Imagine: it's a wintry night in Lincoln Park. You're crossing the bridge over South Pond, the downtown skyline shimmering to your left, the zoo's holiday lights twinkling to your right. It's undoubtedly romantic, but, in true Chicago fashion, it's also really cold. Luckily, just beyond the groves of snow-laden trees, lies Geja's Cafe, a cozy fondue spot perpetually adored as one of Chicago's most romantic restaurants.
Looking back on Geja's nearly 50-year history, there is perhaps one story that crystallizes this reputation better than most. Owner John Davis once told the Chicago Tribune about a couple from Minnesota who traveled to Geja's for their first date, their engagement, their rehearsal dinner, and to celebrate the birth of their first baby. Small children aren't permitted inside?because of the hot fondue pots?so they jokingly asked if they could leave their baby at the coat check. The new mother working the counter happily obliged.
This anecdote lays out the qualities that have helped Geja's endure for a half-century as one of the city's most beloved dining institutions. Here's a closer look at those characteristics, starting, of course, with the ambience.
Geja's has an entire page on its website devoted to couples who have gotten engaged there. Proposers can call ahead to have management help with arrangements, or they can just let the low lighting, flickering candles, and curtained-off tables set the scene.
Geja's three-course fondue dinners make for an incredibly memorable meal. Servers fire up a cast-iron pot for each stage?first with brandy-spiked gruyere for dipping fruits and breads, then with soybean oil for cooking veggies and a choice of meats, and lastly with flaming chocolate for torching marshmallows and embarrassing diary entries.
"You get a feel of serenity when you walk in," Janice Koch, longtime neighbor of the restaurant once told the Tribune. "You're not rushed or pushed. It's all just... consistent." Guests are free to navigate meals at their own pace, also taking time to enjoy the extensive wine list (which includes three private-label varietals) and live flamenco guitar.
The transformation of a 16-year-old cook in the American Red Cross cafeteria into a sophisticated French chef and restaurant owner doesn’t happen overnight. Urged into a culinary career by his cafeteria coworkers, Joe Doppes graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before apprenticing under the greats at Le Pavillon and Le Cygne in New York, as well as the five-star Le Francais. This last position drew him to Chicago, where he set his sights on launching his own restaurant. After triumphing over cancer and rebounding from his first restaurant attempt, Doppes realized his dream in Old Town in 1999 with Bistrot Margot—which he named for his daughter rather than ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, who could whisk eggs with her feet.
Upon the bistro’s opening, it drew praise from Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune for its “excellent” and “classic” French cuisine. Doppes dives headfirst into French culinary traditions with gourmet meats such as parmesan-encrusted veal, center-cut filet mignon, and roasted duck, and fresh seafood such as roasted tilapia and pan-seared whitefish. The chef and his team augment these foundations with capered citrus butter and dijon beurre blanc before pairing them with lavish sides such as saffron-and-asparagus risotto. At midday, entrees join a roster of upscale sandwiches piled with grilled sirloin and gouda, and the weekend brunch features decadent benedicts and crepes stuffed with gruyère and pesto.
To set the stage for these feasts, interior designer Vicky Tessmer drew inspiration from turn-of-the-century Paris. She paired tapestries, dark wood trim, and wall sconces with art-nouveau touches such as a stained-glass window over french doors, which lead to an outdoor patio. A roaring fireplace and walls done in cheery yellows and reds keep guests feeling cozy, and a marble-topped bar and leather stools accommodate tipplers who order one of the many French vintages from the wine list.
With a star-studded r?sum? that includes stints in such media-acclaimed restaurants as Yoshi's, Ambria, and Tribute?a Detroit-based eatery of his own that earned him a James Beard Award?it shouldn't be surprising that Takashi Yagihashi's latest culinary venture was a success. At his eponymous establishment, the chef crafts gourmet dishes inspired by his French culinary training and accented with the traditional flavors of his native Japan, creating a menu that has earned the restaurant a Michelin star and that Chicago magazine called "the finest Asian fusion cuisine in the city." Beyond acclaimed culinary skills, Yagihashi's vivacious personality earned him the title of Top Chef Masters Fan Favorite.
