by Rebecca Holland
The problem with living somewhere is sometimes you forget to appreciate it. I love Chicago. A lot. Even so, it’s easy to fall into a routine and stay in my neighborhood. This is a bad habit I’m trying to break, because Chicago has dozens of neighborhoods and endless things to do and see. How can I say I love my city if I’m not experiencing as much of it as possible?
I live in Old Town, so a few weeks ago I headed across the city to West Loop for a little retreat. The former warehouse district is now one of the fastest growing areas of Chicago, largely thanks to “Restaurant Row.” West Loop has some of the best food in the city, but usually when I eat in the neighborhood that’s all I do: Uber there, eat, Uber home. This time, I wandered around, did some shopping, and checked out one of the newest hotels.
If you’re visiting Chicago, here’s your beginner’s guide to everything you need to do, eat, and drink in West Loop.
What to do
Mars Gallery – Mars Gallery opened in West Loop before West Loop was cool, in 1988, staking out a space for Chicago’s artists. Today, the 19th century brick loft draws visitors from around the world to gaze on contemporary, figurative, modern pop, abstract art, and more. Wander through the three, packed stories, and don’t forget to look up–some of the best work is hanging from the ceilings. The staff can help you find the perfect piece for your home, or is happy to let you browse. First though, grab a cocktail from the trendy elevator bar (literally a bar in an elevator), and when you’re done, head out back to The Vortex, where you can stand in spray painted “energy vortex circles” meant to give you a burst of creativity.
Vertical Gallery–This urban-contemporary art gallery is a recent addition to Chicago, but has quickly become wildly popular for its emphasis on street art, pop culture, graphic design, and graffiti. You’ll find work from both local and international artists, all of which can be purchased in the gallery or online. Though it features big names in current art from around the country, Vertical Gallery feels more approachable than many high-end galleries, so you can stop in if you’re in the area for a quick look without feeling pressured to buy anything or even know much about art.
Where to Shop
Randolph Street Market–On the last weekend of each month, more than 200 antique vendors and local designers gather for the Randolph Street Market, an indoor-outdoor festival. Shop for records, jewelry, vintage clothes, local artwork, furniture, and more, then step into the food area for stands from some of Chicago’s favorite restaurants and food trucks. The indoor market runs all year, but expands into outdoor space from May to September, adding a beer garden.
Morlen Sinoway Atelier–Morlen Sinoway’s spacious, airy showroom features new and antique pieces from around the world, like vintage furniture from Finland or modern Japanese cabinets. Browse furniture, lighting, area rugs, and smaller gifts like silk scarves and handmade totes. Interior design services are also available.
The Fig Tree–This small gift store sells stationery, home decor, kitchen items, party accessories, jewelry, and other small gifts. Whether you’re looking for a Chicago pendant, funny coasters, or the perfect handmade card, it’s hard not to find something here. There’s an especially large selection of baby gifts, like cute screen printed onesies, books, fairy wings, and more. The owner is usually in the shop and is very helpful and sweet.
Ad Hoc–Ad Hoc stocks a curated selection of women’s clothing, as well as home goods and handmade jewelry. The owner believes in “purposeful shopping,” so the store focuses on long-lasting pieces and the shopping experience. Take a break from browsing on one of the couches, or put on a record of your choice. The collection is a mix of brand names, American-made labels, and local Chicago artists and designers. You’ll also find books, candles, and other gift items. What makes Ad Hoc stand out among other local boutiques is the price tag. Many pieces ring in around $50.
Where to eat
*There are SO many good places to eat in West Loop. These are just a few favorites.*
Au Cheval –It is incredibly rare that you won’t stand in line to be seated at Au Cheval, but the wait is more than worth it for the cheeseburger that has been named the best in America by multiple food publications. Au Cheval doesn’t take reservations, but you can put down your name then go drink at one of the many bars along Randolph St. while you wait for a table. Once seated in the dark leather booths, sink in for an indulgent meal of egg dishes, fries, and the burger, which starts with prime beef, adds cheese, Dijon mustard, and pickles, all inside a toasted bun from a local bakery (foie gras, egg, and bacon are optional). Sounds simple, tastes incredible.
