Christmas Eve in Chicago is sort of weird, especially Christmas Eve on a Sunday night. We were sort of worried as to which restaurants - if any - would be open for us to have dinner. One place that wasn't far from our hotel that was open was the venerable Harry Caray's restaurant in the River North area of downtown Chicago (see map).
Started in 1987 by the legendary baseball play-by-play man, Harry Caray (right), and restaurateur Grant DePorter, the restaurant calls itself an Italian Steakhouse. It features steaks, seafood, pasta and the famous Chicago dish - Chicken Vesuvio.
The restaurant is housed in a historic building that began as the distribution plant for the Chicago Varnish Company in 1895. It was subsequently used as a food processing plant and distribution building for cheese products. During the hey-day of Chicago mob influence, gangster/enforcer Frank Nitti was said to have an apartment on the fourth floor of the building.
After a number of changes in ownership, the Miller family eventually bought the building in the early 80's. Part of the building was used as the family's heating and air conditioning business, while the other part was a steakhouse - one of the first of its kind in the burgeoning River North area.
Harry Caray's took over the steakhouse in 1987 and eventually took over the whole building, leasing the property from the Dearborn Kinzie property management firm who had bought the building from the Millers the year before.
In 2001, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave the historic building "Landmark" status. Harry Caray's management was fearful the owners would then make the restaurant vacate the property given the "Landmark" designation. A group of investors including Harry Caray's wife Dutchie, DePorter, former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandburg and sportscaster Bob Costas bought the building in 2002, ensuring the restaurant would never have to move.
During our Christmas trip to Chicago, we were out walking around on Christmas Eve day. We were walking back toward our hotel on Dearborn - a route that we hadn't taken before. As we passed over the Chicago River and walked past the House of Blues, we looked up the street and saw Harry Caray's. We got up closer and saw they were open. She suggested we stop in and get a beer.
Bless her heart.
Now, I've eaten at the Harry Caray's out in Rosemont, but that was in the bar late at night with a couple colleagues who had just flown in from Montreal. And it was just sandwiches. I knew they had an extensive menu for dinner and I was interested to see it.
We sat at the bar and watched some of the Bears game on TV. We got to talking with the bartender, a younger lady who had a Santa's hat on her head. I asked if we could see a dinner menu and she passed one along to us.
It looked interesting enough and I asked her, "How late are you guys going to be open tonight?"
She said, "I really don't know. You may want to check with the restaurant manager before you leave."
We finished a couple beers and headed toward the exit. The manager was on the phone at the front reception area and we stood around and looked at the autographed pictures of famous sports figures and entertainment celebrities. He finally got off the phone and I asked, "How late are you open this evening?"
He said, "We're going to play it by ear. I'm taking reservations up to 6:30 and then we'll see how it goes from there."
Since we normally go to a movie on Christmas Eve - and that was on our agenda for the evening - I told him that we'd be back at 6:00 p.m.
Before we left, we took more of a look at the pictures on the walls of the celebrities and sports figures who have come into Harry Caray's and had their picture taken with the impressive sculpted bust of Harry at the front of the restaurant. Speaking of impressive sculpted busts, here's a picture of actress Shannon Elizabeth next to Harry.
We got back to Harry Caray's about 5:45 that evening and they sat us immediately. The very nice dining area was about half full. Linen table cloths, lots of dark wood paneling and a ton of sports memorabilia lined the walls of the dining room.
One of the things that jumped out from the menu to us was the Tall Grass Beef selections they were offering. Tall Grass Beef is owned by Chicago broadcast icon Bill Kurtis. Kurtis owns a ranch in Kansas that specializes in growing beef cattle that only eat the range grass at the ranch. They're not corn fed, they're not injected with growth hormones. It's as close to being organic beef without saying it's organic beef.
(And here's one little bit of trivia - American author Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived on the ranch that Kurtis owns.)
Our waitress, whose name escapes me know, informed us that they're famous for their aged steaks and offered to bring a tray of their featured steaks out to show us before they're cooked. I couldn't resist just having a peek at a bunch of good looking beef before it's cooked.
She brought out the tray and showed us seven or eight different cuts of steak. I asked where the Tall Corn Beef was and she said, "Oh, we don't have that for showing. But I can bring some out to show you, if you like."
I told her that I guessed the Tall Corn Beef was very lean with little marbling and she said, "That's exactly what you get with the Tall Corn Beef." It sounded intriguing, so we went that direction.
I went with the Tall Grass strip steak and Cindy went with the Tall Grass filet. We shared a side of their grilled asparagus and I topped the dinner off with a great bottle of a 2002 Jordan Cabernet. What the hell - it's Christmas and we're in Chicago.
The strip steak was very similar to bison meat - very lean with not a lot of flavor. Actually, Cindy's filet was more moist and tender than the strip steak. (I actually should have gotten the rib-eye which wouldn't have been as lean as the strip.) I can't say I was overly joyed with the taste of it, but I can't say that it was bad, either.
And the best part of the meal was the grilled asparagus. It was cooked to perfection. I've never grilled asparagus on the Weber Grill, but I think I may have to give it shot sometime soon.
We split a homemade tiramisu dessert and we were both full - not uncomfortable full, but full enough.
We splurged at Harry Caray's - the bill with tip came to about $240 bucks. But it was Christmas, we were in Chicago, we were having a great time and I thought we deserved it. The Tall Grass Beef cuts were about 15% higher in price than the comparable beef steaks Harry Caray's served, so that helped jack the price up. Well, that and the bottle of the Jordan Cabernet.
In any event, Harry Caray's was a pleasant surprise and a great meal. I won't have an problem either going back or recommending the restaurant to anyone.