The Cubs are in the World Series!! That’s crazy! It’s amazing! I’m not even a sports fan, but I am so happy for them! Yey Cubbies!
It’s been more than two years since I left Chicago for the 2nd time. And you know…I feel bad about this but I don’t really miss it. Then again, you can’t make yourself feel something you don’t feel so I shouldn’t feel bad about this but I still do. People ask me all the time “Don’t you miss Chicago?” And I have to think about it for a bit because I know my answer won’t really make them happy. It’s not that I dislike Chicago or anything — I just feel pretty neutral about it. Let’s just say…it’s a nice place to visit.
To be fair, I am not a native Chicagoan or Midwesterner. I was born in Queens and raised in Long Island, New York. I moved to Chicago after university because I got a job in Chicago and well, I kinda like change and I figured “Hey, why not.” But during my first visit to the Windy City, I was so used to Manhattan that my immediate reaction was something like “Uh, is this it? It’s just one street. Where’s the rest of the city?”
But well, I did live in Chicago for 12 years in total — eight years the first time and four years the second time — so I must have had a nice time there. There are a few things I still think about now and then. In an effort to placate, here is what I do miss…in no particular order…
Cheap manicures and pedicures: Ah, how I miss you. $35 for the set, if I was lucky. Although I have found at least one new favorite place in London — Modern Touch Nails in Islington — Chicago made it just so very easy to be well-groomed.
The Pittsfield: I love, love, love this old diner off Michigan Avenue in the The Loop. I love the servers, I love the menu. I love the brass elevators as you enter the building and the gorgeous wood ceilings. I love the chopped salad too. (Second favorite diner? Beef and Brandy on Michigan. I love an old school place.)
The Blues: If I can thank Chicago for something, it’s for my love of the blues. WXRT has a Monday night Blues program at 9 pm that I used to listen to on my way home from The Gleacher Center at the University of Chicago. Always the greatest. I love Memphis Slim the best.
The WGN TV Morning Show: These guys still crack me up. Sometimes, they even get a little international attention. I mean, if you want to see a group of people who really seem to love their jobs, it’s these guys. British morning television just doesn’t compare.
The Tamale Guys: Sometimes it’s 2 a.m. and you’re in a bar somewhere and you think to yourself, “Boy am I hungry” and then all of a sudden, there’s a guy there with a cooler full of tamales. So that’s amazing.
Tacos: I was so grateful for London Mexican food when it arrived here way back when. But a few years back in Chicago made it clear: London Mexican food is shit. (This is a sweeping generalization but it’s mostly true.) I do not like steamed tortillas.
Whole Foods: OK, not very exciting but the Whole Foods salad bar downtown fed me pretty much every night once I moved downtown. Love that place. I was just in the Whole Foods Piccadilly Circus the other day for the first time and I honestly felt like I was back at the Whole Foods on Huron. I just need to get to Piccadilly more often.
Red Rooster #1: I must have walked by this place in Ukrainian Village 50 times before I finally figured out it was a shop and went in. I love this store. I want to move in. The cabinet work alone is worth a visit.
Zombie Dust: The unicorn of beers. I love you, Zombie Dust. Robust, spicy, hoppy perfection.
As always, I’m sure there are other things I will remember that I miss in the days and weeks and months after this post goes up. I miss my friends in Chicago most of all, of course. xoxo
I mentioned in my post the other day that my cousin got married in Manhattan back in June, which gave me an excuse to hang out in New York for a few days. But honestly, when does anyone ever need an excuse to hang out in New York? London, New York, Hong Kong…best cities in the world in my opinion and cities I never need an excuse to visit. Here’s where I ate and drank when I was in New York.
The National Bar & Dining Rooms: When my brother dropped me off at The Benjamin, I still hadn’t had lunch yet so after checking in, I headed straight to the hotel restaurant. It was totally packed with movers and shakers and I was ignored there for a while. I ordered a chicken caesar salad which arrived as a sliced chicken breast and some lettuce and a tiny dollop of dressing. Errr…the bare minimum. I ate it and paid like a gazillion dollars for it and swore to never return. The Verdict: Pass.
Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecote: I knew we’d be able to have a quick lunch at Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecote in Midtown, which would let me get back to the hotel with enough time to get ready for the wedding. If you’re not familiar with the restaurant’s concept, it’s pretty much all you can eat steak and frites and green salad. The restaurant was practically empty when we arrived and still half empty when we left. We managed to demolish a lot of steak and a lot of frites and a surprisingly copious amount of green salad. Service was polite, efficient and surprisingly French throughout. This was a definite crowd pleaser. The Verdict: I like it.
Jue Lan Club: In the mood for Asian food the morning after the wedding — and in an attempt to relive our youth — we dropped into Jue Lan Club, located within the old Limelight. (I really can’t believe The Limelight is now a gym, a set of boutique shops, and a Chinese restaurant.) Service was oddly elderly Italian and it was all you can drink Bellinis. (Or maybe it was just two Bellinis. That’s what I had. Two Bellinis.) The food was nothing to write home about, and the atmosphere was oddly quiet and oddly odd. We should have gone to Chinatown. The Verdict: Pass.
Cosme: You know how after you spend a lot of time with friends and family, you really need an escape? Well Cosme was mine. I booked a table for one here seriously within a month I think of seeing the new season of Netflix Chef’s Table, featuring chef Enrique Olvera and his restaurant in Mexico City, Pujol. I liked Cosme, but the service was just so darn fast, I was done with my meal in about 45 minutes. (My server was tremendously sweet, to be fair.) It’s a very large space — cavernous — and the tables are spread out, which is nice. The Verdict: Good but not as good as Pujol. Plus, too fast for me.
I spent a few nights with my brother in Astoria and understood immediately why he liked it so much there. Lots of cool restaurants and bars and a great neighborhood vibe. The area is rapidly gentrifying though…highrises taking the place of old bungalows. I had to work a lot while I was at my brother’s, so I relied on him to bring me food: New York pizza, bagel sandwiches, and the occasional empanada, but here are a few places I tried while I was in the hood.
The Sparrow Tavern: I REALLY liked The Sparrow. It was pretty expensive for what it was…I think lunch for two was $50…but the old school meets new school vibe was great, our server was great, and my pulled pork sandwich was surprisingly tasty. Also…the pickles were excellent. This experience was probably helped by the fact that my brother apparently eats here a lot. The Verdict: Go if you are in the ‘hood.
Mosaic: Much like I had my getaway moment at Cosme, I also had my getaway moment at Mosaic, a wine bar down the street from my brother’s. Yes, I went to a bar by myself while I was in Astoria. But my brother had a late work call so it was just me and the dog hanging out. Rather than just sit around and watch TV, I checked Foursquare for places to go in the ‘hood and they directed me here. I liked Mosaic, although I liked the drunk people sitting next to me less. Also, they need to check their margins on the roast nuts they’re selling. I can’t believe how large my portion was for the price. The Verdict: It’s okay. Better with friends probably.
I’m probably missing more than a few bagel places on this list, and then there’s also the bar at The Waldorf Astoria, which my cousin Jen and I hit up late one night — best line of the trip: “What do you mean you’re closing in ten minutes? I thought this was the city that never sleeps!!??”
My cousin — who will forever be eight in my mind — got married in New York in June. It was a great excuse to spend some time in Manhattan — this would be a real New York wedding, attended by all New Yorkers, smack dab in the middle of the city.
Because I wasn’t quite sure what would all be involved in the wedding, I wanted to stay close to the venue, a catering hall and steakhouse across the street from the Waldorf Astoria. I also knew that because I would be in New York for over a week, I didn’t want to break the bank. New York has a way of adding up — especially after all the eating and drinking — so I was already planning on staying with my brother in Astoria for a few nights. After a bunch of comparison shopping, I settled on The Benjamin on 50th and Lexington, just a two block walk from where the wedding would take place.
