For years, food enthusiasts have traveled to a stretch of Milwaukee Ave. through Wheeling, IL where some of the best restaurants in the Chicagoland area have stood for years and years. One of those restaurants is Pete Miller's, a seafood/steak house and jazz bar that I've wanted to visit for quite sometime. Recently, I had the chance to go there with a client for dinner.
Pete Miller's is one of the corner stones of the Clean Plate Club restaurant group which also runs the Davis Street Fishmarket and Merle's No. 1 Barbecue in Evanston. (To see my visit to Davis Street Fishmarket, click here.) The original Pete Miller's opened in 1994 in Evanston, and they opened the Wheeling location in October of 2002 in what was the old Crawdaddy Bayou Cajun restaurant. From day one, Pete Miller's offered an eclectic combination of prime steaks, fresh seafood and some of the best jazz that the Chicago area has to offer. The Evanston location is more of an adult destination complete with a number of billiard tables, so when Larry Huber and his partners opened the Pete Miller's in Wheeling they gave it more of a 1940's supper club feel to the place and made it more family friendly.
And, by the way, there actually was a Pete Miller, although he wasn't involved with Pete Miller's in any way. Harold "Pete" Miller was a frequent customer of the Davis Street Fishmarket after it opened in 1986. Miller was a longtime salesman on the road (that sounds familiar) who dined in numerous places over the years, who had a love for good Scotch, liked to play a rousing game of pool and was a connoisseur of great jazz. Miller's personality and charm touched the people around him and especially Larry Huber. After Miller died in 1994, Huber and his partners opened the original Pete Miller's in Evanston as a tribute to Miller offering great food, a fair drink, great jazz and an upscale pool tavern feel to the place.
And great jazz is exactly what you can find at both Pete Miller's locations nearly every day of the week. Some of the greatest jazz entertainers from Chicago and across the U.S. have played at Pete Miller's over the years including Patricia Barber, Jimmy Smith, Bobby Broom and Melvin Rhyne. The night we were at the Pete Miller's in Wheeling, the Michael Ross Trio was playing in the lounge.
We arrived at Pete Miller's in Wheeling (see map) around 7:15 one evening and parked with the complementary valet that they offer at the restaurant. It wasn't all that packed and we were able to get a seat right away in the larger of the two main dining areas in the restaurant. Our dinner menus were on the table along with a wine menu. My client wasn't much of a drinker, he said, but he said, "Have at it!" when I asked him if it were OK that I have a beer.
After a little bit of a wait, our waitress, Liz, finally got to our table. She said, "Gentlemen! I am so sorry. I had three different food orders come up at once, so I was running around getting those tables taken care of." She asked if we wanted anything to drink and I noticed that they had the Burning River Pale Ale from the Great Lakes Brewery out of Cleveland - one of my all-time favorite beers. I took one of those while my guest had a diet soda.
My client had been to Pete Miller's just before Christmas and he raved about the prime rib-eye medallions, one of chef Cesar Gutierrez's signature dishes. Two 6 oz. rib-eye medallions are topped with your choice of stilton bleu cheese, encrusted horseradish, or parmesan cheese. He called them "outstanding".
I knew I wanted steak and the first thing that popped out at me on the menu was the filet au poivre - a 10 oz. beef tenderloin filet topped with fresh peppercorns and a cognac/mushroom reduction sauce. I'm a sucker for a great au poivre steak and I was certain that I would like that. But I was also interested in the prime rib - something that I haven't had in quite sometime. They also had a filet trio on the menu - three individual beef tenderloin filets that you could be blackened, topped with parmesan cheese or horseradish. In fact, every steak on the menu could be ordered to your liking with four different types of sauces, encrusted in either bleu cheese, parmesan cheese or horseradish, or blackened or topped with peppercorns.
The seafood part of the menu was also a little tempting with a pan-seared Chilean sea bass, crab-stuffed jumbo shrimp served on a bed of linguine, and a soy-ginger marinated sushi-grade yellowfin tuna encrusted in sesame seeds. But I kept going back to the steak part of the menu - especially the filet au poivre. By the time Liz got back with our drinks, I was ready to order.
My guest got the prime rib-eye medallions, encrusted in horseradish. He got a side of Pete Miller's garlic mashed potatoes, but he asked our waitress to have the kitchen leave off the fresh parsley. I found through the course of the evening that my guest was a rather particular eater. Not that there was anything wrong with that - he definitely knows what he likes and dislikes in food. He's a good ol' "meat and potatoes" kind of guy.
I figured that I'd be back to Pete Miller's at some point in the future, so I ended up getting the filet au poivre on this occasion. I ordered it rare and hemmed and hawed about getting the garlic mashed potatoes, as well, or getting something else. The entrees come with your choice of potato, vegetable of the day, steamed broccoli or thin onion rings. They also have signature sides that you can share at the table including their famous lobster mashed potatoes - lobster chunks with the mashed potatoes. That sounded too rich for me that evening, though.
I also got a wedge salad with my meal, thinking that I really hadn't had anything to eat since early in the morning. I needed something in my stomach before the main entree showed up.
While the wedge salad was good - a large iceberg wedge topped with their homemade creamy blue cheese, real bacon bits and chopped tomatoes - it wasn't the best I've had. Still, it was a nice start to the meal. It was so large that I couldn't finish it before our steaks showed up to the table.
Rare at Pete Miller's - and most restaurants - is described as "cool, red center". My filet au poivre was exactly that - one of the most spot-on rare steaks I've had in a restaurant. The cognac/mushroom reduction sauce was just excellent on top with the peppercorns swimming in the sauce. It was an excellent steak. And my thin onion rings were very good, too, although I wish I would have tried the garlic mashed potatoes. Next time.
My guest's rib-eye medallions were cooked medium for him, just to his liking. The horseradish crust around the steak medallions was puffy with a little caramelization on the crust. He wasn't able to finish his last medallion nor his garlic mashed potatoes. "The horseradish crust is really rich," he told me. I'm sure it was.
During our meal, the general manager at Pete Miller's, Mike, came around to see how everything was with our meal. We had absolutely no complaints. He asked, "Liz taking good care of you this evening?" She was doing a superb job in handling us that night, we said. She was efficient, friendly and had a great sense of humor.
With some nice jazz going on in the lounge and subdued lighting in the dining room gave Pete Miller's a nice warm feeling to the place. It certainly was like being transported back to an old time elegant supper club in the countryside. The food was just outstanding at Pete Miller's. While it wasn't cheap, the quality was top notch. Liz was a very attentive server and did a great job in making sure everything was right. And having the GM come around to check on our meal was a nice touch, as well. Pete Miller's was everything I expected it to be. I can see why it's one of the favorite steak houses for thousands of Chicago area residents. I can't wait to go back!