Just on the other side of the river from downtown Chicago is the West Loop, which was and remains an active industrial district. The city wears its blue collar proudly, and it was in this neighborhood that organized labor staged a rally in 1886 advocating for the eight-hour work day, an event that devolved into a deadly riot. In recent years, the area has transformed to also house some of the country’s best restaurants, with places including James Beard award winners, “Top Chef” winners and recipients of every other imaginable culinary accolade. Or if it’s more your thing, McDonald’s just opened its new world headquarters in the neighborhood, where you can sample Ronald’s specialties from around the globe. But don’t go there until after you’ve tried some of these more unique offerings.
Many of the city’s notable breakfast joints are the kind of places that preclude the need for lunch, but that’s not what they do at Eastman Egg Company (939 W. Randolph St.; 773-231-8865; eastmanegg.com). The bricks-and-mortar location evokes its roots as a food truck, with everything made to order, quickly, from sources listed prominently on the walls. The eggs and sausage come from Slagel Family Farm, two hours south in Fairbury, Ill.; the bread from Red Hen Bakery in Oak Park and coffee from New York’s Irving Farm Coffee Roasters. The menu lets you build your own omelets or sandwiches on brioche or biscuits, or pick from some signatures. The SMS Biscuit sandwich ($6.40) stacks a scrambled egg as fluffy as the biscuit with sausage, wilted spinach, white cheddar and house-made mustard. A side order of hash browns ($2) is a filling tangle of shredded potatoes even if it could be more, well, brown. They also offer house-made potato chips ($2) that make a worthy side.
There are a few things other than burgers on the menu at Au Cheval (800 W. Randolph St.; 312-929-4580; auchevalchicago.com), but going there and not ordering a burger is a tremendous strategic error. When you walk through the door — which you’ll probably do after waiting in a line, making anticipation part of the experience — you’ll be hit with the aroma of beef on the flap top behind the bar. It’s always filled with sizzling burgers to keep up with demand. So order the cheeseburger ($12) and customize it as you like. They’ll put a fried egg on anything, and it’ll cost an extra $1. Remarkably thick slabs of bacon will add $3.50 to the cost of the burger, but if you like bacon, it’s a good investment in your happiness. A side of fries ($6.25, plain) can be upgraded with cheesy Mornay sauce, a fried egg and a side of aggressively garlicky aioli ($9.95). Call them gentrifries. The dark, wood-paneled decor evokes another era, and so do all the executive types chasing primal platters of marrow bones ($18.50) with shots of the house whiskey ($3.50) during the weekday lunch hour. But there’s a sweet reward for temperance: The root beer ($3.50) is on draft and comes straight from Berghoff’s across town.
When John and Karen Urie Shields closed Town House in southwestern Virginia, the early word was they were going to open a new place in Washington. That didn’t happen, and the couple ended up back in Chicago, where each worked in high-profile kitchens early in their careers. They opened a space with two distinct restaurants, the more casual of which is the Loyalist, downstairs (177 Ada St.; 773-913-3773; smythandtheloyalist.com). “More casual” is distinctly relative: upstairs is Smyth, which offers a high-end tasting menu. The Loyalist is billed as a neighborhood spot, albeit one where you meet your pals for eclairs filled with foie gras mousse ($14). It’s decadence masquerading as a common treat. A pasta entree flips that trick, taking a lowbrow ingredient — tripe — and letting it co-star with short ribs in a long-simmered sauce over ricotta cavatelli ($22). The dish gets color from a generous scatter of parsley which isn’t just a garnish; it gives the dish a peppery pop. It’s worth putting the bartenders through the paces as well. We tried enough of the cocktails to feel quite comfortable recommending any of them, with a possible nod to Doctor’s Orders a mix of bourbon, strega, Scotch, honey, lemon and pine ($12) that’s worthwhile whether it cures anything or not.
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