I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with this blog for a while and the simple answer is…I DON’T KNOW.
But I received this e-mail from Virgin Atlantic today and it certainly got ME thinking…here’s what it said…
Our Reward Seat Sale starts today. For two weeks only (until 17 June 2013) you can book a reward flight to a dazzling destination for 25% less miles* – helping you take your travel plans that much further!
And if you need a few more miles to get in reach of your ideal ticket, we’ll help by giving you 15% extra when you top up your miles** before 30 June. It’s available whether you Buy Miles, Transfer Miles, Gift Miles or even when using Miles Booster. So the choice is yours.
So for example…hypothetically speaking…if you wanted to fly from London to Chicago (or vice versa), you could do so for 28,000 miles plus £240/$371.20 for taxes/fees/surcharges. Now that’s pretty awesome.
As I write this, I’ve spent 46.1% of my life in The Great State of New York, 28.2% of my life in Chicago, and the rest elsewhere. (And I’m 29!!!!!)
There are things that drive me crazy about Chicago. Super crazy. Like…
Public transport in Chicago is half of what it should be. One night, when I was recently repatriated, I set myself up at the bus stop. A nice man, in a Cubs hat, stopped me. “You know there is no bus here after midnight, right?” It was 12:15 a.m. No, I didn’t know that. Chicago is a world class city. I thought we had world class transportation. $12 later, I got myself home in a taxi. I miss a good night bus. (I know they do exist in Chicago. I could take the Ashland bus, for example. But it doesn’t run in the wee hours.)
Winter in Chicago. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. The blizzard of 2011 was my great welcome. I adopted a 16-year-old German exchange student at O’Hare and took him home for 48 hours. He played a lot of Call of Duty, and I tried to figure out how to feed us. I lived here during the blizzard of 1999, when the roof of my building caved in, taking all the kitchen cabinets on the 3rd and 2nd floors with it. (Thankfully, I lived on the ground floor.) I hate winter. I hate boots. I hate coats. I hate the dark.
Khaki trousers on women. I’ve written about this before. Seriously, what are you thinking? If the New York Times lady had included this, I totally would have taken her side 200%.
Jewel-Osco. I go into Jewel and I’m like totally, “OMG where is the food? I mean, there’s some fruit here, but where is the rest of the food?” Because everything is in boxes and cans. This may be more of a statement about America. I miss Waitrose. (The leading photo on their site right now is of CHAMPAGNE.) P.S. I MISS EASILY ACCESSIBLE CHEESE.
Six-way Intersections. Seriously.
I’m afraid I’m going to get shot. The bar down the street from me got shot up the year before last. On a weekly basis, my neighborhood Facebook page is all like “OMG, did you hear that???” What’s with the gunshots, Chicago?? If you want tourism dollars — particularly from all those countries where their currency lets them buy ALL of Michigan Avenue — people just can’t get shot.
PIZZA. I JUST WANT A SLICE. A real slice. Thank God for that bagel place by the Whole Foods on North Avenue or I would die a salt-bagel-deprived life. Pizza and bagels really have nothing to do with each other, EXCEPT WHEN THEY ARE COMBINED!
Sports Bars and Bars Chockablock with TVs. I am not really into sports. Or TVs. I’ve tried. I’m just not. There are so many other things to do, read, see, etc. This is a total personal preference, but please list for me the bars in Chicago without televisions, and I will gladly visit them with you.
Steamed hot dog buns. SUCK.
People who say they’re from New York. So this happens a lot. I’m in Chicago and someone complains about something and I ask them where they’re from and they say they’re from New York and I ask where from because I’m from New York and it turns out the person is really from Ohio or Pennsylvania or somewhere but they lived in New York for three years and they tell everyone they’re from New York. Note to all: I lived in London for a while. I don’t say I’m from London. (But I still love it to pieces.)
Dude, I am all about being holistic. There are a lot of positives here.
The airport — Chicago O’Hare — is easy to get to. After spending a lot of time in Brazil last year, I cannot even begin to explain how much I appreciate the Blue Line to O’Hare. And they have nice tortas at O’Hare. (Mexican sandwiches.)
