It makes perfect sense that chef and television personality Carla Hall’s first trip to the Windy City was food-related. “When I was in my early 20s, I drove to Chicago from Nashville for the Taste of Chicago,” she said over email, naming the city’s annual summertime food fest. “There was a buoyant energy in the city. I loved it!”
Nowadays, the Nashville, Tennessee, native and The Chew co-host goes back to Chi-town on a regular basis for, yes, the food. This month, Hall will be in town to host Windy City Live, a morning talk show, on Aug. 11-15, and back again in September for Chicago Gourmet, an annual food celebration hosted by Bon Appetit.
Other than the good eats, Hall also loves the city’s sweeping architecture and friendly Midwestern vibe. There’s only one thing she wishes the lakefront location had more of: “Warmer days in the winter,” she said, “because the cold and wind scare me!”
Where to book a room
The Langham Hotel, nestled right along the Chicago River and just blocks from Navy Pier, is where Hall rests her head when she’s in town. The 52-story tower, designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is also her top spot for a tea fix. “Aside from it being a beautiful hotel with great service, I love their brunch and afternoon tea,” she says, which includes Wedgwood tea leaves (a London staple), sweet pastries, and savory finger sandwiches, all a nod to the hotel’s British heritage.
Where to eat
The one thing to splurge on in Chicago? The food, says Hall. Picking just one favorite restaurant is nearly impossible for the former Top Chef contestant, so she’ll just tell you the last place she booked a table: Roister, the Alinea Group’s new-ish open-kitchen casual spot on Fulton Market. Take a seat at the bar, where chefs toss you hearty lasagne and a half-chicken dinner while a crowd-sourced playlist blares on in the background, from REO Speedwagon to Ed Sheeran.
For pizza, a famed dish in this city, Hall forgoes deep-dish and instead opts for the rustic, wood-fired Neopolitan offerings at Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood. On the margherita, San Marzano tomatoes make sweet music with fior de latte and basil.
When she’s craving Asian food, Hall heads to Belly Q in the West Loop for riffs on Korean barbecue from chef Bill Kim. The menu is chock full of comfort-food favorites: scallion pancakes, spicy lamb noodles and Korean short rib (obviously).
And her best burger award goes to Maillard Tavern, a River West pub that serves up seven different versions, including the City Slicker, a beef patty topped with foie gras, Swiss cheese, black truffle pesto, caramelized onion, foie gras mayo and crispy prosciutto.
Best “drinking” spot
The mocktails at Nico Osteria in the Thompson Hotel are tops, says Hall, who doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. Go for the “nice to be here,” a non-alcoholic elixir that combines lemongrass, grapefruit, honey, cinchona and lime.
Where to be a tourist (that isn’t lame)
Hall likes to take in the city’s epic architecture on a Chicago Architecture Foundation river cruise. The 90-minute boat ride down the Chicago River takes you past the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower and Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower). On a nice day, it’s the perfect place to sip and sightsee.
She also suggests grabbing a veggie-topped Chicago-style hot dog (that’s yellow mustard, chopped onions, relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, celery salt, sport pepper and definitely no ketchup!) while you take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Not only is Hall a fan of the team, she says the hotdogs there are the best in town.
How to give back
“The organization that generally takes me to Chicago is the James Beard Foundation,” Hall said of the food org, which has a number of impactful programs, scholarships and grants that continue to help people and communities around the country — and you don’t need to be a chef to show your support. This fall, the sixth annual Taste America festival (tickets are still available), which benefits the Taste America Scholarship Fund, will drop in the Windy City on Oct. 26-27.