NRA Chicago – Day One

Now, usually I only write about food when it has relevance to beer. However, I cannot resist writing about my experience at the National Restaurant Association Show this past weekend in Chicago. (Disclaimer: there will be much blogging about beer experiences as well. I had the honor of meeting and drinking with what I would like to call “beer celebrities”).

A last minute turn of events and really great people (including both of my bosses) made it possible for me to travel to Chicago for the NRA show this past weekend. As a result, I was exposed to some of the most extraordinary cuisine and beverages as well as particularly intriguing people.

To avoid overwhelming my readers with an excessively long post about each experience, I have decided to break my blogs down by the days. Unfortunately, I experienced too much food and beverages at the show itself to remember and record anything. My blogs will be about the experiences of each evening around the city of Chicago.

One thing I’ve learned from traveling is that the best way to tour a city is to do it through the eyes of the locals. They are the experts and can direct you to the best places in town. (Bar tenders and servers tend to be excellent sources of information!)

My colleague, Nate and I arrived in Chicago too late to visit the NRA Show on Saturday. Instead, we just went straight to meet up with our friend and potential client, Christian. Being very familiar with the city of Chicago, Christian was prepared to give us one whirlwind of a tour.

First stop: De La Costa, “an alluring new restaurant and lounge from celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez.” Christian and his colleagues had eaten there the night before and he wanted to show us the unique concept. It is known for having one of the best ceviche bars in the city. The interior design was one of the most unique that I’ve ever seen — it looked like a set from Cirque Du Soliel, complete with marionettes. The menu looked absolutely delicious and I definitely drooled over the dishes being brought out by the servers. We sat at the bar, where I had a wonderfully balanced glass of Cabarnet that was recommended by the bar tender. The three of us shared a platter of fish tacos and then moved on to our second destination.

Second stop: Michael and Louise’s Hop Leaf Bar. Despite the name, this bar did not have very many “hoppy” beers available. In fact, the majority of beers were Belgians! The interior of the bar and the demographics of the crowd reminded me a lot of Bodega — mostly Young Professionals, with a few Baby Boomers mixed throughout. The Hop Leaf is a little bigger though, with two floors, and serves a rather unique array of cuisine. My first beer was Three Floyd’s Alpha King Ale, which was one of three beers available on draft upstairs (which is why we quickly found room at the bar downstairs). For round two, the boys went Belgian while I opted for the Lagunitas IPA. Food wise, we all shared the Sausage Plate, a variety of organic sausages w/ with bourbon pancetta white beans, and the Braised Frog’s Legs w/ salad of arugula, fennel, tomato, preserved lemon and basil oil. (Despite not normally eating meat, I actually tasted and ate many meat dishes in Chicago … as you will observe).

Third Stop: Relax Lounge aka The Pharmacy. Christian’s colleagues were finally able to catch up with us at this lounge bar. Personally, I automatically understood the concept. In fact, it is what drew me to the bar in the first place. Outside of the lounge was a medium sized neon green cross. Anyone who has been to Switzerland knows that the green cross = pharmacy. I cannot think of any better medicine than some good quality booze. The interior of the pharmacy was swanky with low lit candles. The men’s ad women’s bathrooms were connected by communal sinks — talking about keeping people honest!!

Fourth Stop: Green Zebra, one of the most renowned Vegetarian restaurants in the country. Upon arrival, I was tasked with selecting the wine — which was a delicious Piedmont blend. We ordered several small plate dishes to share including *Grilled Asparagus, Hudson Valley Camembert Beignets, Truffle *Citrus Glazed Halibut, olive oil polenta, Ramps, picked wax beans *Crispy Tofu, Thai basil, baby bok, Jasmine rice *Curried Potato Potstickers, cilantro lime sauce, fresh coconut *Slow Roasted Shittake Mushrooms, in crispy potato with savoy cabbage *Herbed Goat Cheese Ravioli, Green Garlic, asparagus, dill etc. The food was amazing. We also indulged in dessert … an ice cream of which flavor currently escapes me (caramel coconut sorbet?).

Fifth Stop: Pops For Champagne, aka “Pops.” Open since 1982 in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, Pops for Champagne is the nation’s most acclaimed champagne bar and Chicago’s most elegant live music club. After getting a glass of champagne from the elegant wine bar, the group of us went and enjoyed some excellent jazz music in the club downstairs.

Sixth Stop: Fado Irish Pub, located in the heart of the restaurant district of downtown Chicago. Fado’s location in Columbus does not impress me in the least and I had a terrible food experience there. Chicago, however, was a different story. TALK ABOUT A TRUE IRISH PUB. The environment was so lively, complete with live music. I even ran into a real Irish guy (around my age) who was visiting Chicago. If an authentic Irish guy chooses this place as a destination during vacation, you know it has to be quality. True to stereotypes, the boys ordered us rounds and rounds of Guinness.

Needless to say, I slept the entire cab ride back to the hotel (which unfortunately was 30 min). My greatest regret was never taking any pictures. I suppose that is also a good thing, since it meant that I was too busy having fun!

Next up: Day Two!!!

About The Beer Wench

Ashley is a self-proclaimed craft beer evangelist & social media maven on a mission to advance the craft beer industry through education, inspiration and advocacy. She is currently the “Director of Awesomeness” at Bison Brewing in Berkeley, CA — where her responsibilities include everything from marketing, sales, PR, social media & events. Ashley is also a freelance consultant and professional speaker on the subjects of social media, beer mixology, food & beverage pairings. She is the founder of & as well as a regular contributor to

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