I like char dogs. (Grilled hot dogs, although see above about steamed buns.)
People are nice, most of the time.
Cheap manicures and pedicures. $35 for both if you’re lucky.
The grid system makes it hard to get lost.
BEER. From all over.
Liz Phair, when she was good.
Late May through early September.
I own an apartment that I could never, ever afford in NY or London.
I like tacos.
The WGN morning show. (They’re doing something right there. That team has been there forever.)
NPR. So soothing.
Anything from Lao Sze Chuan.
I don’t know if I’ve really said anything. Maybe this is just a brain fart. BUT I WARNED YOU. That is all. Go for it.
I was born in Queens. Raised on Long Island. Call me Bridge & Tunnel but I am more New Yorker than a lot of people. And I miss my people. I miss our directness, our way of talking. In London, I learned to talk AROUND the subject; in New York, I address it straight on.
Three nights in New York City. Three nights that were enough, but not enough. I need to do this more often.
Friday: Dinner with Shinny and Monica at Shin’s place on the Upper West Side, where Shinny tested her recipes on us. (Shinny is an MBA and Michelin chef, now doing her own thing with food.)
Saturday: Food tour of the West Village with Sidewalks of New York with a tour guide who had had gastric bypass surgery. (Fscinating career choice.) Then a visit to the Apple store and a great chin wag with Jessica (Londoners might remember her as Ripe London) over wine and cheese at Bar Boulud. Afterwards, I arrived back at my hotel and stopped in the lobby to pick up some (more) wine and cheese (complimentary, this time). Then, a late night fight in the hotel room above me where I heard a woman yell “Get your hands off me! Get your hands off me!” over and over and over and over and over and over again. I called the front desk. I tried not to listen.
Monday: Sore head. Sore heart. Bagel full of suitcases from Ess-a-bagel on 1st and 21st. Lunch with Shinny at David Burke Kitchen, in the basement of my hotel, where the duck meatballs were spicy but the service was missing, hiding, gone for most of our meal. Shinny brought me some Excedrin, like a good friend, and I got in a taxi and I went to the airport and I bought some magazines and I flew home. Sore head, sore heart.
Quickly…over Christmas, I did that thing I usually do. I headed up to Orlando to visit my dad’s side of the family. My aunt and uncle have a timeshare in Orlando and — gasp — they actually use it. (Most Americans buy timeshares and then quickly realize they just can’t use them and then they try to sell them and can’t.) We stayed one night at the Marriott Cypress Harbour and boy am I glad my dad is a senior citizen, because without his discount, this would have cost us over $400 bucks just for one night. (My father was happy to stay at the Quality Inn 4.5 miles away for $62 bucks a night. Not me.) We got 15% off our rate because he is over 65.
The Marriott Cypress Harbour is an apartment hotel and our room was HUGE. As was the hot tub. A little disconcerting, this hot tub. I let my dad have this room. I took the smaller guest bedroom, above.
I guess if I were a family with two children, this place would have been the perfect setup. For a father and daughter traveling together though, there was no easy access to alcohol, which was a problem. There was no minibar and the bar at the clubhouse required a car to get there. (I often joke that my father would never survive a trip to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. No red wine.) That being said, my bed was comfortable and the blackout curtains were awesome.
While in Orlando, we had lunch at the Copper Canyon Grill, where my order of rotisserie chicken was large enough to feed fourteen people. (America, this is why you’re fat. Really.) Our server also told us he was a green beret in Afghanistan, and my dad and my uncle, both servicemen themselves, thought he was lying. So that was awkward. (We didn’t tell him he was lying. We just discussed it during and afterwards.) Everything here was nice enough by big-box-chain-restaurant standards though. Speedy service, plenty of tap water, and they very easily dealt with our party of ten.
And before we sped off to the airport the next morning, we stopped at Denny’s at 11037 International Drive. (Remember, I’m not as sophisticated as you might think I am.) And I was again given pause for thought. Do you wonder why there is an obesity epidemic in America? Things like The Grand Slamwich exist, that’s why. Potato bread!! That being said, the service at Denny’s was super-chipper and speedy. There’s something about diner service in America: these servers are not precious, they’ve seen it all, and they are as flexible as flexible can be.
