PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ
A visit to an iconic Chicago hotel eases empty-nester blues.
Written by Jeffrey Cohen
Last time my wife and I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, we enjoyed a blissfully quiet sojourn in no one’s company but our own. On our most recent trip this past June, we were on a mission: to take our daughter to college freshman orientation and to meet her future roommate, a day we had anticipated for months, but which had finally arrived all too soon. Although we had not foreseen making any new friends that day, we hit it off immediately with our daughter’s roommate’s mother and made plans then and there to meet for lunch later. Once we parents were dismissed and the kids taken off to orientation, we departed with mixed feelings of both relief and foreboding, as I suspect many of us did, and headed straight for a favorite lunch spot, RL Restaurant just off Michigan Avenue. Within minutes, calm was restored with rounds of old fashioneds and vesper martinis, followed by a perfectly pale pink rosé from Provence, accompanied by lobster rolls and burgers, as we whiled away a pleasant afternoon with our newfound friend.
Following lunch and a bit of window shopping, my wife and I made our way to the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago where we were greeted like old friends, which in a way we almost are by now. We have been staying at this architectural gem in Water Tower Place for almost 20 years, and relish any opportunity to return. While checking in, I enquired about the newly redesigned Presidential Suite, with its collection of notable art and luxury amenities, and as we are art lovers, wondered if a tour might be possible. The concierge, as accommodating as could be, granted our request for later that afternoon.
Encompassing two floors connected by a show-stopping spiral staircase, the expansive suite features exclusive accommodations that offer a taste of luxury living in Chicago’s coveted Gold Coast neighborhood. With its art gallery theme, it offers guests the opportunity to sleep among museum-quality pieces by Tseng Kwong Chi, Rene’ Magritte, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, complemented by panoramic views of the city’s skyline as well as Lake Michigan. With several pieces commissioned exclusively for the space, including those by Michael Young, a Chicago-based sculptor, the collection reflects Chicago’s sophisticated art scene.
The expansive full-service kitchen features its own secret entrance, offering discreet access for invited guests and a heightened sense of privacy. I would have loved to cook here, envisioning entertaining family and friends for a Chicago weekend, but with the advent of college and tuition payments, I realized, such rarified accommodations might remain beyond our reach for at least the next four years.
Thoroughly impressed with our tour, we repaired to our own suite to dress for cocktails and dinner. Dining at the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago is a journey through flavors and culinary craftsmanship. Torali, Italian-Steak offers the highest caliber of dry-aged meats, seafood, and Italian classics while Bar Torali, with its magnificent rooftop terrace, provides breathtaking views of the cityscape and lake. It was here that we enjoyed a couple of negronis before summoning a car and heading up to Lincoln Park for a quiet date night dinner.
Mon Ami Gabi is a classic old-school French bistro, located in the historic Belden Stratford building. Cozy and pleasantly bustling, the restaurant is full of old world charm and is patronized by a clientele that clearly knows its European food. This little gem offers elevated country cooking that includes rustic chicken liver pate, steaming bowls of mussels and wonderfully authentic steak frites. Starting with escargots smothered in garlic butter, we subsequently enjoyed all the above, washed down with a delicious Chateauneuf du Pape. Then it was back to the hotel for a nightcap.
In the evening, Bar Torali comes alive with a thoughtful selection of wines, craft cocktails, and an inviting atmosphere that encourages lively conversations. This is the ideal spot for unwinding after a day of exploration, and it was to the outdoor terrace that my wife and I repaired after our immensely satisfactory French dinner. Here we enjoyed a couple of digestifs, talking about how much we were already missing our daughter, even though it had only been a few hours, and how much we were looking forward to seeing her the next morning.
On our second day, following my workout in the hotel’s well-appointed fitness center in The Carlton Club, a private, members-only club also open to hotel guests, we enjoyed a quick breakfast of coffees and croissants in the recently-remodeled Club Lounge. This gorgeous space features various culinary and beverage offerings throughout the day, and functions as a “hotel within a hotel” for guests on the Club level. Next, we were off to campus to collect our daughter, who had already become fast friends with her new roommate. Deciding that a return visit to RL was in order, we all descended upon what has for at least the past decade been our daughter’s favorite lunch spot. Somehow I do not think she will be able to afford to dine there on her student stipend, so she wisely made the most of the opportunity before her. Then she joined us at the hotel and took what may have been the longest bath in human history. I was tempted to assure her that she would be spending the next four years at a private university, not at the state penitentiary, but was secretly happy to indulge her whims.
Dinner that night was at Quartino on North State Street, an eatery highly recommended by our food and wine editor as an ideal spot to entertain people of all ages. Specializing in all manner of fresh pasta, conveniently offered in full- and half-portions to encourage sharing, Quartino is a hive of activity at almost any time of the week; service is prompt and friendly and everything, including the Italy-heavy wine list, is reasonably priced. Starting with a selection of salumi and a silky ball of burrata for the table, we then dove into a selection of pasta, particularly enjoying the gnocchi with tomato sauce and tortellini alfredo with fresh peas. Prudently leaving room for dessert, we shared a plate of profiteroles before calling it an evening.
The following day, the three of us engaged in some light shopping in the morning, after which we visited the Spa at The RitzCarlton, Chicago by K’Alma, where I treated myself to a hot river stone massage while the ladies pampered themselves with manis, pedis, facials and everything in between. Dinner that evening was at Torali Restaurant on the hotel’s 12th floor.
A modern steakhouse with an Italian twist, this is serious food for gourmets and gourmands alike. We had dined here on a previous visit and enjoyed several wonderful dishes, including a whole roasted branzino, memories of which still bring a smile to my face and an anticipatory rumbling in my stomach. We started with the charcuterie board accompanied by Manhattans for my wife and me, followed by an impeccable filet for my wife, a strip steak for our daughter and, inevitably, the branzino for myself. My memory had not failed: this was heaven on a plate. Throughout our meal the flavors were rich, savory and utterly delicious, especially when accompanied by an excellent bottle from Priorat, which satisfied both my love of old-world elegance and my wife’s taste for rich, ripe reds. I am not usually one to steal from my wife’s plate, but found her steak to be nothing short of perfect.
Bidding adieu to the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, and getting on the road for our three-hour drive home, we felt as if we had just exited one era in our lives and were about to enter another. The next time we would make this drive, it would be to deposit our daughter at college, and life would never be the same again–a daunting prospect, but also one tinged with excitement and anticipation. We spent the journey talking about the future and all that lay ahead; our horizons, disappearing into the distance like the Indiana cornfields, seemed endless.
For more information, visit Ritzcarlton.com.