When former fast-food execs Ed Rensi and Tom Dentice decided to open their own casual restaurant, they knew they'd have to do some research. In the years since they'd started in the business, the burgeoning foodie culture had transformed this beefy staple into a gourmet food. Honoring the dish's roots in American roadside diners, the duo decided to take a road trip, visiting about 100 restaurants across the country to study what made a gourmet burger.
What they found was a lot of hype and inconsistent execution, starting with inadequate equipment. For instance, the average commercial griddle has hot spots and cold spots that can be 30 degrees different. "You can't get a consistent cook … if you got that much range in temperature on the grill," Ed said. He also saw inconsistencies with ingredient quality: toppings can't save a burger, no matter how good, if a restaurant uses beef from spent dairy cattle. Likewise, good beef loses impact when dressed in drab toppings such as iceberg lettuce.
Once Ed realized what the gourmet burger needed—consistent process and quality across every ingredient—he and Tom went to work. They found an AccuTemp grill that uses steam pressure to uniformly heat the surface. They sourced Midwestern-raised Angus beef ground from chuck with the shoulder clod still intact. And they filled the 20-item condiment station—dubbed the "Tower of Taste"—with all-natural fixings such as three types of organic Heinz ketchup and mustards from Mustard Girl, a company started by a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
With a surefire process in place, Tom and Ed began extending their menu to other sandwich fillings, such as fresh chicken breasts, sushi-grade ahi tuna, and edamame burger patties. Sides also benefit from the duo's attention to detail. Hand-dipped ice cream and fresh strawberries swirl into strawberry shakes, which are served with extrawide straws that make it easier to sip when the drink is at its coldest. And at the drink station, fountains pour Boylan sodas sweetened with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
Sam Elias knows that being cooped up during long winter days can make people stir-crazy. So in 1993, after moving from Florida, land of palm trees and beaches, to Chicago, land of frigid winds and gray slush, he founded WhirlyBall as a way for people to release pent-up energy even as snow was falling outside. During each competitive WhirlyBall game, which combines aspects of basketball, hockey, and jai alai, players zoom across an indoor 50'x80' court in motorized cars called WhirlyBugs. They wield plastic scoops to toss a wiffle ball back and forth to their teammates before throwing the ball through an elevated goal. Refs keep watch during the games, eliminating score arguments that would otherwise end in sunrise duels. To fuel up for a bout, players nibble teriyaki chicken satay, gourmet pizzas, and prime rib, and swig draft beers, which vary by location.
All three WhirlyBall spots boast off-court diversions such as video games, pool tables, foosball, and air hockey. The Vernon Hills location hosts an indoor rock-climbing wall, and both the Chicago and Vernon Hills locations invite guests into multilevel Lasertron laser-tag arenas, which fill with fog and flashing lights as combatants duck, aim, and invoke Geneva Convention protocols regarding armed conflict.
Yogen Früz has an interesting answer for yogurt shops that simply top their swirls with fruit—they mix whole mangos, bananas, watermelon, and kiwis right in with the yogurt. These colorful, fresh creations boast low or no fat as well as a heaping helping of digestion-friendly probiotics and gluten-free goodness. Each flavor is crafted sans artificial flavorings, colors, gelatins, high-fructose corn syrups, or preservatives–all while maintaining gluten-free, kosher-certified status. Of course, customers of the shop—which has more than 1,300 locations in more than 35 countries—can still opt for a traditionally topped cup of yogurt or a früzion smoothie. The body bettering doesn’t stop there, as certain topping combinations from its signature früzion bar can even support cell membranes and veins, provide antacid and anti-inflammatory relief, or help prevent body aging, especially if bathed in.
At Omega Restaurant Pancake House & Bakery, sizable omelets, skillets full of hash browns, and fresh eggs are mainstays on the menu no matter the hour—and the dining room is open until midnight every day. Sweet options range from oven-baked apple pancakes to crepes, including one stuffed with Montmorency cherries and an imported Danish wine. There's also the onsite bakery, which produces delectable pies, danishes, and pastries.
The new owners of Omega Restaurant Pancake House & Bakery have instructed their chefs to be just as detailed with their afternoon dishes. Each burger patty is ground in-house, and homemade soup specials rotate daily. Alongside a sprawling list of sandwiches and wraps, dinner plates such as veal parmesan, and Athenian-style skirt steak bring an international touch to the table.
Greek Islands Restaurant is still run by the same owners who opened its doors in 1971. They continue to import extra-virgin olive oil, wine, cheese, and olives directly from Greece, incorporating them into Mediterranean staples such as moussaka—a baked eggplant, meat, and potato casserole topped with béchamel sauce—and keftedes—beef and lamb meatballs stewed in tomato sauce. The two-location eatery also commemorates its island routes with fresh seafood such as Greek seabass and cold octopus salad. Diners can pair the ocean’s bounty with a selection of Greek wines and other international pours.
Inside Dao Sushi and Thai Restaurant, eyes drink up the sumptuous interior design as taste buds sample Thai flavors and homemade miso sauce. Patrons take refreshing sips of sake or specialty drinks while perched at the sushi bar or sprawled comfortably in half-moon booths. Noodles and vegetable slivers trail from appetizers served in martini glasses, like the protein drinks James Bond downs before chasing down Goldfinger's private airplane on foot.