Beyond the Gut Bomb (Loop Lunch Alternatives)

Michael Nagrant / 07.14.06


Spa Cafe’s Steak Quesanini

This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal

The modern workday is a Sisyphean collection of personal trials. It starts out with you walking bleary-eyed across the rust-colored iron trusses of the Chicago River bridges, or sweltering in overpacked el cars dodging errant briefcases.

Then there’s the descent into the cubicle, the modern sensory deprivation chamber, a fabric box of Post-it Notes and push pins. This is where you spend your first work hour, checking whether the Cubs finally won a game, flipping through the digital New York Times, or reading the latest blog rant in a state of paranoia reserved for citizens of socialist dictatorial regimes. It’s only a matter of moments before your boss arrives with ridiculous demands.

After hours of this, your only respite is that hurried 45 minutes of lunch. A jaunt from the office leads you to fast food gut bombs and mystery meat piled high on flaccid loaves of bread with cloying sauces that leave you swamped like an office Buddha in your ergonomic desk chair. Food coma descends, and the dream of banging through reports like a desktop Hemingway is lost forever.

But take heart. Over the last few years, a handful of affordable, gourmet, and often healthy alternatives have popped up in the Loop. Here’s a quick guide to get you through the workday.

Spa Café

112 W. Monroe 312/551-0000

You can take the chef out of a gourmet restaurant, but you can’t take the gourmet restaurant out of the chef. Owner Patrick Cassata, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, owned the critically acclaimed Eclectic gourmet restaurant in suburban Barrington until it closed in February.

His new concept, Spa Café in the financial district, is a Zen garden of healthy gourmet lunch fare. The potted palms, sky-blue tile, dark woods, and the in-wall waterfall recall an upscale day spa more than a restaurant. If there’s any question about freshness, it’s put to rest by the stainless steel cauldrons and gleaming sauté pans bubbling with homemade stocks, sauces, and soups on the vast commercial range.

Cassata works the pass with grace, focus and quick wit, serving up whole wheat wrapped Chicken Tinga slow cooked with chipotles which, if you’re counting calories, weighs in at a meager 171.7 calories and 5.7 grams of fat. Cassata relies on spices, herbs, and seasonings over fatty lipids for superb flavor.

Spa Café’ has also invented the “Quesanini”, a Panini pressed whole wheat tortilla filled with savory goods like chicken, brie, grilled leeks, mango, and cilantro. Despite the questionable name, the crispy grilled exterior and the chewy soft interior is an interesting study in texture.

Cassata’s culinary flare really shines through in his soups. A special like roast cauliflower with a tangy infusion of blue cheese is velvety smooth, and would be at home in any of Chicago’s best restaurants. For $6.95, you can get a wrap or a Quesanini, a small soup, and an additional side.


175 North Franklin 312-634-1134

Goodwin’s is located in the historic Lake Franklin complex of buildings. Constructed in 1872 by Edward Burling and Dankmar Adler (later Adler moved on to partner with Louis Sullivan), these are the oldest post-Chicago fire buildings in the Loop. Early businesses included a tannery, leather dealer, a manufacturer of iron and woodworking machinery, mitten and hat manufacturers, and a corner saloon.

Goodwin’s carries on the commercial tradition by serving up California and Southwestern-inspired cuisine in the shadow of the el tracks. During the lunch rush, it’s like trying to score tickets to a Pearl Jam concert at Ticketmaster circa 1994. The line from the basement counter spills up the stairs and out on to Franklin. It goes quick. Mike Shepard, the proprietor, is hands-on, expediting orders or finishing a sandwich. A calm presence in the center of the storm, he always takes time to catch up with his customers.

Goodwin’s has torpedo-sized wraps with pinwheel cross-sections of mesquite roasted chicken breast, ivory provolone, and pico de gallo, and fat sandwiches like the “Brighton”, overstuffed with Boars Head turkey breast, cranberry dressing, and cream cheese. It’s like portable Thanksgiving on thick slices of multigrain. The housemade garlicky guacamole, served with tortilla chips, is also exceptional.

Lawry’s, The Prime Rib

100 E. Ontario 312-787-5000

This Italian-style renaissance mansion would make Liberace blush. A veritable old-money haunt, replete with vaulted ceilings, sweeping spiral staircases, leather-backed chairs, and crystal chandeliers, once belonged to Cyrus McCormick’s nephew. In 1937 it was converted by Frederick Chramer into the Kungsholm restaurant and Miniature Grand Opera. Until 1971, the Kungsholm served and entertained generations of Chicagoans with its huge smorgasbord-style buffet and miniature puppet opera shows. Patrons were treated to the theatrics of articulated wooden rod puppets re-enacting Carmen along with vintage Victor Recording soundtracks of Leontyne Price.

In 1974, Lawry’s opened, and it has been serving up hunks of carmelized prime rib roasted on rock salt beds ever since. In the evening, the entrée prices match the opulence of the surroundings, but at lunch you can revel in the grandeur and score a bargain. For $13 you get a prime rib sandwich sliced off the whole rack to your pinkness/doneness preference, with a dollop of horseradish and a side of crispy homemade potato chips.

The Soupbox

50 E. Chicago 312/951-5900

There’s no Soup Nazi at this liquid lunch outpost. Instead, friendly soup sommeliers ladle out thimble-sized samples from cast iron cauldrons to help you choose among the twelve homemade soups brewed daily. Regular options like cream of potato and leek, and tomato and basil bisque are served in Italian bread bowls or with a wedge of bread on the side starting at $4.50. The lobster bisque is creamy with a tinge of sherry, while the Chicken Dumpling is perfumed with the piney waft of rosemary. The soups are filling and satisfying, even on a summer afternoon. But the salads—like the apple berry served with green mounds of chopped romaine, sliced apples, dried cranberries, and bleu cheese with a drizzle of raspberry vinaigrette—can be a worthwhile diversion.