A Quick Summer Stop in Chicago

As you know (or may not know!) I work at Booking.com. I love my job because it means I get to eat, sleep, and breathe travel, which just so happens to be my all-time favorite thing to do. Specifically, I manage communications for the US, which involves strategically and creatively overseeing all of the ads we put into the market. Sometimes I travel to LA or other exotic locations for big, cinematic television shoots, and in other instances I sit at my desk in Amsterdam, sip coffee, and sense check content articles or Facebook posts before they go live. Part of my job also entails of identifying who our key consumers are and what they will react to. If I haven’t lost you yet, this means my job also requires attending and analyzing focus groups. Basically, I’m the creepy person who sits on the other side of the tinted glass window, making comments and taking notes. Focus group participants can’t see or hear me, but I listen in and try to get a read on what they think about Booking.com, our ads, or travel in general. It might sound snoozy, but I find this part of the job ultra-intriguing! Sometimes we put our heart and soul into a piece of creative work, and it gets shredded to bits by consumers in a focus group – yes, this really happens! There are also usually mini-kitchenettes attached to each observation room, so in addition to gaining valuable insights about our brand, I also have access to unlimited snacks and takeout options. What more could a gal ask for?! Where am I going with this? A few months ago, some focus groups we were conducting landed me in Chicago. It’s worth noting here that I also went to Atlanta and NYC on the same trip, but holy-hell Chicago blew me out of the water, and is the only city that gets a full, dedicated blog post ;) Maybe it was seasonal and due to the perfect, balmy weather, but damn, Chicago was pretty!

While traveling alone can be a bummer for some, I absolutely adore it. I have the drive to wake up early and explore, or head out after office-hours solo to discover something new. I think moving to Europe and living alone for a few years had a big impact on how I function – I am much more independent than I was five years ago. I really value Ali-time, and the ability to choose what I do next, or where I want to go without anyone else weighing in. I spend a lot of my holiday days traveling with family, friends, and Kai, but sometimes it’s nice to wander around a new city alone with a book, taking in the sights and stopping to read on whatever grassy green knoll takes my fancy!While I was in Chicago, I had early early early (like 5am early!) morning meetings with Amsterdam, and then focus groups later in the day. On day one our groups were in the evening (talk about mega jet lag!) and on the second, they were in the afternoon. This was great because it meant I had down periods at different times throughout my visit, and could see Chicago in two different lights (literally!) I also walked to and from the research groups, which gave me a good opportunity to get acquainted with the city, which tends to get a bit confusing, with all of the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ business! This image below is the view from outside my hotel. I’ve now been to Chicago twice for work, and both times I’ve stayed at the Wyndham Grand Chicago Riverfront. I love that it’s on the river, and from my hotel room I always have a bird’s eye view of all of the action down below. And here are a few photos I snapped while wandering around Chicago in the sunshine!
This might sound a bit boring, but all I really ‘did’ while in Chicago was walk around! I walked through Millennium Park, saw the Cloud Gate (the big bean-like mirror statue), and watched the sun set over Navy Pier. For a solo trip, it was actually pretty romantic ;)
Sitting down by the water in Chicago actually really creeped me out. The shorefront was beautiful, but having grown up by the sea, I felt like the water levels were . . . off. The water didn’t move the way an ocean should. I know, that’s because it’s Lake Michigan and not the sea, but the water was so large and vast, it felt like it should be the ocean! Mind trip!Okay, now for my favorite part of the post – THE FOOD. Oh my god, this is where Chicago really knocked it out of the park. Maybe I am overly accustomed to small-portioned, heavily-mayo’d Dutch food, but hot-damn the eats in Chi were delish. An old colleague from my 180 days actually shared a few suggestions that were invaluable – thanks to his suggestions, I had the best burger AND donut of my life. Prepare yourselves . . . My first stop on the Chicago food-list was Sawada Coffee. If you get there early enough, you can usually snag a Vault Donut before their stockpile sells out for the day. As you might guess, Sawada Coffee also offers a delicious selection of brews, teas, and my personal favorite, matcha beverages! At this point in my life, I didn’t know that matcha existed . . . but I was about to find out!While in line waiting to order my Vault Donut, the customer in front of me turned around with a tall, magical, frothy-green drink. As I stepped up to the counter, I pointed to his beverage with my jaw dropped. ‘I’ll have that!’ was all I could muster! Turns out it was a MilitaryLatte, which is Hiroshi Sawada’s signature drink – a combination of smooth green tea, vanilla syrup, cocoa powder, and a shot of espresso – holy heaven in a cup!! And what better to accompany this godly beverage than a glazed poppy seed Vault Donut? It was literally the most decadent and delicious breakfast I’ve ever had in my entire life.And now you know why I did so much walking in Chicago! 

