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Catherine De Orio, the effervescent new host of Check, Please!, is a West Loop gal through and through. She bought a home in the neighborhood in 2001 and has seen it really blossom as a culinary destination in the last decade. "When I moved here, it was definitely not a destination place to live," she says. "I had a methadone clinic across the street from my house. There wasn't much for food, aside from three restaurants owned by Jerry Kleiner (Red Light, Marché and Vivo) on Randolph Street. Otherwise you had to go to Greektown." While De Orio still has her favorite Greektown spots for baklava and loukoumades, there are plenty of exciting new restaurants. "As far as a food destination, I feel like the West Loop is number one," she says. "I feel very lucky to live here now."
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As the new Check, Please! host, De Orio can't play favorites by naming restaurants that might appear on the show, but she shared several of her favorite places for food that aren't sit-down restaurants.
Coffee: I love La Colombe. They have a gazillion different types of coffee. I always just get an Americano, but if it's extremely hot I'll get their Pure Black cold pressed coffee. It comes in a little bottle and they have this old-fashioned machine in the store. I love the space and it's very community-driven. I'll have meetings there and run into Jimmy Bannos Sr, or Charles Joly. Lots of chefs and bartenders stop by, but it's very neighborhood-y too. The coffee is amazing. Even if I didn't live in the neighborhood, I would come.
Groceries: I'm very promiscuous with my grocery shopping. I'm lucky enough that I can get to Whole Foods, Mariano's, Jewel, or Dominick's really easily. In my neighborhood, I really like Olympia Meats, a third-generation Greek butcher, super old-school. He will do whole animals. If you want a whole pig for a pig roast or a whole lamb. You can even bring in your roasting box. I get my rabbit here. There's also Elea. It's a Mediterranean, primarily Greek, market. You can get seven different kinds of feta cheese. I'm a huge fan of feta, and they let you taste it. They also make a homemade taramosalata and homemade hummus from their cold case.
Pastries: Pan Hellenic is my go-to shop for baklava. Sometimes baklava can be so cloying if they put too much honey in it, but there's something about theirs... maybe the honey isn't as sweet? But whatever they're doing, the phyllo is still always crispy, the walnuts, everything is so moist and not cloyingly sweet. It's just a really balanced baklava. It's not something that I'm able to eat every day because I would be 500 pounds, but it's a great treat. I'll be walking by and go in to grab a few pieces. They have all kinds of other cookies and loukoumades covered with honey, cinnamon, and walnuts. Although I prefer the loukoumades at Artopolis and the baklava at Pan Hellenic. I've lived here for so long so I've tried everything and I know my favorite spots for every little thing.
Bread: I love the kalamata bread at Artopolis, that's my favorite. I also love their sesame bread; it's a rustic peasant bread. Those are my two favorites. They do make really good chocolate-filled and almond-filled croissants in the morning too though.
Date night: Anyone who hasn't been to The Aviary should and I think it's a great date night spot. With date night it's nice to do something that doesn't involve food so you don't have to worry about all that. You're already worried about making a connection and finding something in common so you don't want to worry about food in your teeth. At Aviary the focus is on cocktails and they give you so much to talk about. So whether it's your first date or you've been married for 15 years and are running out of things to talk about, it's perfect. And if you get a chance to go down to The Office, that's a whole 'nother amazing experience. It's not somewhere you'd go every night of the week, but it's pretty cool and I'm lucky that this cocktail lounge is in my neighborhood. There's nothing like it.
Beer: Beer Bistro has a good list and they'll do a lot of tap takeovers. If there's a Three Floyds tap takeover there's a line of beer geeks out the door. It's somewhere I'll go to if there's a particular brand I want to try and I'll recommend it to friends. It's a good place to watch games too, with the Bulls and Blackhawks this year it was a lot of fun.
Wine Shop: Greg Perman from Perman Wine Selections is so awesome. He's young but knows so much and he's worked at Alinea and Blackbird, and then decided to open his own shop. He focuses on more unique wines from smaller winemakers or things that are more avant garde. He also does this great six for $60 deal, where he curates six wines if you're part of the club. He has really great high-end wines too. It's not a large store but he's super knowledgeable. He does the wine list at Fat Rice and he's moving into helping more restaurants that don't necessarily want to have a sommelier. He's my go-to. I usually go in to buy something for someone else, but I'll come out with a dozen bottles for myself.
Champagne: You can't beat RM Champagne Salon's patio and they have a great selection of champagne. I felt like we needed this in our neighborhood. There are a lot of bars but there aren't as many wine and champagne driven bars like RM. It's a great place to get an afterwork drink or start a night with the girls. The inside is great too, you feel like you're in a little Parisian bar.
Doughnuts: Glazed & Infused. I love the cake doughnuts there and I always split one of the bacon long johns with whoever I am there with. The specialty flavors are always fun to try, like the banana cream cheese. It's a banana cake doughnut with cream cheese frosting, salted caramel, and candied walnuts. Not rich at all! Also I like that they incorporate other local companies, like Terry's Toffee.
Ice Cream: Cone. It's pretty new and an all-Irish dairy on Madison. There's Jameson ice cream, Bailey's and Irish cream. They also have your standard mint chocolate chip, strawberry, and bubblegum. They do these mini cones—they're little cake cones, probably three inches tall. When you don't want a big ice cream cone but want more than a taster spoon, this is the perfect thing. When I go for a walk with the dog, I obviously can't bring her in. But they have a little takeout window on the side and you can sit on the patio.