Tuesday 19 January 2016

USA Travel Review: Chicago, Part 1

My fiancé and I were spending two weeks in the US with his mum, and had so far visited Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Natchez and New Orleans. Our final stop was Chicago, but she had decided she wanted to spend an extra day in New Orleans, as she had been to Chicago before but we hadn’t. So my fiancé and I flew to the Windy City a day ahead of her and in the evening decided to eat at a steak restaurant we wouldn’t have gone to with her as she is vegetarian.
I actually booked the restaurant, Gibson’s, several months in advance after seeing it on a list in the Daily Telegraph of the top 10 steak restaurants in the world. It listed restaurants in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Buenos Aires – the only one to be featured from the UK was Hawksmoor, which my fiancé and I have been to twice and love, and CUT at the Dorchester hotel. The only one to feature from the US was Gibson’s in Chicago.
Even booking months in advance, the only reservation I could get for the day we wanted – a Sunday night – was 9.30pm. Not ideal and it made me wonder when you have to book to get 7pm on a Saturday! The restaurant was very busy even at that time on the Sunday; the tables were crammed very closely together and they had to pull the table out for me to get in to my seat. We were so close to the people at the next table that we could hear their conversation as if we were part of it, and almost bump elbows.

We both ordered the 10oz filet steak – the smallest size on the menu, whereas at home I’ve been to restaurants where that is the largest size available! It was more than I would normally eat so was unable to finish which is a shame as it was beautifully cooked – I ordered medium rare and it was melt-in-the-mouth. My fiancé however wasn’t so lucky. He ordered medium well, and said it was very well done, almost burnt at one end and quite disappointing – he said he’d actually had a better steak at Cuts in Atlanta (no relation to the one at the Dorchester)!
We asked the waitress whether the sides were big enough to share and she said yes so we shared a basket of fries, which was so big we didn’t finish it between us. So I was amazed when the woman at the next table called the waitress over and said her husband was still hungry. I thought she was joking – he’d had the 14oz steak and a huge pile of mashed potato, and wasn’t exactly a massive bloke – but he agreed he was still hungry and ordered the 10oz steak as seconds! Considering the price (around $50 a steak) I guess he must really have been hungry to want another! The most jaw-dropping moment came when their dessert was brought to the table – I wish I could have taken a photo! They had an ice cream cake which came with a knife sticking out of the top and the waitress cut a slice; I assumed she would then take the rest of the cake away but no, that was their dessert to share. Just look at these pictures on Google images….
We left before they had finished so I don’t know whether they did manage to get through the entire cake; I’ve never deliberately paid attention to my fellow diners before but our proximity gave us little choice and it was quite fascinating to see how much they ate!
The restaurant was pretty expensive – we didn’t have starters or desserts (a cup of soup or side salad is included with your main course but we didn’t actually want it), shared a side and had one glass of wine (me) and a soft drink (him) and still spent $140 (about £100) with tip!
The beef is extremely good though (when it’s not overcooked) – Gibson’s is the only restaurant group in the US to be awarded its own USDA Prime Certification for its beef, which is corn fed for 120 days then aged for 40 days for maximum flavour and tenderness.

One point that is worth noting is that while the menu is high end, the restaurant is very low key – it is actually called a bar and steakhouse, and there are people who just go to sit at the bar. The walls are decorated with pictures of famous patrons, and they don’t have a dress code other than that men are not allowed to wear sleeveless shirts – they say on their website “some of our customers will be in suits, others will wear jeans”, which was very helpful as we were packing for a two week holiday and my fiancé wasn’t going to pack a dress shirt and trousers. Having said that, the website says “most men will have coats” and I thought duh, of course they will if it’s winter – I’ve since realised that by coat they probably mean what we would call jacket ie a suit jacket, even if worn with jeans – never mind! My fiancé was in a short sleeved polo shirt (ie a shirt with a collar) and jeans and we fit in fine.
We were staying at the Dana Hotel, the one my mother in law had used on her last visit to Chicago which she thought very highly of.

