CHICAGO — Some days are made for eating. Sometimes, you also get to explore.
The Windy City has become one of the best food cities in the world. You could spend days and days exploring and eating there.
Friday, June 12, was one day and on that day, more than 40 people learned a few things about a few places.
“This is what’s fun about Chicago, all these little, unique places,” said Michael Pennington of St. Joseph, Mich.
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The Chicago Foodie Tour isn’t a new thing, but this is the first time 95.3 MNC-Michiana’s News Channel and Flavor 574 oversaw the event. Martin’s Super Markets, which had planned the trips in past years, was a sponsor. Mark McGill of MNC and myself were hosts. We ate at least our share.
Palace Grill on Madison has been a diner in Chicago since 1938. George Lemperis owns it now and has adorned the walls with Chicago Blackhawks jerseys. The Stanley Cup has made its way here in the past, and the owners and their customers are hoping it happens again.
The menu is full of inexpensive breakfast food, standard omelets and sandwiches. Our tour group filled the dining room, which was built after the diner, according to Ricky Fronteras. Breakfast was good and we were just getting started.
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For several hours, we wandered at Eataly, which has become a must-stop for many since opening less than two years ago.
I’ve heard those who gush about the place. “Whole Foods on steroids” is how McGill refers to the two-story market devoted to Italian food and wine.
The mozzarella and bread are made fresh. Several restaurants are interspersed among the cheese counter, fresh mushrooms and bottles of olive oil.
April Howell, Martin’s School of Cooking and community events coordinator, said Eataly is like the streets of Italy because the employees know and love the food and it’s more than a job to them.
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But I’ve also heard some who are unimpressed by Eataly, saying it’s overpriced and you can find many of the items in other stores.
Ten-dollar bags of pasta aren’t for everyone, but this is a temple to getting good ingredients so that you can eat simply and eat well. Even if you don’t want to spend the money, it’s fun to be in a place so devoted to a place and its food.
For decades, Chef Rick Bayless and his staff have done the same thing for Mexico at Frontera Grill. Bayless has probably done more to elevate the perception of Mexican cuisine in the United States than any other chef.
We ate lunch in the downstairs dining room at Frontera, where the brightly colored plates descended on the tables and the flavorful food made its way to our mouths. Duck and chicken from Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange was in two of the dishes, and the chicken dish was the best of the lot. Huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn, was in the earthy sauce.
We spent a few hours at Haymarket Brewery & Pub, where brewer Peter Crowley described the brewing process in practical ways. Even for those not fans of beer appreciated learning that adding water to grain is like making oatmeal and using that water in the rest of the brewing process is like making coffee.
The excellent beers will get closer to the 574 than Randolph Street in Chicago. Crowley is working on an 18,000-square-foot brewery in Bridgman, Mich., expected to open in 2016. It’ll have pizza, its own sausages and the beers they’ve been creating for the last five years in Chicago.
The last meal of the day came at Heaven on Seven, the longtime Cajun restaurant in the Loop. The location on Rush Street closed earlier this year, but the one on the seventh floor along Wabash Avenue continues to serve spicy gumbo, etouffee and the like, which made us uncomfortably full. Even in a day for eating, there’s only so much you can take.
When you get on a bus with people, when you sit with them and eat, you talk about things. You often end up talking about your lives back home though you’re exploring that new place. But as you’re talking about what’s familiar, you’re doing it in a place that’s not. The conversations are interspersed with phrases such as “Look at that!” or “Did you hear him say … ?”
Part of the joy of such a trip is that you get off the bus and go home, not having had to find parking places all day and with a larger sense of what this other place, in this case the nearby big city, has to offer.
It was a good day of conversation. It was a great day of eating. One can only do this every so often, but it sure is fun when it happens. There’s talk of another one later this year to Chicago, and work is underway on a longer trip to Portland, Ore., in November.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a nap. Or a run. Or both.