I'm old enough to know that birthdays will be what you make of them. So for my birthday every year, I coerce my 4 best friends to meet me in another city for a weekend of food adventures and being cold. This year, low airfares and a famed shiny bean were enough to persuade the squad to book tickets for Chicago. Illinois is a state I hadn't before visited and the only parameters I had set were "let's go to a city I haven't been to before and eat everything." They agreed.
The email thread leading up to the trip nailed two things down: 1.) holy sh*t we're adults now, who plan things via email and not text message. Is this what your late twenties are like? 2.) "where are we eating?" is probably the only question that needed answering after "where are we sleeping?"
A list was rounded out. With help from one of account managers, Allie, we cobbled together a list of restaurants and bars that were "must-sees." Lots of animals in the names - goat, cheval, dove, chicken. Next? Make some reservations... shout out to Open Table for making that a process that required a few clicks and no calls.
March 10th rolled around and we were off. Imagine departing a freakishly sunny Los Angeles and landing in jeans, a Richer Poorer tee and a wool coat thinking "What does 30º feel like again?" and being reminded as I stepped off the plane and the gap between the plane and the jet bridge delivered a breeze that made me understand "freezer burn."
The Los Angeles contingent consisted of my friend Joe and I and we arrived to the Airbnb to balloons and donuts from the Doughnut Vault. A knock on the door announced the arrival of our "quinessential Chicago dinner" which included Italian Beefs, Chicago dogs and of course, a deep dish from Pequod's. As a native Angeleno and a big proponent of pizzas everyday, I have to confess... I don't get it. There's so much bread. It reminded me of elementary school and those french bread pizzas. Lots of carbs, very filling. If loving NY-style thin crust is a sin, call me a sinner.
The next morning found us completely bundled up - think heattech undershirt tucked into thermal leggings tucked into my wool socks. I don't ever recall FEELING my clothes on me until that day. We piled into a Lyft and pulled up to our first reservation spot - The Publican.
The car door opened and it hit me like a wave. The air smelled like chocolate. Chocolate. The air. Smelled like chocolate. Heady and saccharine, whatever it was wafted freely between the brick buildings and none of the locals seemed phased. It was like the episode of How I Met Your Mother with the apartment in the neighbourhood of "Dowisetrpla" except that instead of a sewage treatment plant, it must have been a chocolate factory. Did Willy Wonka take up residence in the Windy City? Staggering through the candied street, I was shepherded into the hallowed hall of The Publican. Greeted by massive paintings of heritage pork breeds, we were seated at the dining table that intersected the dining room. Tall-backed wooden chairs the reminded me of church and an eclectic European menu that mingled with hearty midwest sensibility. (Cold weather, hearty foods.) A round of oysters, Wellfleet whenever possible, accompanied by weisswurst, soft pretzel, pork belly, potato hash, crab scramble and an endive salad because we're from LA and for appearances sake at least, a salad of some kind needed to hit the table. And of course, french fries topped with an egg. Because it was an option. Why isn't it an option everywhere? Potatoes are in almost every restaurant. So are eggs. Answer me, America!
After lunch, in a carb coma, we stumbled over to Publican Meats and marvelled before making our way towards that mysterious chocolate smell. On the way, we stumbled across a leaking, frozen fire hydrant.
Upon closer inspection, we found a set of car keys. It was rather unsettling and to this day, I wonder if that poor St. Paddy's Day parade goer ever found his keys...
Our noses led up to Blommer Chocolate Factory. We stocked up and made our way, following the green-clad crowds to the green river. A visit to the shiny bean was followed up by a recommendation from our Lyft driver. Cindy's. A rooftop bar that overlooked Millennium Park. The inside resembled a greenhouse meets beach house and we settled in with cocktails and a bottle of Le Seul Vi Elderberry wild ale. A needed respite from the cold and an amazing view. We stopped downstairs at the game room of the Chicago Athletic Association before heading off to dinner, Nico Osteria in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood.
