About a week ago, I got an email from someone at Lettuce Entertain You. Ask anyone about the restaurant business in Chicago and many people will tell you that Lettuce Entertain You defines it.
Back in 1971, Richard Melman met Jerry Orzoff and after a run-away R.J. Grunts, the rest is history. Lettuce Entertain You is the genius behind one of the most successful and profitable restaurant ventures in culinary history delivering humor and enjoyment while creating high quality, successful restaurants at an affordable price. Let’s face it, nothing is more important in this struggling economy than good food at an affordable price. That is one of the many reasons that Lettuce Entertain You continues to thrive and I could name at least a dozen more.
When I looked over the list of current properties in their collection, I realized that I have not only eaten at most of them but a lot of LEYE restaurants have been around a very long time.
I often thought that I would love to work for Mr. Melman but our paths never crossed. I’ve heard from so many LEYE employees that he places enormous value on the people who work for him and feels tremendous responsibility for their success. So much for all the talk that the boss does not care about his employees anymore. Is this a dream boss or what?
You keep thinking that Melman is going to run out of themes – all of them fun and ingenious! Let’s face it - anyone who can open over 130 restaurants with 70 concepts has my vote for Restaurateur of the Century.
Here is my read on the Lettuce Entertain You Properties that I know and love to eat at:
• Shaw's Crab House
I will always bow down to this Chicago classic at 21 East Hubbard. This place is, without a doubt, my ALL TIME FAVORITE restaurant in Chicago. The charred Sashimi Tuna, baked Clams Casino, Iceberg Wedge Salad, and Sautéed Sea Scallops…to KILL FOR! Sorry, I only use that expression when the food is better than exceptional. When the soft shell crab is in season, this is the place to come. Time and time again, this restaurant shows everyone what great food and dining is all about. I love the atmosphere in the Oyster Bar and it’s the only place I’ll eat. My most memorable lunches have been here at the big round table in its own little room in the back of the bar. Forever a celebrity sighting if that is what you are in to. Me? I’m going to get my fix again next week and after looking at the new website, I’m certain that I’ll get into the Bloody Mary’s and Key Lime Pie. Do they pair well? Will let you know.
• Ben Pao
Having done a previous post on this restaurant, most of you know that it is one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Chicago. At 52 West Illinois Street, the Sesame Chicken and eggrolls, year in and year out, are some of the best anywhere. I like the bundles – soup, spring roll and entrée for $10.95. No matter how many people I take to this spot, everyone gives it high marks. I always eat at one of the tables in the bar. I love the environment and the floor to ceiling windows makes it the perfect place to photograph food…or get a good look at your blind date. This was actually going on at the table next to me last week. P.S. She liked him!
• Big Bowl
Authentic Chinese and Thai at 6 E Cedar and 60 E Ohio. To die for Kung Po Chicken - I mean to die for and the coriander leaves is the surprise ingredient. I also love the appetizers and often go for the pot stickers or dumplings. The Pad Thai is exceptional and the sichuan green beans which are wrinkled and sweet with a fiery chili sauce were devoured in an instant the last time we ate there. Passion for the high tables in the bar…have I said that before? Also, I swear that all the fortunes in my cookies are lined up in my favor. Who stuffs them anyway? My last one read: You are headed for a promotion. I like the sound of that!
• Brasserie JO
Everyday French at 59 W. Hubbard Street. Another restaurant with a long history, I am mad about the steamed Mussels, Chicken Liver Mousse and Country Pate…oh and don’t forget the Pommes Frites…possibly my favorite. Loved all the little places in Paris and put Brasserie’s on the same level of French. Winner of the 1996 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant of the Year and this restaurant keeps getting better with the years – just like the wine…Oh, love that too!
• Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
at 2024 N Halstead, this Spanish mainstay has tapas and paella and I can never select my favorite – I love them all! Chef Gabino Sotelino keeps the menu interesting with a wide variety of dishes to choose from. They are having a New Years Day Pajama Brunch – yes, wear your PJ’s and you’ll receive a gift certificate equal to the price of a meal. This place is so much fun that my base of Ba-Ba-Reeba fans just keeps getting bigger.
the high point of Chef-Proprietor Jean Joho's restaurant collections, everything from this Five Diamond is superb. The menu changes seasonally and the selection of Five Chocolates for dessert is the pinnacle. At 440 S LaSalle on the 40th floor, this place is definitely the jewel in the Lettuce Entertain You crown.
at Water Tower - 835 N Michigan, I can pick from just about any ethnic group and find a place to eat here. The throngs of Michigan Avenue shoppers love this location and it is always busy. Recognized as a place for good food at an affordable price.
• Frankie's 5th Floor Pizzeria/ Frankie's Scaloppine
at 900 N Michigan. The Sardinian style pizzas with ever-so-thin crusts are made with grana padano cheese and no sauce – which I love- and are served with olive oil. The Parmesan and Anchovy (and I don’t even like anchovy) is so yummy. They serve up Scaloppine, classic pastas, seasonal fish, and fresh salads. Great for a quick lunch while you take on Bloomies with your mama.
