When my mom, my daughter and I recently visited Chicago, one of the highlights of our trip was taking in the tastes of the city. Not only did we enjoy some of the best food Chicago has to offer, we did so while learning how the city has developed, from the fire of 1891 through the World’s Fair, Prohibition and beyond.
Our guide was the lovely Annalynn from Taste Bud Tours, who took us to six eating establishments that are woven into the history of this city.
More than a few restaurants claim to make the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago, and Pizano’s is one of them. Since this was our first stop, I’d planned to pace myself by just taking a bite or two. Then Annalynn emerged from the kitchen with two slices for each of us – one sausage and one cheese. The sausage pizza was especially excellent; the sausage was sweet and juicy, and the crust was crisp and buttery. Despite my best intentions, I finished it. (I also ate half the cheese slice, leaving the rest on my plate for decorum’s sake.)
It’s often said that the best pizzas in town are made by Pizano’s and Lou Malnati’s, which is ironic because the chains were founded by brothers. I can’t vouch for Lou Malnati’s, but Pizano’s makes one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten.
A short walk took us to the Palmer House Hotel. The original Palmer House was a wedding gift from Potter Palmer to his wife, and was reputed to have been lovely. However, it was open for just thirteen days before being destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Since then, it has been rebuilt and restored several times, but each time they’ve maintained the style of the first restoration. Their guest list over the years is impressive: a small sample of their patrons includes Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain, Nat King Cole, and at least four presidents of the United States (Harry Truman, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and Grover Cleveland).
Including the Palmer House on this tour was not only historically interesting, it also fit the theme perfectly. During the World’s Fair of 1893, the hotel was the birthplace of the chocolate brownie. We enjoyed our fudgy brownies in the stunning second-floor lobby, feeling like royalty.
Al Ferrari developed his original Italian Beef Sandwich recipe in 1938, preparing the sandwiches in his kitchen and selling them at a local food stand. They became so popular, he and his family later opened a store and increased the number of sandwiches available. Al’s makes a terrific (if slightly messy) sandwich, piled high with shaved beef and nostalgia. Served with gravy for dipping and sweet peppers on the side, it's best eaten while employing The Italian Stance, explained above. The company spokesman is another Chicago institution, Mike Ditka.
Although there’s no food connection for the Chicago Cultural Center, we were thrilled to see it. The Cultural Centre was originally built as the first Chicago public library before being converted when the collection outgrew its surroundings. With its wall mosaics, stained-glass windows and the world’s largest Tiffany glass ceiling, it’s hard to imagine a lovelier library anywhere. We arrived during one of its free classical music concerts and were completely impressed by this stunning building. It was easy to see why it’s such a popular location for weddings and parties, and why it is sometimes booked years in advance. If we hadn’t been on the tour we probably wouldn’t have stopped here, and it was one of the highlights of my day.
|My mom, Teresa Ging, me, my daughter|
With all the history we were witnessing, it was a pleasure to visit the Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, a modern addition to Chicago’s food scene. Teresa Ging was working in Finance before leaving to pursue her dream: studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, and returning to Chicago to open a cupcake shop. She spent eight months developing and testing cupcake recipes as she prepared to open her business. (Possibly the best homework assignment, ever.)
Sugar Bliss began as a catering service, and a few years later Ging opened the retail store. It was awarded the prize for Best New Business in Chicago in 2010, and she was invited to the White House by Barack Obama. Annalynn gave us each a mini-cupcake, which were as delicious as they were adorable. These barely-bigger-than-bite-size treats packed enough flavour to make it feel like we were dreaming in chocolate and buttercream.
It’s hard not to love a place that sells breakfast cupcakes, not to mention frosting shots. And just when we thought we couldn’t love it any more, Teresa Ging came from behind the counter to pose for a photo with us.
Clearly, we hadn’t eaten enough sweets, and so Fannie May Chocolates was our next stop. This Chicago institution was founded in 1920 to make handcrafted chocolate. Refusing to compromise his integrity, the first owner sometimes closed the shop during the Second World War when he couldn’t get the high-quality ingredients he needed. Today Fannie May’s is owned by a large corporation, but the quality of the chocolate is still exceptional.
I saved my samples for a time when I was a little less full. I loved the pecan caramel Pixies, and the mint meltaways that I brought home for the rest of my family were a huge hit. And Annalynn swears by the coconut and dark chocolate Trinidads.
By this point in the day, I didn’t think I could eat anything else, and our only remaining stop was at the Berghoff, a German restaurant. This family of brewers made their name by selling Berghoff’s beer at the World’s Fair. It was such a hit that they opened a café in the city, selling beer for a nickel and giving sandwiches away for free. They thrived until Prohibition, and managed to stay afloat during that time by developing an iconic root beer that remains popular today. Berghoff’s was the first restaurant in Chicago to get its liquor license back after the end of Prohibition, and its #1 Liquor License still hangs on the wall of the bar.
We weren't particularly hungry by this point in the day, but after a couple of sweet shops, the tangy German flavours on our plates were more than appealing. The bratwurst served with sauerkraut and potato salad was so good that not one of the stuffed travellers could resist!
|Annalynn, bearing cupcakes|