Chicago's Brunch Scene Focuses on Local and Organic Fare
By Megy Karydes
Chicagoans have a sweet spot for weekend brunch. Maybe it’s the Bloody Mary’s talking or the fact that we only have something like two weekends to enjoy dining al fresco (just kidding, maybe). In any event, you could have brunch every weekend day for a year straight and still have plenty of places to try in this town.
While this list is by no means exhaustive (we can already see the “you missed my favorite spot!” comments), these 10 restaurants are serious about their brunch offerings. One of them even pairs brunch with a gospel choir performance. We told you we’re serious about brunch.
If you’re jonesing for a Bloody Mary or Mimosa to accompany your brunch dish, head to Twisted Spoke or Big Jones. Both have a killer cocktail menu.
Want to hear some live music with your brunch? Book your spot at House of Blues during its weekly Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet Gospel Brunch.
If atmosphere is just as important as your meal, head to JAM and Lula Café, both in Logan Square, or Jane’s in Bucktown. Each serves its own menu loaded with creative dishes you won’t see on any other menu in Chicago, many of which incorporate freshly sourced vegetables.
Standy favorites include Frontera Grill and North Pond where Chefs Rick Bayless and Bruce Sherman continue to crank out flavorful farm-to-table favorites at their respective restaurants on a regular basis.
Set in the middle of an idyllic park, this cozy cabin (formerly a skater's warming house in Lincoln Park), rife with Arts & Crafts style, is known for its great brunch. The warm, simple structure keeps a focus on the views - tree-lined ponds, bursts of flowers, and the city skyline - not to mention the food. Chef Bruce Sherman is one of the city's leading proponents of organic, sustainable and, where possible, local food. Brunch is a prix fixe three-course extravaganza that features citrus brioche French toast and spinach-cheese-egg strata. Dinner includes dishes like Alaskan halibut with fava beans, sage-roasted breast of guinea hen, and a grilled New York strip. Menus change often but don't miss the farm egg over lentils or the pumpernickel-crusted Great Lakes whitefish, if available. (773-477-5845)
The menu at Lula's is an eclectic mix of American eats that includes an excellent cheese plate, a homemade pancetta and arugula salad, pan-roasted wild stripe bass, and lamb shakes served with crispy polenta and carrots. The menu changes depending on what is in season, but it always offers top-quality meals made with fresh ingredients. It's not unusual for the chef and team to prepare dishes once they get their vegetables from the farmers market. Diner demographics range from hipsters to families with little kids which is what makes this place so special. A full bar offers libations. Try the Classic Lula '99 Bloody Mary or a Beer-Mosa. (773-489-9554)
Saturday brunch earns raves at Frontera Grill, which is considered by some to be one of the best Mexican restaurants in the country. The room boasts folk art and vivid colors inside and sunny sidewalk seating outside. The ever-changing menu offers artistic dishes from award-winning Chef Rick Bayless, including authentic tacos, tamales, breakfast burritos and desserts like almond cake and buttermilk-lime ice cream. The eatery is more casual that its sibling Topolobampo. It does take a limited number of reservations (highly recommended) but it also seats diners on a first come, first served basis so even if you weren't able to score reservations, you might be able to score some seats. (312-661-1434)
Bongo Room South
This unique coffee house (which is literally one room and not huge), full of hip, colorful decor, provides the perfect backdrop for eye-opening breakfasts. Each dish has a creative twist, such as raspberry cheesecake hotcakes, pumpkin pancakes with toasted pistachio praline butter and decadent ginger walnut pancakes with maple mascarpone cream. If that doesn't get your mouth watering, try a breakfast burrito, eggs Florentine, or the lightest, most flavorful hash browns in town. There are three locations and each has its own hours and rules. The one in the South Loop does not serve alcohol but brunch is served at all locations on weekends. (312-291-0100)
House of Blues
House of Blues is well-known for its cool, hip decor and its stellar line-up of music. It's also known for its Gospel Brunch, which includes an all-you-can-eat buffet with cooked-to-order omelets, amazing Cajun potatoes, tons of fresh fish dishes, waffles, sausage, and numerous other items. While you dine, sit back and enjoy an hour of some of the most heartfelt gospel music you'll ever hear. Church choirs come with talented soloists and their own musicians, and they always put on unforgettable shows. Diners can choose from two time slots each Sunday: 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and like any other performance at House of Blues, you can choose your seat when you order your tickets online. (312-923-2000, 312-527-2007)