Thanks to all those years in financial services, when I give myself a budget, I stick with it! I used some Expedia points that I’ve had hanging around for a while and got my two night-stay down from $584.60 to $506.94 or $253.47 a night. If you don’t know about Expedia points, you can essentially earn up to 2 Expedia Rewards Point per $1 spent on flights, hotels, activities, and packages that include a hotel. Then you can redeem those points for flights and hotels on Expedia. The great thing is that you can still totally “double dip” and still earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points on your stays too. (Note that I use my points through my US Expedia account. I believe the UK program is different and involves Nectar points but don’t quote me.)
My brother dropped me off at the hotel and the staff couldn’t have been lovelier. Check-in was efficient and friendly. The hotel lobby is super small and not a place to linger so I quickly headed up to my room.
The room had a microwave, which I thought was a great touch, and one of the most fully-stocked minibars I’ve ever seen. Later in the day, I popped out to Duane Reade — who doesn’t love an American pharmacy — for microwave popcorn (pun fully intended) so I could have a little snack after the wedding festivities. For some reason, I spend a lot of time in Duane Reades when I am in New York. Standard shopping list: Secret deodorant; Gillette razor blades (they are much cheaper in the US); People and US magazines, maybe InStyle too; Twizzlers; big fat tubes of Colgate toothpaste; Ziploc bags in all sizes (!!!); Pond’s Cold Cream (Super cheap and I love it); Noxema (again, super cheap but I love it); Tylenol PM (jet lag cure); tortillas (I’m serious); and maybe, just maybe if I feel like risking glass jars in my suitcase, a few jars of Pace Picante Sauce — yum.
The Verdict: The hotel restaurant at The Benjamin as nothing to write home about — my ceasar salad was distinctly unmemorable — and the hotel’s elevators were tiled like showers, which was a little odd. But the bell staff were some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and the wifi was free and plentiful. All in all, The Benjamin is a sweet little hotel in a convenient location. I recommend it.
The other week, I had to go to Austin, Texas for work. Because it was my birthday and a friend of mine was in town from Chicago for the weekend, I booked two hotels: a fun hotel to kick things off, and then the work hotel because I had to.
It’s hard not to have expectations when you check into a hotel. Let’s play a game. If I I say “brand new Kimpton hotel,” what do you think? It’s not hard. You think “brand new” and “Kimpton” (they of the free cocktail parties every evening at 5 pm as well as the leopard print robes). You probably get a teeny bit excited.
Now if I say “AT&T Executive Education Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin,” don’t you just want to yawn and change the channel? Who wants to stay at an Executive Education Center? BORING.
But as your parents probably told you growing up, never ever ever judge a book by its cover. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t stay at the Hotel Van Zandt, the brand new Kimpton in Austin, Texas. While the place was Instagram-worthy, the staff were poorly trained and a bit all over the place — from the bellboy to room service to the front desk. My stay was hard work, which is the last thing you want when you are traveling. Compare that to the AT&T Executive Education Center and, well, there is no comparison.
Things started off well at the Hotel Van Zandt. I arrived just when the happy hour was in full swing, and was quickly offered a glass of wine to take up to my room. Great! But then the bell boy did that thing that hotels are not supposed to do. He asked me for my room number. I know the drill in hotels…staff are never supposed to say your room number out loud. So I showed him my hotel room key, and then he proceed to loudly announce my room number for anyone in the vicinity of the hotel lifts to hear. As a female traveling alone, this just didn’t jive with me. Training, people. Training.
Contrast this with my check-in at the AT&T Executive Education Center. Bellhop Larry asked to see my room key folder. I showed it to him, he nodded. That was all. I said something like “Larry, thank you for not announcing my room number for any and all to hear” and Larry quickly responded, “Oh no, we’re never supposed to do that. That’s the first law of working as a bellhop.”
Some of you might be shaking your heads and asking me why I am making such a big deal about this. It comes down to price. I paid a lot more for the Hotel Van Zandt than the AT&T Center, and at that Kimpton-level, I expect certain behaviors. I’ve also staying in quite a few Kimptons over the years. And well, it wasn’t just this one incident in Austin. It was a string of incidents.
Moving on…the hotel restaurant. At Hotel Van Zandt, I had to wave my arms around to get my server’s attention and then my food took forever to arrive and be removed afterwards. At The AT&T Executive Education Center, it was like I was the restaurant’s only patron. I was graciously tended to and treated like an old friend.