Avec–This wine bar with a rustic menu fuses the Midwest with the Mediterranean. The wines and flavors draw from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Southern France, while using local ingredients to create small plates like Brussels sprouts panzanella with pickled raisins and chorizo chiles, or slow roasted pork shoulder with Tuscan kale and apple. There are also cheese plates from around the Mediterranean and the Midwest. The restaurant itself is simple, with long wooden tables lining the wall on one side, and a bar with a window into the kitchen on the other.
Blackbird–Step into the all white, simple interior of Blackbird, where James Beard Award winning Chef Paul Kahan showcases the best of Midwestern cuisine with farm-fresh ingredients. Start with local vegetables or quail, and move on to entrees like pan roasted striped bass with onion noodle and schmaltz pudding, or suckling pig pavé with maitake mushroom, pistachio, and buttermilk, all presented beautifully. For a true Midwestern experience, don’t forget the exquisite cheese plate.
Girl and the Goat–Stephanie Izard of Top Chef fame serves family style plates at Girl and the Goat. The menu is global and varied, from pan-fried shishito peppers to blue cheese sweet potato pierogies, and as the name implies, plenty of goat dishes. The drinks menu emphasizes local craft beer and wine from small producers. Sit at the lounge, the bar, standard tables, or right against the kitchen for a real inside peek at how famous restaurants work. Reservations are recommended, though they do always save spots for walk-ins.
Publican–Oysters, pork, and beer are the stars of this restaurant. Sustainably harvested seafood and sustainably raised heirloom pork cooked an array of ways fill the menu, along with vegetable sides. The porchetta with spaghetti squash, chicory, and hazelnut is a favorite, as is the romesco fish stew. The beer list features over 100 lagers, ales, and ciders, which your server can help guide you through. Inside, the long, communal wooden tables and hanging lights feel like a European beer hall.
Monteverde–Simple ingredients and handmade pasta power the food at Monteverde, one of Chicago’s best Italian restaurants. Traditional dishes get a slight twist, but not enough to upset any purists. Think cacio e pepe with whey, or tortellini with pumpkin, sage, and apple balsamic. The restaurant is always bustling, but with high ceilings and large chairs it feels spacious. From the bar you can see the pastificio station, where chefs hand roll pasta throughout the day. Look for wooden barrels too, which hold vinegar from one of Italy’s most famous balsamic makers, aging specially for Monteverde.
Leña Brava–Chef Rick Bayless is always aiming to introduce Americans to new regions of Mexico through his cooking, and his newest restaurant, Leña Brava, is no different. Here, the focus is on Baja California Norte, which specializes in live-fire cooking and is home to Mexico’s best wine region. Taste your way through the ceviches and other raw bar items, then move on to the wood-burning oven section of the menu, where you’ll find baked cod, pork belly with sweet salsa, and octopus carnitas. The restaurant is colorful and lively, and you can watch your dishes prepared in the large wood oven.
Momotaro–Momotaro is arguably the best sushi restaurant in the Midwest, and the hefty price tag is well worth the expertly prepared fresh fish and beautiful design. The interior was designed by AvroKo, who wanted to make the meal an experience. On the main floor, order from the sushi and Robata stations while sitting in a room of polished wood and modern Japanese lanterns. The sushi and sashimi program is unrivaled in Chicago, but for those who are looking for something less adventurous there are rice and noodle dishes as well. The lower level, Izakaya, is a lounge meant to feel like a hidden alleyway and decorated with vintage Tokyo signs. Izakaya serves Tokyo street food, sake, and Japanese whiskey. Izakaya does not take reservations, but Momotaro does, and you should make one.
City Mouse–The signature restaurant of the Ace Hotel is a collaboration with Chef Jason Vincent and his team from Giant, in Logan Square. The menu is inspired by the Midwest and features seasonal ingredients and brunch every day. Try the gas station breakfast sandwich or tagliatelle with fried tomatoes, shrimp, and chile. They have fun cocktails too, and a great patio.
