Chicago restaurants showcase future of dining

by Doug Rapp

Self-ordering kiosks with food appearing in a cubby minutes later. Robots working as concierges and assisting restaurant servers.

All of these are happening in Chicago in what might be a version of dining in the future.

 Hotel EMC2, which bills itself as “at the intersection of art and science,” has added two  robot concierges. Named Leo and Cleo, the robots deliver amenities for guests who book the Bot Experience Package through March 2020, according to website Travel Pulse.

The X Pot, a Chinese hot pot restaurant, plans to use robots at its South Loop location  opening this summer, according to the Chicago Tribune. Owner David Zhao told the  Tribune the robots will move around similarly to Roombas, delivering food to tables and  taking away empty dishes.

Wow Bao, a fast Asian street food eatery,  has two fully automated locations, plus a semi-automated one in Streeterville. At the 200 N. Michigan Ave. spot, customers order from a kiosk and their food is placed in a cubby, limiting human interaction.

“It makes the ordering process a lot faster and more accurate because you’re entering your own order,” said Christine Reznicek, Wow Bao’s marketing manager.

The restaurant usually has two to three employees preparing the food, according to Reznicek, and a concierge up front during peak times to assist customers.

Reznicek said it’s a feature the company wants to move forward with.

 “We like the excitement that it encourages,” she said. “It definitely is a draw for  traffic coming in.”

The reception has been almost uniformly positive, Reznicek said.

“It’s been great. Once everyone gets used to the order flow, they like it. We’re pretty big with tourists. They hear about it and want to  come check out the animations.”

She was referring to the dancing bitmojis that traipse across the cubbies’ thin screens at the 200 N. Michigan location.

 KDM Engineering employee Mani Appalamcen, who was picking up lunch, said he  “loves” the vegan options at Wow Bao.

“I like the way your order appears on the monitor and then in the cubby,” he said. “That’s cool and it’s convenient.”

Cleanna Smith, a supervisor at the 200 N. Michigan location, said the technology rarely  has problems but occasionally a guest needs help navigating the ordering stations. 

“I just like that we have all this technology that’s a new experience for people,”  Smith said.  

A cookie on a milkshake: JoJo’s Milk Bar to expand

by Stephanie Racine

When it’s hard to decide between desserts, JoJo’s can save the day. Have your cookie and eat it too—on top of a delicious milkshake.

JoJo’s Milk Bar, which has been making waves in the dessert bar scene with intricate and decadent offerings, opened in River North in February 2019 and recently expanded to a milkshake kiosk in Streeterville.

JoJo’s Shake Bar is on the second  floor Mezzanine of Water Tower Place, near kid-friendly shops such as American Girl, The LEGO Store and The Art Of Dr. Seuss. 

JoJo’s will be partnering with Unicorn World By Lola + The Boys, another nearby kids store,  to offer the Unicorn Shake, a blueberry cherry shake, topped with items like cotton candy, a  sprinkle-dipped cone and candy Do Do’s. 

Co-founder Robbie Schloss is excited to bring JoJo’s to Water Tower and hopes customers will  take part in the “grander-than- life” experience. The “enhanced  retro diner” was inspired by Schloss’s childhood and named for his daughter.

 Unlike its River North location, which serves food and alcohol, JoJo’s Shake Bar focuses on  sweeter fare. Menu items include the Chocolate Nirvana, a shake with Oreos, and the BIGGIE Salted Caramel hot chocolate. The site offers infused milks and assorted freshly baked cookies—  if you prefer them separate from the milkshake.

JoJo’s Milk Bar in River North is also adding some new options.

“JoJo’s will also embark on a  new partnership with Chica- go-based manufacturer of organic Cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD  products, Half Day CBD, for adult diners interested in adding  CBD oil or gummies to milk- shakes, cocktails, hot chocolate  drinks and  oats,” according to a news release.

JoJo’s Shake Bar is open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday.  For more information, visit jojosmilkbar.com.  

Cooper’s Hawk opens first urban location

by Doug Rapp

An upscale wine and dining chain that started in the suburbs has come to downtown Chicago in time for the holidays.

Cooper’s Hawk, which has 41 locations nationwide, recently opened its first urban location at 58 E. Oak Street, in the Gold Coast’s historic Esquire building.

“The Esquire space presented the perfect location and footprint to serve as the flagship restaurant (in Chicago),” Executive Chef Matt McMillin said.

The renovation of the space took nearly 10 months, according to publicist Laurie Cairns.

“Incorporating our Napa-inspired look was a fun challenge,”  she said.

The large, multi-floor restaurant and winery covers 23,000 square feet. It can accommodate more than 400 people, with a patio and private event space.