I’m supposed to stop eating things like this but the novelty wins and the 5:2 diet to make up for my life of excess seems like a better and better idea. (Who wants to eat on Mondays and Tuesdays, anyhow?) The food at the Pleasant House Bakery in Bridgeport, Chicago along with their lovely staff, make for an excellent excuse to get yourself out of your Northside “I don’t go south of Madison” comfort zone. Mushroom and kale!! Who knew a mushroom and kale pie could be so perfectly perfect? Best pie I’ve ever had. Really and truly. You should go get one. Or four. (If you really don’t want to go south of Madison, Pleasant House Bakery pies are stocked at a number of places around Chicago.) Thank you to Roam & Home and Mr Roam & Home for the adventure. (And this was only our first stop!) Hmmm…if I’m going to stick around Chicago, maybe I should buy a car. It makes adventures easier.
I was hungry. I was hungover. So I did it. I went to Harold’s. And I have no regrets about the chicken. The fries, maybe. But the chicken, NO.
I don’t know what they do to it. Some sort of breading. Some sort of deliciousness. Some sort of breaded delicious perfection. Some sort of MIRACLE HANGOVER CURE. That being said, the place is a shit hole. (Shithole?) Water dripping from the ceiling, ripped up stools, recycling that hasn’t been emptied for months. You know what I mean.
The guy at the counter did have some nice things to say about my eyes though. And he gave me some free fried catfish, which was AWESOME. You can love my eyes and give me free catfish anytime you want, mister.
The Verdict: If you are hungover and if you want to eat some chicken, you should order from here. Do not eat in; it is gross. And remember, quality takes time. These guys fresh fry everything. It will take time. A lot of time. Bring a newspaper. Or your iPhone. Or something.
Let’s talk about doing things differently in 2013. Let’s talk about being creative. Let’s talked about being INSPIRED. Being original Taking some risks. Let’s talk about brining HAM WITH COFFEE, sprinkling everything with New Orleans, and serving up the most delicious stuffed pig’s trotter (Zampone). Talk about that, think about that, and then tell me what you’re going to do differently in 2013.
I was in Miami for Labor Day back in September. It was a bad trip because I got monsterously ill. And I hated the hotel I was staying in, a hotel that made me question the value of TripAdvisor and wonder whether the hotel was paying people to write all those wonderful reviews. But I survived. And got a little tan in the process. Here’s where I ate, roughly in order of deliciousness:
Yardbird, 1600 Lennox Avenue: If I had been smart, I would have eaten here multiple times. Reservations were hard to come by, so bar seating for us. Yardbird is one of the new breed of southern-focused restaurants. I had — surprise — the fried chicken. But what really amazed me with its deliciousness was the salad with mango, pecans and tomatoes, all local to South Florida. Florida used to be all agriculture. Now it’s all strip malls and strip clubs. Yardbird reminded me of the old days. The Verdict: GO.
BLT Steak, 1440 Ocean Drive, at The Betsy: This is totally a chain, but I loved the peaceful plantation vibe and attentive service. Also, my delicious grilled cheese and tomato soup. All too often, people mess up grilled cheese. Not here. I had the place to myself on a weekday afternoon and I loved it. The Verdict: Very very nice.
The Dutch, 2201 Collins Avenue, in the W Hotel: I’m not quite sure why I did so much hotel eating, but I did. The Dutch is all white subway tile and feels like an old soda fountain. I love that. What I didn’t love? The food. Mainly because although I was one of the only diners, my corn chowder (bisque?) was served lukewarm. My pasta main was unmemorable. The Verdict: OK. More style than substance.
The Front Porch Cafe, 1458 Ocean Drive, in the Z Hotel: This place packs them in, and I’m really not sure why. If you like a dirty restaurant with inattentive service and a lot of people drinking heavily early in the morning, maybe this place is for you. I could barely touch my breakfast. Meh. The Verdict: Don’t go here.
