I can almost feel myself aging when I launch into stories about how certain Chicago neighborhoods used to be: the low-slung three flats of Nelson Algren’s pre-bro Wicker Park and the looming meatpacking vestiges of the West Loop, where the scent of animal carcasses was heavy on the air.
In the case of the West Loop, the displacement affected more workers than residents—as developers descended, buying out wholesalers and leveling their warehouses to make way for luxury hotels, eateries and glassy apartment and office buildings.
There’s plenty to like in the new West Loop. Take the Hoxton hotel, a stylish London import with 182 rooms, a coworking space and a powerhouse food and beverage program: Stephanie Izard’s Peruvian-inspired Cabra; Chris Pandel’s lovely all-day Mediterranean eatery, Cira; and Lazy Bird, the sultry subterranean cocktail bar pouring excellent vintage cocktails from Lee Zaremba.
Situated 12 floors above the hotel’s inviting, mid-century modern lobby, Cabra’s sprawling, partially enclosed digs unfurl before a backdrop of sweeping city views. The space is outfitted with high- and low-top tables, cozy couches and poolside loungers—all accented by climbing plants, tasteful wicker and colorful tile.
Unfortunately, the pool comes at the price of glass drinkware, though a more refined vessel couldn’t have helped my date’s diluted Malambo #5, a lemongrass and aged rum tonic with a muted whisper of passionfruit purée. Nor could it have added the acidity I longed for in my sugary pisco sour. Then again, I could’ve sipped the balanced, quenching Golden Hour—with Scotch, grapefruit, mango vinegar and ginger ale—all night long.
The acidity shortage carried over to ceviche, the conceptual anchor of Cabra’s menu. In a classic seabass preparation, cubes of fatty bass bathed in milky-sweet leche de tigre tinged with lime, but missed that telltale pucker and flaky texture you expect from fish “cooked” in citrus juice. We fared better with tiraditos, a variation on Peruvian ceviche in which fish are sliced like sashimi rather than cubed and sauced just before eating. Firm and buttery kampachi, soused in nutty chicha morada (a traditional purple corn drink) and sprinkled with ice lettuce, was a subtle, textural delight.
I could’ve happily polished off two orders of the beef-heart anticuchos by myself. Rubbed in smoky red pepper paste, the grilled morsels’ pleasingly intense meatiness got a zesty lift from rocoto chile mayo and minty huacatay and lime paste. Likewise, the sous vide pork shank with crackling fried skin and a fall-apart interior was a carnivorous delight scooped up with flatbread and slathered with refreshing tomato-yuzu salsa.
The indulgent, toasted rice-sprinkled picarones (sweet potato doughnuts) delivered satisfying chew and tang that balanced their sticky-sweet dulce de leche bath. Broadly likeable, twinged with a cheffy streak, it somehow encompassed sunny Cabra itself.
I don’t see myself returning here again and again, though it’s damn good and just the sort of place people flocking to the West Loop are looking for. Like the beloved Chicago chef at the helm who helped pioneer Randolph Street’s Restaurant Row with Girl & the Goat in 2010, the Hoxton itself hints at the neighborhood’s roots and fully embodies its new direction.
It’s here and it’s thriving, whether we old cranks are ready or not.
Atmosphere: Mid-century modern goes to the beach at this sprawling, partially covered rooftop, complete with pool and sweeping city views.
What to eat: The shareable menu packs plenty of crowd-pleasers: Fries seasoned with chorizo, mayo and chip crumbles are drunk-food dreams, while sushi-grade fish shines in brightly sauced tiraditos.
What to drink: The Golden Hour is refreshing and balanced. Cusquena, a.k.a. Peru’s unofficial national lager, goes down deliciously with fresh and fried bites alike.
Where to sit: From high tops to banquettes, loungey couches to built-in tile banquettes overlooking the pool, seating choices abound at Cabra, though its popularity begets waits for dining room seating on most nights. Book a few weeks in advance, or come early and lounge by the pool.