The old Tokyo Hotel, home of Ginza, one of the most traditional Japanese restaurants in Chicago before it went out of business.
I am just back in London after my work visit to Chicago…where it was friggin cold. Too cold. I wanted to leave, it was so cold. My nose, my nose…it is so dry. Everything is dry. My face has aged ten years overnight, in the course of two weeks. No problem then, I just stuffed my aged face at (the oddly empty) Le Colonial for lunch and contemplated botox. (Probably wouldn’t help with the dryness though, huh?) Everything at Le Colonial was nice except for the exceptional amount of shredded lettuce served with everything. I watched the fans swirl around overhead the (seemingly all) blond ladies having lunch as I contemplated the cheapness of my UK mobile phone in the UK but the hefty £6 per mb of data fee in the U.S. Sigh. I feel so powerless. The Loos: Colonial, but they work. The Verdict: Good for ladies who lunch, but hold the lettuce.
Earlier this year, for various unremarkable reasons, I learned a lot about Darden Restaurants. Darden used to run Red Lobster. They still run Capital Grill and The Olive Garden and a bunch of other places most Americans have been to for one reason or another. This is when I finally put together that Seasons 52, the people who had been repeatedly (repeatedly) pestering me to visit their property in the Chicago suburbs, were a Darden venture. It’s an interesting concept for a big chain affair…every item on the Seasons 52 menu is under 475 calories And the food is — you guessed it — seasonal!! I was honestly more than a little curious, and as Seasons 52 was right across from my hotel, The Conrad Hilton, I stumbled over there one late night after work. The decor was pleasantly surprising…no glaring lights, but rather lots of dark wood and soft lighting. And hey, THERE WAS A PIANO PLAYER. I am a bit of a sucker for a good piano player in a bar or restaurant. I ordered some low-calorie mushroom bisque — almost as nice as the piano playing — and served with a bit of crispy (low-calorie?) bread. And then I spent $28 on a piece of sesame coated swordfish as big as my palm (and I have small hands) drenched — inedibly so — in soy sauce, with nary a sesame seed in sight. The Verdict: Go for the live music and if you’re on a diet. Don’t order the swordfish.
Tuesday night, I had a hankering for lobster bisque and a glass of Riesling. It was m*ther-f*cking cold so again, I did not stray far from my hotel. The bar at Shaw’s Crabhouse it was. And guess what guys??? There was a LIVE BLUES BAND! And they were awesome. (The Friends Band…check out some of their tunes here.) And while I liked my lobster bisque, I probably should have had a cup and not a bowl because the big bowl meant cold soup syndrome set in fairly soon after the soup arrived. (Too large of a surface area.) The Verdict: Worth a visit to the bar for live music (Sunday through Thursday…schedule here) and good times. Also some good happy hour oyster specials pre-band.
Hah so I did get out a bit in Chicago — more than I expected to — but I did not get to many new places. My late working hours and the bitter, bitter cold meant I didn’t stray very far from my office or my hotel. That was a-okay with me though.
When I left Chicago this past summer, I really never expected to be back anytime soon. But voila! Late last Friday, it was confirmed. I was heading to Chicago — of all places — for two weeks for work. I’ve been this person before — the Chicago business traveler — but it’s been awhile. Four years? Five? So it’s been weird to be back and in a hotel for so long. And it’s been funny to have my new colleagues doubt my directions to dinner and to their hotels. (“Are you sure this is the right way???” And the ever-alarming “Well surely if we showed up with 8 people at 7 pm on a Wednesday, they’d have a table for us.”) And it’s been even funnier to try to make dinner plans with my old friends, who want to eat at 7 pm. Ah yes, and I hate my U.K. mobile phone plan that charges me £6 a MB for data, so I have been suffering from iPhone withdrawal. (O2, I am looking at YOU.) But here’s what me, the Chicago business traveler, has been up to.