In a spartan dining room adorned with subtle art and slate-colored brick, diners savor entrees such as chicken in a clay pot simmering with shimeji mushrooms, eggplant, and yuzu juice, or soy-ginger caramel pork belly served with steamed buns. Yagihashi also highlights his versatility in a number of prix-fixe menus, such as the weekly 7- or 11-course Kaiseki dinner and a tasting menu that pairs each morsel with a complementary wine. While mulling over the menu, savvy wait staff offer their recommendations for the best wine, beer, or sake from the restaurant's lengthy drink lists, along with sweet post-meal choices such as Yagihashi's signature brown-egg dessert, which Chicago magazine says "elevates cr?me br?l?e to Zen-like perfection."
Famous Frenchman-turned-fictional-hero Cyrano de Bergerac and Chef Didier Durand probably don't share a passion for swordplay. They do, however, share at least two other things in common: a hometown and a poetic soul. After training in France, a young Durand moved to Chicago and bounced around its culinary scene, all the while preparing for his finest recipe yet?his own restaurant. In 1996, he opened its doors and christened it after his countryman, unveiling the rustic River North eatery first known as Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar and now known as Cyrano's Farm Kitchen. In 2014, he celebrates 18 years of being in business as well as a mention in the Michelin Guide Chicago 2014.
This casual bistro, operating under the motto that good food makes people happy, showcases Durand's original cuisine while conjuring his memories of pastoral France, amid the idyllic trees and birds who sang Rimbaud poems from the leaves. Exposed-brick walls and reclaimed timber accents lend the space its authentic country charm, while the seasonal menu features American-inspired French dishes such as braised ratatouille, cedar plank salmon, and coffee-rubbed Amish chicken. Almost every dish needs a proper wine pairing, so sommelier Jamie Pellar?also Durand's wife?curates a list of hand-picked wines from around the world?including Durand's home region, where she often travels.
During warmer weather, Bistro Zinc swings open its floor-to-ceiling windows to let the sounds and breezes of the Gold Coast flow through its French-inspired dining room. The celebration of French flavors inside, however, occurs year-round, as Chef Tim Kirker’s menu flaunts a firm grasp on the country’s classic and contemporary dishes, from escargot and steak frites to grilled ham-and-gruyere sandwiches. Heartier courses include the vol-au-vent—a daily stew with puff pastry and creme fraiche mashed potatoes—and the garlicky roasted chicken, which is served with bacon, mushrooms, and potatoes. Though French cuisine is known for its meat-heavy nature, Serious Eats points out that all is not lost for herbivores: “Bistro Zinc’s menu is in fact quite amenable to meatless eating, with a couple of very tasty options.” But as with any French eatery, the desserts may be the highlight: a crème bruleé made with vanilla beans from Madagascar headlines a menu of ten decadent treats. Meanwhile, bartenders craft cocktails at the restaurant’s handcrafted zinc bar, which juts out from the side of a dining room awash with tin ceilings, tiled floors, and artwork-covered walls.
Most head chefs are chosen for their merit, skills, and ease in the kitchen. But at the new Alpine-themed restaurant, Table, Donkey and Stick, partners Shin Thompson and Matt Sussman—the former chef and general manager of Bonsoiree respectively—decided to go one step further in finding their next food collaborator, which is why they pitted six local chefs against each other to create a pop-up dinner menu of hearty European cuisine. Along with the general publics vote, Sussman and Thompson have since declared to Grub Street Chicago that Scott Manely—a protégé of Paul Virant—is the newest chef to join their crew. Sussman also mentioned to Grub Street Chicago that the new eatery—named after a Brothers Grimm fable—features a menu of "simple, honest food" that includes sausages and charcuterie. Freshly-made breads, from rustic rye baguettes to pretzel rolls, are also on hand to soak up the juices of hand-craved wild boar while glasses filled with Koval brandy warm the stomach and make the soul feel like Little Red Riding Hood stole Rapunzels hair and sold it to the Big Bad Wolf.