Buy Local This Holiday: A Guide

As those of you who follow my obsessive instagramming know, I just moved to a new apartment (with a fabulous antique stove, btw).  It's been an awesome experience, but it's also left my fiance and I a bit exhausted and, frankly, poor.  But it's Christmas!  It's time for ridiculous spending - and the guilt that always accompanies any caring couple's continually escalating gift buying pseudo-competition.

The solution, proposed by my man: Only one gift each, and it must be bought in Lincoln Square.   

While my gift guide for the year won't stick quite to the letter of that law, it'll stick to the spirit.  If you can't do all of your holiday shopping locally, you can at least do most of it that way - and you absolutely should. Not just for the standard locavore reasons (you know i'm a nut about those) but because you can look the people who made your gifts in the eye, send them a personal email or meet them at an event - and there's no feeling quite like that. 

1) Support a Local Food Author.

Holidays are the time for glossy cookbooks, and that's awesome - who doesn't love getting a beautiful tome filled with potential cooking adventures? But don't go to New York or Paris, since we've got plenty from around here!  My favorites include:

Heather Lalley, The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook.  A love affair with local foods and the chefs that use them, this book can't be beat, either as a cookbook or as a short restaurant guide.

Ina Pinkney, Taste Memories. If you don't own this book, you aren't a real Chicagoan. This book could be an advice manual for life - and if you have never applied heat to food, you should still buy it.

Paul Virant, The Preservation Kitchen. Buy it for the beer jam, stay for the strawberry-pinot noir jam. If this doesn't inspire you to put up your own food, nothing will.

Paul Fehribach, The Big Jones Cookbook.  Ok, it's not out yet - it's available for pre-order, and I personally guarantee it will be amazing. No one in the city cooks with as much attention to food history and heritage as Paul, and getting his southern food wisdom distilled into a couple of hundred pages will be worth almost any price. 

2) There's nothing better than local booze

I'm a huge nerd for local spirits.  Duh.  Who isn't?  But they aren't all created equal - here are the three you should buy this year.

Koval Distillery Single Barrel Oat Whiskey.  I just bought a bottle of this at their distillery, and it's almost all gone. You don't see very many oat-based spirits (a darn shame) which is why this one makes such a perfect gift for the picky whiskey lover.


CH Distillery Peppercorn Vodka. I hate vodka. I hate it. I think it's a waste of space, calories and hangovers, and I wish we could ban it about 80% of the time.  The other 20% of the time, when i'm feeling charitable, i'm probably drinking this stuff, my favorite bloody mary mixer. 

Letherbee Spirits Autumnal Gin.  I'm obsessed with Letherbee's limited-edition seasonal spirits. Somehow, they manage to provide new spins on the genre each time they put out a bottle, and I have every single one of them on my bar.

3) Local Foodie Accessories

You want something that isn't edible or readable? Who are you? Ok, ok. I get it.  Here are some picks for the stylish gift giver who has no bookshelves and doesn't eat.

Koval Distillery Whiskey Candle by Chicago Candle Company.  I know i just called out Koval above, but seriously. Best candle I've ever had, and it cost half what the usual designer candle will run you. Make your whole house smell sweet, masculine and delicious - and don't worry, you won't smell like a drunk.  Available at the distillery. If you can't make your way there, order from Chicago Candle Company anyway.

Plates made from Garfield Park Conservatory. As many of you know, the Garfield Park Conservatory was devastated by a hailstorm. Almost all of the glass pains have been replaced and most of the conservatory is open, but it was incredibly expensive to repair.  These plates, available at the Conservatory gift shop, are crafted from shards of the destroyed panes.  They're beautiful, a Chicago collector's item, and they support the ongoing renovation. 

A la Card 2015. I look forward to this every year - when the new A La Card deck comes out.  In case you aren't familiar, this deck contains 52 cards, each of which is a $10 off certificate to a local restaurant. The deck pays for itself in three dinners, and encourages the recipient to try new spots. It's a win-win!  