Lastly…check-out. At the AT&T Executive Education Center, they seemed genuinely sad to see me go, they helped me with my luggage, and patiently waited for me as I changed for my flight. At the Hotel Van Zandt, I kinda got in a fight with the check-out desk! My room service bill the night before had been incorrect, and room service promised me “Don’t worry, it will all be taken care of when you check out.” I’m always wary of these sorts of promises, and of course it wasn’t taken care of when I checked out. The check-out person had a little attitude about my request that the item be removed — we’re talking like $18 here people — and told me they would need to “investigate” and that the finance team was all “in a meeting.” I totally understand that they needed to confirm it, but it was all in the delivery. Then, I had to keep spelling my surname and the check-out person totally wasn’t listening and kept getting it wrong, to which I would say politely, “No please, slow down. Let me spell it again.” And we ended up in a vicious cycle of me spelling, the check-out person misspelling, me asking them to slow down, them insisting they “had it,” grrrrr.
So in this case, service broke my experience with the Hotel Van Zandt. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and no desire to return. But the AT&T Executive Education Center? I will gladly return anytime!
Has a hotel service experience ever ruined your stay at an otherwise wonderful property? Please tell me I’m not alone!
I flew to Austin the other week for a quick work trip. Did you know that British Airways flies direct from London to Austin? That made my life significantly easier, let me tell you. Also easier…I was upgraded to business class at the gate, which was especially awesome because I was flying on my birthday!! (Long ago, I vowed never to do anything for work on my birthday. It is a sign of the times that I have not been able to hold myself to this vow in 2015 or in 2016.)
The weather in Austin was particularly weird while I was there. Blazing hot on Day 1, cloudy and cool on the next day, and then warm and then hot again for the rest of my visit. And while I was primarily there for work, the beauty of a work conference is work dinners! So while I didn’t hit the Salt Lick or any of the other famous barbecue places — not enough time — here’s where I ate while I was in town:
Jacoby’s. Image borrowed from Jacoby’s Instagram feed.
Jacoby’s Restaurant: This peaceful little general mercantile-like restaurant has a lovely outdoor area on the river. We enjoyed heaping platters of particularly good brisket while we were eaten alive by mosquitos the size of, well, Texas. (This was my first trip back to the US since December and let me tell you…Zika fears are at a high.) Loaded with atmosphere and with a sweet little gift shop attached, this is a pretty little slice of Texas. Visit their website.
Yellow Jacket Social Club. Image borrowed from GirlsonFood.net
Yellow Jacket Social Club: In a sign that the world is more connected than ever before, I got off my flight at Austin airport, picked up my luggage, walked through the customs doors, and an old London friend saw me! Her sister-in-law was on the same flight. A few days later, Steffi and Stuart picked me up from Jacoby’s and took me to the supremely atmospheric Yellow Jacket Social Club, were we sat outside under the trees and solved all the world’s technology problems. Visit their website.
El Naranjo. Image borrowed from El Naranjo’s Facebook page
El Naranjo: Within one hour of arriving at my hotel, I was at El Naranjo to meet my friend Amy, who just happened to be in town that weekend for a wedding. We stuffed our faces with nachos and delicious tacos and then I passed out with jet lag. The end. Note: The servers here are really friendly and nice. Visit their website.
La Condesa. Image borrowed from Starchefs.com
La Condesa: While El Naranjo offered a more traditional, homey version of Mexican food, La Condesa was all hot, hip, modern and buzzy. A bit more of the west coast of Mexico perhaps because at La Condesa, it’s all about the ceviche. A few of my colleagues had never had ceviche before, if you can image that. No worries, that just meant more for me! The staff here were a little too busy for their own good — and ours — but it was an enjoyable meal nonetheless. Good if you need a scene. Visit their website.
The pool deck outside Geraldine’s. Image borrowed from Hotel Van Zandt. We sat in the first row of pool deck chairs.