Jane's, which makes its residence in a green brick home in Bucktown, is simply adorable. The rather eclectic menu focuses on New American cuisine and has a number of Asian and Spanish influences.You'll find herb-stuffed chicken breast, seared sea bass, pan-roasted grouper and New Orleans black grouper. The seasonal menu changes often and it's highly advised to make reservations because it does get busy. Brunch is available on weekend mornings and outdoor seating is available during warm weather. Fun little tidbit: between the kitchen and party room is a door that leads you to Trap Door, a hidden live performance theater. (773-862-5263)
Watch passers-by through large plate-glass windows in this bright, cheery brunch nook. The fare is vegetarian, but with ingredients like soy sausage, veggie bacon and marinated tofu, you won't miss the meat. Omelets and frittatas contain tasty add-ins like feta, goat cheese, pesto, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. French toast is dressed up with peach butter and maple syrup or with raspberries and whipped cream. A delicious variety of pancakes, cereals and granola rounds out the offerings. This eclectic eatery changes up traditional brunch fare by serving their savory, filling breakfast menu into the afternoon. The place isn't huge so there might be a wait and when it's nice outside, you can brunch outside. (773-665-0227)
Decor is contemporary as is the food presentation found at JAM but that doesn't mean taste is an afterthought at this popular Logan Square breakfast, brunch and lunch spot. Chef Jeff Mauro and his team develop use locally grown and sustainable ingredients whenever possible to create their ever-changing seasonal menu but staples like the Malted Custard French Toast can usually be found throughout the year. Breakfast is served daily through 3pm. There is metered street parking nearby but the Blue Line subway line is just a couple of blocks away. During the summer months, the Logan Square Farmers Market is practically right outside the door so grab some fresh veggies after breakfast. ((773) 292-6011)
A skeleton on a giant spinning motorcycle on the roof of the building greets hungry diners morning, noon and night. It's biker-friendly (Think bikes from the '40s.), but the diverse crowd doesn't make anyone feel excluded. Motorcycle parts are strewn throughout the joint as decor. Best known for its whiskey offerings (it stocks more than 400 whiskeys alone.), it's also great for brunch. Its separate brunch menu features shrimp po-boys and burgers loaded with toppings including an egg if you want to add some traditional breakfast staples to the dish. Or, try the Mexican eggs with spicy chorizo, eggs, vegetables and cilantro served with breakfast potatoes and bread and jam. If you have room for anything else, order the fried cheese curds for the table. ((312) 666-1500)
Blame it on the weather, but Chicago is not populated by many Southerners. You'll meet plenty of folk from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but rare is the Georgian, Carolinian or Louisianan. That leaves chef Paul Fehribach (only from as far south as Southern Indiana, by the way) to wave the regional flag on his own at Big Jones. He makes a strong case for modern Southern food, recreating heirloom recipes with local, mostly organic sources, resurrecting historic cocktails like the Sazerac, curing his own charcuterie and even serving up a 1933-inspired "boarding house lunch" of fried chicken and biscuits that should hold you through dinner. Close set tables ensure you'll make friends, Northerners, most likely. (773-275-5725)
About Megy Karydes
Megy Karydes has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and most of her life in Chicago. While she’s traveled extensively internationally, visiting each of the 50 states is on her bucket list. An adventure seeker, she’s game for anything from mixed martial arts training to competing in obstacle course races. A self-proclaimed coffee snob and “greenie” who loves farmer-grown food and locally-grown craft beers & wine. She’s yet to find an outdoor beer garden she doesn’t like. Mixing writing and food/drink is her specialty, especially when it involves travel. To read her work, visit http://karydesconsulting.pressfolios.com/.
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