Thank goodness we’ve reached the era of compelling hotel dining, in which even locals clamor to get into newly opened hotel restaurants, and you’ll find nary an airline chicken breast on the menu. So when word got out that Pat Sheerin, Jason Vincent and Benjamin Lustbader—the dream team behind pint-sized, always-packed Giant—would helm the culinary program at the first Chicago outpost of this stylish boutique hotel chain from Portland, Oregon, anticipation ran understandably high.
A few small hiccups notwithstanding, City Mouse’s witty offerings keep the Ace Hotel firmly in the dining conversation, making it worth a visit whether you call our fair city home for a night or indefinitely.
The mister and I started at the lamplit bar with cocktails from Caitlin Laman’s playfully local-leaning list (Malort-spiked gin cocktails, anyone?). Lightly smoky mezcal mingled pleasantly with alpine-fresh gin and cloosterbitters in the frothy Gap Tooth Fizz. The mister’s heady, rye-based Dead Work tasted like an Old Fashioned steeped in cinnamon and ancho chiles; one sip and I was ready for sweater weather.
With 153 seats between the dining room and lounge, this airy, massive space feels like you’re dining in a hotel lobby rather than a restaurant. In typical Ace fashion, though, it’s heavy on local design inspiration. The brass-edged wood tables and hunter-green banquettes and leather chairs lining the dining room’s perimeter nod to the warmly masculine Midwestern craftsmanship of modernist Chicago.
Because we still could, we headed to the sprawling (and packed) seasonal patio, dotted with cylindrical coal fire pits and mod wire chairs. The bar’s slowish service unfortunately followed us out there, where the time between courses dragged and we noticed several fellow diners with empty drinks for long stretches.
The food was mostly worth the wait. The minds behind the lightheartedly Midwestern Giant have a knack for making unlikely pairings taste like they’ve always belonged. A delightful peach kohlrabi salad, with chewy, nutty farro and sharp pecorino tossed in spicy ginger vinaigrette smacks of an instant signature item (it’s on the brunch menu, too).
We crunched through thickly battered, dark-golden fried baby artichokes draped in meaty pork ragu redolent of oregano and sprinkled with salty taleggio cheese—a savory and satisfying encapsulation of what I dream Italian-American Sunday dinners to be like.
As I’d suggest if you were dining at Giant, you must try at least one pasta here. Delicate tagliatelle in a pool of chile-laced butter sauce was dotted with springy shrimp and remarkably sweet, oil-fried sungold tomatoes. Salty feta, chewy bacon and sweet-hot Calabrian chiles mingled beautifully with al dente spaghetti, getting a textural lift from a shower of breadcrumbs.
The execution on Angela Diaz’s fun-loving desserts was a mixed bag. As a Midwesterner since age 7, I swoon at the mere suggestion of funnel cake, so I was bummed that the cheddar-dusted tendrils of sourdough-apple cake had a flimsy texture and discordant flavors in a popcorn-inspired take. The roasted corn ice cream capper was heavily salted, drawing out more bitter than sweet notes. On the other hand, the sugar plum torte was a late-summer triumph. Flourless, bubblegum plum-infused cake was moist and harmonious from hanging out overnight, served under a fluffy swipe of honey ricotta and a woodsy-sweet dome of thyme-plum sorbet.
We couldn’t resist a nightcap at Waydown, the hotel’s stylish upstairs bar rimmed by two patios, one overlooking the city’s evolving near northwest side with the winking skyline beyond it. Amid all the cranes and shiny developments I could still recognize my city. A little bourbon made it all go down easier.
Atmosphere: The culinary powerhouse behind Giant turns out clever, locally inspired dishes in this sprawling space adjacent to the lobby of the handsome Ace Hotel.
What to eat: Go for brunch, which they ingeniously offer seven days a week. The milk toast and gas station sandwich are musts. For dinner, don’t skip the peach-kohlrabi salad and inventive pastas.
What to drink: The cocktail menu is chock full of clever Midwestern-inspired drinks. The bourbon- and amontillado-spiked Color T.V. and refreshing, not-too-ginny Gap Tooth Fizz were favorites.
Where to sit: Several big firepits will hopefully stretch patio season well into fall, so get out there while you can. When winter rolls around, aim for a corner seat inside the massive dining room.