When I booked the hotel, as I was an AmEx user I got a voucher for a free upgrade if there was availability. When we checked in, we were told we could have the upgrade to a larger room but the room didn’t have a balcony, or we could have the original room which did have a balcony. We opted for the larger room, as the hotel has a roof terrace bar we thought we could enjoy the views from up there. When we were shown to our room I was surprised that it wasn’t that big, and it had a tiny balcony you could stand on but it wasn’t even big enough for a chair. When my mother in law checked in the next day, she forgot to use her free upgrade voucher so had the original room she had booked, with balcony – which turned out to be the room directly below ours. So I think the hotel made a mistake and didn’t actually give us the upgrade, but by the time we realised that we had already unpacked and decided to stay where we were!

She also wasn't given her breakfast vouchers and I had to go back and ask for them the next day - and while a bellhop took our bags on the day we arrived, she was left to take her own to her room.

My mother in law also asked the hotel to book a hairdressing appointment for her and they booked her one at a place up the street, but when she went there the salon had no record, so they rang their other branch in a different part of town and it turned out the hotel had rung the wrong place!

I was also convinced that breakfast had been included in my room rate but apparently it wasn’t – instead we each got a $10 coupon every day that could be used in the restaurant. That meant we did end up paying a bit towards breakfast every day, but not too much. On our first morning I had French toast stuffed with ricotta, topped with candied walnuts and maple syrup on the side, which was amazing. My fiancé had chocolate chip pancakes which were about an inch thick and the size of a dinner plate which even two people would have struggled to finish!

The hotel receptionists and concierge were really friendly and helpful, helping us plan a boat trip and making us feel very welcome. Unfortunately on the first night we were there, when we wanted to go to the roof terrace for a drink before our late dinner reservation, the rooftop bar was closed for a private event. My fiancé had only become my fiancé a few weeks before and admitted he had been considering proposing up there on the only night his mum wasn’t with us – given it was closed, I was very glad he’d already proposed!


On our second morning in the hotel I had a fantastic breakfast (above) - two poached eggs on a piece of toasted baguette which was spread with a little goat's cheese, and came with a rocket salad which was a bit odd for breakfast but very nice - the poached eggs were possibly the best I've ever had; they broke open at the merest touch of a knife.

The day after, I had eggs benedict with smoked salmon which was amazing, but one rather than two would have been plenty!

After a shopping trip to Target that morning to stock up on goodies - mainly candy that I could use for baking, plus some cute little gifts - we came back to the hotel where my fiancé had been waiting and relaxing while I and his mum were shopping. We had lunch at the Dana hotel, in the same restaurant where we had breakfast; I was still quite full from breakfast so had mac and cheese as it wasn't a huge portion. I didn't particularly like the breadcrumb topping and I found it quite salty but the others were pleased with their meals - my fiancé had a cheese toastie which came with fries and his mum had houmous, pitta bread and crudites.

On our final day I had some more of the amazing poached eggs with breakfast potatoes, mainly as we had tried everything else I fancied on the menu by that point!
Our first sightseeing in Chicago was the Field Museum of natural history. There are various ticket prices, starting from $18 for basic admission, which now seems to have gone up to $22. That wasn’t very visibly advertised as they promote the other tickets more heavily – the discovery pass ($29) which includes either one ticketed exhibiton or a 3D movie, or the all-access pass ($35) which includes all ticketed exhibitions and one 3D movie. We chose that, as this will almost certainly be the only time we ever visit, and for our 3D movie chose a brilliant David Attenborough-narrated film about the Galapagos. We enjoyed it so much that we have actually now booked to go there on our honeymoon!

