Serendipity Strikes Chicago

A recent business trip to Chicago began in typical fashion.  I don’t know about you but I generally pack pretty low expectations when I set off on a business trip in terms of personal enjoyment.  Across the years, the school of experience has been a great teacher in this regard even if the tuition was a bit high at times.

Chicago skyline

This particular trip began with a connecting flight from DFW to ORD through DTW.  You will have to forgive the airport codes.  That’s just how we travel geeks talk.  The translation is Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago through Detroit.  The real translation is that this is the airline industry’s droll little way of taking an insipid two-hour experience and stretching it, like a salt taffy pull at the state fair, into an excruciating five or six hours.

My tight connection in Detroit required a mad dash from one end of Terminal A to the other. To illustrate the distance involved, it required catching a train even though it is just one Detroit Metro Airport concourse.  Seriously!  My lunch plans evaporated faster than the beads of sweat on my forehead somewhere along the mad dash between gate A79 and A23.

When I arrived at my airport hotel, I was in a decidedly cranky mood.   Here’s a little insider tip: The phrase “airport hotel” may sound innocuous but whenever you find those two words co-joined, it seldom portends a joyous experience!  Finding that my assigned room had not been cleaned (it was four in the afternoon by this time) and then that the new room contained not a single flake of soap, did nothing to elevate my rapidly plummeting mood.

THE WORM FINALLY TURNS

Strangely enough, it was at this precise moment that things took a remarkable turn for the better. Dame Fortune, in her own inscrutable way, was about to transform her countenance from a  brooding scowl to a broad smile.

My traveling companions and I were famished so we asked the desk clerk for a recommendation.  She suggested a nearby place that would come collect us in a van and return us to our humble abode after dinner . . . humble being the operative word.  A few moments later our chariot arrived and we were spirited off to 

THE GREAT ESCAPE RESTAURANT

The Great Escape Windmill

Little did I realize that the remainder of the evening was going to provide an entire series of surprises. It was virtually impossible not to notice the first.  Dominating the parking lot not to mention the horizon. was an 80 foot tall, 108 kw wind turbine.

The restaurant has an entire page on their website called Going Green that explains this restaurant’s remarkable commitment to protecting the environment.

The next surprise was Justin, our server. He brought us menus but asked us to put them down while he shared some information about the history of the establishment.  Ten minutes later we realized just how much fascinating history there was.  The Bar & Banquet Room are still a part of the original structure built on this site in 1889.

The Great Escape BarTwo of the most famous patrons of the bar in the early days were Tom Mix and Al Capone whose respective smiling / sinister visages gaze / glare at you from a nearby wall.  If you are an aficionado of the early western movies you will immediately recognize the name Tom Mix. Many of the saloon scenes were  shot in this building.  Al Capone sold booze to the establishment in the early part of the twentieth century.  More details can be found on the restaurants About page.

Picture of Tom Mix & Al caponeAnother tab on the restaurant’s homepage is labeled “Hauntings” and is dedicated to a fascinating account of a night spent there by the Chicago Paranormal Detectives.  I predict that those of you with an appetite for such phenomenon will greatly enjoy the read.  As Justin carefully explained, the picture you see below is one of two “hot spots’.  (I thought for a moment I was sitting in one of the hot spots but it turned out that was just male menopause.)   He explained that he had stepped it off and the two spots were exactly 30 paces apart.  I think the significance was this is the normal distance for a duel or shootout but since I was into my second glass of wine by this point, I wouldn’t want to be held to that.

Haunted Hot Spot at Great Escape Restaurant in ChicagoWe haven’t even gotten to the food which was excellent.  The restaurant specializes in baby back ribs, broasted chicken and chicken pot pies.  I sampled them all as I am about to explain.  We had such a delightful evening that the next day I stood up at the conference I was attending and bragged about our experience (I am a Texan, after all).  The next evening I returned with about 25 of my closest friends.  Thank you Brian Great, the proprietor (hence the name of the restaurant, don’t you see?) for the nice complimentary bottle of red wine and the cappuccino.

One of the great things about travel is that often times pleasant surprises are just around the next corner.  Serendipity, like lightning, can strike anywhere . . . even in the shadow of the airport in Chicago!

Where Conoco Kisses Cuisine

My mother lived with us for 18 years and sadly passed away over Easter weekend this year.  She and I made a habit of going out to dinner on Friday evenings.  Until she was diagnosed with cancer, one of the places we frequented was the Chef Point Cafe.  The setting for this restaurant is truly unique as you will quickly surmise once we pan out from this picture

   to this one.  

Yes, that’s right, Chef Point Cafe resides inside a Conoco gas station.  And if you require further proof, here is what greets you as you enter this establishment.   Due to my mother’s declining health, we had not been to Chef Point Cafe for quite some time.  When we first started going there, to call it modest is being magnanimous.  A few small table tops, a tiny kitchen and one harried waitress shared a room the size of your average small town barbershop.

From the very beginning however, there were people lining up for those few tables.  The reason was simple.  The ambience might have reeked of dingy diner but the food screamed fine dining.   It turns out that the chef, Franson Nwaeze, is a self-taught culinary genius.  You can find hamburgers and pizzas but you can order prime rib, smoked salmon or rack of lamb as well.  Everything is cooked to perfection!

So perhaps you can imagine my surprise when I stopped by the other evening after an extended hiatus to order a little take-out to find there had been extensive, and I do mean extensive, renovations. The restaurant now seats 160 guests, has a large parking lot in the rear (parking used to be a huge challenge) and has a greatly expanded kitchen and food preparation area.  Check out the new well-stocked bar that encompasses the amount of space formerly taken up by the entire eatery.

Neither time nor space permit the recounting here of how this truly unique restaurant came to be.  You can read all about it, however, on the About Us page of their website.  You will likely be amazed at the publicity this once humble diner has garnered in the national press.  Guy Fieri featured the spot on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and they were spotlighted in Paula Deen‘s magazine.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling the globe are those serendipitous moments when you stumble across the completely unexpected.  As the Chef Point Cafe proves, it can even happen in your own backyard.

Chef Franson Nwaeze and Terry Denton