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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Pleasure of a Solitary Lunch

Please don't think I'm odd if I confess to enjoying lunch out, alone. There's something very appealing to me about a civilized, sit-down lunch (is it the European roots?) and the solitude one can enjoy with good food, something to read and people to watch.

I know, I know...for some, the concept of eating out in public (and I'm not talking Chipotle here...) alone, makes them uncomfortable , but I find that lunch is somehow easier in this regard. The nice part is that if you travel for business, and can get away, a decent midday meal can carry you through the day, thereby avoiding the even more awkward solo dinner. The clincher though, is some sort of study I remember hearing about years ago, which found that eating lunch at your desk reduces your lifespan. Well then! What other motivation do you need?

My list of favorite-places-to-have-lunch-alone has been cobbled together over years and years and there's nothing 'hot' or groundbreakingly new here. Just good lunch spots. I'll share another confession: I relish going out for lunch alone here in Chicago when I've had a string of days working from home and would love a chance to get out of the house.

So, here are some personal favorites. Maybe give the idea a try. You've got the possibility of that don't-eat-at-your-desk-live longer thing going for you.

CHICAGO:

Shaw's Oyster Bar
Tucked off to the side of the bigger, more formal (and pricey) Shaw's Crab House dining room is this absolute gem. A cozy atmsophere prevails as an oyster shucker busies himself inside the traditional U-shaped bar in the center of the room and sushi chefs do their thing nearby. The seafood is impeccable. Sushi is outstanding. Oysters are available from numerous waters and are listed on a central blackboard. The crowds that normally dominate the evenings are not around, making lunch here even smarter. And, those icy cold martini's you see the guys behind you enjoying? I'll bet having one yourself has some sort of as-yet-undiscovered health benefit.
21 E. Hubbard Street, (between State & Wabash) 312-527-2722

Frontera Grill
sigh...I hesitate to even put this on the list, since Rick Bayless' win (Outstanding Restaurant) at the James Beard Foundation's awards. I long ago gave up going to Frontera for dinner, but lunch is still a wonderful option. There's a very colorful and inviting bar, which provides a perfect opportunity to sample the fantastic Mexican dishes served up here every day, along with a perectly made margarita. It goes without saying, the food is terrific, but it's feeling you get in a place that has great food and people working there who enjoy, and are proud of, what they're doing that makes Frontera so special. And, here's another option...if you're near Macy's (the old Marshall Field's) on State Street, you can try the 'fast food' version of Frontera -- Frontera Fresco in the Seven on State food court there. You grab a tray and go through a cafeteria-style line with a different, streamlined but still tasty, Frontera menu.
445 N. Clark Street, 312-661-1434 (Frontera Grill)
Macy's State Street, 111 N. State, Closed Sundays (Frontera Fresca)

Bittersweet
The marble-topped tables by the window whisper “French patisserie”…the beautiful tartlettes, cookies, cakes and brownies in the gleaming glass cases say “take us home!” and the lunch menu (written on a blackboard on the wall) features daily soups, sandwiches, quiches and salads inviting you to “linger for lunch”.
Run by a former restaurant pastry chef, this lovely bakery/café is perfect for a solo lunch.
1114 W. Belmont 773.929.1100

Julius Meinl
It's so easy to while away an afternoon at this lively Viennese "kaffeehaus"...comfortable tables and chairs strewn through a sun-filled set of rooms. I love the delicious sandwiches and salads, and the espresso is hands-down the best I've had in Chicago. Glass cases are filled with lavish, European pastries, if that's your thing. A small retail area sells coffee and tea for home.
3601 N. Southport 773.868.1857

NEW YORK:

E.A.T.
I could eat at Eli Zabar's famous deli every day. A bustling cafe sits behind the take-out deli counter. As you eat the finest egg salad sandwich you will ever have, the bustle of the Upper East Side parades by on the sidewalk. Their raisin-studded rye is so good I could cry...and I do, when the loaf I bring home with me on the plane runs out a couple days later.
1064 Madison Ave. (between 80th & 81st) 212.772.0022

Via Quadronno
This narrow little Italian coffee bar easily enchants with the most declicious sandwiches and homey, rustic feel. But it's their lattes and cappucinos that make me feel like a big kid...each arrives with a pretty pattern in mocha and cream decorating the foam, revealing expert barristas at work behind the counter.
25 E. 73rd Street (and Madison) 212.650.9980

Balthazar
A bit of Paris imported. There are so many people dining here on their own, you can feel totally comfortable. Menu is typical brasserie fare. As much as the food feels right, it's the buzz in the room that is transporting. One of my favorite times to come is breakfast when the room is hopping with people, and bread, butter and jam make your meal perfectly Parisian.
80 Spring Street (and Crosby) 212.941.0364

Union Square Cafe
A tried-and-true favorite. I know it's been there forever, and the reason is because it's so good. I've eaten dinners (!) here alone and always felt wonderfully well taken care of. Absolutely everything is delicious on a menu that seems to favor fish dishes, and again, this place hums along in a way that makes you happy to be there. AND, easy walking distance to ABC Home! Be still my beating heart!
21 E. 16th Street 212.243.4020

SAN FRANCISCO:

Tadich Grill
This is old school seafood, set in a classic, waiters-in-white-jackets setting. Vintage wooden booths line the walls. Eat at the bar. You'll be surrounded by the easy camraderie of your fellow solo diners and treated to the excellent service of the bartenders. Fish is superbly fresh. Sauteed sand dabs are my favorite. Cioppino here is also fantastic.
240 California Street (between Battery & Front Streets) 415.391.1845

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