One of the ticketed exhibits we went to was on the Vikings which was very good – quite hands on with a game you could play and a sword you could try and lift. I was pleasantly surprised by the museum attendants- one approached us as we were playing the game and explained the rules (as we were doing it wrong!) and then showed us the sword and encouraged us to lift it (or try to!). Later, we were approached by another member of staff when we were looking at the whale bones; I can’t remember now what it was he was holding but he showed us an interesting artefact. I’m used to the people who work in museums at home sitting on a chair by the door glowering at people who make too much noise, so this was very nice!
I was less impressed by the paid-for China exhibit or the underground one where you explore below the soil as if you were the size of a bug – it would be good for kids though. The main part of the museum is excellent – highlights were the dinosaurs of course plus all the stuffed animals and sections on Egypt and the Incas. We spent about 5 hours in the museum as well, because it was fairly quiet – this was a week day in school term time – if it was a busy weekend and you couldn’t move around quite so quickly I imagine you could easily spend all day here, so it’s well worth the admission price.
The café was a bit confusing as nobody seemed sure which line to join; everyone was in the same line and it turned out that was only for the Chinese food so when people wanting burgers got to the front they were told to form a new queue. I ordered two burgers but the server misheard and cooked one; by that point I was tired of waiting and hungry so I had a mac and cheese, which was delicious (American mac and cheese is much better than ours!) but weirdly came with a side of fries.

The water taxi from the Field Museum goes to the Navy Pier uptown, which is part way back to our hotel so we decided to do that rather than take a taxi (incidentally, I highly recommend using Uber for taxis in Chicago). The water taxis were every 30 minutes and we had about a 20 minute wait; we were there first so the attendant told us to start a line, and a couple of people came and stood behind us, but when the boat arrived, a whole bunch of people came out of nowhere, walked straight past us and got on – which meant we were sitting on the right side of the boat and you really want to be on the left to get the best view of the skyline. Also, don’t put your bag on the floor as I (and a lot of people) did – water comes in through small portholes on the side of the boat if you hit a wave and floods the floor!
The taxi is cheaper than a boat sightseeing tour though it’s only a taxi, there is no commentary, but you get a good view of the skyline.
We got off at the Navy Pier – I’d heard it described as a tourist destination but when my mother-in-law had been previously she wasn’t that impressed with it and I see why. It is a Chicago landmark and in winter has an ice rink; it also has a ferris wheel and I can imagine it’s the sort of place teenagers like to hang out. But there wasn’t much there for us – there’s a children’s museum, a theatre, an art gallery, IMAX cinema, shops (mainly gift shops – if you want ‘proper’ shopping go to the Water Tower) and restaurants.

That evening we went to a restaurant I'd picked from reading reviews on TripAdvisor: Giordano's. It was described as one of the best (or perhaps even the best) place to sample the deep dish pizza that Chicago is famous for. And on my gosh it was good!

The chain has various branches and there was one walking distance from our hotel. They don't take reservations but as this was a Monday night I thought we would be OK but there were already a lot of people waiting! My fiancé wanted to give up and go somewhere else but I really wanted to try the pizza, so when someone left their table in the bar we took a seat and got chatting to the couple next to us who were from Denver We had to wait 40 minutes for a table but were encouraged to place our food order while we were there, which would speed things up when we went into the restaurant, which I thought was a great idea as we only had to wait ten minutes for our food after we were eventually seated.

My fiancé ordered cheesy garlic bread which in retrospect was a mistake... trust me, you won't have room for starters!

Not when the pizzas look like this...

The menu said a small pizza served 1-2 so we ordered two pizzas between the three of us - and we had literally half of each pizza left! We had one plain cheese and one with BBQ chicken. If you've had Chicago Town deep dish pizza before you'll know how these pizzas differ to the regular thin crust or deep pan type - but they are actually more of a 'pizza pie'. The filling and cheese is inside, and the top is another layer of pizza dough encasing the whole thing like a pie. It's at least two inches deep if not more, and soooo filling - we only managed a couple of slices each! My fiancé loves pizza and can put away a lot whenever we have takeaway at home but I've never seen him defeated by food quite so much!

Coming next: Chicago Part 2

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