• Hub 51
at 51 W. Hubbard - this is Melmans sons version of great food and for the most part, they hit the mark. Can taste the Knife and Fork BLT and Crispy Baja Fish Sandwich weeks after the fact. Impressive sushi and hand cut fries. A fun place to bring your new boss or your BFF.
It seems like Joe’s has been around forever doesn’t it? At 60 East Grand it has some of the best seafood in Chicago. The Grouper and Mahi-Mahi are still standouts on the menu. A really fun place to go with a big crowd. My friend Don has a weakness for the bartender…P.S. SHE IS NOT ON THE MENU!
• Maggiano's Little Italy
at 516 N Clark. Go for the Margherita Flatbread with grape tomatoes, four-cheese blend, fresh mozzarella & basil. People keep telling me about their pastas but I am a sucker for the Flatbread Pizza. Oh, and forgot about the homemade Profiteroles. Yep – a double order per favore.
• Mon Ami Gabi
I had to mention this “out of downtown” restaurant at 2300 N. Lincoln Park West. One of my favorites with so much great food that you’ll have a hard time deciding what to order. If I can do the Chicken Liver Mousse, Mussels Marinière, and the Profiterole Trio or Warm Chocolate Bread Pudding, I swear I can’t eat for a week.
On Saturday, January 30, from 1:00 P.M. - 3:00 P.M. the season’s first cooking class will teach you how to make some French classics; Frisee & Bacon Salad with soft-poached egg and croutons, Coq Au Vin with pommes puree and Banana Foster Crepe (another favorite of mine) served with vanilla ice cream and bananas foster sauce. The lunch includes a French wine tasting. Call now (773) 348-8886 to register.
• Nacional 27
at 325 W Huron. I also did a post on this restaurant where the latin food and drinks are better than brilliant. I ate all over Mexico City for years and never had food this amazing. Taco flights, ceviches, and the N27 roast pig –this is one of my all time favorite places to indulge big time. Bring your friends and coworkers and be prepared to get down to some serious Mojitos and Margaritas.
Don’t forget the lookbetternaked Margarita I told you about in my previous post. You will LOVE them.
Every Thursday, N27 offers free salsa lessons from 6:30 – 8:30 PM. Get out your dancing shoes and ready for some sizzling moves.
• R.J. Grunts
at 2056 N. Lincoln Park West, because RJ’s is still around after all this time, you know it has got to be good! I first ate here back in the 70’s with my aunt & uncle, who were big time foodies loved this place just blocks from their house. Just look at the website and it screams fun. Honestly, I laugh every time I open it up. RJ’s has an attitude that will simply not go away – thank goodness.
at 410 W Huron. This place has been around forever, too. A White Potato & Bacon Pizza with farm egg, asiago, fontina and aged parmesan with baby arugula is simply to write home about to your Italian Grandmother. Perfecto!
a product of the highly acclaimed chef/partner Rick Tramonto and executive pastry chef/partner Gale Gand (who is one of my idols), this is another one of LEYE’s gems. At 676 N. St. Clair Street, they call it progressive french but I swear it is true french down to the veal cheek + sweetbread and Gand’s spiced pumpkin ice cream, hazelnut and roasted pepitas… Yep… Tru perfection. Can I go on about how good everything else is on the menu?
I just read an article about Tramonto in the October 22-28th issue of Time Out Chicago. He is truly inspiring.
• Vong's Thai Kitchen
at 6 W. Hubbard St., this true Thai has the most amazing Pad Thai and homemade curries. The Chocolate Beignets… I can do them daily along with the Mochi Bon Bons. It seems like they always get me on the desserts but fact of the matter is I could do a Pad Thai over dessert at this place any day. Did I just say that? Does not sound like me at all, does it?
at 159 W. Erie, Wildfire is a supper club that is all about Steaks,Chops & Seafood and American comfort food that is baked, double-baked, barbecue-rubbed, creamed and other great cooking methods that will add to your basic eating delight. I love the chopped salad here and think that it is about the best in Chicago. This is real comfort food you can get your arms around.
• Wow Bao
meat-and-vegetable-filled hot Asian buns, this restaurant is at 1 West Wacker, 175 W. Jackson Blvd and 835 N. Michigan Avenue. Wow Bao also offers fresh Pad Thai salad, soups, and rice (or noodle) bowls topped with Teriyaki or Kung Pao chicken. Great Asian street…in fact, this would be great street food!!! – quick someone…get me a cart! Another dream job for the summer.
So much for my rants and raves on how much I love all of these restaurants. I have a very long history with many of them. You can enjoy numerous Lettuce Entertain You properties all over Chicago. Which is your favorite? I have so many I can’t decide where to go next. Not a problem since Melman will probably open another one up before I finish this post.