They offer a standard menu plus an Esquire signature page featuring upscale dishes, such as pistachio-crusted Australian rack of lamb, 25-ounce prime, bone-in ribeye and miso-glazed Chilean seabass, McMillin said. He’s excited about the “Tribute to the World of  Wine” signature five-course pairing dinner he curated with master sommelier Emily Wines.

The new Chicago location is the first Cooper’s Hawk to offer wines outside their normal portfolio,  Cairns said. It has 1,600 collections from around the world,  including 750 bottles from the personal collection of founder and CEO Tim McEnery.

In addition to the “immersive” experience of fine wine and  dining, Cairns said Cooper’s Hawk offers Wine Club memberships, featuring new wines each month, available for pickup or shipping.

 “(The wine club) is a great introduction for anyone curious about wine, as Cooper’s Hawk  is all about making wine accessible to everyone,” Wines, the  sommelier, said. “We have over 50 varietals, ranging from sweet wines to big robust reds, and everything in between.”

Cairns said they also have holiday-etched bottles, wine ornaments and a 12 Nights of Christmas gift box, which includes a variety of wines.

“We trust Chicago will embrace what we have created at Cooper’s Hawk Esquire Chicago and look forward to how it evolves over the years,” McMillin said.  

Going green with Circuit ridesharing

By Stephanie Racine

With Mayor Lightfoot’s new proposal on taxing solo rideshares, Circuit is a new viable option.

Circuit is a free and green rideshare company that made their debut in Chicago over the summer. New Eastside is a popular stop. The cars resemble shuttles, with each of the six passengers having their own door. The vehicles are fully electric and are hailed just like other rideshare companies, by using an app. Circuit has almost completed its pilot period in downtown Chicago and is winding down in November, but the company has no plans to leave.

“By no means do we want to leave Chicago. We’d love to be there full time,” said Circuit Co-Founder Alexander Esposito.

Circuit is looking for new ad partners for Chicago, but ideally they’d like to operate in Chicago by working with the city itself.

“We’re hoping to secure a longer-term service agreement with the City, local transit agencies or another local organization,” said Esposito.

In San Diego, there are 22 Circuit cars in operation with around 21,000 rides a month. Chicago’s ridesharing numbers are much larger than that, with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning reporting 286,000 rideshare rides per day. 

Esposito said they want to help with downtown congestion by making Circuit easily accessible at parking garages. They also want to help promote public transportation use.

“If more people could get a ride to the train, I think more people would use public transportation,” Esposito said.

According to Co-Founder James Mirras, there was a trend of Circuit customers using the app to get to and from the Washington/Wells CTA station.

“I was visiting family in the suburbs and used Circuit to get from the Metra to an appointment I had,” said Ana Ayrempour.

Ayrempour was surprised at how smooth the process was, especially with it being a free service.

“It was a quick pickup and the driver was nice,” said Ayrempour.  

Circuit employs drivers full-time and wants to focus on having local people driving their cars. Esposito thinks this helps bring a more comfortable feel to the experience.

“I’ve seen a driver taking time to teach an older woman how to use the app,” Esposito said.

Circuit was started by Esposito and his partner, James Mirras, as a beach shuttle in the Hamptons in New York, and was originally called The Free Ride. Now, Circuit has grown in different cities—both big and small. South Florida, Texas, California, and the Jersey Shore currently have Circuit.

For more information and to download the app, visit thefreeride.com

AmazonGo coming to the Prudential Building

By Stephanie Racine and Mat Cohen

AmazonGo is under construction at the Prudential Building on the plaza level, near Lake St. and Stetson Ave., according to the Amazon website. 

It will be the second AmazonGo location in New Eastside, joining its Illinois Center location at 111 E. Wacker Drive. AmazonGo is Amazon’s version of grocery and convenience store shopping. Customers scan in with the AmazonGo app, take what they need from the shelves, and walk out. 

“Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning,” the website stated. After Amazon automatically detects what has been taken, the items appear in a virtual cart, and the customer’s account is charged. 

AmazonGo is a popular stop for workers and busy people in New Eastside. “I’m about to get on an airplane so just wanted to stop in quick to grab a bottle of water” said AmazonGo Shopper Bill Meier. Meier has been to the AmazonGo in San Francisco as well, and is a big fan of the convenience. “It’s high tech, futuristic and where things are going,” said Meier. 

“I don’t always have a ton of time in the middle of the work day, or when I’m trying to get home at the end of the day,” said shopper Catherine Phaneuf. For Phaneuf, stopping at AmazonGo is the easiest and fastest way to grab a snack, or a full meal in a hurry. 

