT?! You get to take it home!! Hot chocolate is also available for the kiddos and wine-averse in the same adorable mug.
While we were stationed by the food stalls, Molly grabbed a brat. This is when I found that Germany and Chicago have yet another thing in common, both prefer their encased meats SANS ketchup. That’s right, German mustard all the way here folks! (Traditionally, Germans also go heavy on the sauerkraut, but we’ll give you some wiggle room on that one). Other traditional food options include strudel (sweet and savory (either is dinner-acceptable)), crepes, döner, pretzels, schnitzel, potato pancakes, and much more.
While many of the craft goods, some from nations as far-reaching as Nepal, Switzerland, and Peru, are quite pricey, you really can’t put a price on authenticity. Okay, maybe you can, but in that case, just look around and admire the handiwork. The market hosts some truly incredible artists!
Finally, be sure to stop by the sweet shop and listen to the carolers sing (in German)! Don’t wait in the dastardly line to snag your candied nuts, though; there is an even bigger and much less crowded nut stall near the corner of Washington and Dearborn.
If at all possible, I’d highly suggest spicing things up and bringing out the Christmas joy on a weekday. My mom and I tried to stop in on a Saturday and were so packed in I felt like one of the encased meats mentioned above.
The Christkindlmarket only lasts for 4 weeks each year, so make sure to get there before Christmas! You will probably walk away with a hand-carved cuckoo clock, glass blown ornaments for everyone you know (and their mother), and twenty pounds of cinnamon roasted almonds, but you won’t care a smidge because you will be in an incredibly holly, jolly mood.
Frohe Weihnachten to all, and to all a good night!
Maxwell’s at the Club
Neighborhood: River North
Address: 1500 N Kingsbury St., Chicago, IL 60654
Phone Number: (312) 527-5800
Price Range: $20-45
Our Rating: 3.8 out of 5
Our Take: Sometimes, choosing a restaurant in Chicago feels a little bit like having a closet full of nothing to wear. A place is too crowded, too fancy, too casual, the menu is too big, too small, too standard or too experimental, they either don’t accept reservations, or you needed to make a reservation six weeks ago. Where we live in River North, there are very few restaurants in the immediate vicinity, and we usually end up walking a mile or more to dinner. It’s not that we mind the exercise — especially when it is warm, we will walk around the city for hours — we just have to put more effort into researching a destination. Until recently, we had yet to find a go-to restaurant in the area.
Enter Maxwell’s. Maxwell’s at the Club is the ‘sophisticated yet casual’ restaurant inside the East Bank Club. Though the East Bank Club is members-only, Maxwell’s is open to anyone. We had no problem making a reservation for 6:30 pm on a Friday, when the restaurant was filled with families, groups of girlfriends, and couples enjoying the Italian buffet.
We were tempted by the buffet (make your own pasta station, several types of salads, whole cloves of roasted garlic, gelato bar), but decided to order off the regular menu to “get the full experience.”
Feeling fancy, we began with a few of the signature cocktails. The coconut snowball had a small scoop of vanilla ice cream in it that was rolled in toasted coconut…any girl’s dream, right? As a bonus, our wonderful waitress filled our martini glasses table side, and left us with the carafe so that we could keep on going through appetizers. It was like the adult-version of getting a milkshake at Red Robin. Which is not a bad thing.
The Grilled Shrimp was the clear winner of the appetizer course. The shrimp were juicy and flavorful, and the roasted oyster mushrooms and leeks added a delightful woody flavor to the dish. The grilled artichoke was cooked perfectly, but could have benefited from some aioli or a little seasoning. The Wild Mushroom Soup was good, but nothing to write home about.
Ordering the Turkey Breast Medallions was a leap of faith. There is a reason you don’t see this dish often: Anyone who has ever cooked a Thanksgiving turkey can tell you that keeping this bird from drying out is a challenge, especially in medallion form. While juiciness wasn’t the dish’s star quality, the blackberry sauce really saved it. The roasted sweet potatoes, though, were perfectly cooked and deliciously seasoned.
The Kingsbury was definitely the superior of the two salads – think Cobb salad but more inventive. Adding the seared ahi made the salad more substantial, and the portion was generous. The Asian Soba Noodle Salad was pleasant as well, but pretty run of the mill, and rather small.
Maxwell’s boasts an impressive dessert menu, and we really loved that they offer mini desserts for those nights when we’re feeling closer to “go home” than “go big.” On this particular night, though, we were going big. As was kindly suggested to us by the manager, Charles, bananas foster is Maxwell’s best dessert. The bananas and caramel are served warm in a gravy boat, so that you can let your ice cream achieve your exact desired meltiness before diving in.
Maxwell’s has live music almost every night of the week, too—when we went, a jazz band was playing Christmas music. The band was incredibly talented, and added the perfect ambience to our meal. With its country club vibe, Maxwell’s is the perfect place for a casual-yet-classy meal with the family on a weeknight, or girlfriend’s on a Saturday. We will be back!
Little Goat Diner
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Price Range: $9-15
Our Rating: 4.8 out of 5
What We Tried: Spanish Omelette, Kimchee & Bacon & Eggs & Pancake Asian Style Tasty Thing, Fat Elvis Waffle, Parathas Burrito, Corned Beef Hash and Eggs, Fall Harvest Chicken Salad
Our Take: I don’t think I could say a negative word about the Girl & the Goat franchise if I tried. You could maybe bribe me with a cranberry pepita scone or a Grumy Goat Golden Raisin Bagel, but, still—it would be hard.
Another brainchild of Stephanie Izard (first female champion of Top Chef and James Beard award winner), Little Goat Diner opened two years after its sister restaurant across the street, Girl & the Goat. It’s a little (goat) more casual, a little easier to get in, but just as innovative.
On a sunny Saturday outing with my favorite brunching betches, I tried the Parathas Burrito, a flavorful combination of sunny-side eggs and a spicy chili sauce, served on India flatbread with a cooling avocado relish.
Just for fun, a few of us ordered the house bloody mary, which, according to my friends who are bloody mary experts, (are we too young to be bloody mary experts?), was “kickass.” I don’t remember the last time I ordered a bloody mary, but I remembered I didn’t like it. At Little Goat, though, I loved it. And the rest of my Saturday was extremely productive, too!
While my brother was visiting over Thanksgiving weekend, we went back to Little Goat for lunch. Feeling the post-Thanksgiving food baby, I got the salad. But hey, it was awesome! Grilled chicken, butternut squash, kale, ginger maple dressing, all of my favorite things, etc.
Andrew went with the Fat Elvis Waffle, an absolute masterpiece composed of two waffles, topped with maple-bacon syrup, peanut butter sauce, and sliced bananas. Now, this is the kid who polished off four slices of stuffed sausage pizza in one sitting and then ran a ‘casual’ 6:55 pace 8k the next day, but even Andrew couldn’t finish the Fat Elvis. It’s the kind of dish that’s better if someone else at the table orders it…you can appreciate the few bites you sneak off their plate, but not have to worry about too much of a good thing, ya know?