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My kind of town

  • Robert St. John says Chicago has become a personal mecca for him, combining an annual restaurant utopia trade show with an overabundance of excellent restaurants.

No one would ever accuse me of being a creature of habit. Other than my morning breakfast routine, I have managed to live a life free from getting pigeonholed into repetitive activities. There aren’t too many places I visit on an annual basis. For the past quarter of a century my wife, two kids, and various groups of their friends spend a week on the beach in the Florida Panhandle. But other than that, there is only Chicago.

I’ve been coming here almost every year— a least once a year— since 1988.

The National Restaurant Association holds its annual convention and trade show here every year in May. I rarely miss it. I come for several reasons. The show itself is massive, and one of the largest trade shows in the country. Anything and everything that has to do with restaurants from food to equipment to small wares is here under several roofs at McCormick Place on Lake Michigan. It’s Disneyworld for restauranteurs. But there is a more important reason that I love Chicago. It is, undisputedly— along with New York and New Orleans— one of America’s top three restaurant cities.

Combine a restaurant utopia trade show with an overabundance of excellent restaurants and a personal mecca has been created for someone such as me. Throw in the fact that I have several friends up here who are killing it in this industry and are at the top of their game in the restaurant world, and it’s restaurant heaven. To top it all off, my son has flown over from culinary school in New York to join me the past two years. We use it as an opportunity for father-son quality time, but we also eat our way across this wonderful restaurant city.

I’ve been coming to this restaurant show for over 35 years. Actually, I’ve been coming so long I can remember seeing booths on the showroom floor that proclaimed, “Computers are the future of the restaurant business.” I scoffed. Of course, a couple of years later, all point-of-sales terminals were computerized. My son continually hears the, “When I was a waiter, I used to have to write down all of my customers orders on a piece of paper and pass it through to the kitchen,” stories from his old man, but he endures. And when I repeat myself, he usually just nods and listens again as if he’s hearing it for the first time.

The fact that he’s in culinary school now greatly alters how we visit the show. I brought him as a high school teenager, and he seemed disinterested. These past two years he has had great input and insight and often schools this old restaurant dog— who’s been eating, sleeping, and breathing restaurants for the past 43 years— and offers new insight and information into products and techniques. I love that. It’s my hope that once he starts working in our businesses full time, he’ll blow past my level success in a matter of years and forge his own path to reach even greater heights and achievements.

He’s on a good road and he’ll be well prepared. When he came to me as a 14 year old and told me, “Dad, I want to get in the restaurant business one day.” I wrote it off as a passing whim.

Though he kept coming, and around 16 years old I said, “OK son, if you want to get into this business, and you want to work for me with me and our company, then this is what you are going to do. You will go to four years of college and get a degree in management with a minor in accounting. Then you will go to culinary school. And you will go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY because I believe that that is the Harvard of cooking schools. Then, after you graduate, you will go work for other people for two years. That’s eight years. Then, and only then, you can come back to work in one of our restaurants. But you are going to start at the bottom. It won’t matter what your experience is, what your education is, or what your level of management is. You will start at the bottom and the degree to which you rise through the ranks— if you even do rise through the ranks— will be 100% dependent upon you and will have nothing to do with me being your father.” He’s all in.

He’s over five years into the plan and he’s killing it. He’ll graduate in December and then move to Chicago and work for one of the top 10 restaurant groups in the country, the Boka Restaurant Group. They are stellar. In addition to getting to work for Boka, he’ll have access to dine in restaurants operated by other restaurant groups I admire such as, One Off Hospitality, Lettuce Entertain You, and Hogsalt.

I am often asked by friends, restaurant guests, and readers of this column to make restaurant recommendations to help with travel. Most recommendation solicitations are for dining recommendations in Italy and Spain, but I receive a lot of restaurant requests for New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, and Chicago. My current lists of Chicago favorites would include:

Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Toplobombo which is some of the— if not the— best Mexican in America, by the preeminent Mexican cuisine expert in the country.

There are a lot of great steakhouses in this city. Swift & Sons is my favorite these days.

Big Star has killer tacos, queso fundido & guacamole.

Longman & Eagle is a dive bar w a Michelin star in the Logan Square neighborhood. Excellent.

Three Dots and a Dash is a very cool and legit tiki bar.

I mainly stay in the West Loop/Fulton Market area these days, and many of the Boka restaurants are nearby the Hoxton Hotel where I post up when I’m in town. The Hoxton has two great restaurants, a late-night jazz club, a solid breakfast, and a great vibe.

Au Cheval serves, in my opinion, the best hamburger in America. The length of the waiting list lets me know others think so as well. Though there are a couple of satellite locations called Small Cheval where one can get almost the same burger, though not with the same atmosphere.

The Girl and the Goat has great food and atmosphere. It’s always a solid choice. Stephanie Izard deals in bold flavors. My son says it’s one of his favorite restaurants of all time. I ate there twice on this trip and the Naan appetizer is the best thing I’ve eaten all year (and I’ve dined across Europe and a good bit of America since January).

Duck Duck Goat is Izard’s Chinese concept and it, too, is excellent.

Momotaro is next-level Japanese cuisine and located across the street from the Hoxton.

The Doughnut Vault is worth the wait in the short line.

Bavette’s, and the speakeasy below, is my wife’s favorite dining room in Chicago.

Avec and The Publican are great choices and Dove’s Luncheonette is one of my favorite breakfast spots along with Lou Mitchell’s and Publican Quality Bread.

The Purple Pig just off Michigan Avenue near the river has good tapas.

The Violet Hour is one of the top cocktail bars in the nation and is one of the two or three places where the cocktail renaissance began.

There are more in my rotation, and so many more I hope to add when my son is living here. He’ll surely tire of my constant visits, but he’ll likely be complaining with his mouth full.



This Week’s Recipe: Crab Bread with Tomato Basil Concasse


1 Tbsp Butter
2 Tbsp Green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Diced red peppers
1 tsp Dalt
1/4 tsp Black pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbsp Butter
2 Tbsp flour
1/3 cup Hot chicken stock
2 Tbsp Sherry
1 tsp Lemon juice
1 Tbsp Hot sauce
1/2 pound Cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup Swiss cheese, grated
1/2 pound Fresh lump crab meat
2 Tbsp Parsley, chopped
1 French Baguette, 16-20 inches in length

Tomato Basil Concasse

1 1/2 cups Fresh Ripe Tomatoes, seeds removed, very small dice
1/2 tsp garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil


Crab Bread

Preheat oven to 375.

Melt the first tablespoon of butter in a small sauté pan over a medium heat. Add in the green onions, peppers, salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan over a low heat. Stir in the flour to form a roux. Cook the roux for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly, being careful not to burn the roux.
Whisk the hot stock, sherry and lemon juice into the roux mixture. Cook for 3-4 more minutes and remove from heat.

Place the softened cream cheese into an electric mixing bowl, and using the paddle attachment, beat it for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl using a rubber spatula, and then add the thickened stock mixture, peppers and onions and Swiss cheese. Blend until smooth.

Next gently fold in the crab and parsley using a rubber spatula.

Cut the baguette in half lengthwise and spread the crab mixture evenly over the bread.

Place the two halves on a foil lined baking sheet and bake for twenty minutes.
Remove the bread from the oven and allow cool for 3-4 minutes. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut 2” wide slices. Arrange slices on a serving dish and top each piece with a teaspoon of the tomato concasse mixture.

Tomato Basil Concasse

Combine all ingredients.

Yield: 8 servings

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