Dining Under Chicago's Loop -- Wabash Avenue

From dark and grungy to hip and hot, Chicago's Loop is one of the city's fascinating and delicious spots to visit.

The Loop

It's that steel belt that wraps around about one square mile of downtown Chicago. The steel belt is the elevated train that was first constructed in 1897. Its borders cast their shadow over Wabash Avenue on the East, Lake Street on the North, Wells street on the West, and Van Buren on the South.

It's not quiet or picturesque and whatever charms it has get erased as soon as a CTA train rumbles overhead. To carry on a conversation is a trying experience. One must either scream at their companion or wait until the train passes. Yet under these tracks is an eclectic collection of eateries that draw a devoted customer base; it's been that way for decades.

It all began near the end of the 1800s when Chicago was the fastest growing city in the country, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Rebirth brought a construction boon that no other city had seen. Business was booming and the central business district became a congested mess. There was some thought to constructing a Subway to move people around, but that was an expensive proposition, so it was decided to build a rail system above the chaos.

Born was the nation's first elevated rail system that ran just under four miles in about 15 minutes -- from the alleys of the near South side to Wabash and Congress. Originally, when it opened in 1892, a steam locomotive pulled the wooden cars. However, an innovative electric system featuring an electrified third rail was introduced at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and it was quickly decided to use electric trains. With electric baron Sam Unsull behind it, the world's first electric commuter train was rolling above the streets of Chicago.

The separate elevated lines converged downtown in the square configuration locals tabbed as The Loop. Chicago's Subway system wouldn't be developed until the 1940s. The "L" provided valuable service to the primary buildings at the time: Marshall Fields, The Palmer House, Merchandise Mart, the Chicago Board of Trade, and other buildings.

Naturally, the amount of foot traffic under the "L" was tremendous so food palaces popped up. Through the 1970 -- 80's the finest steakhouses and other food Haven's existed...despite the screeching noise of the trains. Old timers will fondly talk of times dining at Don Roth's Blackhawk restaurant, George Diamond steakhouse, Jimmy Wong's Chinese, The Millionaire's Club, The Cart Prime Rib, and others.

Over time however, dining under the tracks lost its noisy charm and most of those establishments closed or relocated. A few survive to this day joined by a slew of new eateries that are taking advantage of the lower rents and quieter, newer trains overhead. The collection of eateries reflects the diversity of palates now. A gastronomic tour under the "L" reveals some really cool treats. Here is a tour, circling the loop counterclockwise from Vanburen and Wabash -- between Van Buren and Lake.

1) Exchequer Pub (226 S Wabash)

This address was once a speakeasy called th 226 Club and was supplied and frequented by Al Capone during the Roaring 20s. There are remains of the speakeasy upstairs but it changed it's name to the Wonder Bar before changing to Browns in the 50s. Finally, in 1969 it was reborn as Exchequer with a simple menu that features deep dish pizza. Now, with the close proximity of DePaul University, Roosevelt University, Columbia College as well as a few hotels, Exchequer offers a wide variety of comfort foods, still focusing on the pizza. The baby back ribs are rather tasty as are their burgers.

2) Miller's Pub (134 S Wabash)

This opened in 1935 and has always been called Miller's even though it has been owned by the Gallios family from Greece. With the famous Palmer House Hotel next door Miller's flourished not only with tourist and local businessmen, but with celebrities. Their walls are filled with entertainment legends and politicians who dropped by. Today, they serve pretty good burgers and light entrees; typical pub fare.

3) Potter's Chicago Burger Bar (124 S Wabash)

While not exactly under the tracks, the eatery is located in the historic Palmer House adjacent to the tracks (on the second floor). The Palmer House -- originally built in 1871, then rebuilt in 1873 -- is America's oldest continually operating hotel. A step inside, affords you a glimpse into the gilded age as presented by businessman Potter Palmer. During the 1893 World's Fair, Potter's wife charged the executive chef of the hotel to create a portable dessert treat for women. Thus, the world-famous brownie was created. After munching on one of the Chicago neighborhood themed burgers the restaurant serves, indulge in a Palmer House brownie.

4) Poke Poke (118 S Wabash)

Hawaiian method of serving up raw fish -- called poke (pronounced po-kay) has spread like wildfire. The restaurant is owned by Chaofan Huang and Jingyang Liu and offers a clearly Asian take on poke. The fish cuts are from tuna, salmon, and crab and is busy during lunch.

5) Goddess and the Baker (33 S Wabash)

Across the street and one block north lies this local bakery opened by one-time caterer to the stars, Debbie Sharp. Her company -- the Goddess Group -- also owns The Goddess and the Grocer and the former Feast restaurant that help transform Bucktown into a destination. Breakfast rules here with some of the best croissants in Chicago.

6) Heaven on Seven (111 N Wabash)

This is another place where the entrance is under the "L", but the restaurant is on the seventh floor of the Garland Building. It was opened in 1980 by Jimmy Banos who, unlike what many people think, is not from Louisiana, he simply lived there for many years. While he was there, he absorbed the many flavors of Cajun and Creole cuisine before opening his place. Once you step inside you'll be surrounded by a billion bottles of hot sauce on all the walls. The food is the most genuine N'awlins grub you will ever encounter; a bowl of gumbo and a fried oyster po'boy will send you! Always crowded and cash only. Lake Street -- between Wabash and Wells

7) Wow Bao (I West Wacker in Renaissance Hotel)

Baos are Asian buns or dumplings that are filled with spiced meat or vegetables. You've seen them eaten in a few Asian films like "Kung Fu Panda". Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant Group figured a way to bring this popular Asian street food to Chicago and this is their second location.

8) Potbelly Sandwich Shop (190 N State at Lake)

This is not the original Potbelly Shop, but it's one of the oldest. The quaintly decorated sandwich shops that began life as a Lincoln Park antique shop back in 1971, are now a nationwide chain. The name comes from the company's huge collection of antique potbelly stoves; on in each store. The one on State & Lake is the first store downtown and housed in the historic ABC Building. While they are obviously popular for their sandwiches, like The Wreck, don't overlook their really good shakes.

9) Ronny's Steakhouse (100 W Randolph)

This is a legendary "joint" that has always been popular with people on a budget that overlook the menu's reference to a non-specific steak. Actually, there are two steaks -- a T-bone and a sirloin -- pretty much like the ones the Ponderosa and Bonanza steakhouses used to serve in the 70's.

10) Ajida Ramen (201 N Wells)

A prime example of the diversity of foods you'll find under the tracks is the simple, but well-done Japanese ramen eatery. Although ramen is the big item here, don't overlook their perfectly prepared kushiyaki (Japanese kabobs). For those feeling truly adventurous, try the seaweed salad -- but keep in mind it definitely isn't for everyone!

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Geoff Burton spent 27 years writing about travel, food and film for publications both in the USA and around the world. His articles have appeared in Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan), Der Spiegel (Germany), Le Monde (France). His AfroTrek/CinemaTrek, the number three entertainment website in Chicago area.

Image source: David Mark and Pixabay

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