Let’s Do Brunch

in Eat & Drink, Chicago
January 01, 2016

Photo by Neil John Burger

| words

Move over scrambled eggs—these savvy Chicago restaurants reinvent the weekend’s most amazing morning meal

The Publican

Pork rules at The Publican, acclaimed chef-restaurateur Paul Kahan’s popular meat-driven, New American restaurant. From the oversized plump-pig paintings adorning the walls to the pen-like private seating nooks and pork-centric menu, this place positively swoons over swine. The Publican’s brunch service does mix things up a bit, though, for those looking for non-porcine dishes.

As we’re seated at a long, communal table in the airy dining room that takes more than a few cues from a German beer hall, we are handed menus that include a list of oysters, plus several egg dishes and sweet-toothed options. The menu here changes daily, but we resist tempting offerings like the crab scramble and apple-ricotta zeppole in favor of those featuring The Publican’s signature pork. The porchetta benedict, a pork roast served with Calabrian bernaise and poached egg, does not disappoint. Nor does the pork belly scrapple, served with eggs sunny-side up and a couple of slices of sourdough to sop up every last delicious morsel. Regulars know that an order is not complete without adding a side of the famous thick-cut, maple syrup-braised bacon.

Drinks here shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Besides expected brunch staples that include mimosas and Bloody Marys, the restaurant also serves up beer cocktails such as the Brunch Box, featuring Amaro Montenegro liqueur, beer and grapefruit juice.

While you’re guaranteed to leave sated (this is all pretty heavy stuff), the restaurant’s Publican Quality Meats is a butcher shop-bakery-cafe just across the street, where you can pick up meats, pastries and sandwiches to take home. Both places pay tribute to the neighborhood’s meatpacking past, though the historic Fulton Market district is better known these days for its ever-growing cluster of high-end restaurants and bars.

Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays, and reservations are accepted.

Frontera Grill

Humble celebrity chef Rick Bayless is behind this vibrant operation that’s been serving modern takes on traditional Mexican cuisine in the River North neighborhood for nearly 30 years. Despite Bayless’ fame earned via his PBS cooking show Mexico: One Plate at a Time, along with his cookbooks and popular line of supermarket products, brunch at Frontera Grill is still a casual, accessible affair. We were seated as soon as we arrived—quite a feat for a popular downtown restaurant at noon on a Saturday.

The dining room, painted in a cheerful orange and yellow palette accented with bright paintings and Mexican folk art, is alive with caffeine and margarita-fueled conversation. Food-minded tourists and loyal locals alike convene for tantalizing egg dishes and Mexican street snacks made mostly with sustainably grown, locally sourced ingredients. The menu changes with the seasons, usually month to month.

We opted for the Oaxacan-style carne asada, a hefty plate of chile-marinated rib steak served with eggs, plantains and guacamole. We also tried the sapitos, a trio of Xalapa-style corn masa cakes served swimming in a chipotle-black bean sauce and topped with scrambled eggs, chicken and chorizo. For those avoiding meat, the chilaquiles with guajillo sauce and the huevos rancheros served with roasted tomato sauce and housemade tortillas also come highly recommended. And it’s never too early in the morning for Frontera’s famed guacamole, served super fresh with crisp, lightly salted chips.

Be sure to check out the bar area on your way out, where you’ll find a few fun Bayless-related souvenirs for sale, including his books, salsas and a custom Frontera-blend coffee from local roaster Intelligentsia.

Brunch is served Saturdays only.

The Dawson

The Dawson is one of trendy West Town’s top hangout spots, thanks to its two inviting patio spaces (including one on the second level). But you don’t need to wait for warm weather to dine at this beautifully designed restaurant, housed in what was formerly the 19th century Dawson Brothers fireplace mantle company (hence the name). As we enter, the oversized wooden doors swing open to a high-ceilinged atrium, full of morning light. We’re in luck as there’s no wait, and a hostess leads us directly to a comfy booth across from the bar. The entire space is inspired by the area’s industrial past, with reclaimed wood beams, patches of exposed salvaged brick and steel grids of factory-style windows.

We open our menus to executive chef Shaun King’s collection of brunch offerings, which include updated, globally inspired takes on old favorites. Our server recommends the BEALT sandwich, a play on the classic BLT that instead comes with an entire breakfast stuffed between two slices of brioche: think bacon, egg, avocado, lettuce, tomato, cheddar and ham. Don’t think that will quite do it? Add lobster for $10. More in the mood for a classic breakfast, we instead go with the Steak & Eggs, which is citrus-marinated flank steak served with a flavorful South American chimichurri sauce, eggs done your way and Texas toast. The meat-free vegetable hash proved just as satisfying. It came with a fried egg, butternut squash, fennel, tofu and a cornbread muffin, all smothered in rich mushroom gravy.

When it comes to drinks, don’t stop at the strong, delicious coffee or the perfectly executed cocktails. The bar is also known for its housemade soda, and the Greyhound is a standout, mixing grapefruit, pineapple gomme syrup, orangey bergamot and juniper into one delicious refreshment.

Brunch is served both Saturday and Sunday, and reservations are accepted.

Five Brilliant Bloody Marys

Sunda, Chicago

This celebrity magnet serving New Asian fare takes the classic hangover cure to the extreme with its Sumo Bloody Mary. The 32-ounce drink is “garnished” with bacon, a bit of grilled cheese-tocino sandwich, a duck bun, sushi roll, and way too many other things to mention. Price tag: $40.

Twisted Spoke, Chicago

Another meal-in-a-glass served with a side of bloody, the Road Rash Mary features a homemade mix with a bit of beer, garnished with salami, pepperoncini, cocktail onions and Parmesan cheese. Cheers or bon appétit?

GreenFire Restaurant, Bar & Bakery, Rockford

Proving the Bloody Mary doesn’t have to be extravagant to be delicious, this Rockford spot serves up an excellent, well-balanced traditional version that’s fresh, tangy and flavorful.

Miss Kitty’s Grape Escape, Galena

So you’d rather make your own customized Bloody Mary, piled high with all of your favorite garnishes? This is the place to do it, at the Saturday-only Bloody Mary Buffet featuring all the classic ingredients.

The Cellar, Carbondale

This modest little bar has a big reputation for the best Bloody Marys in town. Belly up to sip one at the bar—it’s an excellent, generously garnished version of the classic—or call ahead to order a jug of the mix to take home.

Up For Seconds?

The Bongo Room, Chicago

This old favorite practically invented the concept of the long brunch wait. But now with three Chicago locations, it’s a little easier to enjoy the restaurant’s famed over-the-top sweets, including the Chocolate Tower French Toast and the White Chocolate & Caramel Pretzel Pancakes.

Fresco at the Gardens, Rockford

It would be tough to find a brunch spot with a prettier backdrop than this. You’ll gaze out onto the serene Anderson Japanese Gardens as you feast on grass-fed meat dishes and traditional breakfast options made with organic and locally grown ingredients.

Salt, Peoria Heights

If you haven’t had your coffee yet, you might think you’ve woken up in Vegas at this sleek, high-energy spot located right on the town’s restaurant row. Classic omelets and melts are all served with a fresh spin.

Radio Maria, Champaign

This charming, cheerfully decorated spot cooks up seasonally driven, internationally inspired brunch fare such as the egg-and-chorizo-filled Masa Boat Surprise and the smoked trout-avocado omelet.


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