During our stay at the Hotel Burnham, Cindy's principal goal was to have tea at the Atwood Cafe, the in-house restaurant at the Burnham. Actually, that's been her goal for quite sometime. She fell in love with the decor at the Atwood Cafe on an earlier look through a few years ago and thought it would be sort of quaint to have tea there. The only problem is that she couldn't get anyone to go with her. I told her that I'd at least have lunch at the Atwood Cafe, but sitting drinking tea wasn't very high on my list of things to do.
The Atwood Cafe is named after architect Charles Atwood who designed the upper floors of the Reliance Building in the late 19th Century. Atwood was a protégé of Daniel Burnham (the person who the Hotel Burnham is named after) and John Root who designed the first level of the building. After the Kimpton Hotel chain bought the building in the late 20th Century to turn it into the Hotel Burnham, they brought in the Puccini Group- a San Francisco design company that specializes in the planning, building and operations of upscale restaurants situated in fine hotels - to oversee all aspects of the Atwood Cafe for the Kimpton chain.
Heather Terhune was the original chef at the Atwood before she moved over to Sable, the restaurant within the Hotel Palomar in the River North neighborhood - also a Kimpton property. Derek Simcik, born in Greece to American parents, took over as the Executive Chef of the Atwood Cafe in 2010. Simcik's educational background was primarily as a pastry chef, but he worked his way up to chef du cuisine at Jackson 20, a Kimpton restaurant that is located inside the upscale Hotel Monaco hotel in Alexandria, VA. He moved to Chicago early last year to take over as the executive chef at the Atwood Cafe.
The decor of the Atwood Cafe is rather unique. Situated on the corner of the Hotel Burnham, the restaurant features large windows that afford great street views along Washington and State Streets (see map). The high ceilings, various colors of red, yellow and black abound throughout the restaurant. Persian rugs over intricately designed flooring, tasteful lighting with etched diamond patterns in the sconces and elaborate chandeliers give the Atwood an elegant art deco feeling like you're transported back to the 1930's and 40's. The lobby of the Burnham is an extension of the Atwood Cafe with that space used as more of a waiting area for the restaurant. There's a small bar in the corner of the Atwood where you can get your drinks, then retire to the lobby of the hotel to wait for your table.
After Cindy and I checked in to the Hotel Burnham on her birthday weekend, we decided to head just down the street to Daley Plaza and the Christkindlmarket that has become a Chicago holiday tradition. It was colder than hell out, though and the market was packed - elbows to assholes, as my cousin so colorfully describes large crowds. We decided to go back to the hotel to warm up and get lunch at the Atwood Cafe. We got to the lobby and there was still a number of people who waiting to get seats in the restaurant and the restaurant only served lunch up until 2:30 (it was 1:45). We went up to our rooms to drop off our coats and I called down to the restaurant to see if we could get our names on the waiting list. The man who answered the phone told me that they weren't taking reservations for lunch any longer, but he said, "Since you're staying in the hotel, we have two seats that just opened up at the bar. I'll hold them for you if you like."
Cindy has an aversion about eating at bars, especially at fine restaurants, but this time she said, "Yeah, go for it." Less than two minutes later we were settling in at the bar and looking over the lunch time menu at the Atwood Cafe. The lunch menu consists of a handful of salads, sandwiches and main entrees with a much smaller and less diverse selection of what the Atwood Cafe has on its dinner menu. The Atwood Cafe also serves breakfast Monday thru Saturday, and features a popular brunch on Sunday's.
The first thing that caught my eye on the menu at the Atwood Cafe were the prices. Sheesh! It was not cheap! Pan fried lake trout was $18 bucks, a chicken salad sandwich was $15, and an Ahi Tuna salad in Asian slaw with a soy/wasabi dressing was $18. Woo! My wallet was going to get a workout.
The bartender asked if we wanted a drink. Cindy got a glass of the house cabernet and I got a bottle of the New Holland Mad Hatter India Pale Ale. I'd never had it before and it was pretty good. But it had better be - the Atwood charged me $6.00 a bottle for the beer. Ouch! I was beginning to wonder if the food was going to be worth the price.
With not much on the menu and time running out as to being able to order lunch, we were a little rushed in our decision. I ended up getting the Wagyu beef patty - a gourmet cheeseburger topped with Big Ed's gouda (Big's Ed's is from a line of gourmet cheeses from the Saxon Homestead Creamery, a small boutique-style dairy operation outside of Milwaukee), pickled onions, a slice of heirloom tomato, a bib of butter lettuce and Russian dressing on a sesame-seed brioche. It sounded pretty damn good. And at $17 bucks, it had better be!
Cindy got the chef's selection of the day - a half-sandwich and a bowl of soup for $15 bucks. The sandwich was a glorified ham and cheese sandwich and the soup was a homemade cream of asparagus. All right - that was fine. We were eating at the Atwood and Cindy was happy.
As we waited for our meal, we were situated right near where the shelves of tea leaves were stored at the cafe. They must have had seven or eight different types of teas to choose from including black tea, green tea, white tea (I'd never heard of white tea before, but Cindy had) and herbal teas. Also, the Atwood Cafe is widely known for their extensive "sweets" menu and some of the elaborate desserts were passing by us in a constant stream. The sweet potato bread pudding looked especially scrumptious.
Our lunch got set down in front of us about 20 minutes after we ordered and I was ready to eat. I have to tell you, the presentation on the burger was not overly impressive. But from the first bite, I have to say that it was just wonderful. Now, I've had gourmet burgers before, but I can easily say that NONE of them were as good as the Wagyu beef burger I had at the Cafe Atwood. I devoured the burger, not even offering Cindy a bite (much to her dismay). But the beef was cooked perfectly, the pickled onions were a great taste sensation, the bun was to die for and the Russian dressing was a great complement to the whole burger. Even the heirloom tomato tasted fresh like it had just been picked out of a garden out back. It was, by far, the best gourmet burger I've ever had.
There isn't much to say about Cindy's grilled ham and cheese sandwich other than they used Black Forest ham and a gourmet Swiss cheese on the sandwich. The soup, according to Cindy, was pretty good. She wished she would have gotten the burger instead.
We were tempted by getting some desserts - especially the sweet potato bread pudding - but decided to pass on it for now. The bill for tip and drinks was hefty - over $50 bucks for lunch. Not quite your average lunch counter greasy spoon. But as Cindy said, "Hey! It was the best gourmet burger you've ever had, so you've got that goin' for you!"
We went back in to the Atwood Cafe for brunch the next day. Once again, it wasn't anything overly special - I got the homemade corned beef hash with two eggs over easy and toast for $15 bucks. Whoa! And the corned beef hash, while good, was not worth the price of the meal. Cindy got the Eggs Benedict - $14 bucks for that dish. She did notice that the Wagyu burger was on the brunch menu as were a lot of non-breakfast items. But she decided to go the breakfast route at 9:15 a.m. She said the Eggs Benedict were good, but not worth the price.
All right, so we went to the Atwood Cafe, but Cindy never had tea on either of our visits. I'm sure she'll want to go back at some point for her tea in the afternoon on a visit to downtown Chicago at some point in the future. Overall, it was the best gourmet burger I've ever had. But the value vs. quality of food was not very good. The best thing was the burger, but the breakfast and Cindy's lunch were vastly overpriced for what it really was. You're definitely paying for the ambiance and frills at the Atwood Cafe. But it's still kind of a neat place to go. That is, if you're prepared to spend some money.