Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Courtway Restaurant is a few blocks north of the Chicago Board of Trade and a few blocks south of City Hall, so you'd think that its location in the midst of all the busy-bee stuff downtown would make it easy to find. But after about seven years of working in the Loop, I had no idea this place even existed. I'm genuinely shocked. I feel like I'm letting you Serious Eaters in on a big secret.
The entrance is down a very small street the size of an alleyway at the end of a little arcade of lunch places, and, even then, you have to go down a hallway to get to the entrance of the restaurant itself.
When you enter, it's like you're in a time warp back to the late 60s; it's dimly lit, you can tell nothing has changed about the decor, and the first thing you'll notice is the really low counter seating. All this being said, Courtway serves straight up diner food. There's nothing fancy, no twist on any cuisine, no fusion anything. Just diner food with a few surprises—and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If you order a plate lunch, you get either a soup or salad. I opted for the chicken and rice soup (included in cost of entree), and the waitress informed me that it's made in-house. It's nothing particularly special; it reminds me exactly of canned soup with little cubes of dry chicken and overcooked rice. But the white bread they serve with it is an unexpected surprise. It's sweet, spongy, texturally a little dense, and baked until it's almost dark. I had to stop when I imagined myself twenty years later still eating the bread, mumbling like crazy, looking sort of like Jabba the Hut, and... Wow, I let my imagination run wild sometimes.
On Fridays, they apparently make a special glazed sweet-roll version with raisins, and the cashier told me that it was something I had to try.
Along with regular diner breakfast plates, the restaurant also sells plenty of sandwiches and wraps. My coworker ordered the BBQ chicken wrap ($8.75 with fries and coleslaw), which consists of chicken breast tossed in a lot of spicy barbecue sauce. Actually, the sauce has more in common with hot sauce than barbecue sauce, with a strong vinegary and peppery kick, almost like sriracha.
The pork chops Vienna-style ($10.50) are breaded and deep-fried, and come with a fried egg on top. While the photo makes the egg look overcooked, it actually has a perfectly runny yolk, which serves as sauce for the crunchy boneless cutlet. So while the pork is a little dry beneath the crisp breading, the yolk more than makes up for it. This is simple and well executed schnitzel, no more, no less. The green beans you see are soft and mushy, likely out of a can, and the blond fries are a little on the greasy side as the oil has soaked into the outer layer, so I didn't eat many of them.
The Chicken Kiev ($12.75) is a breaded and fried chicken cutlet with butter in the center to keep the meat moist. When it's cut open, the center is completely hollow, as all the butter has leaked out during the cooking process, sadly rending the chicken dry. But a hollow chicken roll is funny to look at, when you think about it. This isn't my favorite item and I wouldn't order it again, considering the chicken breast is overcooked. The fresh mashed potatoes are served plain, and aren't creamy at all, but the concentrated potato flavor is deep with no adornments to hide the starchy and earthy taste of our favorite little tuber. What really surprised me was that Hungarian goulash is also on the menu, but sadly, they didn't have it the day I visited, and apparently the popularity of the dish has diminished.
I love doing Lunch in the Loop as a feature for Serious Eats Chicago because I like finding little places in alleyways and side streets between skyscrapers, like the Courtway, which represent Chicago's little secrets. That's part of all the fun. And if you go, make sure you order a little extra bread. You'll be glad you did.