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Feature Fri May 28 2010
Navy Pier is Illinois's number one tourist destination; home of Chicago Public Radio, Chicago Children's Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater; hub of summer lakefront activities, from bikes to Segway tours to sight-seeing helium balloons... and it is also sometimes a frustrating place to find yourself when hunger strikes.
The debate may rage about whether the Pier is worthy of its touristic magnetism -- I happen to content it's a dead-end mall with little to see (once you take in the skyline view, which can be impressive if it's not too hazy) and less to do. But millions of visitors each year, particularly visible now as the mercury creeps up the thermometer, clearly disagree. And you should know I'm jaded -- I work on Navy Pier. And I worked on Navy Pier when I was fresh out of college. And sometimes, by God, Fun-Maze and IMAX be damned, you just want a good meal out there a quarter mile into Lake Michigan! Well I'm here to tell you, before you let your Sea-Dawg boat cruise Groupon expire, that it is possible to eat well out on the Pier, if you know what to expect, where to look, and don't object to setting foot back on proper land. That's right -- I'm reviewing eating out on Navy Pier. You can thank me after you recover from your Ferris-wheel sunburn.
So first, the Pier itself doesn't lack for options when you need to grab a bite. The sprawling food court features a large, vaguely nautically themed McDonald's, Garrett's popcorn, Connie's Pizza and a new Jamba Juice -- all fast-food, but with some small local touches. If you're feeling a little disappointed by the options available, Carnelli's Deli and America's Dog sometimes also feature specials in addition to their regular menus, which are often more creative than the usual fare. Carnelli's reuben is great, when it's available, and America's Dog recently featured a grilled portobella mushroom sandwich with a surprisingly spicy mayo and perfectly cooked, juicy-charred mushroom cap approximately the size of my face. I've also heard good things about their spicy peanut chicken wrap, and the manager confirms they'll be keeping specials in heavy rotation all summer. (Their dogs aren't bad either, actually.) I also have to admit an enduring love for Greek Delight's small greek salad plus fries (feta cheese and crispy, salty potato goodnesss, for $5! A rare Pier deal!) and the Twisted Lizard taco salad. Something about the deep-fried taco shell/bowl... In any case, if you eat in the food court, or bring your food up to the Crystal Gardens on the level above, beware of aggressive urban sparrows. And don't eat at King Wah--unless you have a particular craving for surly service and dry, flavorless orange chicken.
Harry Caray's Tavern recently opened this spring, replacing Joe's Bebop Café near the main entrance. While it's not the caliber as the chain's other locations in the Loop and near O'Hare, both of which are more of the Italian steakhouse variety, the Tavern still provides a nice selection of fairly reasonably priced and interesting cocktails and bar food. I particularly like their loaded baked potato pizza, though the burgers are generally solid--beware of the very tasty Wagyu burger, however, if you're wearing clothes you would prefer not performing emergency stain-removal upon. I've never had a juicier burger in my life--it was literally running down my wrists each time I took a bite. Charlie's Ale House, closer to the food court, may seem like a comparable alternative to this kind of casual sit-down fare, but don't be fooled. Other than a few decent appetizers (hello cancun dip!), Charlie's is a distant second place to Harry's. If you find yourself there, the salmon and bacon sandwich is a decent sandwich and interesting combination, if you get the kitchen on a good day and it doesn't arrive blackened beyond recognition. Capi's Italian Kitchen, also towards the front of the Pier, has the best salad option if you're leaning towards the leafy greens. Unlike just about every other salad on the Pier, Capi's options feature more than just a mountain of romaine lettuce, and the Strawberry Balsamico is my favorite.
Further down the Pier is a Billy Goat Tavern outpost. Not as flavorful as the original location (only 6 and a half blocks west, under Michigan Avenue!), this Billy Goat's burgers and beers are merely okay. The real star on this menu is the breakfast sandwich, an oozy, melty pile of molten American cheese, a fried egg and your choice of breakfast protein (I prefer the off-the-bone tasting ham), all sort of held in check by hamburger bun hanging on for dear life. I'm not even sure the breakfast sandwich is on the menu, but I do know it's available all day. Some hash browns on the side and you'd hardly know you were sitting on McPier and not at some roadside diner counter.
And a bit further on from the Goat is Riva, the Pier's single fine-dining option, a Phil Stefani-helmed old-school seafood spot with some inventive contemporary touches...and a hefty bill. The colossal shrimp cocktail is truly colossal, but I'd take a pass on the sushi appetizers--for the price, your neighborhood favorite sushi joint probably does a better job (and it's not like the fish came out of Lake Michigan, which you can see so well from Riva's giant windows). The specials tend to be seasonally informed, a rarity on the Pier, and Riva also offers deals and discounts for other Pier activities, which are worth reviewing before you make a reservation.
So you've eyed the candied nuts and the Slurpee-style margarita-mixers at the Haagen-Dasz Café bar (where, by the way, you can find very, very good coffee--just plain old coffee, not the fancy blended drinks), and nothing's really calling your name except a walk... You're in luck! Just blocks off the Pier are several fine and often under-patronized establishments with thinner crowds, lower price-points, and often some really quality food. The closest and most obvious option is the café at Fox and Obel. With a recently re-designed menu, Fox and Obel tends towards upscale versions of familiar sandwiches--classic roast beef and bleu cheese gets an update with bleu brie standing in as a creamier substitute, and the addition of caramelized onion. If you get there early enough, try the truffled eggs benedict, or just browse the market for produce and easily portable deli options to create your own Navy Pier picnic.
A block or so north, on Grand Avenue, is D4, an Irish-style pub with hearty, well-flavored bar classics (housemade potato chips with dip, pulled pork mini-sliders with a surprising jicama slaw, a house-braised hot corned beef sandwich that will send you directly into a food coma after finishing) and some interesting casual dining options (phyllo-encrusted baked brie with apples, a pear and Stilton salad, crab cakes). With a larger beer selection than anyplace on the Pier and a small outdoor patio area, they also are now featuring a special summer menu of lighter foods than bangers and mash or shepherd's pie.
If your heart is set on fine dining and you have a hankering for seafood, I would submit that C-House is worth exploring before you settle on Riva. Executive Chef Marcus Samuelsson can be seen these days on Top Chef Masters, and his home restaurant is featuring a Wednesday prix-fixe menu/viewing party while the show runs (awwww). There's a reason Samuelsson's playing the same game as Rick Bayless, Graham Elliot and Tony Mantuano--C-House's contemporary seafood is fresh and intriguing, both in terms of its component ingredients and culinary inventiveness. The C-bar features smaller-portioned various sushi and sushi-like bites, such as the yellowfin tuna tacos with freeze-fried popcorn. And the bread that starts off every meal is a house-made brioche studded with cheese curds. The prices are comparable to Riva and the overall dining experience, I would argue, is preferable.
So there you have it. Of course, there are other options in Streeterville and on the Pier itself if this primer doesn't quite give you what you're looking for. Just remember to keep your drinks on the Pier, keep that sunscreen handy, and you'll be just fine.