“I ask, ‘What’s going on in Chicago, right? What is going on?’ There’s no excuse for it. There’s no excuse for it. I’m sure you’re asking the same question, ‘What’s going on in Chicago?'”
—President Donald J. Trump
This summer an “extremely credible source” called my office and told me that lizard people were working in the kitchen at Terrace 16, churning immigrant babies into hamburger and squid ink chitarra.
“I will look into this,” I said.
Terrace 16 is the new restaurant on the 16th floor of Trump International Hotel & Tower, the president’s skyscraper, erected in 2008 when he was just a two-bit television troll. The restaurant, like its predecessor, the acclaimed, high-ticket Sixteen, sits just above the backlit 20-feet-tall letters T-R-U-M-P that face the south side of the river, visible at various angles from miles away.
“Before I bought the site, the Sun-Times had the biggest, ugliest sign Chicago has ever seen. Mine is magnificent and popular.” So the president tweeted in response to the suggestion that Chicagoans might not want to be jolted by his tender ego every time they gaze upon the city’s skyline, one of the great architectural spaces of the world. Some say it’s the greatest.
In recent times, there’s been a debate among food writers, particularly critics, about whether it’s ethical to cover restaurants owned or operated by known abusers such as New York’s Mario Batali, New Orleans’s John Besh, and Austin’s Paul Qui. If one observes such a boycott, Terrace 16 (which sounds like “Terrorist 16” if you say it three times fast) should be off-limits.
Early last year I said no to an editor who wanted me to rereview Sixteen in the wake of the election. I could come up with no defensible reason to spend the Reader‘s money on a restaurant owned by a proven liar, unrepentent racist, and admitted sex offender. So why now?
It’s cheaper, for one thing. The decision was made to scale back the ambition of an expensive and expensive-to-operate restaurant that only the swells could afford and make it one slightly more accessible to real people looking for a splurge in the big city. (An invitation to the base?) The restaurant’s reopening under a new name with the same chef, Nick Dostal, seemed like a good opportunity to visit a place where presumably people who aren’t bothered by the president go to have fun.
The terrace was mostly full on the warm summer evenings I ascended the city’s Barad-dûr, the elevator opening on the 16th floor, just behind the Eye of Sauron. One evening, middle-aged men in golf shirts sat silently with their wives, watching a tall, gray-haired man in a black cowboy hat approach a group of young women partying in Portuguese. In a proud Texas accent he directed a server to buy their next round. “Don’t worry, I’m not a weirdo,” he announced to the terrace. “My daughter is over there. I wish I was 30. These girls are stunning. I’ve been married for 40 years. Jesus, I wish I was 30.”
A young blond woman rushed to the rescue. “It’s my father. He’s fine. It’s his birthday.” Selfies were taken against the skyline. New friends were made.
One gets the sense that everyone has come just to be in the space rather than to seek out Dostal’s food, even if his menu has become more approachable to the sort of tourists who might find this place an attraction.
That’s not to say Terrace 16 will suit every vacation budget. Of course there’s a cheeseburger on the menu. But it’s $28—more than an official “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” ball cap (not available in the gift shop anyway). A server, Raul, asked how I’d like it cooked, and before I could answer, he offered “medium?” I stared. “Uhhh, no. Medium rare, please.”
The burger arrived open-faced, topped with caramelized onions draped in melted Gruyere. There was a chiffonade of raw baby kale piled on the other side of the bun. Yes, kale: the mortal enemy of melted cheese. Inside, the burger was cooked perfectly medium, a faint trace of pink whispering of a cow’s lost potential. At least it came with fries–fat, lightly battered wedges full of starchy fluff, a slight consolation when dipped in the accompanying sriracha-spiked ketchup.
Raul also recommended squid ink chitarra with seafood, which arrived in a bowl portioned for someone who wants to eat a lot of pasta for dinner and nothing else. The dish is full of clams, mussels, octopus, and fat, chewy noodles, none of which seems to have ever been acquainted with salt water. Raul—a nice guy with bad ideas.
