Casual Neighborhood Chicago Eating: Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again?

Most of our this trip’s restaurant experiences were in fine-dining restaurants. And, since the James Beard nominations had only recently come out, we decided to focus on a number of newly nominated, or recently winning restaurants. Our experiences are discussed in the preceding blog, Chicago Fine Dining Restaurant Update. But, for all our time in renowned restaurants, we also took a little time for nostalgia. This came in the form of visits to two of our favorite, casual restaurants from the many years ago when we lived in Chicago. And then, after a number of years of shunning it, we decided that it was time to retry one of Chicago’s staple foods—deep dish pizza.

  • Half Shell is quite literally a hole in the wall that serves a wide range of raw, steamed and fried seafood–no broiled, grilled or asked–only raw, steamed and fried. So, to relive the old days, we began by sharing an incredibly inexpensive shrimp cocktail with six of the largest (probably 6-8 count), tastiest shrimp we have had in a long time, we followed this up with two of our old favorites–a large (refreshingly not overly salty) serving of steamed Alaskan king crab legs and a heaping platter of fried seafood, consisting of perch, smelt, frog legs and clams. Although the wine list is certainly nothing to write home about, the food was wonderful–just as we remembered it. Even better, the restaurant now provides an option to sitting in the dark, rather claustrophobic basement. It now has a number of tables outside, where you can take in the bustle of Diversey Avenue.
  • Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder serves pizza with a twist–literally. The "pies" come in half-pound and one-pound bowls have the cheese on the bottom, the crust on top and a very good meat sauce in the middle. When it arrives, the server turns the bowl upside down, pries the crust from the bowl and plops it onto the plate. As good, and as filling as the pizza is, you can’t even think of going without beginning dinner with the Mediterranean Bread, an oiled flatbread loaded with Mediterranean spices. (And by the way, as you will see from the menu, the restaurant is directly across the street from the site of the Chicago Massacre.)
  • Lou Malnati’s: Deep Dish Pizza Redux. Although we, like everybody else, initially got hooked on Chicago’s deep-dish pizza, after a few years, and the closure of our favorite restaurant, we began to tire of it; greatly preferring Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder. After trying and retrying a number of the city’s traditional deep dish emporia (including Gino’s East, Pizzeria Uno, Pizzeria Due and Lou Malnati’s), we decided to take another chance–this time by giving the highly recommended Lou’s, one more try. But, since this trip’s restaurant card was totally filled, we decided to apply a technique we had applied many times when bringing one of Chicago’s most famous exports home to our families in Syracuse. We ordered a specially-wrapped, half-baked pizza, put it in our hotel’s freezer, and carried it back to San Francisco. (TSA is much more tolerant of carrying on Chicago pizza than it is of New York chopped liver!). Our verdict—this Lou’s pizza was almost enough to restore our faith in deep dish pizza. The “Buttercrust” in particular, is almost worth the cost. But, while we certainly enjoyed the pizza, we will stay with our homemade own pizzas, which pile deep dish-like quantities of ingredients on a thin-crust pizza. At least it makes us feel that we are eating more healthily.

And speaking of return visits to old time favorites, I have to mention breakfast. Although our breakfast needs are generally limited, we typically like to begin the day with something—perhaps a piece of fruit or a muffin. Although every city has stores, restaurants, stalls or carts where you can pick something up, Chicago has more than its share. One of our favorites is the ubiquitous:

  • Corner Bakery Café, which seems to be located on every other Chicago street corner and always provides an enticing selection of fruits, baked goods, yogurts and other basic breakfast dishes-not to speak of free WiFi.

But with all these stops, there were two of our old favorites that we couldn’t quite fit in:

  • Chicago hot dogs, now in the form of Hot Doug’s; and
  • Gyros, which are becoming increasingly difficult to find, now that all of our old neighborhood favorites are now closed (although thet are still available in other areas, and especially Greektown.)

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