Made in Chicago: Snacks & Sweets

Ever heard of Original Beef of Chicagoland? This restaurant in the River North district is famous for its Italian beef sandwiches, its chaotic kitchen crew and its talented chef, who wants to turn his brother’s run-down sandwich shop into a star restaurant. These are the ingredients of the successful TV series, which won several Emmy Awards in early 2024. Even if The Bear: King of the Kitchen is fictional, the series is a good introduction to Chicago as a travel destination. The Chicago skyline, the rattling Chicago Elevated and the Chicago River are just as present as the diverse gastronomy of the city on Lake Michigan. Chicago has Michelin-starred restaurants, delis with international specialties, bakeries with a great selection and even Mr. Beef of Orleans, the sandwich shop that served as the model for the TV series. In Chicago, no one has to eat at the fast food chains that are found all over the world. Culinary variety is guaranteed.

Blick auf die Hochhäuser in Downtown Chicago und den Michigansee / © Foto: Georg Berg
View of the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Chicogo mix – Garrett Popcorn since 1949

The first time I noticed them was on Michigan Avenue: Pedestrians carrying elegant bags with blue stripes and gold lettering in the center. I thought of a jewelry store or a trendy perfumery. It never occurred to me that all these people had bought popcorn. Garrett Popcorn has been in Chicago since 1949. The flagship store is located on Michigan Avenue between Millenium Park and the DuSable Bridge. In 1949, a housewife from Milwaukee brought her family recipes to Chicago. The gourmet popcorn is still made fresh and in small batches every day using these recipes. In 1977, the two most popular varieties, CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn, were combined into a Chicago Mix . Customers often asked for an extra empty bag to mix the caramel popcorn made in the copper kettle and the cheese popcorn with real cheese. There are several Garrett shops in downtown Chicago. And there is not always a queue at the entrance, so you can quickly become one of those pedastrians walking through the streets with an elegant bag or sitting on a park bench munching on gourmet popcorn. However, the prices are now also gourmet. While a bag of popcorn cost 5 cents in the 1950s, today you pay eight dollars for a medium-sized portion of Chicago mix.

Im Flagshipstore Garrett Popcorn auf der Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Popcorn nach Familienrezept seit 1949. Berühmt ist die Mischung mit Karamell-Popcorn und Cheddarcheese Popcorn / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the flagship store of Garrett Popcorn on Michigan Avenue in Chicago / © Photo: Georg Berg

Bertha Palmer and the invention of the brownie

Bertha Palmer was a businesswoman, patron of the arts, philanthropist and wife of Potter Palmer, one of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen in the 19th century. He gave his wife Bertha Honoré, 23 years his junior, a hotel as a wedding present. To be more precise, he gave it to her twice, as the first Palmer House Hotel burned down in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, just 13 days after it opened. Potter Palmer borrowed the record sum of 1.7 million dollars for the new building. At the time, this was the highest loan ever granted to a private individual. The luxurious hotel was reopened in 1873. Since then, the Palmer House has held further records. It was the first hotel in Chicago with elevators and the first hotel with electric light bulbs and telephones in the guest rooms. It is one of the Historic Hotels of America and, apart from a short break during the Covid-19 pandemic, is considered the longest continuously operating hotel in North America.

Großer Salon im Palmer House, Chicago. Obwohl das Hotel als das am längsten ununterbrochen betriebene Hotel Nordamerikas bezeichnet wird, wurde es im März 2020 aufgrund der COVID-19-Pandemie geschlossen und am 17. Juni 2021 wiedereröffnet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Lockwood Lobby Bar in the Palmer House, Chicago. The hotel was a wedding gift from Potter Palmer to his wife Bertha. Weddings are still celebrated here today / © Photo: Georg Berg

Queen of Chicago

Back to Bertha Palmer, about whom there is much more to tell than this little episode about a pastry. Bertha Palmer used her social position to strengthen women’s rights. She was a member of the Chicago Woman’s Club, which included both upper-class and working-class women. They championed the idea of kindergartens until the city introduced them as part of the school system. Bertha Palmer also helped to found a trade union and organized a strike. She mediated between employers and employees, campaigned for hospitals and poorhouses and was one of the first women to organize charity balls. As a patron of the arts, she bought paintings by Monet and Renoir in Europe even before Impressionists were recognized in Europe. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, she offered the young Impressionists a stage and exhibited their works in an art pavilion. She chaired the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition and pushed for the construction of a large pavilion for women to raise awareness of women’s achievements. Exhibitions on women-specific topics were also held in the pavilions of the individual US states.

