Erie Cafe - Chicago
This Italian steakhouse located on the north branch of the Chicago River is a classic, clubby neighborhood eatery, with large picture windows draped in floral chintz, as well as plenty of brick, wood paneling and white tablecloths. Erie Café was opened in 1994 by the Lenzi family, formerly with Gene & Georgetti, who bring generations of classic Chicago steak house dining experience to the re-established Erie Café. Housed in an architecturally significant building in River North, with windows set in stone arches overlooking the Chicago River, and affording up to 200 seats right along the Chicago River, the gorgeous physical space reflects the gorgeous meat served here.
Chicago Magazine listed Erie Café among Chicago’s Best Steakhouses, noting that “You don’t see many places these days with mahogany leather chairs and a framed painting of a clipper ship, unless they’re being ironic. But there’s nothing ironic about this old-school spot. A spirit of excess colors everything, from the ridiculous heaps of blue cheese melting onto house made fried ravioli to the stiff Old Fashioneds, courtesy of an old-fashioned bartender.” Though the magazine went on to say that Erie Café is perfect for “cigar-chomping traditionalists,” we would contest the notion that this is the only type of crowd this restaurants attracts: on any day, you can see a mixed crowd of young and old, men and women…and actually, none will likely be smoking cigars (due, if nothing else, to Chicago ordinance).
Erie Café is a beautiful setting for a business lunch, and in addition to steakhouse favorites like grilled calamari and grilled sausage and peppers (Gene and Georgetti, we salute you!), there several surprises, including fried ravioli (a St. Louis favorite). There are a few standouts in the sandwich category, including Chopped Steak Copenhagen and Chicken Saltimbocca (Saltimbocca…it’s not just for veal anymore). There are scaled-down red meat offerings, like Small Strip Loin Steak (coming in at a mere 16 ounces) and a Petite Filet Mignon (at only 10 ounces, but hey, it’s lunch time). If these modest, lunchtime portions fail to fulfill, you can always get a side of meatballs for just $3.
Dinner, of course, is when the steak lovers come out in force, and the menu is designed to satisfy those carnivores who crave a good piece of beef. There’s strip steaks, filet mignon, veal and pork chops, beef en brochette, t-bones and ribeyes done perfectly in the Chicago tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, the house specials include many chicken offerings (vesuvio, Parmagiana, fricassee) and veal (parmigiana, scallopini): different strokes.
One slightly off-center item on the menu, and one you will be hard pressed to find on steakhouse menus that cater to, say, Millennials, is the calves liver with bacon and onions. Liver is one of those meats that everyone loves in pate but nobody seems to care much about when it’s simply prepared in the traditional fashion (a la moms during the Eisenhower administration). We’re not going to say that calves liver is a signature dish or a must-try at Erie Café, but if you haven’t had this liver in a long time, you might be surprised how good it is when it’s prepared by chefs who know what they’re doing and who source all meat, including liver, from the highest quality purveyors.
Whatever the meat being prepared, you can count on the people in the kitchen to get it right. As veteran food critic Phil Vettel noted in the Chicago Tribune, “A key question for any steakhouse is whether the kitchen consistently serves its meat at the requested temperature; in three visits, Erie Cafe racked up a perfect score. No complaints about the quality, either; the well-charred strip steak and the T-bone steak are juicy and flavorful cuts, served in massive portions. Erie Cafe is the real thing.”
As you might expect from guys who did time at Gene & Georgetti’s, there are abundant pasta possibilities: homemade ravioli, linguini and ravioli. Because the owners are Italian and come from the Italian-American restaurant tradition, they put a lot of effort into these dishes, and although you probably decided to go to Erie Café for the meat, it’s good to know there are luxurious carbs just waiting for you, if that’s what you’re into.
The wine list skewers heavily toward reds from Italy (surprise!) and Argentina, and there’s also an exceptional number of reserve red wines and whites from California. Of course, a classic place like Erie Café is going to be outfitted with a classic bar, staffed by bartenders who will share your disdain for the apple-tini while they mix you a perfectly proportioned Manhattan or gin martini.
For comfort and unpretentious class, Erie Café will deliver not only perfectly prepared meat, but a dining experience that hearkens back to an earlier Chicago when the bar was set high for quality food and service, and you walk out the doors feeling not only well-fed but that you’ve been treated like a valued guest.