Insider's Guide to Chicago
Paul McGee, mixologist extraordinaire, is known for serving up some of Chicago's most beloved cocktails at places like the Whistler and Bub City. One part retro throwback, one part scientist, and a bit of booze dork to finish it off, McGee (and his favorite Logan Square haunts) always promise a good time and a great beverage. The behind-the-bar veteran doesn't just fix drinks, though—he's become an expert on all things epicurean in one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.
From a dozen donuts in the morning to a couple of drinks on a patio under the stars, here are his top picks for how to eat and drink the day away in the Windy City.
Breakfast: Lula Cafe has to be one of my most frequented places in Chicago. In addition to being just a few blocks from my home in Logan Square, they serve delicious food sourced from local farms. The "Royale" sandwich series is a highlight from their breakfast/lunch menu and is always a solid choice. It usually rotates weekly and a standout is the crispy haddock/lobster gribiche/sunny side up egg sandwich served on a potato roll.
If I am closer to work in River North, I sometimes grab a dozen donuts from Do-Rite Donuts. Their Buttermilk Old Fashioned donut is a favorite of mine!
Lunch: Recently opened in my neighborhood of Logan Square, Reno is my "go to" spot for lunch (when I'm not at Lula). Lunch there is counter service and I usually grab their "Square" sandwich (turkey, provolone, mayo, mustard and tomato jam) along with a brownie (cinnamon and pistachios on top).
Another favorite of mine is GT Fish and Oyster. It is a bright space with some delicious food from one of my favorite chefs in the city, Guiseppe Tentori. I usually have the clam chowder and a couple of pork belly sliders with kimchi and peanuts served on Hawaiian rolls.
Dinner: Believe it or not, RPM Italian has one of my favorite steaks in Chicago. The Bone-In Ribeye is always perfectly cooked and seasoned. I like mine prepared medium rare, and the char on the outside adds great flavor. If I am not eating a steak there, I order the Bucatini Pomodoro. I am a sucker for fresh pasta cooked al dente with a rich pomodoro sauce.
Another place I love for dinner is Longman and Eagle. It is a stone's throw from my house and has an amazing whiskey selection to accompany their dinner menu. The roast chicken dinner is fantastic—juicy on the inside with a slightly crispy skin on the outside. They also have many hand selected American whiskies that are fantastic. L&E also doubles as an inn with 6 rooms located upstairs (my in-laws stay there every time they visit Chicago).
Late Night Eats: If it's late, I will usually order a pizza from Dante's Pizzeria. They serve a New York style slice (as opposed to Chicago style) and my favorite is the Charon (served with mozzarella, shrimp, prosciutto, pineapple and jalapeño peppers). It usually takes a while to be delivered, so I order it before I leave work and head for home.
Wine Bar: I'm not a big wine geek, but Telegraph is a comfortable wine bar with excellent food. Their list is well-curated and includes many boutique wines that won't break the bank.
Cocktail Bar: The Barrelhouse Flat is one of my favorite cocktail spots in the city! Stephen Cole, formerly of The Violet Hour, has assembled a fantastic staff and has created two distinct feels to the space. Downstairs is a bit more casual, while the upstairs salon has a more subdued vibe with fireplaces and a pool room. Their cocktail list features 70 classics and 10 or so original creations from the bar staff that change monthly.
Hotel Bar: My favorite hotel bar is the Bar at the Peninsula. It is cozy, quiet and has a bit of an old-school feel to it. It epitomizes what a hotel bar should be.
Dive Bar: Chicago has plenty of great dive bars. I have a few favorites: Skylark in Pilsen is a great neighborhood bar with cheap drinks; Rainbo Club in Wicker Park is very comfortable and has the ubiquitous photo booth; and Delilah's in Lincoln Park has one of the best whiskey selections in the country!
Best Place to Dine Outside: Without a doubt, Big Star in Wicker Park is the spot to eat and drink outside. It is right off the Damen Blue Line stop and is always packed, even when the weather is dicey. Everything is really good there—tacos, cocktails, whiskey, tequila—and beer selections are well thought out. Once you get a coveted table outside, it is easy to stay here for the entire afternoon/evening!
Hidden Gem: Bang Bang Pie Shop is located on a side street in Logan Square that serves some of the best biscuits I've ever eaten. This small bakery (with a terrific outdoor area) has a condiment bar with a variety of specialty butters and jams prepared daily.
What else should we know about the Chicago cocktail scene?
In the past 3 years, I have noticed a depth to the Chicago cocktail scene. Not only do we have speakeasy-style cocktail bars like The Violet Hour serving perfectly executed "pre-prohibition era" cocktails, but we have a variety of options available to us now. You can get Alinea-esque cocktails at The Aviary, great cocktails in a casual setting at Scofflaw, and even spirit specific bars like Masa Azul (all agave spirits) and La Sirena Clandestina (South American spirits like Cachaca and Pisco).
Photo Credits: Paul McGee and bistecca courtesy of RPM Italian; Telegraph courtesy of Telegraph Restaurant and Wine Bar; Big Star patio courtesy of Big Star
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