There we were saddled with a huge tray of bread which we gawked at, then readily devoured, fighting over the slices with the whole olives hidden like tiny Baby Jesus's in the bread. We stuffed ourselves with crudo, grilled octopus, stuffed papparadelle, orecchiette, and osso bucco. The flavours were beautiful - light but hearty, the perfect balance of acid and fat. We slept soundly that night.
The next morning was breakfast at Dove's Luncheonette. A fantastic name that let's the food creep up on you. Pleased to find incredible Mexican flavors in America's heartland, served with a southern slant. I also spotted some apron squad members working the line, always a good sign! The ceviche was a must and Joe, being allergic to shrimp, still participated. There was also a runny egg topping carnitas. The pozole was so good I honestly can't remember what else we ate. Be sure to order it. Warm ya right up.
More meandering before drinks at Violet Hour. Incredible ambiance, intimate yet bustling. Our server explained confidently each of his favorite cocktails and the experience was entirely welcome, paving way for great conversation and debates. We left with just enough time to get to our dinner reservation, amazed at the sudden blanket of snow that ascended on Wicker Park as we sipped at our drinks.
Girl and the Goat. Our final dinner in Chicago. We popped shishito peppers like they were chips and chased them with a roasted beet salad. (Always say yes to anchovies.) The flavors were bold and braided together seamlessly. I had never had duck tartare before that night. The pig face was succulent and so well balanced I wanted to cry. I appreciate the use of tamarind, harissa and piri piri. Funky. Brilliant.
We were the last diners and went off into the snow, Chicago's first of 2017.
Now, without intending to, we had visited five of eight One Off Hospitality Group joints. And finally I have a place to sing their praises. The common thread of wholehearted hospitality (read: incredibly knowledgeable and warm wait staff) and a "notch above cool" ambiance (read: utterly comfortable in their own skin and vibe) ran through all the places we dined/drank at. The Malin + Goetz soap and Dyson hand-dryers were a "hey, we care about design and aesthetics" while still allowing each place to do justice to its own brand identity. The menus were expansive but not overwhelming, giving guidance without actually saying a word to the diner. Cohesive without being boring, I highly recommend someone just plan a trip to Chicago and eat at ALL of the One Off restaurants and report back.
Ipsento - Best coffee in Chicago. Cute baristas who bring you croissants and offer bar suggestions. Thumbs up.
Honey Butter Chicken - Don't know what's better, the chicken, the honey butter or the pimento mac-n-cheese. Get all three. They also have beer. And bloody mary's.
Speaking of, I had a bloody mary at every opportunity. Chicago, you spoil me.
Wish I had a chance to eat at Parachute. I love that Chicago has such diverse culinary cultures intermingling.
Forgive me for the lack of food pictures. I'm hardly that person anymore and combined with the fact that I usually have the first bite in my mouth before the waiter even leaves, my photo roll was quite lacking this time around.
How about you? Any must-haves in Chicago? What are your thoughts (non-Chicagoans) on deep dish? Am I missing the point? Teach me how to live!
-- Diane is Hedley & Bennett's Brand Manager and was not paid by One Off Hospitality for this sparkling review. She's just a huge nerd with a passion for good soap. And design.
TONS of people have been asking me about my trip to Cuba. It's been a couple months, but it's better late than never. Here's the 411:
Bring a lot of cash! American credit cards are not excepted in Cuba yet so what you enter with is what you will have.
Don't buy cigars from anywhere except for inside hotels or at the airport! A lot of people want to sell you cigars on the street but you'll run the risk of buying counterfeit cigars which means they just rolled them at home and they don't smoke the same way as the proper cigar.
Romeo and Juliet are the best cigars. Cohiba is a little bit stronger and way harder to smoke.
