Seeing as I had the absolutely fabulous opportunity to hang in Downtown Chicago this past weekend, you’re getting the (deep) dish on some of my trip highlights. Between the music, the culture of Chi-Town and a BYOB brunch to rival some of NYC’s best, I‘ve got some awesomeness to share with y’all you all.
Let’s talk eats… obviously, I managed to get a BYOB brunch in there (2x). Yolk in South Loop (S Michigan Ave btwn E 11th St/E Roosevelt) was legit. We rolled up with bottles of Prosecco, ordered some orange juice to-go and hung out/drank in the courtyard while waiting for our table. Once we were called, we had some top notch egg dishes in skillets, omelets and sammies – everything costs under $10 and includes your choice of pancakes (a HUGE order), an English muffin or toast. Oh, and there’s NO CHARGE for Egg Beaters or whites. Kick ass deal. This girl LOVES it.
Music? Yeah, there was music. Holla for Lolla(palooza) – some of my favorite eargasm-able artists rocked the crowd. My highlights include:
Foster the People – Houdini
Phantogram – When I’m Small
Manchester Orchestra – I’ve Got Friends
Local Natives – Cubism Dream
Fitz and the Tantrums – Don’t Gotta Work It Out
Foster the People @ Belve Lounge
Culture, ok, there’s some of that too. Chicago-natives and tourists alike will enjoy the Architecture Tour ($25-35) – it’s a 90 minute expedition through the Chicago waterways checking out the buildings that make Chi-Town architecture truly remarkable. You get a little history, learn some fun facts – and hey, you’re on a boat! It’s definitely another attraction I deem worthy of looking up for – c’mon kids, your neck can handle it.
Marina City (Bertrand Goldberg)
After a long day of adventures in the windy city, treat yourself to a delicious little dinner – I’m a big fan of the inexpensive family-style Italian fare at Quartino. Thin crust pizza may not be Chicago’s signature slice, but the folks at Quartino know how to make a mean crispy pie. Not in the mood for Italian? Not a problem! Sign onto Savored.com and get hooked up with 30% off the total bill at the city’s hottest restos. Over and out; it’s been real, Chicago.
When my dad asked to make our Father’s Day plans in NYC, a bunch of ideas came to mind; I mean, my folks love a great time and will always partake in a lil cocktailing… I’ve had the sneaking suspicion they were a little sore I’ve never invited them to a boozy brunch. So I knew we had to do something a bit upscale that would also satisfy the wild child streak in those crazy kids. Throw in the fact that we’re a music loving family and the boozy Jazz Brunch at Garage Restaurant in the West Village (7th Ave South @ Grove St) was the way to go; this crowd pleasing filling-station is a spot you won’t want to just drive through.
Alternate Side(walk) Parking: Upon arrival, make some moves and decide whether it’s indoor or outdoor seating. You can opt to eat on the sun-drenched sidewalk where the service might be a little slow but the people watching and Vitamin D absorption happen fast. Conversely, play it cool inside the Garage and get close to the live music action, which is better for larger parties as well. Since we were just a party of 4 and it was a gorgeous little Sunday, we did the hang thang underneath an umbrella outside where we could catch just a little bit of the music AND some rays.
Gourmet Garage: We started with 4 MASSIVE shrimp from the raw bar ($3.95 each) then moved on to the $16.95 Prix Fixe Brunch, which includes a drink and was lovely. The Surf & Turf Benedict (+$5) was a big table hit and the Fresh Lobster, Applewood Smoked Bacon & Avocado Sandwich (+$5) made my dad’s day mouth-wateringly memorable. I was sold at “add $6 for an hour of AYCD brunch cocktails,” but then the Brunch Potatoes happened. They come with most dishes or a la carte ($3) and are a must-try – think a baked potato, doused with garlicky herbs and then smashed with the skin on… seriously FAB. Also worth mentioning is the dinner, where the appetizers are affordable and perfect for a meal that’s on the lighter side. The Green Apple and Bleu Cheese Salad ($14.25) was great and ideal if you’re not looking to splurge on one of their pricier entrees (no one likes to leave the garage with a wallet hit-and-run).
Garage Sale: Score some serious discounts on dining by booking a reservation through Savored – pay just $10 for your rez and you’ll get HUGE 30% savings off the total bill during dinner most nights… as if you needed another reason to get there. So put some distance on the old pedometer, drive walk on by and park yourself at Garage for an evening of pleasant jazz and tasty eats.
I’m aware that hearing about a new all-you-can-drink brunch special makes me way too happy. We all have our own cheap thrills, right? Mine just happen to be primarily concerned with cheap, boozy brunches… Throw in outdoor dining on a happening West Village corner (7th Ave South @ Grove St) and Mercadito Grove moves its way right to the top of my list (or way up there).