Monday: I almost threw up on the hotel staff as I checked in. It was 2 am for me and I was BEAT. Jet lag hung heavy and dark around me. I went straight to bed, despite promising myself I’d head to Eataly for a little snack before bedtime.
Tuesday: I made it to Eataly and had some verdure fritto misto and a glass of Gavi. Perhaps not surprisingly, while I was sitting there enjoying the free wifi and Wild Belles playing in the background (check them out, seriously), an old colleague walked by, so we had a nice little catch-up and another glass of wine. I love Eataly, especially on a slow Tuesday night when no one is around. Even though the graphic design does really bother me. The Verdict: Go!
Wednesday: We were a motley crew from all around the world so I made an executive decision that we all needed deep-dish pizza. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a reservation anywhere. (Lou Malnati’s on Wells does not take reservations???) So we ended up at Pizano’s on Madison, where I had the genius idea of pre-ordering our pizza so it arrived about 7 minutes after we sat down. For about $20 a person, we gorged ourselves on pizza and slugged back half-price bottles of wine. A good time. And festively decorated for the season as well. The free ice cream cakes/pies delivered to our table at the end of our meal were an extra bonus, as was our extremely competent server. The Verdict: No complaints.
Thursday: We stopped by Bohemian House on Illinois and had some wine and the largest plate of potato chips. Manny the bar back let us tether our phones to his, which was particularly awesome of him, but caused us to go deep into a dark and downward social media spiral. I like the design of Bohemian House, although it feels so much like Hubbard Inn, I thought I was in the wrong place there for a moment. I thought about eating at Boho but I just wasn’t feeling particularly hungry so I headed back to my hotel where two hours later, I decided I was ravenous and that I really wanted CHINESE FOOD. Do you know what happened next? P.F. mother f*cking Changs. You got it. I dragged my jet-lagged, freezing cold slightly slimmer American ass to P.F. Chang’s and enjoyed their spicy chicken more than I really expected to. The Verdict: Hey, sometimes, you are tired and cold and go with what is close and easy and it all works out just fine.
Friday: My friend A has just KICKED BREAST CANCER’S ASS. She is the best and the most amazing. Also, modern medical technology is AMAZING. So we met up at Bistronomic with our friend T who I have known since I was 5 years old to celebrate and chat and be normal. Although A loved her steak frites, I was less than impressed. My steak was overcooked — I ordered medium rare — and and my frites were undercooked. And they weren’t really frites anyhow. (I prefer the golden shoestring style when having steak frites.) The Verdict: I want to like Bistronomic! The chef is handsome! The staff is lovely! The location is great! But yet…
Saturday: I worked for 12 hours on a Saturday. So that sort of sucked. I like my weekends (who doesn’t really) and I am down a day. I got “home” at 9:30 pm and didn’t want to spend $57 on room service. So I went around the corner to Oysy and had some maki and it was okay. It was too cold, actually. But the staff gave me some free saki which was exactly what I needed after a day like mine. They all kinda stared at me when I entered though, and then they cleaned all the glasses like right there directly in front of me. Hmmmm…I wonder how much their rent is and how much sushi they have to sell in a month to break even. The Verdict: I will probably try some other places before going back here.
Hey, it’s not over til it’s over. I’ve got a few more days…
Yelp London is useless! Barely any reviews for a lot of places.Where is everyone leaving their reviews? No one writes reviews on Time Out anymore. I am left with Foursquare, and even that is kinda sucky and lacking in reviewness. HELP. I want the voice of the people. Help me.
What is with hair color on women? I’ve seen a lot of washed out pink and blue hair. I don’t like it. It looks tacky. If you’re going to do it ladies, MAINTAIN IT.
Flowered trousers…perhaps a bigger thing when the weather was warmer but the patterned blousey trousers on women thing. I don’t know if I like it? Oh wait…hold on, my phone is ringing and it’s MC Hammer…
Smoking…After spending the last four years in the U.S., I have honestly forgotten that people still smoke. On the sidewalk/pavement in London as I’m walking, at work when they need to take breaks and then return to stink up the meeting room, everywhere, everywhere. Smokers are everywhere. Stop putting fire in your mouths, people. It is going to kill you a lot faster than a lot of other things.