An Ownership share in Chicago Market! Ok, i'm biased, since i'm on the Steering Committee, but help us bring this local food dream to life.  Gift Ownerships will be available in the next few days, so keep an eye on the site. 

A (Potential) Bird in the Bush vs. One in the Hand?

There's that old adage: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

As I understand it, it means a sure thing (even a small sure thing) is better than a potential big payoff.  

But some recent experiences suggest that certain Chicago restaurants may not be adhering to this adage - and their service may be suffering as a result.

Take a recent experience I had at one of my favorite restaurants. A reservation at another place had fallen through, I was a few doors away from this place and stopped in to try to get some dinner. 

I walked in the door to the warm, bustling dining room. I noticed that about 2/3 of the seats were empty. I humbly asked the hostess "Do you have room for an unreserved diner?" She looked me up and down, surveyed the room, and said (somewhat snippily) "You'll have to sit at the bar." Hungry and wanting food, we headed for the bar. 

As soon as I sat down, i opened up OpenTable on my phone.  The restaurant in question had reservations available every 15 minutes all night.   I had a (lovely) dinner at the bar, and the restaurant never got more than 1/3 full.

This has become a regular problem for me recently.  I'll check my phone, see that a restaurant has tons of availability and then walk in and be told it's a two or three hour wait for a table. I could walk outside, make the reservation, walk back in and be seated immediately, but as a walk-up, i'm out of luck.

I'm sure there must be a business rationale for this, but damned if I can see it. Isn't a bird in the hand (a customer ready to spend money) better than a potential reservation that will never come? Is this the curse of instant online reservations? Or is it just a case of a bad run of snobby hosts who think that walk-ins are dirty bums?

In any case, it's not great customer service - and anyone with a smart phone who checks a reservation app is gonna feel like they are being duped. 

Remember the Ladies! Chicago’s Bartending Women Deserve More Attention

The voting is open for Eater Chicago’s best bartender of the year award.  There are some impressive bartenders on the list (my vote, in case you care, goes to Alex Bachman of Billy Sunday, the sleeper hit on Chicago’s cocktail scene and a place I don’t get to nearly enough) but they all have one thing in common – a y chromosome.  

This is not a new problem. In 2014, 2013 and 2012, Eater has put only men on the slate to be voted “Best Bartender.” That’s 15 different bartenders, and not a single woman to be found. 

Eater should clearly be doing better, but they’re not alone in their ignorance.  At Tales of the Cocktail, the nominations for Best American Bartender are almost embarrassingly gendered. In 2013, a single woman was nominated out of 10, while in 2014, the number skyrocketed to two.  Whoopee.

And don’t even try tell me there aren’t great female bartenders in Chicago. Eater managed to find some in 2011, when Lynn House, Revae Schneider and Debbi Peek got nominations.  Not to toot my own horn, but when I looked for Chicago’s up and coming bar stars earlier this year, I managed to find some people without beards and penises. 

So who are these ladies?

While House and Peek are both out from behind the bar, there are plenty of female bartenders who don’t get enough attention.  Annemarie Sagoi works magic wherever she goes (her drinks at the Dawson were amazing, and she’s working on a Vermouth bar), Krissy Schutte at CH Distillery is quietly making some of the best drinks in town, and Meghan Konecny is rocking it at Scofflaw. Liz Pearce, recently of Drawing Room and now working on a new spot, also comes to mind, and talented people who haven’t quite found their spot yet (like Erin Hayes, formerly of the J. Parker, now at Three Dots) might not be ready for Best Bartender in America yet, but they’ll be there in a couple of years.  I’m not thinking of at least a dozen more. 

There is some hope. The Redeye, who did their best bartender list earlier this year, included four women in a field of eight. (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that the project was helmed by a woman reporter).  It’s really, really not that there aren’t awesome women out there to find. 

In any case, I get that the spirits world is filled with machismo, vests, mustachios and big biceps from shaking those drinks like they’re pounding in nails. But at least some small corner of the internet is giving it up for the lady bartenders. Keep up the good work, and here’s hoping that the spirits world starts noticing.