The Mercadito Group has several restaurants throughout NYC and the US, but Mercadito Grove is by far my favorite member of the family. With a fairly large outdoor seating area and excellent, inventive Mexican dishes on a very diverse menu, it’s my new warm weather go-to brunch spot. The best example of their creative take on south of the border standards is the Guacamole Granada ($9.50) which is interspersed with juicy pomegranate seeds and topped with queso fresco – I didn’t think it was too hot, though it does boast habanero as an ingredient. If you’re looking for a little more heat, ask them for a side of the habanero hot sauce to use throughout the meal.
To fully capitalize on our $25 of all inclusive brunching time, we decided to jump around the drink menu (note: everyone at the table needs to partake in the special – I don’t make the rules…). We tried all the mimosas (strawberry/pineapple/mango) – they’re the traditional OJ + champagne w/ a puree of the chosen fruit on top – strawberry was by far the best. The white sangria (white wine, brandy, pineapple, elderflower) was excellent, and t’was lovely to have beer in the AYCD options. For entrees, the rancheros are where it’s at: an ooey gooey delicious swamp of eggs and beans piled onto crispy tortillas. Spicy habanero sauce really kicked up the intensity of the somewhat bland Tacos de Camarones (shrimp). The Torta de Carne is a rosemary marinated skirt steak sandwich topped with bean purée, napa cabbage, tomato, jalapeño, avocado, oaxaca cheese – interested? Yep, thought so. Throw in the massive plates of black beans and herbed rice served with warm tortillas and you’ve got a feast of epic proportions.
Hungry yet? Actually, we left QUITE full… and you can believe I’ll be heading back – especially since they take brunch reservations! Also, have to mention that they have All You Cat Eat Tacos (10 varieties), ALL night Sunday/Monday, after 10pm Tues/Weds/Thurs and after 11pm Fri/Sat for only $23! So go on, Speedy Gonzales, get your fiesta started. With these great deals, you’ll be shouting “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!”
When someone asks me where they should take a date for dinner, I’ll do some Q&A to figure out what they’re looking for… BUT despite their answers, one of my suggestions is almost always bound to be In Vino. This East Village (4th St btwn Ave A/Ave B) dining destination is the perfect spot to get your love connection on – and regardless of the company, you’re going to adore this eating experience.
The wine list (or bible, if you will) can be a bit intimidating so if you find yourself lost, just ask your server for a recco. The Cannonau “Nero Sardo” ($32) is a versatile red I’ve gone back to again and again – a very reliable bottle. The Insalate di Endivia ($10) is a light option with bold flavors (mmm gorgonzola) and I’ve also had the Mussels which may have been a special (not on the online menu) but were definitely a good sized portion and great for sharing. One item I may not EVER share? The Ravioli Tartufati ai Porcini ($17); savory sachets of pasta deliciousness with a creamy truffle sauce. Best Ravioli I’ve ever had, hands down. Go get your own! Just to note, the pumpkin ravioli which appears from time to time on the specials menu is good, but I prefer a thinner consistency; they were more like dumplings (but still very tasty).
Though you lose the dark grotto-esque ambience that nighttime lends, weekend brunch at In Vino is still a hip scene with great eats. We started with customized mini-pitchers of sangria – I had the red and got a sparkling Prosecco topper (do it!). The brunch entrees were decadent – the Pane Tostato Mandorla ($10) French toast stuffed with strawberry + marscapone and THEN crusted with sliced almonds was completely over the top – I only got ½ way through but each bite was heaven. We also had the Uovo Benedetto ($11) – warm Poached Eggs on Rosemary Focaccia Toast w/ Grilled Prosciutto Cotto and Basil Hollandaise. Wowza.
If you’re a deal lover, book a rez through Savored to get 30% off your dinner bill Mon-Weds nights or Saturday till 3pm for brunch. Go with friends or bring the object of your heart’s desire and get a heart-on for these amazing Italian eats.
Brunch is always a bit of a party so there’s no shame in a loud brunch; there’s a time and a place for every rip roaring fiesta. Here to show your brunch a monster of a good time is a “little” place in the E.Ville (Ave B @ 3rd St) called Poco.
Poco is a tapas restaurant whose claim to fame is a brunch that balances good food with a superior AYCD brunch deal. If you want to dig up our past, I did have dinner at Poco 2 years ago; picture the following – me, a boy (yes, this was a date) and 2 women in corsets trying to put a mask on said date for a blind vodka taste testing. Clearly, this was not an ideal romance situation. I may have written Poco off altogether had it not been for a friend bringing their phenomenal brunch special to my attention nearly 12 months after said date disaster.