Four very good restaurants in Chicago! All in a short time period. Amazing! Imagine me, doing a happy dance. Actually, don’t. That’s embarrassing. Now if only it was all just so much CHEAPER. Then you can imagine me dancing. Because really, Chicago, you are not as cheap as I thought you were. Listed roughly in order of deliciousness…
Carriage House, 1700 West Division: Like it so much, I’ve been here three times already. I love the Lyonnaise Salad, with its soft pillows of pork belly and salty, vinegary dressing in particular. It reminds me a lot of Yardbird in Miami Beach though, which is a bit weird. (Still haven’t written up my Miami trip. Sorry!) Either the design aesthetic is just an overall trend or Southern food is just an overall trend or something else is going on?? Anyhow, I don’t care really because it’s great to have a nice new spot in the neighborhood. Verdict: Go.
Au Cheval: 800 West Randolph. LOVE IT HERE. It reminds me of London. Not surprising after I figured out that they are part of Soho House. It was the Cowshed products in the ladies’ that gave it away. I saw the Cowshed and I actually teared up in the ladies’ room. It was all a little awkward, really. I’ve been back multiple times to have the bone marrow at the bar. Because that’s what I like to do, wander around town and eat bone marrow. The burger is pretty ace as well. Verdict: Go, but be mindful that they do not take reservations, so go early or late and do not take 12 people with you.
Trencherman: 2039 West North: I also love it here, although the food was best on my first visit. (That being said, on that first visit, it was my food — the short rib — that was great. My friend Amy’s pasta was so plain and boring, it was painful.) What I really like most about Trencherman is the bar. I like to just show up and eat at the bar. Sometimes, I massage the old white subway tile. My chicken thighs and grits just last week were very, very good. The Verdict: Great addition to the neighborhood. Go.
Grassfed, 1721 North Damen: My mother always told me never to buy white furniture. Grassfed has apparently never met my mother. For $25 for steak, frites, salad, and a huge chunk of garlic bread, this is a very good value. And a tasty one at that. I’d go again. The Verdict: If you, like me, like focused menus, go. If light hurts your eyes, stay away. So for example, I would never willingly choose Grassfed for a first, second, or third date. You don’t get to see my crows’ feet until much later, you know.
I’ve had some “meh” meals too lately. More about that in a later post. And hey, that picture above? It’s from the new Walgreen’s at North, Milwaukee and Damen. It’s in a old bank. So that’s cool.
You know when you have something once, and you think it’s great? And then you have it again, and you think, “Boy was I totally right that first time or what?? This stuff is freaking delicious.” So it is with me and the Escalivada at Tavernita in Chicago. It’s like crack. Not that I know what that means.
Can I tell you something? I don’t want to like Tavernita, really. Tavernita requires that one weigh 30 lbs less than one does. And also, that the length of one’s skirt hem pass no further than one inch from one’s bottom. Also, cleavage. Tavernita seems to require a lot of cleavage. And maybe a divorce or three.
But no matter. I can shut out the world and all its problems when I’m snarfing down a plate-load of Tavernita’s Escalivada. This time, it was free thanks to a social media wine dinner with Darkhorse, a Gallo brand. (Gallo has a hand in more wine than you think it does.) I love hanging out with wine makers, and Darkhorse winemaker Beth Liston just made you want to be her best friend. The Chardonnay was a party-pleaser and can be found at Trader Joe’s for under $10 a bottle. It paired really well with our first few courses of hamachi crudo and then of course the swoon-worthy escalivada.
A little Google’ing has found me Tavernita’s recipe. Worth trying someday as a little snack (or a big snack) before dinner, specially if you possess a charcoal grill:
4 small eggplants
4 small onions, halved
4 red bell peppers
2 Roma tomatoes
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing the vegetables
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 small baguette, sliced, slices grilled
Zingerman’s Creamery Lincoln Log goat cheese (or other slightly aged goat cheese)
The Verdict: Go for it. And feel free to invite me over.
