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.
The Gage is located directly across the street from Millennium Park and the Art Institute, making it a contender for tourists and office bees alike. If the name sounds familiar, it's because the Serious Eats Chicago team has visited multiple times for varying reasons. The day I visited, my parents had made the trek downtown to hang out at the Art Institute with me. We native Chicagoans got to play tourist in our own city, and carrying around my DSLR while being Asian helped me further with my urban camouflage. But, you know, my natural state of constantly looking confused and lost also helps me blend in.
After wandering around the Art Institute for a good few hours, I decided to take my parents out to The Gage for a nice lunch, because that's what a good son does. A good son should feed his parents nice food, because they fed him nice food when he was growing up, so that he could thrive and grow up to be a famous troublemaker (okay, maybe not famous, but definitely a troublemaker) who tries to eat very interesting food.
The open-faced meatloaf sandwich ($16.00) is a mountainous heap of loaf on top of toasted bread, watercress, spicy red pepper rings, and is topped with Swiss cheese and an over-easy egg. It's interestingly pink throughout, with a moist medium-rare texture. The meat is a very fine grind, so it doesn't have a coarser chewy texture like homemade meatloaf, and ends up being very soft, almost like beef tartare.
The red pepper adds a bunch of heat, and there's mustard hidden beneath the pile as well, adding a sharp tang to every bite. And of course, when you jab into that egg, the yolk cascades over the side, turning into a silky chicken-baby cholesterol sauce that's still all the rage these days. The open-face configuration makes it a bit of an unwieldy lunch, though, because you've got to saw through it for each bite, and it eventually turns into a big mess.
My father had never eaten venison, so the venison burger ($17.00) was new territory for him, and he was excited to try it. It's a busy burger, with sautéed (they call them "melted," but that's silly) onions, pickled onions, smoked gouda, woodland mushrooms, red wine ketchup, mustard aioli, and fried jalapeños. I don't know if you're good at counting, but that's a lot of toppings. Each bite is mostly the flavor of gamy venison, sautéed onions, and a bit of mushroom, finished by bitter jalapeño (that didn't appear to be fried). The other ingredients don't stand out, and I don't blame them, since they're all slapping each other in the face for attention.
Once he was finished, my dad watched me taking notes, and finally burst out, "Aren't you going to ask me what I think?" I laughed and let him weigh in. "I like cow meat better," he said. Ladies and gentlemen, my father.
The turkey sandwich ($12.00) is thinly sliced roast turkey breast on a baguette, topped with dill Havarti, horseradish cream, alfalfa sprouts, and bacon. Since my parents aren't native English speakers, she asked me what a rustic baguette was, and I carefully explained that it was just handmade French bread. "Since I don't have any experience eating any of this food, I just don't know what any of it is," she said.
The turkey flavor is front and center on this sandwich, accented with bites of salty bacon and little bitter hints from the alfalfa. The baguette is satisfying, chewy, and hearty, and makes for a good delivery service for the turkey and condiments. I watched my mother pause and look at her sandwich while she was eating it, and I asked her if something was wrong. "I'm just waiting for the horseradish to clear out for a second," she said. Then she daintily scraped off a little and resumed eating her sandwich.
The crowd at The Gage is a mix of natives and tourists alike, which to me, is a nice blend. I think it's endearing watching people discover Chicago, bite by bite. But it's even better when your curious parents join in on the fun.
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.