Flats owned by people in Singapore and Hong Kong: I had no idea that this was a thing until I started flat-hunting this summer and when I would ask about the landlord, 9 times out of ten, they would tell me, “Oh, he/she is in Singapore/Hong Kong.” Apparently, people in Asia have bought up all the new construction property in east London these last few years. That’s fine, but if you’re going to do it love, hire a property manager. I’m not calling you in Hong Kong when the boiler’s out.
Taking a shower is still hard. In my new flat, I’ve got the two-and-a-half-foot bath and the shower half-glass. I have conquered the two-and-a-half-foot bath (I think) but I HATE THE HALF-GLASS. How do British people take showers?? I do not understand it. I flood the bathroom all the time, and if my bathroom floor tile is any indication, the last tenant did too.
They don’t bag your groceries for you anywhere. They just stare at you (or make no eye contact whatsoever) and then they wait for you to leave. #AWKWARD.
The importance of the past: I learned this hard during my first tour-of-duty. In my experience, British people don’t forget any sort of past. I’m not saying that Americans forget the past, but in general, my take is that Americans have a mindset that’s much more like “Ok, that happened. That was the past. Hindsight is 20/20. Let’s move forward.” Take me out for anything Japanese/Chinese/Vietnamese and I’ll tell you more.
Toasters everywhere but no toaster ovens. I just want an English Muffin pizza. Personally, I’m afraid of toaster-toasters. I’m always afraid the toast will catch fire inside. And I don’t want to fire up the broiler just for some cheese on toast.
Tethering: My iPhone came with a wifi hotspot, as opposed to in America, where you have to pay extra for that functionality. So if you’re in London and you wanna tether to my hotspot, you just let me know.
UHT MILK!I love long-life milk because you know, British milk goes bad in like less than five days. (American milk lasts a lot longer, like two weeks.) So I buy UHT milk and it lasts forever. I probably don’t want to know what they did to it to make it that way, do I? A lot of people use UHT milk to make yogurt, apparently. Me, I just use it for my morning coffee.
Charging for plastic bags: London started doing this ages ago. I believe California just started doing it. The U.S. is BEHIND.
Pizza Express Salad dressing: Haters, don’t be hating. This stuff is STILL delicious and I go through it like white wine.
The roads are smooth! I don’t know if it’s because I was unlucky enough to live in Chicago, but London roads are SMOOTH! There are no potholes! It’s amazing! I can ride my bike anywhere and not need any dental work!!
Recycling: My building recycles, we recycle at work, and anywhere I go around London, there’s one of those handy separators for recycling. Me and my empty Diet Coke cans feel so virtuous. Saving the world, people. Saving the world!
Direct debits! No checks! I’ve been here four months and I haven’t written ANY CHECKS. It’s amazing. I cannot believe that in America, people still write checks. It is crazy. My debit card is my favorite thing.
Kettles, kettles everywhere: I love my kettle. I use it more frequently than my microwave.
The weather! It’s NOT SNOWING! It’s not frigid. It’s nice. Thank God for that. Honestly, words cannot describe. On January 6th 2015, I am going to throw a “-40 degrees is where Fahrenheit and Celsius intersect” party. You’re invited.
Some Vitners chips/crisps at the entrance to Oak Street beach, Chicago. Vitners are a Chicago institution.
It’s been two months and a few days since I decided to hop on a plane in Chicago and relocate myself to London. The time has gone quickly — way too quickly — to say the least. (Tip: Next time you quit your job, take three months off before you start your new job.) And while Chicago was never really my kind of town (sorry, Chicagoans), after living there for a grand total of 12 years (!!!) between my two stays, there are some things I still pine for occasionally. Here’s what I’ve been missing about Chicago lately.
