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A Tourist in My Own Town: Brunching and Farmers Markets in Two Chicagos

By Mark Konkol | September 19, 2014 5:33am
 A tale of how the other half eats.
Brunching In Two Chicagos
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PULLMAN — In Pullman, my favorite brunch spot, if you can even call it that, is the only greasy spoon around — Cal-Harbor Restaurant on 115th Street.

It’s a solid place where you can get a bottomless cup of Folgers coffee, butt steak and eggs with a side of golden, buttery hash browns for about nine bucks.

In Streeterville, where I spent six weeks this summer, getting brunch is, well, a fascinating event.

Heck, if you show up at the right restaurant at the wrong time, brunching can be a contact sport.

You'll encounter folks belly-to-back with fellow diners as they squeeze through crowded doorways just to get their name on a list before waiting and waiting — sometimes more than an hour — just to score a coveted table or booth to eat food.

Now, I’ve never seen anyone line up outside for a table at Cal-Harbor — not even when services let out at the House of Hope megachurch down the block. And it’s the only restaurant around not attached to a golf course or a drive-thru window.

But clearly, my summer neighborhood is different — a vital part of the city's ever-growing gourmet brunch scene, which includes pockets of places in neighborhoods all over the city frequented by Chicago's foodie set.

On any given weekend morning, people hungry for a breakfast/lunch combo are willing to wait on Downtown sidewalks outside West Egg, The Grill on the Alley, Drake Bros., Decca and Grand Lux Café, to name a few.

My favorite place to get caught up in the brunching lifestyle was Yolk on the corner of McClurg and Grand, a block from my high-rise studio apartment, next to the bronze statue of the neighborhood’s namesake, eccentric conman George “Cap” Streeter.

People swarm to Yolk on the “weekend mornings," which the hostess will tell you usually stretch from Thursday to Monday in the summer.

If you don’t get there before 9 a.m., expect to wait for a coveted table and the opportunity to order a gourmet eggs benedict, a cup of fancy coffee and fresh-squeezed juice for about 20 bucks plus tip.

Once you’re seated, there’s a frenzy of young, eager brunch servers who quickly take orders, pour coffee, serve up grub, check to see if there’s anything else they can get you and leave the check with instructions to pay at the counter, where there’s another line.

In no time, your belly is full of their delicious fare, and you’re on your way in half the time you spent standing in line.

It’s the exact opposite of the relaxed pace I am used to at Cal-Harbor, where Shirley the waitress has always been a friendly face — even during those frustrating moments when new customers attempt to violate the menu’s “no substitutions” rule or fail to read the important sign hanging on the wall that says, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”

But I have to admit, there's something that makes eating omelets more interesting when you get to overhear the wacky conversations of hungover "dude bros," the grunts of grumpy fat guys with low blood sugar, gaggles of rich ladies discussing Oak Street shopping strategies and, of course, so many bratty, screaming children that you aren't allowed to, well, put in "time out."

Of course, it would be easy to say that enjoying Croque Madame at a popular spot is always better than a Monte Cristo you can get in hundreds of joints like Pullman's Cal-Harbor. But it's not — at least not always.

 Cal-Harbor Restaurant in Pullman is an entirely different brunch experience than Yolk in Streeterville.
Cal-Harbor Restaurant in Pullman is an entirely different brunch experience than Yolk in Streeterville.
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

I would come to learn that the same cannot be said about farmers markets.

If this summer taught me anything, it's that Chicago's posh neighborhoods have superior farmers markets.

I never thumbed my nose at the Wednesday farmers market in Pullman — a semitrailer of fresh fruits and vegetables trucked to the neighborhood from a suburban farm — until I strolled through Green City Market in Lincoln Park.

I've always heard chefs and foodie pals sing the praises of picking through the bounties produced by local farmers available at Green City Market, but had no idea how right they were until I saw for myself the fresh-baked focaccia, crumbled goat cheese, so many chili peppers, hybrid tomatoes, Asian pears, exotic mushrooms, cured meats, cuts of beef, lamb, goat, and even locally ranched elk steaks, of all things.

And that's not all. There you'll find loads of fresh flowers, tasty preserves and even craft spirits. On any given Saturday, you can get shrimp grilled on a skewer, fancy pizza baked in a portable wood-fired oven, tasty crepes and watch a famous chef demonstrate how to cook things like kale so it doesn't taste so bad, among other things.

I'll admit that I never really got why foodies get so geeked up about cooking with organic, locally grown produce and grilling steaks cut from grass-fed cows.

But seeing how the other half grocery shops at a farmers market that feels like a food festival certainly gave me a good idea. It's really cool, especially if you're lucky enough to live within walking distance.

When my summer vacation ended I went back to brunching in Pullman and getting plum tomatoes and red peppers at the weekly farmers market, which, sadly, doesn't serve crepes stuffed with fancy preserves.

I promised to force myself to get over it.

Just the other day, I stopped at “The Harbor,” as the locals call it, and seated myself in a booth by the window.

It seemed exactly as I had left it.

"Where have you been?" Shirley the waitress asked.

"I was gone, but now I'm back," I told her as she handed me a menu, which was shiny new without even a splatter of syrup on the cover.

“New menus,” I said.

“Yeah,” Shirley said. “And new prices, too.”

That same plate of steak and eggs and buttery hash browns now costs an extra two bucks — about the same amount fancy eggs benedict will run you at the popular brunch spots of Streeterville.

It wasn't exactly how I hoped my neighborhood would catch up to the Downtown brunch scene, but I didn’t complain.

At least I didn't have to wait for a table.

Previously: A Tale of Two Summers in Chicago

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