Don't wear anything super flashy, wear casual clothes. Everyone wears pretty run down gear so you don't want to be walking around in some epic outfit or anything. Bring a good outfit and then stick to comfy walking shoes, a ton of shorts and breezy short sleeved collar shirts or button ups that are light weight. You can buy a Cuban hat when you're there.
For a really great time and a visit to a very classic place, go to la bodeguita del medio to eat.
Our favorite meal in Havana was at "Doña Eutimia". Believe it or not you have to make a reservation because it is always fucking packed. It is super delicious, like really delicious classic Cuban food and is it is very cute. Right next to it to the left is a really amazing art studio that you need to pop your head into before you sit down and eat.
PLEASE NOTE: Cuba does not have crazy epic delicious food yet because of the embargo. You will probably have better Cuban food in the United States but regardless you have to eat tostones- fried plantains, black beans and rice, rope vieja- shredded beef dish, picadillo- ground beef dish while you are there. Eat all those at Doña Eutemia.
One of the best experiences was walking by what looked like an old abandoned building and peering inside to find a freaking dance company in full fledged rehearsal. I took part in their rehearsal and looked like a goof ball but who cares! It was a real treat to see this go down in a very rundown building. It's near old Havana and if you look for the corner of Trocadero and Consulado, it's on the same block and same side as a place called hotel Lido Havana. It looks like a total neighborhood street but if you peer inside the different door ways, you will see a dance rehearsal in there that will blow you away. They usually rehearse from 10 am -12 pm. Please try and see that, it's so amazing!
You need to go visit the cigar factory in Old Havana.
The national art museum also known as The museum of Cuban art is also really great.
A very old school mobster like hotel you should visit and see the old school pool and architecture is the hotel habana riviera. Super old school movie stars would stay here and it's totally rat pack 1950s looking.
Walk down Obispo - another great street to cruise on.
Walk down Mercaderes, great street for walking and looking at the epic architecture.
You must go to "Fabrica Del Arte". This is a super cool and VERY ahead of its time, art gallery meets night club but it's really cool and totally unexpected and different.
The cemetery in the middle of Havana is crazy and is one of the biggest in Latin America so it's worth a stroll through there.
For a clean and simple meal where you can get delicious fresh pineapple juice and other drinks and talk to other interesting backpackers and world travelers, go to "el chanchulero."-Havana
For wifi you can go to the Saratoga which is the only hotel that if you stay there, they give you unlimited access to wifi. NO ONE has that in Cuba except for that hotel from what we saw. It's the nicest hotel in Havana compared to a lot of places we saw and it's really well located.
The other hotel that's really epic is called the Hotel nacional de Cuba. That one is really old school.
You can rent an old school American convertible for about 35 Cuban pesos and they will drive you around the city. They will stop you at different spots to take photos and charge you little one pesos and two pesos here and there though too so be prepared to get hustled.
A very cool antique shop on O'reilly street in old Havana - it is on Villegas (that's the street) #101 between San Juan de dios and O'reilly.
Attending a baseball game in Havana is also a really good time. That is something that tourists don't always but is legitimately super freaking fun!
If you want to go out of Havana. Everyone recommended Cien fuegos and Trinidad which are cities outside of Havana. We went to Varadero which was a very small town but had really beautiful beaches. We stayed there 2 nights which was plenty.
We bought our tickets online through a canadian website. We flew from Miami to Cayman Islands and then booked a separate flight back through Mexico City and back to LA.
VISAS- We got ours in the Cayman Islands at the airport for 20 bucks each on our layover.
It was pretty straight forward coming back in via mexico and we even had our passports stamped by Cuban immigration and American immigration didn't make a fuss of it. One thing to note though is we did check that we were there for business reasons + "professional research".
HOTELS- where to stay
We stayed at a pretty great hotel called The Saratoga and at another place called the Hotel Inglattera.
But lots of people stay at houses that are private homes similar to Air bnb. I have a handful of places that I could recommend. A lot of those home are on trip advisor too.