Michigan Avenue windows in the lobby at the Chicago Athletic Association
  • Michael Gebert
  • Michigan Avenue windows in the lobby at the Chicago Athletic Association

A couple of weeks ago there were events showing off the renovated public areas of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, opposite Millennium Park, and I could have gone to the ribbon cutting with Mayor Emanuel, but it was a hectic week and, anyway, I don’t really like crowds. (Hold that thought; it will be ironic in a minute.) So I was pleased when Farmhouse Tavern’s Emily Kraszyk picked Kristine Antonian, pastry chef at the Cherry Circle Room in the CAA, for the next Key Ingredient; here would be my chance to check out the renovated 1890 club turned boutique hotel, which has a host of new restaurants ranging from a Shake Shack to the Cherry Circle Room, a traditional dining space in the club now operated by Land & Sea Dept. (Longman & Eagle, Parson’s, etc). Julia Thiel set up the shoot for yesterday—and then the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and a parade and celebration were announced, and I belatedly realized that I’d be going downtown for a shoot on Michigan Avenue right in the middle of the biggest crowd of the year.

It was a comical series of misjudged logistics from that point. The Brown Line was fine, but waiting for the Red Line it became obvious that there would never be a car not jammed full of jersey-wearing morning drinkers to take me downtown. I got off the Brown Line at Monroe, only to realize that this put me on the opposite side of a Berlin Wall of people lining the street for miles from the hotel at Madison and Michigan. I could only see one way to get across without starting a brawl, so I trudged to the Red Line and took it one stop under the parade and exited at Washington. I thought I’d have to be let in the back of the hotel, from the alley, like Ray Liotta entering the restaurant in Goodfellas, but there was a side entrance, and in the end I was able to make it inside for the shoot, only about a half hour late.

So you’ll see the results of the shoot, and a little bit of the hotel, in a couple of weeks. But afterwards, with no particular desire to go back into the maelstrom of Hawks fandom, I decided to park myself in the lobby, which I have to say is quite a remarkable thing. You might think it would be impossible to create a new 1890s public space, but that’s exactly what they’ve done by converting this vintage private club with collegiate-Gothic-meets-Arts-and-Crafts decor into a space to hang out, drink coffee, and check Twitter. This is the 19th century’s idea of medievalism with the sharp edges sanded off, straight out of the era when every developer’s favorite author was Sir Walter Scott, and with the rampaging hordes barely audible from our lofty perch two generous stories up, for the price of a coffee I felt like a Wodehouse aristocrat indulging the peasants in an afternoon’s revolt. (Actually they treated me to the cup of coffee during the shoot, disclosure requires me to say, but you get the idea.)

Besides the lobby—officially dubbed the Drawing Room—there are several other spaces here, including a game room appointed with chess boards and even an indoor bocce court, and a cozy eight-seat pocket bar called the Milk Room; each of them has its own menu and a drink list conceived for the space by Paul McGee. Eventually, though, the cries of “Wooooo Blackhawks!” got a little close for comfort, so I retired to the last remaining space on the floor, where we had shot an hour earlier: the Cherry Circle Room.

The materials for the reopening portray the Cherry Circle Room as a storied Chicago space, like the Pump Room or the Cape Cod Room at the Drake, but I have to admit that even as a devotee of old Chicago, I had never heard of it. (A space in a private club can only get so famous, I suppose.) Anyway, it’s a handsomely swank wood-paneled room, much more 1940s-’50s than the 1890s spaces around it, with a restaurant operated by Land & Sea Dept. under Peter Coenen, who did Key Ingredient back when he was at the Gage. Much like that Michigan Avenue trendsetter of a few years back, the menu is kind of upscale comfort food with retro touches (inspired in part by old menus for the space, they say). Judging from it, the emphasis here is on the “you’re gonna pay Michigan Avenue prices” part of upscale, perhaps. But after pretending to aristocratic status all morning, I could hardly complain if a lobster roll hit $23. (I paid for that myself.)

The shocker was the news the ashen-faced waiter delivered: because of the mob outside, their bakery had been unable to get through the barricades, and my lobster roll would have to be served on a toasted hot dog bun. Well, why not dine like the commoners, I thought. Anyway, it was a very nice lobster roll, sparsely dressed as it should be, and topped with the novel touch of a tangle of wire-thin curly carrot slices fried to crispness. That part kept falling off, like a toupee, but when I could get a bite of it with the lobster it gave it a very pleasing crunch.

I came out a fan of the whole project (at the top of the building is yet another restaurant, Cindy’s, run not by Land & Sea but by former NoMi and Guildhall chef Christian Ragano). Like SoHo House, it’s created a public space that feels like something more exclusive but really isn’t—the price of admission is no more than at our age’s most ubiquitous public space, Starbucks. Yet in this case they’ve taken a temple of 19th-century Gilded Age aristocracy and reclaimed it for pretenders like me. It really is a new 1890s building for 21st-century Chicagoans.