Season’s Eatings

Michael Nagrant / 11.28.07

You can’t end the cycle can you? Your great grandfather took your grandfather who took your father who took you to the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s. Doped up on Frango mints, your chin dribbled with white veloute from the flaky pot pie, as you gazed skyward at the tallest Christmas tree you’d ever seen. The restaurant chandeliers were refracting crystal kaleidoscopes for the glinting golden strings of Christmas lights.

Of course, what you don’t remember is the two-hour wait for a table, your sweaty feet jailed in horrid moon boots, hundreds of your juvenile compatriots in the ADHD mafia testing the fortitude of their wilting parents. And once you got a table, you competed for the affection of your server with 450 others, only to score slightly above average though uninspired plates of food. Of course, back then you were only interested in tipping over that endless glass of cherry Coke and picking over your chicken fingers.

Lest you think I’m being Scroogey, I get it. I really do. I shed tears over what I thought was my last stein of Berghoff dark and pink slices of steamed corn beef a couple years ago. Heck, I got suckered into buying a portrait of Bertha Palmer from the Berghoff auction. I love Chicago tradition. In fact I’m getting goose-bumpy just thinking about the dark wainscoted lobby of the Walnut Room, the gold-trimmed elevators and the magnificent alabaster columns on the perfume and cosmetics level. But I also know I can get my low traffic, line-free fix anytime after December.

Even if you make the Walnut visit, you will inevitably find yourself sweaty, tired and cranky carting armloads of shopping bags down State Street and Michigan Avenue again at some point during the holiday season. Skip the siren call of Jimmy Johns, McDonald’s or Bennigan’s. Don’t let “Black Friday” become an apt descriptor for your eating fortunes as well as your failure to snatch that free DVD player or inkjet printer at 5am at Radio Shack. Instead, check out this downtown shoppers holiday guide to good eats.

State Street

Frontera Fresco, Seventh Floor, Macy’s 111 North State

You don’t have to give up Macy’s altogether. Scoot in for all-natural chicken huaraches and chorizo quesadillas from Rick Bayless, and sneak a peak at the big tree in the nearby Walnut Room line-free.

Pizanos, 61 East Madison, (312)236-1777

Rudy Malnati Jr. might live in the pizza shadow of his brother Lou, but anyone with half a palate knows Rudy makes the better deep-dish pie. The flaky buttery crust and judicious use of ingredients here ensures your holiday shopping won’t end with a debilitating gut bomb.

Pastoral, 53 East Lake, (312)658-1250

Their Canard Balsamico featuring duck confit, balsamic-glazed cipollini onions, greens, dijon mustard and fromager d’affinois cheese on Bennison’s bakery bread may be the best sandwich in the loop.

Spa Café, 112 West Monroe, (312)551-0000

Owner Patrick Cassata is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Chomp down on “Quesanini,” a Panini-pressed whole-wheat tortilla filled with savory goods like chicken, brie, grilled leeks, mango and cilantro, or try the kicked-up fresh made soups like roast cauliflower with a tangy infusion of blue cheese—so velvety smooth that it would be at home in any of Chicago’s best restaurants.

Atwood Café, 1 West Washington, (312)368-1900

Atwood’s dark woods, lush drapes and smooth suede seats will comfort shopping aches as you chow down on Chef Heather Terhune’s tasty farm-inspired fare. The Moroccan-spiced lamb burger with orange-beet-olive relish, cabbage-slaw will fuel you for the rest of the afternoon.

Michigan Avenue

Viand, 155 East Ontario, (312)255-8505

Featuring in-house-baked airy foccacia and chewy pretzel bread with a side of Dijon mustard butter, Viand might have the best bread basket in town. Even though it’s on the dinner menu, demand the four-cheese ravioli with white truffle sauce and red wine for lunch. It’s like a cheese-and-jelly sandwich with black truffles, but in a good way.

CND Gyros, 205 East Grand, (312)467-4195

Sure it looks like a sketchy bar in the shadow of the Michigan Avenue pedestrian bridge, but so is the original Billy Goat Tavern. Gyro melts the thing.

Wow Bao, 835 North Michigan

Wow Bao is basically a glorified mall food court stand, but in the tasty spirit of Beijing street food. The airy steamed sweet dough dumplings filled with BBQ pork, chicken teriyaki, spicy Mongolian beef here are also the perfect portable power boost if it’s December 24 and you still haven’t finished your Christmas shopping.

Sayat Nova, 157 East Ohio, (312)644-9159

Slink down in the white grotto booths and chill like a Middle Eastern Hugh Hefner while you chow down yalancha sarma (grape leaves stuffed with rice, chick peas, pine nuts, onions and tomatoes) and spit-roasted lamb kufta meatballs with hot yogurt mint soup.

This article first appeared in Newcity.