Forgive on sidewalks: Sometimes I would be walking around Ukrainian Village in a bad mood for various reasons — thinking f*ck this shit, if you really must know. And then I’d see Forgive. And I would change the direction of my thoughts.
CLS and his/her sculptural street art. Chicagoans, you’ve seen CLS’ stuff around town. Scraps of wood, together, in an art piece. (This Flickr user has a number of photographs of CLS’ pieces if you’re not sure who I’m talking about.) I like CLS’ stuff. It’s natural but architectural and yet random.
Cemitas Puebla: Mexican sandwiches. They deliver to Weegee’s in Logan Square! Now that was an exciting discovery! I want to know how they get their pork chops so thin.
Mexican in general…Mexican like the place on the corner of Chicago & Ashland, Taqueria Transpasada. Not the commercial burrito chains. London is full of burrito chains now. I just want some tacos. OK, I really want some tacos at Big Star even though I am not hipster enough for Big Star. (I realize I am, in some ways, contradicting myself. What I want is tacos from the corner shop and on weekends, tacos at Big Star, along with some Johnny Cash and bourbon.)
Tamale guys. Magically appearing in bars around town in the wee hours of the morning, just when we all need some carbs. GENIUS.
Television: WGN morning news. Seriously, these guys crack me up. (Check out some of their best bits from 2013.) I love that they’ve been doing what they do for so long together. London breakfast news programming is terrible. They repeat themselves every 12 minutes. (I’m gonna time it.) And no jokes! And they don’t have enough human interest stories. And the news is so DIRE. Someone help me. I need something to watch in London between 6 am and 7 am while I am trying to become fully functional.
Chinese: Mon Lung: My Sunday routine when I lived in Noble Square was Szechuan green beans and chicken from Mon Lung. Me and all the cops and the fish tank. I loved that the multi-generational family was so in evidence here. This is really a family-run business, and they are all so super nice. (Sometimes, they run out of green beans. Just to warn you.)
Diners: The Pittsfield and Beef & Brandy: I love a good diner. The Pittsfield is my absolute favorite; it’s a triangulation of beautiful building decor, friendly service, and good food. Breakfast for dinner! At The Pittsfield, I like the Mr. Gyros Omelette, which is on the old menu, not the new menu, but they will still make it for you. Make sure you ask for some tzatziki. $10 (or less) for lunch and you get table service…really nice table service. They do what they do better than a lot of expensive restaurants I know. I also like Beef & Brandy on State Street, mainly because they let you pay at the table. (At The Pittsfield, you have to pay at the counter and then walk back to your table to drop off the tip.) I also love how Beef & Brandy’s website calls it the best restaurant in downtown Chicago. I normally go for the grilled cheese at Beef & Brandy.
Vietnamese Food: Han yen on Argyle. After my trip to Vietnam in March, I got a little addicted to pho for breakfast. So once I sold off Noble Square and moved away from Mon Lung, my new Sunday routine became a trip up to Han Yen on Argyle for a big bowl of pho for Sunday lunch.
Cheap Manicures and Pedicures. Particularly New Age Nails on State Street north of Chicago Avenue. So clean and white and nice.
Drinking: Pops for Champagne & The Watershed. London did something to me. It made me drink champagne a lot. I arrived back in the US and everyone kinda looked at me funny when I would ask if we could order a bottle of champers. So I would take myself to Pops and drown my sorrows. Champagne is not cheap in America. Champagne in London is a bargain in comparison. (There’s something to be said for being across the channel from France. ) Also, I love The Watershed, downstairs from Pops, which specializes in midwestern beers and wines. I like focus. And the banjo player on Thursday nights.
What am I forgetting? I am sure there is something!? Help.
Too many people asked me “Where are you going to eat before you leave?” before, I, uh, left Chicago. And then they would look at me strangely when I would say “Oh, I don’t know…I’m probably just going to order some curry from Rangoli and maybe some twice-cooked pork and string beans from Chengdu Impression.” What they wanted me to say, I do not know. (Don’t ask the question if you’re not going to like the answer.) I had no desire to hit Alinea again. (Sorry, left hungry and stopped for tacos that one time.) I was a little sad that I never visited L20 because I do love seafood more than most Chicago people. But well, other than that, I wasn’t really dying to try anything in particular.