Beyond groceries, AmazonGo offers ready-to-make meal kits, which can be cooked for two people in 30 minutes. Local bakery and other artisanal items are also available.

AmazonGo even has organic raw beef or chicken to pick up. “It saves an extra trip to the grocery store if you decide to cook something on a whim last minute,” says Phaneuf. 

For more information about AmazonGo, visit amazon.com or download the AmazonGo app.

Christkindlmarket brings German Christmas to Chicago

By Elisa Shoenberger

Entering its 24th year, the Christkindlmarket brings a bit of German Christmas to Chicago. Debuting in Pioneer Court in 1996, the market grew to three markets in 2019, expanding to locations in Daley Plaza, Wrigleyville and Milwaukee, Wisc.

The German American Chamber of Commerce (GACC) founded the market for business and cultural reasons. They wanted an opportunity to provide small businesses in Germany with a place to feature their products before deciding to invest in the U.S., explains Maren Priebe, CEO of German American Events, a subsidiary of the GACC.

But it wasn’t just about commerce. Christkindlmarkets are popular across Germany and the rest of the European Union. The tradition of Christkindlmarkets grew out of medieval markets going back to the 14th century, said Kate Bleeker, Director of the German American Events. Annual holiday markets began to evolve into social occasions where families and entire communities came together.  

The Chicago market was modeled after the Nuremberg market, reflected by the red and white huts.

The market was a bit of a risky venture given Chicago’s snowy winters, Priebe said. But the risk paid off in the first year when 300,000 people showed up to enjoy the market with 13 vendors in Pioneer Court. The following year, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office invited them to Daley Plaza, where the market has been since.

The Christkindlmarket “has become a centerpiece of the city’s holiday celebration for locals and tourists,” Priebe said. The central location of the market, close to transportation, hotels, and the business district, and free admission have helped the market grow.

In 2014, the market expanded to Wrigleyville and in 2018 Christkindlmarket opened in Milwaukee. GACC has consulted with other fairs across the country but as far as they know they are the most traditional of the Christkindlmarkets in the US.

Bob’s Belgian Hot Chocolate and Wacky Wonderworks are two new vendors in this year’s market. Based in Downers Grove, Wacky Wonderworks sells 3D wooden puzzles, such as Tyrannosaurus Rex or Pegasus, that do not require additional tools. Bob’s Belgian Hot Chocolate will sell his hot chocolate, made from combining Belgium dark and milk chocolate, as well as other chocolate products. 

For many, collecting the Christkindlmarket cup is a long tradition. Priebe said the new Christkindlmarket cup will be unveiled Nov. 4. 

The Milwaukee and Daley Plaza markets are open from Nov. 15 to Dec . 24  and the Wrigleyville market is open Nov. 22 to Dec. 31.

Chicago care services making house calls

By Elisa Shoenberger

Throughout Chicago there are doctors and other medical professionals who will go to residences. Instead of traveling to a doctor’s office or hospital, people can reach out to different services for non-emergency medical care in their home. 

Decades ago, it was common practice for doctors to travel to people’s homes with their recognizable black bag. Today, though the practice is not as common, doctors still bring medicines and IVs to treat patients in their own homes with many of these services even having specialists on staff, such as wound care specialists or technicians who bring along portable X-ray machines.

Locally, Chicago Express Doctors, founded by a few emergency room doctors, wanted to address the problem of crowded waiting rooms. One of the staff doctors, identified only as Dr. Allen, said the doctors thought, “Why don’t we do something more convenient?” and Chicago Express Doctors was born. Patients can call the service and have a doctor dispatched within an hour.

Another service, MD at Home, which has 9,000 unique patients each year, works largely with patients in their homes, typically with patients that have mobility or cognitive issues. MD at Home provides primary care services as well as helping coordinate other services as needed. Dovi Weill, Director of Business Development, said MD at Home is trying to solve a “gap of care” and prevent hospitalizations.  

The virtual medical service, Teledoc, allows people to speak with a licensed doctor or therapist via phone, web or mobile. Teledoc has more than 20 million members, or patients, in 130 countries.

Other medical groups provide at home nursing services as well as hospice assistance. Each service caters to different patient populations. For instance, Chicago Express Doctors works with travelers who don’t want to go to the ERs while away from home, and people with tight schedules. MD at Home works more with geriatric patients in their homes.

However, all the services are meant for non-emergency medical care. Even with former ER doctors on staff, Chicago Express Doctors advises people go to the ER when facing emergency situations.