The dealio? $22 bones gets you an entrée and at LEAST 3 drinks (red/white sangria, blood mary, mimosa). We started with Bloodies (complete with blue cheese stuffed olives, mmm) and an order of the Lobster Mac’n’Cheese – I was quite easily persuaded into eating some. I think the Mac could’ve been a tad bit cheesier (t’was a lil runny) but all in all, the panko crusted starter was good for business. That and the free raisin/walnut bread and carrot cake mini muffins all help to curb the worst of your hangover.
We all went for omelets – 2 of us had the Truffled Mushroom Oms – 1 white/1 proper egg – both amazeballs (holler for truffles). The other order was the omelet of the day – Lobster, Goat Cheese, Spinach; awesome but pretty small for whatever reason, perhaps just the luck of the draw. If I wanted to get crazy, I would’ve gone for the pancakes of the day – Reese’s Peanut Buttercup Pancakes – WTF, is this real life?! No matter your order, the ish is good but the scene (if you’re ready/prepped for it) is great; so get your party on, there’s nothing wrong with a little Sunday Funday.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t wake up every weekend morning knowing full well what my brunch plans (if any) will entail. In fact, some of the best brunches I’ve had are the result of spontaneously seeing who’s around and picking a brunch resto at random; not worrying about rezzies and a big production. The best example of this practice set into motion is Macondo, a Latin spot bringing fuss-free brunch to impulsive diners in the LES (Houston btwn Allen/Eldridge).
The dining room at Macondo is open and bright with sprawling bench-like tables perfect for larger groups or communal seating (get to know your neighbors, wink wink). The relaxed atmosphere is perpetuated by the friendly servers who are always popping up to bring your next mimosa… Have I not gotten to the mimosas yet?! So here’s the scoop: $9 bucks gets you your first mimosa and ALL your following drinks are included! They have several flavors but the best by miles is the orange vanilla; you may be tempted to bring vanilla bean to future brunches to “Macondize” all subsequent mimosas – be forewarned.
We started with Yuca fries (think French fries but with much more fiber) – they were FANTASTIC served in a skillet with onions, Chimichurri sauce and queso fresco sprinkled on top. They’re in the “sides” section of the menu and are the perfect starter to share. My brunch date went with the Steak & Eggs which were a good sized portion (for $18, you’d hope it would be) that included 2 White Corn Arepas topped with Cabrales Cheese (the Arepas were good for a bite before the chalky consistency dried out my mouth – the one thing that I’d say they can work on). I was stuffed from the fries, which are a bit heavy, so I opted for a lighter option – the Manchego & Mushroom Omelet (I had whites) which comes with nutty toasted bread and home fries +peppers, a bargain at $10.
I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other dishes; the Blueberry Pancakes are at the top of my to-do list. I may EVEN make advanced plans to go the next time. You should DEF plan to get there for brunch, or don’t plan at all (impromptu brunch party!) – Either way it’s a spot that shouldn’t be missed!
When it comes to birthdays and other celebrations, most people love a good party, but can do without handling the logistics. Here to take the guesswork out of planning your next fiesta is Rhea Recommends’ Master Party List:
Best Large Group Party (Up to 30): Kumo Sushi takes the cake on this one. They have a massive party room in the back that’s easy to reserve. Plus with their $31.99 all you can eat and drink special, your party-goers will be full and drunk well imbibed in no time flat. Sake Bomb!
Best Party for a Mid-Sized Group: There’s something about eating at a big round table that makes any celebration better. My two fave round table options perfect for 8-10 heads? Mario Batali’s Otto (which also happens to be one of my top spots in NYC) or Chinatown Brasserie – both have large round tables and dishes built to share for the table.
Best BYOB Dinner: Birthday celebrations can get pricey, so bringing your own bottle of wine (or 6) can really help keep prices down. Round up your crew and head to the excellent Italian spot 11B or if you’re feeling Thai food, try Sticky Rice in the LES.
Biggest Shizz Show: Tortilla Flats. Tequila, Cinco de Mayo decorations year round, and more (very cheap) tequila. You’re going to have one hell of a good time and one hell of a headache the next day. Embrace the cheesy décor and let your inhibitions go.
Best Cocktails w/Light Bites: The Dove serves up excellent cocktails and has the perfect seating accommodations for a group ordering small bites with their drinks. Try to reserve the window seat! Another great option is Lunasa – they have very simple bar fare but the draw is the awesome backyard with picnic tables – it’s an excellent warm-weather option.
Best B-Day Brunch: No birthday is complete until you’ve met with your friends the next day to rehash the idiocy of the evening prior, and brunch is the perfect venue. For full on debauchery, I’d say Sunburnt Cow is the way to go, but if you’re looking to class it up a bit, you can always go with Essex… or any of the excellent options I’ve laid out for you here.
Whatever it is that you’re celebrating, cheers to you!