So you know what I did before I left Chicago? I ate A LOT of chicken wings. At Jake Melnick’s downtown. I LOVE Jake Melnick’s! I love Pancho’s wings! Pancho, whoever you are, I love you. I sat at the bar at Jake Melnick’s and I ate a lot of chicken wings and drank a lot of beer. (They have A LOT of different types of beer to drink.) Sometimes I ate chicken wings with friends, sometimes I ate chicken wings by myself. But most of all, I ate chicken wings.
I also ate a lot of Chengdu Impression. It’s a very long story how I ended up in Lincoln Park during the last few days in Chicago, but I had to go to Home Depot a lot and going to Home Depot meant a trip to Chengdu Impression. The staff at Chengdu Impression are super sweet. Ask them for their help in ordering. I hope they do very very well because everything they have is all pretty delicious.
Ah, and Chicago Bagel Authority! My friend Jen’s English husband Leigh LOVES the Chicago Bagel Authority so while I was in the neighborhood, I had to check it out. I did. Many times. Although the New Yorker in me died a little every time I ate one of their **steamed** bagels, they were very tasty. And I kinda liked the intensely flirtatious bagel maker. He had nice eyes.
What else…I finally went to Longman & Eagle and it was very good but in hindsight, I don’t really remember anything we ate. I suppose that was my “cross it off the list” moment.
I did spend a lot of time at Scofflaw, drinking all the Temple Destroyers with Ben & Gerry and then Antonia. (Antonia says she’s now obsessed with verdita and is going to attempt it. I will be there.) I don’t remember much about my time at Scofflaw either, but that was obviously for other reasons. (And remember, I am not a big mixed drink person.)
Other things…Binny’s has a new wine tasting room, so I spent a lot of time there. Ah, and I had a nice lunch at Ramen San, although I hated their stools. Hated. I really need to start that “comfortable restaurant seating” business I’ve been thinking about.
My last meal in Chicago was at Nico Osteria. I stayed two nights at the very lovely Thompson Hotel. ((My stay at The Thompson Hotel was another Hotwire bargain!) I found it easier to camp out at Nico for the afternoon after me and my five suitcases checked out of the hotel. I ate a lot of Nico’s delicious focaccia olive bread. You should too.
So…I think that about sums up my last few days/weeks in Chicago. I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ll visit the city. But hopefully when I do, it won’t be MINUS FORTY DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. (Which also, coincidentally, is equal to minus forty degrees Celsius.) So goodbye Chitown. Thanks for all the beer.
P.S. That photo is from the Chicago Distilling Company in Logan Square. You should visit!
Yes, if you’re reading this Wednesday evening Chicago time, I have purchased a one-way ticket from Chicago to London and I’m somewhere in the sky right now.
My belongings sit in a container in a port somewhere in America, ready to depart. A lot of Americans I know think I’m crazy. (“Wait…you’re moving to London on Wednesday?” and “You don’t have anywhere to live??” and/or “You still don’t have a plane ticket?”) But my parents and Uncle George and Aunt Ursula and legions of taxi drivers across Chicago don’t think I’m crazy, and that says something now, doesn’t it?
Oh yeah, and that plane ticket problem? Obviously I solved it. Thank you, Internet, which allows you to purchase magic paperless tickets to and through the sky with bits of plastic at the last possible minute.
You know what the weird thing is…10 years ago on June 26, 2004, I published my first ever blog post on the then “Krista in London” site on Typepad.
If that’s not a crazy big sign from somewhere, I don’t know what is.
So yes London, I have come back for you.
P.S. I took that photo under the El tracks in Chicago at that point in Lincoln Park where Bissell dead-ends into a parking lot around North Avenue. Tunnel vision, for sure.