Der Brownie wurde Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts in der Küche des Palmer House auf Anweisung von Bertha Palmer für die Columbian Exposition World's Fair von 1893 kreiert. Er ist nach wie vor eine der beliebtesten Süßspeisen im Hotel und kann im Salon bestellt werden oder zum Mitnehmen in einem kleinen Shop in der ersten Etage gekauft werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
The brownie was created at the end of the 19th century in the kitchen of the Palmer House on the instructions of Bertha Palmer for the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair of 1893 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Bertha Palmer commissioned a dessert from the hotel’s kitchen for the Chicago World’s Fair. She needed an easy-to-handle dessert made from high-quality ingredients for the many receptions held during the World’s Fair. The Palmer House Brownie is still served in the hotel today according to the original recipe. It can be enjoyed with a cup of coffee in the sumptuous drawing room or bought to take away in a small store on the second floor. The brownie is still one of the hotel’s most popular desserts. Bertha Palmer would probably not be amused that she, the successful businesswoman, patron of the arts and women’s rights activist, is primarily associated with a slice of cake at the Palmer House Hotel.

Goldene Aufzüge im Palmer House, gebaut 1873. Das Palmer House war das erste Hotel in Chicago mit Aufzügen. Hier beleuchtete Hinweistafel mit Werbung für das berühmte Gebäck, den von Bertha Palmer erfundenen Brownie / © Foto: Georg Berg
Golden elevators at Palmer House. The illuminated sign advertising the famous pastry, the Palmer House Brownie / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Berghoff Restaurant and Bar

The Berghoff restaurant on Adams Street in downtown Chicago received the James Beard Foundation Award in the America’s Classics category in 1999. This award honors legendary family restaurants in the USA. Of course, Europeans do not travel to Chicago to eat German sauerbraten or Wiener schnitzel. Both dishes are classics on the Berghoff’s menu.

Klassiker aus dem Restaurant Berghoff, Chicago. Sauerbraten mit Kartoffelpüree. Das Restaurant wurde 1898 als Saloon eröffnet, aber während der Prohibition, als der Ausschank von Alkohol verboten war, wurde es für seine typisch deutsche Küche bekannt, wie Sauerbraten, Wiener Schnitzel, Rahmspinat und Apfelstrudel / © Angela Berg
Classics from the Berghoff restaurant, Chicago. Sauerbraten with mashed potatoes / © Angela Berg

The restaurant was opened in 1898 by the German Herman Joseph Berghoff as a saloon and had to reinvent itself during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. The nationwide ban on alcohol, also known as the Noble Experiment, transformed the saloon into a restaurant. From then on, waiter served typical German dishes such as sauerbraten, Wiener schnitzel, creamed spinach and apple strudel without a notepad, but with an impressive memory for their guests’ orders.

Gastraum mit Braukessel im Restaurant Berghoff in der 17 West Adams Street, nahe dem Zentrum des Chicago Loop. Es wurde 1898 von Herman Joseph Berghoff eröffnet und ist zu einer Institution in Chicago geworden. Im Jahr 1999 wurde das Berghoff mit dem James Beard Foundation Award in der Kategorie "America's Classics" ausgezeichnet, mit dem legendäre Familienrestaurants im ganzen Land geehrt werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Guest room with brewing kettle in the Berghoff restaurant at 17 West Adams Street / © Photo: Georg Berg

Brewery with a large beer menu

The restaurant and brewery are well worth a visit. The quality of the beers is excellent. At Berghoff, you can sample a variety of beer specialties from all over the world. The brewery’s German roots are also reflected in the beer menu. The selection includes Münchner Dunkel, Hubert’s Hefeweizen, Kölsch and Kellerbier and even a seasonal Oktoberfest beer. The beer menu at the brewery in Adams Street also provides information on the alcohol content and bitterness unit (IBU) of each beer. The waiters are experts in their field and will help you choose the right beer. At the bar, a historic liquor license catches the eye. After the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Berghoff family secured the license as a Retail Beverage Dealer with the number 1.

Lizenz Nummer 1 von 1935, City of Chicago. Nach der Prohibition erhielt das Restaurant Berghoff mit der Adams Brauerei  in 17 West Adams Street mit der Adams Brauerei die erste Schanklizenz / © Foto: Georg Berg
License number 1, also from 1933, the end of Prohibition / © Photo: Georg Berg

The research was supported by Choose Chicago

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