Geraldine’s: OK, somewhat cheating. I was staying at the Hotel Van Zandt for my birthday and Geraldine’s is the restaurant in the hotel. I met up with my friend Amy to hang by the pool and read trashy magazines. And have brunch! Some short rib, some poached eggs. Done. The restaurant at the Hotel Van Zandt was always buzzing during my stay — popular with both hotel guests and locals. Definitely a destination. There was also live music on Sunday while we relaxed by the pool, which was great. Visit their website.
Gabriel’s Cafe at the AT&T Executive Education Center
Gabriel’s Cafe: This was the surprise of my stay. For the last few nights of my visit, I moved into the AT&T Executive Education Center for my work conference. I was starving when I checked in, so I dropped into Gabriel’s Cafe. My server heartily recommended the smoked brisket sandwich with homemade potato chips so that’s what I had and it was really, truly melt-in-the-mouth amazing. This is a pretty soulless hotel restaurant really, but whoever is in the kitchen knows what they are doing. I liked it so much, I went back on my last day before my flight. Visit their website.
Not enough time for all that I wanted to do, as always. It was a super quick trip, so being in a jetlagged fog for the first two days didn’t help either. Austin is a fun city, and the fact that you can get there directly from London is a huge bonus. Go visit! Have some brisket for me.
Florida is a destination full of sun, fun and rum, but Orlando is where the state gets truly magical. If you’re looking for a place where you can find everything from alligators to acrobats, it’s definitely the city for you! Here are just a few stops you should make during your trip to Orlando.
1. La Nouba
Home to the Cirque du Soleil show, La Nouba will offer you an unforgettable night filled with lights, music, gymnastics and gravity-defying stunts. There’s nothing else on Earth quite like a Cirque du Soleil show.
Home to literally thousands of species of aquatic life, SeaWorld is perhaps most famous for its whale shows, but it also has everything from sharks to dolphins. It’s a great place for your kids to get a little education with their entertainment!
3. Orlando International Premium Outlets
Shop ’til you drop at Orlando International Premium Outlets. If your money is burning a hole in your pocket, this is the perfect place to load up on souvenirs for your trip home. Just make sure you have enough room in your bags for all of them!
4. Wakoola Springs
Wakoola Springs is one of the biggest water parks in Florida, housing all kinds of pools, slides and hot tubs across a staggering 75,000 square feet. Many luxury resorts are located nearby, as well. You’ll never be far from a bed in any direction!
5. Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate this gorgeous, spiritual shrine. It’s a wonderful piece of architecture and an even greater place to get away from the bustle of the city, so stop by when you need a break from all the chaos of your vacation.
6. Discovery Cove
If you’ve ever wanted to swim with dolphins, this is your chance. Just be prepared for colorful fish, coral, seals and sting rays to also join the party! When you go diving in Discovery Cove, there’s no telling what marine life will want to say hello.
7. Walt Disney World
You didn’t think there would be a list of famous Orlando attractions without Disney World, right? One of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, Disney World offers light-hearted fun for the whole family. It doesn’t matter how old you are as long as you’re still young at heart.
Like the name implies, Gatorland is full of alligators! The good news is that you’ll be quite protected by the marshes, and you can also throw them hot dogs under the careful supervision of the guides. How many times in life do you get the chance to feed an alligator hot dogs?
9. Paddleboard Orlando
Get your heart pumping with Paddleboard Orlando. In addition to the promised paddleboarding, you’ll also have the chance to swim, dive and jump off small cliffs into the water below. It’s perfect for both the athlete and the couch potato who just wants to try something new.
These are just a few of the attractions you won’t want to miss in Orlando. To really take advantage of your trip, consider researching attractions online. Many vacation companies, such as Bluegreen Resorts, for instance, offer information available online that can help travelers choose their favorite destinations. Whether you’re there for the thrilling adventures or the relaxing beaches, Orlando is a city that has a little something for everyone, so all travelers should enjoy it.
A note about sponsored posts: Occasionally, to cover my hosting, domain and back-up costs, I accept sponsored posts that fit within the context of my site. Running a self-hosted blog is not cheap. Given my annual pilgrimage to Orlando every Christmas, I was okay with this accepting this post.