I was a guest of Darkhorse and Tavernita and did not pay for this meal. I also received one $20 Trader Joe’s giftcard and two bottles of Darkhorse wine — one Chardonnay and one Cabernet — in thanks for my attendance. I preferred the Chardonnay to the Cabernet, and would definitely consider picking up a bottle of Chard next time I’m in Trader Joe’s. (The cab was too jammy for me.) Darkhorse is being stocked exclusively by Trader Joe’s at the moment, only one of my favorite places in the entire world.
How are you? I hope you are well. I am fine. I went to your restaurant the other night with my British friend Ben, who was in town from London. I thought it would be nice to take him to a steak place because Chicago is famous for steak and Oprah said you were “Phenom!!” And everyone knows who Oprah is, even British people. Plus, you dry-age steak, which is a big deal. I like big deals.
I took Ben to the John Hancock first. We had cocktails at the top, and I tried to remember everything I’d forgotten about Chicago history and architecture. I also showed him where Oprah used to live, because you can see it there, from the top of the Hancock. I’m not sure where she lives now though. Do you know? Then we came over to your place for our steak and creamed spinach.
And we asked for your wine menu.
And you handed us an iPad, which is a cool idea in theory. I can imagine your agency of bearded wine-loving hipsters now. “THIS IS THE FUTURE OF DINING. THIS IS VISUAL. THIS IS INTERACTIVE. THIS IS…STRATEGERY.“ They probably talked about how soon, soon we will not need sommeliers. That everything will be CONTROLLED BY THE USER. WITH AN APP. That probably pronounced all this meaningfully and confidently (while scratching their beards) and told you this would all be so very, very cutting edge.
You probably spent a lot of money on this too.
So, let me tell you what I think.
In practice, your iPad wine menu? It really kinda just…sucks. Like really.
Let me tell you why:
It crashed multiple times while your server was showing it to us.
It crashed multiple times while we tried to use it.
Your server had to explain how although there was an “Add to Order” button on every wine page, it didn’t work. It had never worked. She did not know when it would work. “Please don’t use it,” she told us. “It doesn’t work.”
And then we decided that we should get some California wine, red, for under $80 a bottle. All of the filters are there on the screen. All of them. You can see them all in the screenshot above. BUT YOU CANNOT MULTI-FILTER. You can only filter on ONE THING. EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE MULTIPLE SELECTION BOXES presented at the same level of hierarchy Whoever your agency is, they should be fired. They know nothing about usability. And they also know nothing about product development because filtering a database on multiple criteria IS NOT HARD. (Lovely readers, you can see what I mean about the Chicago Cut wine “app” over here. Try it for yourself.)
And then our lovely server saw that we were frustrated and tried to help us. “Please,,” I begged. “Please, do you have a sommelier? Can you send the sommelier over?” “We don’t have a sommelier,” she replied, “But all of us here, we’re pretty knowledgeable so just tell me what you’d like.” “We’d like a California red, not too meaty, good with our steaks, for under $80 a bottle.” “Oh,” she said. “I’m not sure. I really don’t know the options that well…” (!!!) “But there is this one,” she said, and steered us towards a $60 bottle of Archipel Meritage 2007. It was really nice, so there’s a good ending here. But it took us a long time to get to this point. A long time. And your iPad app still sucks. I told her this, but I didn’t use the word “sucks,” I promise.
So in short, you’re doing it wrong. Like totally, totally wrong. You are all idea and no execution. (And I don’t just mean the iPad here. If you are going to forego a sommelier, schedule some regular wine tastings for your staff!)
Thank you for reading and I hope there’s a Version 2.0.
P.S. All this being said, our steaks were very nice and our server was nice. Also, I do appreciate that your wine markup in my case was “only” 100% of retail. I know this because my friend Andy Hayler makes a GREAT app called Wine Search that lets you easily search for wine and compare list price to mark up. You should check it out to see how the pros do things.
Last night, my friend Destri was in town. I know her from London, but she’s American and lives in California. Strange how life works like that. Destri is a director and was in town for the Chicago International Social Change Film Festival over the weekend. Talk about feeling like your own life is boring!! I took her to the Trump Tower so we could drink expensive wine at the bar on the 16th floor and admire the view.