On another fine evening a coconspirator and I ordered the whole fried chicken for $42 and a Caesar salad for $18. To the table came a plate holding seven pieces of hacked and battered boneless chicken breast. We asked our server, Alyssa, about this strange species of boneless seven-breasted bird. “Is that all you got?” she sympathized, nervously eyeing the pile of deep-fried skin that collected from each piece as it was handled. Then “Yeah, it’s always just white meat,” she admitted. “Even for us servers, we only ever get the white meat.” Chef, she reported, was using the dark meat for stock.
This whole breastbird comes with a bowl of creamy al dente fingerling potato salad that—like the chicken, and the burger, and the pasta—has been denied the assistance of salt. The Caesar is a few dollars’ worth of shredded food-service-quality romaine, grated Parmesan, and croutons in an $18 bowl.
Not all the food at Terrace 16 is as ridiculously executed or expensive. The bread service is terrific: it’s a mere $8 for a hunk of warm rosemary focaccia (which solves the mystery of where the kitchen’s last salt reserves went), a pair of olive-studded ciabatta rolls, and a pair of light, chewy elephant ears with pockets of dried tomato. A little butter and olive oil, maybe a glass of wine, and you’ve got a way to bask in the city’s majesty without losing your paycheck or your soul (maybe). Meanwhile, beet salad with smoked trout is a fresh and earnest assurance that maybe everything is OK this summer, while a $6 bowl of “Chicago Mix” with truffle-cheese-dusted popcorn slums it with stale caramel and buttered puffed kernels.
Terrace 16’s menu seems dedicated to the service of not frightening Trump’s base; there are three beef dishes, three fish, and two pastas. Similarly, dessert touches on recognizable themes: composed s’mores that come to the table on a pyre of burning sticks, a puck of carrot cake that’s overbalanced by a thick layer of sage-infused pastry cream, and a disturbingly orange-colored sorbet, which is almost the sole visual reminder of the elephant on the terrace.
That’s excepting a particular cocktail, a sour, watery blend of rum with carrot, orange, and ginger juices. I wondered what it would look like if it were dropped over the railing—a shattered Hollywood star? “Orange” is the name of this drink, and the others on the list are similarly coded with the colors of the rainbow. It’s clearly some kind of message from QAnon, though I couldn’t find anyone who spoke Red Pill fluently enough to decipher it. “Violet” approximates an Aviation, “Yellow” a daiquiri; “Green” is a gin-based, tarragon-infused herbal concoction that exploits the ancient remedies growing in the terrace’s curving raised herb gardens. At $18 each, all drove my accomplices and me to take comfort in stiff, dry gin martinis before escaping down the elevators.
I’m not so batty from Trump Derangement Syndrome that I can’t objectively identify what a poor value the food is at Terrace 16. The only thing Chicagoans on the ground are missing is the spectacular view from occupied territory.
So that’s what’s going on in Chicago, in a small bubble high above the city, with a view perhaps unrivaled by any but that at the six-stories-higher London House rooftop bar across the river. I wondered what those party people felt as they gazed down on the Terrace 16 crowd. There were no red MAGA hats in evidence, just corn-fed families, high-and-tight-headed bros, and Asian twentysomethings grinning and posing against the jaw-dropping panorama presented by the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the river, and the distant lake. Some, I assume, are good people.
Meanwhile a different kind of tourist poses 16 stories down, far below the giant “TRUMP” sign, middle fingers raised in the foreground. Along Wabash one evening last month, Lollapalooza disgorged a scattered herd of shirtless, glitter-faced postpubescents who mingled with the tourists catching cabs at the hotel doors. Some enterprising pedicab driver, tapped into the Resistance tourism market, zipped by with a full load of cackling snowflakes, YG & Nipsey Hussle spitting from a speaker on blast: “Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!” His security clearance has been revoked, but he’ll be OK. v