Sustainable Chicago Restaurants: Good Food With Good Promises

August 24, 2011 4:00 PM

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Crazy Eyes McGee, bein' all crazy as he farms.

Ever met a farmer from Chicago? I mean, literally, a farmer living in Chicago, not Southern Illinois? I met one once. For real. He had a giant beard and crazy eyes and a tan that could definitely be attributed to one a farmer might sport. He even had dirt under his fingernails. “How do you farm in Chicago?” I asked.


That’s all he said. He wasn’t pullin’ my chain either. In Chicago exist many rooftop farms, some above restaurants, ready and willing to give you a meal full of veggies fresher than you can imagine. Mind blown. And even when our rooftop farms can’t meet demand, there’s a plethora of local gardens and farms we can pull from. Here’s a list of some of these fine establishments:

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Home of the first certified organic rooftop farm (according to their website, why would they lie?), Uncommon Ground knows what they’re doin’. They even give tours of their farm! Led by Farmer Dave, you can see they’re not messin’ around (find out about the tours here). 3 star certified by the Green Restaurant Association, along with a plethora of local awards, everything Uncommon Ground grows goes into their meals. They have sub-irrigated planters (don’t know what those are, but they sound cool) and, more exciting, bees! How rad is that?

More importantly, the food at Uncommon Ground is great, a testament to their rooftop efforts. Their Uncommon Chopped Salad, big enough for two, does a good job of showing off the labors of their farm (thanks to the tasty tomatoes inside, grown by Farmer Dave), while also displaying their great choices of local and family farmed ingredients (bacon, chicken). When you combine the great farm and food with its warm atmosphere, Uncommon Ground becomes a place in Chicago you can’t afford to NOT go to.

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You wouldn’t expect a hotel like the Marriott to care about green living and sustainability, but Harvest, the classy (with a casual dress code) restaurant inside of the downtown Marriott location, proves otherwise. Harvest’s mission is simple: “Ultimately, we strive to create simple but delicious food that celebrates nature’s seasonal bounty, authenticity and the Midwest’s gastronomic heritage.”

I like that. Not because of the sentiment, but because the word “gastronomic” makes me think of farts and that makes me laugh because I am immature.

The sentiment IS nice though. It’s pleasant to imagine the Marriott supporting local farms and businesses while also serving up great, naturally made fare – which is exactly what they do. The quality in their commitment to sustainability shows in their food too, which is great! I’m particularly a fan of their ribs, nice and sweet. If, like me, you’re an indiscriminate meat eater, you can even check out the recipe for their Honey Chipotle Ribs on their website. How nice of them! Make some and share with me.

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Browntrout thinks they’re sooooo coooool. With their meats that were all grass-fed, free range animals and their sustainable seafood and their rooftop garden! Well, actually, all of that does make them cool. Particularly the garden, where they grow many of the herbs used in their food.

Their food tends to be simple, Salmon with some potato, steak and beans, good ingredients that don’t drown one another out, allowing you to taste each individual ingredient. I’d suggest going to Browntrout with a few friends and ordering a couple of their One-Hour Duck Eggs (piperade, multigrain crostini, capers & parsley), which makes for a great start to any meal. Just don’t eat it everyday, I’m not sure how healthy that is.

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Holy crud-muffins, Rick Bayless takes sustainability seriously, dawg. No, really, listing the efforts his restaurants (Frontera Grill, XOCO, Topolobampo, his triplet, sibling restaurants) go through to lead not only a sustainable and healthy existence, but to use locally grown, Chicago ingredients, would take too darn long to read. (But you can read it, straight from the horse’s mouth, if you so desire). Simply know that every aspect of XOCO, which caters to fine Mexican tastes, was constructed to fit with Rick’s ideas of sustainability, not only the choice of ingredients and where they’re from, but also with the literal design and building of the restaurant itself. To sum up Bayless’s efforts, XOCO has submitted itself to the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Enviormental Design) for a gold certification, which focuses on things like water efficiency, the materials they use, and general environmental quality.

Blah blah blah, okay, whatever, XOCO thinks they’re just the perfect little hippies, but what about the food? The food is probably bigger than Rick Bayless’s celebrity, and that’s saying something. For those with a taste for home made sweets, their hot chocolate and churros are so mind numbingly pleasing you’ll forget about your diet (diets are for losers, anyways). My favorite part of XOCO is their wood burning oven, providing them with the best tasting Tortas in the city. Last time I was there I had Cochinita Pibil, tortas with suckling pig, which they apparently roast with banana leaves over night (crazy, right?). It is off all conceivable hooks. Seriously, hookless. Combine this with the super service—you can easily get in and out of the place pretty quickly—and this place is great. Not worth dying for (nothing is in my book), but definitely worth killing for.

If you’re addicted to meat, Green Zebra is going to be a jarring but eventually fulfilling experience for you. They ain’t got no meat. Regardless, they offer a nice experience. Like all of the restaurants on this list, Green Zebra focuses on locally grown produce, fruits and vegetables.

Admittedly, their food isn’t ideal for me. I was raised on meals that consisted of ham-steak smothered in mac & cheese, hot dogs and cheeseburgers. “Where’s the beef,” is something I legitimately ask. Often. I explained this to our server and, oddly enough, she didn’t look down on me. I’m put into the position where I have to explain my archaic diet quite a bit, I’ve been doomed with a circle of friends who are all vegetarian or vegan, and I’ve gotten used to negative responses to my eight-year-old-boy tastes. Green Zebra didn’t make fun of me though! They treated me kindly, and what’s more, they brought me food I enthusiastically enjoyed. Their Spiced Hush Puppies, with seven-year cheddar, were right up my alley. They’d be right up anyone’s alley! Their Kings Hill Farm Organic Duck Egg (what can I say, I like duck egg), with smoked potato puree, was also amazing. I honestly anticipated that I would leave Green Zebra with a rumbling belly, but was quite pleased to be filled as I walked out their doors.

If you hadn’t noticed, I am not the type to tout sustainability or restaurants that cater more towards vegetarians and vegans than they do the ignorant tastes of my meat eating ways. Nor do I tend to take a liking to any of that hippy dippy crap. I’m a man, darnit! Or, you know, I have man-like qualities. Despite this making all of these restaurants outside of my purview, I tried them, and what’s more, I enjoyed them. So I don’t care where you’re from, what you eat, or what your opinions are. These are all great restaurants, with great food, who share perspectives and ideas about sustainability that are more than just empty words and promises, but actions that make Chicago better as a whole.

So, you know, go to these places.

Mason Johnson, CBS Local Chicago Meat Eater

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