Soho House –You have to be a member to experience all of the club spaces at Soho House, but anyone can enjoy the Allis Tea Room, Chicken & Farm Shop, or Fox Bar. The 1907 historic building is elegantly decorated from the second you step into The Allis, with plush chairs and an inviting bar with spirits, coffee, and baked goods. Make reservations for full afternoon tea service. The Chicken and Farm shop is a casual restaurant specializing in rotisserie chicken, and the Fox Bar, a small room with wooden stools and stately chairs, reminds you you’re in a private club. If you’re a freelancer like me, The Allis is a great spot to work for a few hours.
Where to Drink
The Aviary–The Aviary is not your average cocktail bar. It’s an experience, one that feels part science experiment, part fine-dining. This isn’t unexpected coming from Grant Achatz, the chef behind Alinea, which is consistently named one of the best and most innovative restaurants in the world. Bartenders (at The Aviary called chefs) work in a lab that you can peer into, mixing drinks like layered alcohols that are an experiment in liquid density, or building elaborate ships in a bottle, or drinks that change color while you sip. They’re not only fun, but worth the price tag in taste too. Book your experience on the website–either a table for two or a full tasting menu of seven cocktails, or anything in between. Walk-in seating is available, but you may have to wait in line.
CH Distillery–CH Distillery focuses on vodka, which could sound bland, but that’s only because you haven’t tried it yet. Try it ice cold in the modern tasting room with views of the distillery, where you’ll sip it with rye bread and cornichons on the side. They also make gin, rum, and a variety of infused spirits. Try the spirits in a cocktail (the Baron Takes Tea, with earl grey infused gin, lemon, simple syrup, egg white, and soda, is a favorite), and order a few small plates to nibble while you taste.
Haymarket–This old school brewpub serves its rotating selection of drafts alongside shareable appetizers like sausage plates and wings, and hearty burgers and sandwiches. The space is separated into two rooms, so when you walk from one to the other you’ll pass the fermentation room. Bartenders and servers are more than happy to walk you through the beer list, and while Haymarket doesn’t do flights, they do offer small sizes, so you can try a few. It’s a popular place to grab a drink and wait for your turn at Au Cheval, which is across the street.
Lone Wolf Tavern–This neighborhood tavern serves craft beers, classic cocktails, and a limited menu of gourmet hot dogs and fries in a simple setting of brick, wood, and giant leather booths. Try a popular cocktail like the Rosemary Sling, or choose from the hand-selected bourbon list, which is always a hit. The beer selection is an interesting mix and heavy on local brews. Lone Wolf Tavern isn’t fancy, but if you’re looking for a good bar full of locals to have a great beer or a perfectly mixed drink, it’s the place to go.
RM Champagne Salon–Whisk yourself away to France in this classy champagne bar decorated with exposed brick, hanging lanterns, and cozy fireplace. The bar is tucked away in an alley, adding to its charm.
Waydown–The 7th floor rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel is less pretentious than other Chicago rooftops. No bottle service or guest lists, just beautiful skyline views, nightly DJs, and really comfortable leather furniture. Get the Bird’s Eye cocktail, with Four Roses bourbon, grapefruit, raspberry, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and Angostura bitters. Delicious.
Where to stay
Ace Hotel, the newest boutique option in West Loop, is within walking distance to most West Loop attractions and has very cool, modern rooms. GREC Architects designed the building to incorporate the spirit of the New Bauhaus in Chicago while preserving the existing Fulton Market landmark cheese factory façade on the south side of the building.
The hotel pays homage to the city of Chicago by marrying mid-western craftsmanship with utilitarian design. The result is rooms that are simple and straightforward, with accents like hand-woven textiles and natural leather.
Every room has a unique piece of art on Ace Hotel Chicago letterhead stationary – each stippled, painted or hand-drawn by a student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Such a cool feature!
The minibar is stocked with so many unique treats–boxed water, local liquor, and granola bars, among lots else. I also really loved how soft the bathrobes were. Perfect for relaxing post-shower after a trip to the basement gym.
Throughout the hotel you’ll find even more local art. Ace worked with Chicago’s Volume Gallery and their artists for a series of works commissioned specifically for the hotel. Volume Gallery focuses on American design, with a strong emphasis placed on emerging, contemporary designers. Take some time looking around!
What’s your favorite Chicago neighborhood? Let me know in the comments and follow me on Instagram for more Chicago photos and tips!