I enjoyed my bounty at a sunny spot on the front counter, amazed that I had not experienced a matcha beverage before!While I don’t have a photo of this next stop (re: I ate it in a dim-lit observation room) it was mouthwatering and still worth a mention – because you have to have deep dish pizza in Chicago, right?! While Pequod’s PizzaDue, and Lou Malnati’s all came recommended, the research facility we were at offered takeaway from Giordano’s, so I sprung for a Bacon BBQ Chicken Deep Dish Pizza with BBQ-basted chicken, bacon, balsamic onions, and sweet BBQ sauce, and ohh my god I am actually crying as I write this because I am not currently shoving this thick, cheesy glory into my mouth. Here is a picture I found of the BBQ chicken deep dish on TripAdvisor – I’m not even kidding, it’s like, six inches of deep dish cheese, with a light topping of bacon, BBQ sauce, and chicken. Seriously mind blowing! (No exaggeration – I had to stop right here and cook dinner because looking at that pizza photo made me so hungry!)

And as if I hadn’t already fully clogged my arteries, I had not one but TWO spectacular burgers in Chicago. While all of the available reservation times at Girl & The Goat conflicted with my research schedule (boo), I did pop by her baby sister, Little Goat, next door. And although (spoiler alert) I had been told the best burger in Chicago could be found at Au Cheval (double spoiler alert: it was!) I went for a goat burger (when in rome!) with spicy kimchi, bacon, siracha mayo, and a fried egg on top for good luck!Ohh, and a side of fried pickles, because you know, vegetables.I don’t have a picture of the burger I later ate at Au Cheval, but I have to tell you about the experience none the less. My Chicago foodie spirit guide had really built the restaurant up. And I quote, “Best burger on the planet.” So despite having a burger for lunch on day one in Chicago, of course I am not going to skip the ‘best burger on the planet’ on day two, just because I may have been slightly concerned for my probably skyrocketing cholesterol levels. So I rocked up to Au Cheval at lunch time, sat at the bar with no wait (perks of being a party of one!) and ordered my meat, which came in the form of two beef patties, two thick slabs of pork, one egg, a slice of cheese, a dusting of spring onion, and a bun. Simple, perfect, and yes, the best burger on the planet. I don’t have a photo, but please go, it was to die for!

The last meal I had in Chicago was also calorific, but at least I started with a salad. My friend Erin had recommended RPM Italian which is slightly more upscale and specializes in pasta, seafood, and steak – the holy trinity of American dining. This time around I went for the veg, and ordered a massive kale salad. I love how easy it is to find kale on a menu in the US. Here in Holland, the Dutch only really eat it cooked and in mashed potatoes (I know, right?!) So I order kale often in the US, not because I’m a sucker for the ‘new lettuce’ craze but because I pretty much each regular iceberg or arugula on the 325 days a year I’m not in the US!And of course, it wouldn’t be a proper work trip if I didn’t gain at least 5lbs, so for my main I had the squid ink pasta, which was perfection.And just so you know, I’m not one of those people who can eat 3,000 calories a day and not gain a pound. I walked a TON on this trip, and also, when I travel, I go to the hotel gym every morning before work (it’s so easy when it’s right downstairs!) That, paired with the fact that don’t really consume any beverage-calories while I travel (I had a glass of wine alone once and it just wasn’t fun!) means that I can eat like a fat-kid and my pants still fit. Yay balanced travel lifestyle! Speaking of balance, what would this food tour be . . .  without dessert!
On my last evening in Chicago, it was hot and the sun was setting and I had decided to walk down to Navy Pier. What did I find in my path? Ohh, only a cupcake shop – Molly’s Cupcakes to be exact! So of course to conclude the fat-tour I had a creme brulee cupcake, which I managed to pocket until I arrived at the water.Which was smart, because the only thing that could have made this moment even more beautiful . . .   . . was a cupcake!Thank you Chicago for being so damn beautiful AND delicious. I can’t wait to be back and discover even more wonderful gems!
Till next time!

xo Ali

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