USA: Chicago’s open arms

Greg Fleming visits the USA’s third largest city, and finds it’s his kind of town.

In this part of the world Chicago remains something of a mystery. It may be the third largest city in the US and one that has successfully transitioned from an industrial centre to a global metropolis, but its profile here has been overshadowed by flashier destinations on the East and West coasts.

Expect that to change when Air New Zealand begins a thrice-weekly direct service from Auckland in November. The city has won Time Out’s Best City in the World award for the past two years — and Kanye West even named his third daughter after his hometown.

It’s a resilient and strangely beautiful city that has survived fire, corruption and its beloved Cubs baseball team losing for 108 straight years before finally winning the World Series in 2016. Naturally, the party went on for days.

If you want it, Chicago’s got it

My introduction to the Midwest’s infamous hospitality came at the legendary Lou Mitchell’s Diner.

This family-run eatery — right around the corner from the start of Route 66 — is a city institution and its long and varied menu of American diner classics is comfort food of a high order.

I was halfway through my plate of Italian sausage omelette — served with potato chips, coffee, and Greek toast smothered in butter, with a freshly squeezed grapefruit juice to wash it down — when Donna, the 80-year-old proprietor, informed her customers over the diner’s intercom that a table of Kiwis and Australians were in the house. The place erupted in applause. Then, as if we needed it, we got ice-cream and Milk Duds, compliments of the house, as we left. It was 8am.

That’s one end of the food culture in Chicago.

A few nights later I sat down at Alinea — chef Grant Achatz’s three-Michelin star fine-dining restaurant. It’s so exclusive that Justin Timberlake had trouble getting a table.

Eating here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience combining theatre, molecular gastronomy and amazing food with a cheeky sense of fun. Thankfully, they supply a written menu after dinner — because, despite the waiter’s patient explanations, I had no idea what I was eating much of the time.

It’s a restaurant that makes you think. What looks like ice-cream is actually a salad, what should be sweet is salty, then the fruit centrepiece on the table explodes in dry ice.

Our four-hour, 10-course tasting menu hit all the senses — food came accompanied by smoke and other sensory cues. There was even an edible helium-filled balloon on a string for dessert (much hilarity ensued).

For a city that essentially rose out of the prairie 115-odd years ago, the transformation is astounding. Mark Twain’s evaluation still holds: “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago — she outgrows her prophesies faster than she can make them.”

You might not be able to keep up but you can’t help but leave Chicago as an optimist.

It’s a city busy doing its own thing, where the much-repeated greeting, “Welcome to Chicago”, is less a platitude than an invitation to take part in an unforgettable journey.

No — it’s not really windy in the Windy City. New York and Boston are windier than Chicago. It’s thought the nickname originated from the hot air blown out by the Midwest city’s Chicago politicians.

One thing that Chicago doesn’t do well is coffee. But there’s a branch of New Zealand’s Mojo coffee chain at 200 South Wacker St in the business district if you fancy a flat white made right. Go say hello.



Air New Zealand

starts its new service to Chicago on November 30. Economy Class one-way fares start from $1019.




has been voted the best hotel in Chicago and second-best in the US. And it’s located at Water Tower Park on the Magnificent Mile, the city’s premier shopping district.

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