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.
Former A Hamburger Today and Slice Chicago correspondent, Daniel Zemans, and I both happen to work in the Loop. So while during the day I'm a sales and marketing associate and Daniel is a lawyer, we both decided to take a break from our daytime identities, don our superhero Serious Eats costumes, and meet up for a man-date about hamburgers, pizza, and food nerdery. Daniel's been curious about the Walnut Room, so we agreed to meet up there and stuff our pieholes for a welcome break from the workday.
The Walnut Room is a beautiful space with high ceilings that's perpetually stuck in 1950. The waiters wear tuxedos, and while I felt like a homeless person wearing cargo shorts, a polo, and sandals, most people around us were dressed casually. I was afraid of prohibitively expensive lunch prices, but the menu is surprisingly affordable, with most items just around $10 mark, with the most expensive being $15.
We kicked off lunch with the 312 Shrimp "Scampi" ($9.95). Any menu item with quotation marks in its name makes me wonder if it's hiding something. Maybe I should start calling myself "Dennis" Lee. The dish is simply shrimp bathed in a garlic butter sauce, but to make it 312 (holla, Chicago!), they use Goose Island's 312 wheat beer to bring some extra noise to this Macy's lunch party. Since beer isn't technically part of a scampi preparation, that's likely why they have the quotation marks.
The shrimp itself brings no surprises; the butter sauce is definitely laced with a lot of garlic, and the bitterness of the beer is present, front and center. Imagine a beer-based mussel broth with a lot of garlic butter, and that's exactly what the 312 Shrimp "Scampi" tastes like. Oddly, it comes with five shrimp, which is a strange number for a shared appetizer, and as Daniel noticed, one of the shrimp was not fully deveined.
The Peach Nest ($10.95) is easily one of the strangest lunch combinations I've had in a long time. It features a mayo-based chicken salad resting on top of shoestring potatoes, surrounded by peaches, grapes, strawberries, banana bread, and strawberry cream cheese. I mean, I've had chicken salad next to fruit before, but never alongside canned peaches. Or banana bread. Or...strawberry cream cheese. And what's with the shoestring potatoes? The world will never know.
According to the menu, the chicken salad is famous, but I'm not sure why; it's like your usual chicken salad sandwich material. The cubed chicken is dry, it's surrounded in a ton of thick mayo, with the occasional little crunchy bits of celery. The canned peaches are, well, syrupy canned peaches, which is mind-boggling during peach season. And let me know if any of you eat strawberry cream cheese with your chicken salad, because I want to meet you, and run a series of rigorous scientific tests, and donate your brain to science.
Another signature item is Mrs. Hering's 1890 Original Chicken Pot Pie ($10.95). It comes in a cute little Walnut Room single-serve ceramic bowl. but the first thing I noticed was that the top seemed oddly...loose. A little fooling around with a fork, and, voila, the secret is revealed!
This isn't technically a real chicken pot pie, but it's a casserole wearing a pastry crust disc as a hat. The pastry crust is flaky and otherwise satisfying, but there isn't nearly enough of it to mix with the chicken casserole beneath. The chicken is a touch dry, and comes mixed in a standard cream-of-chicken-style soup with peas, carrots, and onions. This is old-fashioned comfort food, but somehow tastes like it could use a little more soul, if by soul, you mean pastry crust.
I have a soft spot for Frango Mints, because they were a staple of Marshall Field's back in the day, and I used to look forward to eating a few (okay, maybe a whole box; don't judge me) when I was growing up. But ever since Marshall Field's became Macy's, they just haven't had the same spirit since. The Frango Mint Cheesecake ($5.95), however, brought back my love for Frango mints in full force. This is a rich, indulgent chocolate cheesecake that tastes unmistakably like Frangos, with that cool mint flavor on top of the chocolate that hovers between mild and dark, and with the slight tang from the cream cheese, the thick chocolate sauce, and a little bit of whipped cream, I was just plain happy.
If you're feeling a little discouraged from the daily grind and you want to pretend you're rich for an hour, the Walnut Room isn't a bad space to spend some time, but the food is hit or miss. But if you're sneaking away for a break, or you're just there shopping, you can get the cheesecake and watch the tuxedoed waiters walk by.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.