Before moving to Chicago, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh began their culinary careers in New York as a way to support themselves while they looked for work as actors. It wasn’t their acting that brought the duo to stardom, however. Against odds of 10,000 to 1, they sent a tape into the Food Network and, to their surprise, became the first-ever winners of the Next Food Network Star contest, landing their own show on the cable channel. That success enabled them to grow their catering business’s small café into a full-fledged restaurant serving up brunch, lunch, and dinner.
"Our focus is on what we love, which is mid-century food and the American culture of dining, and that kind of collective memory we have . . . taking those recipes and updating them for a modern palate," Steve says. For example, they top sweet potatoes with black-thyme-pepper marshmallows and create corn dogs with rabbit sausage in red-velvet butter. Steve says that they love creating conversation at their tables, especially as guests reminisce about memories evoked by dishes such as tuna noodle casserole and their Hearty mac ‘n’ cheese. "For Dan and I, that's a major part of the dining experience," he says. "If we can get their heads moving as well as their mouths, we feel pretty successful." Their efforts have paid off. "The duo is making magic by keeping it simple," said Phil Vettel in a review on WGN. "There's at least one wow ingredient on every plate. A simple burger is brightened with triple-cream cambozola cheese, sugar-cured bacon, and garlic aioli. Bacon-wrapped shrimp arrives on a pile of wonderful white cheddar grits . . . It's fun and delicious."
Dan heads the kitchen, while Steve forges many of the signature cocktails, aiming to discourage the intimidation that often surrounds craft cocktails. He and Dan even authored a book whose 200+ drink recipes include every cocktail made at Hearty, proving that everyone can make the drinks at home. Steve's even been known to chat up tables in hopes of introducing them to a new drink. "It's amazing, the amount of people who don't think they drink gin—so I have to force them," Steve says. "Once you have a gin that is different than that gin that you drank in the 1980s that was so harsh and juniper-heavy, once you're having one of these new American gins along with just simple fresh citrus and the other spirits… you understand what the fuss is about." He's also curated an exclusively American wine list with bottles from unexpected sources—including Dr. Frank's Salmon Run rkatsiteli from the Finger Lakes in New York, which he calls "floral and highly acidic . . . Everybody loves it."
Thalia Spice is a pan-Asian bistro that invites diners on a world tour of flavors served in a modern lounge. Co-owner Anna Makmok's mother lends her Thai and Laotian expertise in the kitchen, and co-owner Vincent Tan culls from his Malaysian and Singaporean roots for many of the menu's exotic dishes.
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A top-5 rating from TripAdvisor.com doesn't happen overnight. Just ask Dave Samber, whose Polo Caf? and Catering Bridgeport U.S.A., a mile west of U.S. Cellular Field, currently ranks among Chicago's most popular restaurants. Since opening in 1990, the restaurant has earned a reputation as an adventurous spot where guests can feast on lamb chops and sandwiches served on warm French baguettes. On weekends, the restaurant also opens its doors early for two signature brunches: Saturday's Bloody Mary Brunch pairs horseradish-dosed bloodies with tasty takes on classics like Polo Caf? favorite Eggs Benedicto XVI and french toast, while Sunday's Gospel Brunch treats diners to a soulful serenade from singers backed by a live organ.
Samber and his dedicated staff share their delicious food served with Chicago hospitality amid the green and white diner's tin ceiling, tufted booths, polo-green tablecloths. The vintage glamour is only interrupted by framed accolades and a colorful 12-foot chalkboard created in 1986 to welcome guests to the historic Bridgeport neighborhood, home to five of Chicago's mayors. The adjacent Old Eagle Room, a repurposed theater built in 1914, accommodates up to 100 banqueters on its main and mezzanine levels. These guests enjoy entertainment from a Rodgers 360 theater organ or a 20-channel audio system after storing cars in free lighted parking lots.
With four locations speckled across Chicagoland, The Goddess and Grocer pairs the menu of a gourmet deli with the packed shelves of a specialty grocery store. Muffins, scones, and croissants are baked in-house, wafting the scents of melting butter and sugar over a sandwich counter reminiscent of a giant artist’s palette. There, custom sandwiches take shape from 11 breads and wraps, 7 deli meats, 9 cheeses, 12 vegetables, and an assortment of condiments that covers everything from cranberry-tinged mayonnaise to horseradish sauce. A few fixed staples are on hand to simplify decisions, however, including an egg-salad sandwich that Chicago magazine placed on its list of the 50 Best Sandwiches in Chicago, praising it as "a testament to the sheer power of simplicity."
The Goddess and Grocer also assembles bag lunches as well as picnic hampers for patrons looking to enjoy a bite by the lake or to bait a Yogi Bear. To round out these meals, the staff can include high-end, specialty items from the grocery section, including handmade chocolates, artisanal cheeses, mustards and dressings, and wine and beer. Alternatively, they can cater gourmet breakfast, lunch, or dinner for large gatherings and celebrations.
Though its display case is stocked with artisan cheeses, housemade pastrami, and chicken salad, City Provisions is more than a deli. Cleetus Friedman, the friendly face behind the counter, oversees City Provisions's day-to-day operations, which include butchering meats in-house, assembling sandwiches, stocking shelves with groceries, and serving seasonal brunch and dinner. Local vendors supply the 3-Star Certified Green Restaurant with sustainably sourced ingredients that pour into its house-roasted meats and housemade dressings, mayos, and charcuterie. Aside from its storefront offerings, City Provisions is known for its catering services and farm dinner experiences, the latter of which snagged a "Best Of" award from CBS Chicago in 2011. Each prix fixe dinner journeys to a local farm, and often a local brewery, where patrons tour the facilities and enjoy cocktails, transportation, and a multi-course meal sourced directly from farm-to-table.
Each week, just four or five dishes make it onto the chalkboard inside the dining room of Bento Box, a 16-seat pan-Asian eatery with high ceilings, spartan décor, and a BYOB policy. Chef Rick Spiros curates that jotted menu and also brings it to life in the kitchen, conjuring the rich flavors of Singaporean, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisine. Favorites include jidori chicken with creamy lime leaf curry and anise-laced pho with short ribs, a dish named on the Chicago Reader’s "100 best things we ate (and drank) in 2011" list. On frigid Chicago nights, diners can warm up with a Korean specialty that affirmed one Time Out Chicago writer's longtime admiration of Spiros' cooking: "A bento box of bulgogi—juicy, flavorful Korean-style marinated beef—housemade kimchi and a dot of potato salad was all it took to affirm that I hadn’t been stalking Spiros for years for nothing," they wrote.