Go back with the best—the hottest back to school stuff

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Stephanie Racine, Staff Writer

Fall is upon us, which means a fresh start on the schoolyear and brand new items to purchase. Be prepared for back-to-school with these useful for parents and fun for kids trends!  

Home Sweet Locker

Decorating lockers has always been a way to showcase personality while at school, but options have been upgraded since the days of magnets and magazine clips. Target has options such as magnetic succulent plants, magnetic and battery-powered “chandeliers,” and removable wallpaper. Specifically, check out UBrand at Target, which has all the previous options, plus more, like a disco ball!

Fashion is Clear

A trend for all ages, that’s also helpful for parents. A clear plastic raincoat is cheap, easy to clean, and also fashionable for a kid of any age. Currently, there’s one available at Walmart online for $10. Clear backpacks are also cool, and won’t require parents to ask if their kid forgot anything on their way out—it’s easy to see inside!

A Bento-Style Lunch

Bento Boxes are no longer just for mom or dad’s sushi lunch. The omieBox, available on Amazon, has spaces for both cold and hot foods. It comes with different inserts, depending on what’s for lunch that day, and can include cutlery. Everything in the box can be put in the dishwasher, to make daily cleanup easy. There are simpler versions, like the stainless steel LunchBots containers on Amazon.

Eraser Fun

Put a smile on their face with fun erasers in all sorts of shapes. Yoobi’s fast food eraser set, available at Urban Outfitters, includes a mini hamburger, hotdog, French fry, and sandwich all for erasing. Acbell’s erasers are in the shape of macaron cookies and brightly colored. Handy Basic’s erasers are ice cream treats. Both are available on Amazon.  

Streeterville Best Buy to close Nov. 2

(Published July 31, 2019)

In late July, the home electronics chain Best Buy announced they would not renew their lease at 875 N Michigan Ave. Best Buy has occupied the space since 2008 and the two-story store is the chain’s flagship location. The chain will not close its 31 remaining stores in Chicagoland. 

The Michigan Avenue store is 35,000 sq. feet. Large retail outlets have struggled in recent years. In 2018 Crate and Barrel left their 646 N. Michigan Ave. location, though a Starbucks roastery is still expected to open later this year. 

A spokesperson for the chain, Mathew Smith, said the downtown location had high rent and proved not to be as popular as other locations in the city. 

This location has one of the highest rents in our portfolio, even higher than most of our Manhattan stores,” said Smith. “Additionally, we’ve seen that most of our customers prefer to shop at one of our nearby stores like South Loop, North Avenue or Bucktown since parking is easier for big items like TVs and appliances.”

The store employs 35 people and management has said they hope to transfer those workers to other stores.  

A closer look at hidden bars around downtown

(Published June 30, 2019)

By Elisa Shoenberger, Staff Writer

Looking for someplace new? Someplace weird? Someplace out-of-the-way?

Look no more. Here is a list of the best hidden bars downtown.

The Library

The Library is located in the basement of the Gilt Bar in River North. It has a speakeasy feel with soft lights, bookshelves and gentle 1920s music playing. They don’t take reservations, expect a wait.

Gilt Bar

230 N. Kinzie St.

The Drifter

This River North establishment is also in the basement of another bar, the Green Door Tavern. The cocktail menu varies because drinks are printed on tarot cards, and different cards list different drinks. Risk-seeking patrons can snag a fortune cookie from a Buddha cookie jar where each fortune lists a cocktail or liquor. After 8 p.m., there’s burlesque and musical entertainment curated by Michelle L’amour. Expect to pay a cover charge.

Green Door Tavern

678 N. Orleans St.

The Milk Room

This tiny hidden bar is on the second floor of the Chicago Athletic Association, 12 S. Michigan Ave. Allegedly, it was used by members during Prohibition. Paid reservations are recommended as the bar only has eight seats. This is the place for the discerning cocktail aficionado since they serve rare spirits.

Chicago Athletic Association

12 S. Michigan Ave.

Blind Barber

The Blind Barber, in West Loop, is in the back of an actual barber shop. When a patron enters the barbershop and asks for the bar, they will be directed to an unmarked door. Once inside the cocktail bar, it’ll feel like a time warp with soft lights and cozy chairs. In addition to a delicious cocktail list, they offer a grilled cheese that isn’t to be missed.

Back of a barber shop

948 W. Fulton Market

SafeHouse Chicago

A Milwaukee transplant, this Streeterville bar lets patrons feel like secret agents. First one must locate the red door and then provide the password or perform a designated task. Once these tests are passed, patrons find themselves in a spy-themed cocktail bar. It’s goofy and fun with lots to explore, including secret entrances and passages.

60 E. Ontario St.

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