Serious Eats Neighborhood Guides: Chris Gawronski's Humboldt Park
Humboldt Park may be off the radar for many Chicagoans, but Chris Gawronski, the executive chef at Henri, loves his new neighborhood. Gawronski started cooking at Henri six months after the restaurant opened and took over when Dirk Flanigan left. He moved to Humboldt a year ago from Wrigleyville and couldn't be happier. "Between The Gage and Henri, there's like 17 people that live within a mile of me," he says. "It's all industry people so places stay open late." He says he moved on a whim, after visiting colleague Clint Rogers, beverage director at Henri. "I went on Craigslist, found a spot, and I moved a week later," Gawronski explains. "I like how quiet the neighborhood is and the vicinity is nice. It was total relaxation from Wrigleyville. I finally fit somewhere. I didn't fit in the frat boy area."
"I really like the West Side, especially Humboldt Park," Gawronski says. "Everyone says to go to Wicker Park and Bucktown, but I like Humboldt because it's that much quieter, but still close to the craziness. It's five minutes down the road from Wicker. I don't want to live there, but I can go play there."
Read on to see some of his favorite places to eat and drink in Humboldt Park.
Breakfast: Flying Saucer. It's quirky; it's different. You can either walk into somebody doing a live jam session or people playing Dungeons & Dragons. It has this odd appeal to it but the food is good. They play very interesting music in the morning. You're half asleep listening to something, and you've never heard it before. It's the best way to wake up in the day. I'm real simple, so I just get an eggs Benedict.
Brunch: Rootstock. I love Rootstock for way too many things. I go there for brunch a lot on weekends, since it's just a block from my house. They change up the menu a lot. Last time I was there I had sopes and steak—so very Latin American or Mexican-style food, and super delicious. I was sitting there having sopes when my friend across from me was having gingerbread pancakes with braised pork belly. They span a lot of different types of cuisine in their approach to brunch.
Pizza: It's not quite Humboldt, but I go down to Roots on Chicago Ave. We walk down there, to Ukranian Village. Pizza joints haven't popped up as much unless they offer delivery, but as for sit-down pizza, Roots is great. It's so close, so we forget it's not actually in Humboldt.
Burger: Lockdown on Western Ave. They're funky, weird and play a lot of funky music. They have a lot of TVs, but they don't play sports. And they make an excellent burger. They cook it right every single time, which is my biggest thing with a burger, because I don't care about all the kitschy toppings. If I ask for a temperature, that's the temperature. That's what I get excited about. Every single time it's spot on. Whoever's the guy in the kitchen they should keep him forever. That's my biggest thing. I don't care what all the fixings are.
Coffee: Star Lounge. Best place ever. All the coffee shop people there are really serious about coffee. These are the Dark Matter guys, who make excellent coffee just down the road off of Western. They brew all their own stuff. Star Lounge is an old bar, and it's set up that way. They have kegs for their cold coffee. It's quirky but delicious, by far the best in the city. A lot of people would agree with that. In the summertime, they have a great back deck that you can go to just relax and lounge. It's almost like sitting in a friend's backyard. You know the Cheshire Cat from Alice and Wonderland? There's a big mural of the Cheshire Cat. If you want a quick cup of coffee or to sit and relax, it's a great place to go.
Delivery: This new place opened up just down the road. It's called Hunter & Tails. It just opened this last week and it's a gastropub. They do craft cocktails and should be really interesting for the neighborhood. But they'll also do delivery, and they're pretty much behind my house. I know it sounds odd, but if I want a steak but don't want to go out and have a steak, they'll just walk it three minutes to my house.
Sushi: Kai Zan. Spot on, best spot for sushi. It's one of the best spots for sushi in town right now. They're getting huge buzz. Every time I go, I just walk in and sit at the counter and say "omakase" and they send me whatever they want. But you look around and you know people are definitely not from Humboldt Park. Like, they're from the Gold Coast, and over there is a couple from Evanston sitting in Humboldt Park. I like it. They attract quite a large span of audiences, which is great for Humboldt. Their food is delicious and they're very creative about it, too. They're not super traditional. They have a play on a jalapeño popper, which is a tempura jalapeño stuffed with unagi and cream cheese. It's called an unagi popper. It's hilarious and cute, but tastes really good. Basically it's low-brow food, but it's actually delicious.
French: Rootstock. It's the most French-inspired place in the area. They do a whole turbot, which is very French in styling. They'll do their steak frites, but they also do mushroom tarts and, of course, oysters on the half shell. They also do moules frites, pâtés, terrines, and charcuterie. It's very French, but it's farmhouse French. Different from Henri, where we're more haute cuisine style, and everything has to be very pretty. But in this area, Rootstock works perfectly.
Mexican: There's this place for standard Mexican food, but I can't remember the name. I lived in Los Angles for a long time and the best Mexican food you got was off the back of a truck. You didn't go to restaurants for Mexican food in Los Angeles, because it wasn't good. I've always carried that with me. It's probably a good thing that I don't remember the name of this place. You just walk in one day when you're like "Oh my God, I'm starving." They have traditional tacos, menudo on the weekends. You never look up to see the name of the place. There's no frills; the place is ugly. You don't want to sit down for too long, because it's just fluorescent lights. If it's ugly, it's probably good when it comes to good tacos. They spend all their money on the actual product, on the food and not the surroundings. It's on Chicago, right off Chicago, not a major intersection, in a strip area.
Groceries: There's a grocery store at Chicago and Western that I always go to. What is the name of that place? [Editor's Note: Farmer's Pride Produce] I walk around my neighborhood, but never look at the signs. It's very mom and pop style. I can walk down to Dominick's and get everything else, but they have a great deli counter and serve good sandwiches. If you're really hungry in the morning or have a headache from one too many shots of Jameson the night before, they deliver breakfast. They'll deliver you coffee, bacon, and eggs. What grocery store do you know that does that? It's a two-minute walk from my home. When I'm home, I'm walking everywhere, so this is perfect.
Date Night: Humboldt Park is actually a gorgeous park. I've never actually had a picnic or anything, though. Kai Zan impresses, but to finish the night off it's really funny to go to The California Clipper where they do honky tonk country. I don't listen to country, but the place is hilarious. It's a cool bar, very retro style and it's fun to take a date there to see how they loosen up. That's the kind of place where you can never take yourself seriously. Since I rarely take myself seriously, it's good to know how somebody reacts to that situation. If you're not having any fun at The California Clipper then there might be something wrong with you.
Drinks: Clint [Rogers] lives on the same street as me. My favorite place to get a cocktail is Clint's house when he's there. I just walk over and the cocktails are free. I just have to pay for take out. Hunter & Tails is great too. Humboldt Park is notoriously a shot and a beer neighborhood—cheap beer, cheap shot. If you don't want to break the bank, you'll get a good whiskey selection anywhere you go, since Humboldt loves whiskey. But Hunter & Tails is the first place in Humboldt really knocking down the cocktail scene. They're doing a good job. And Rootstock is knocking down the wine scene.
4 in the morning: The Continental. That's where you go to get crazy and be up 'til sunrise. I did that when I first moved. Then when I moved near The Continental, I stopped going so much. If you want to sit down and have a conversation with a friend or play a game of pool without anybody hassling you, go to The Continental. But the trick is to go before 2 o'clock in the morning. You can have two very different bar experiences depending on when you go. It's the weirdest transition place in the world, because all of a sudden the place is packed, you can barely move, and everyone's having a good time. It literally turns into a different bar at 2 a.m. It's like bar hopping in the same spot. Everyone knows the place as being crazy, and I know it as a place to play pool and chill for a couple hours.