Category Archives: casual dining

GOING ON NOW – a la Carte Chicago

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You have until October 30 to take advantage of the deals during a la Carte Chicago, an 11-day food festival that celebrates contemporary French food. Participating restaurants, bakeries and more might be French or simply French-inspired – Shaw’s Crab House is in on it. The important thing is they’re all offering specials during the festival, including prix fixe menus. The fest also includes cooking workshops, tastings, cultural events, and activities for food lovers of all ages.

This is a great opportunity to get out and experience some of the many French-food-loving chefs and restaurants in Chicago. At a preview, guests tasted delicious tuna salad sandwiches on rich tasting French white buns from Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted – sandwiches that made us feel like heading over there ASAP. Ridiculously good chocolate hazelnut bars from Chef Martial Noguier at Bistronomic, 840 N. Wabash. Others include Cafe des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut, Circle City Sweets from Indianapolis for heavens’ sake, and dozens more.

Also, consider attending the screening of “Kings of Pastry” at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. at 4:45 on Sunday, October 30. Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer will be there in person, and after the movie there’ll be a free tasting of specialties from the French Pastry School. Go here for the complete list and check out the sweepstakes for a trip to Lyon, France.
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Rabbit Hole bar and restaurant – a new Old Town hangout

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It’s officially open: The Rabbit Hole bar and restaurant, 1208 N. Wells St., right off Division St. in Old Town. It’s a small storefront with a roomy interior and a stage for live music. The walls, painted to make you feel like you’re following the White Rabbit down the hole in Alice in Wonderland, and the many craft and draft beers, whimsical cocktails and wines are an invitation for you to go ahead and fall in.
Hot Karaoke live band
Hot Karaoke live band

On opening night they had a live band for karaoke. Seriously. If you are a wannabe singer, singing with real musicians behind you and the words in front of you has to be – as the saying goes – the most fun you can have with your clothes on. And on top of that, they serve elevated bar food that includes sharable appetizers, hearty salads, “grabbers” (otherwise known as meat-heavy platters), and an assortment of sides. Chicken Wings come with your choice of house buffalo, shogun sweet chili, Chef Diablo’s habanero or pomegranate BBQ, served with tri-colored carrots, jicama, house made ranch or bleu cheese. Other items: marinated Steakhouse Minis, The 1951 Burger, Queen of Hearts salad, and Jabberwock Angus Sliders. Try starting with Candied Slab Bacon – thick cut, Applewood smoked slab bacon, grilled and glazed with maple syrup. rabbit-hole-chicken-wings

And what fun that they have games – like large-scale Pictionary – you can play with your friends any and every night of the week. The Rabbit Hole has set a goal to become the new favorite go-to spot for everyone in the ‘hood. It’s certainly off to a grand start.
Craft and draft beers include 24 beer taps and a host of canned and bottled brews. Cocktails by beverage director Carlos Guerra have memorable monikers like the smoky White Rabbit on a Dirty Mule with Mezcal, ginger beer, lime juice, Jägermeister, and grapefruit juice, or the delicate yet complex Tweedle Rum with rum, rye, coffee vermouth, coconut, Fernet Dogma and cinnamon, to name just two.

A sports-friendly bar, with ten large screen TVs, it also serves as a distinctive backdrop for the viewing of any game. Live Band Karaoke on Wednesday evenings beginning at 9pm.

Open 4pm to 2am weekdays and 11am to 2am Fridays & Sundays, and Saturday from 11 to 3am. Happy Hour 4 to 6 weekdays, and brunch on weekends. Visit therabbitholechicago.com or follow @rabbitholechi.
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Chicago Loop welcomes The Kimpton Gray Hotel

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Cool seat in the Kimpton Gray Hotel lobby
Cool seat in the Kimpton Gray Hotel lobby

The Kimpton Gray Hotel, 122 W. Monroe St. at LaSalle, is the newest upscale lodging option in the heart of the Chicago Loop’s legal and financial district. Located on the second floor, the lobby – known as “The Living Room” – welcomes guests with coffee, tea and muffins in the morning and wine and cheese receptions each evening. Naturally, the Wi-Fi is free. The huge arched windows, framed with floor-to-ceiling black velvet draperies with gold headers, let in natural light and spotlight views of bustling Monroe and LaSalle Streets.

Just off the lobby guests can join locals for lunch, dinner, drinks and more in the bar and restaurant Vol. 39, so named because it refers to the legal volumes that fill the bookcases surrounding the eating area. Handsome lighting and luxurious seating arrangements are perfect for intimate meetings, whether business or pleasure.
The new hotel is the dramatic result of a complete rehabilitation of the former New York Life Insurance building, originally built in 1894. A sweeping marble staircase leads from the entrance to the second floor lobby – graced with the sound of a jazz quartet at the grand opening. Many of the hallways in the 15 floors are still lined with the original marble. At the grand opening designers made dramatic use of lighting – electric, multi-colored, candles, spots and more – to showcase decorations and finishes. A large section of the meeting room space was strikingly decorated with candles and complementary yet completely different items to hold candles and flowers.
The elegant modern bar at Steadfast
The elegant modern bar at Steadfast

Besides Volume 39, guests and locals can select breakfast, lunch or dinner available at Steadfast, the restaurant and bar located at 120 W. Monroe and situated within the main floor of The Kimpton Gray. Its menus offer unique items like duck liver mousse crostini and a laminated brioche sandwich with Serano ham, Manchego, quail egg and caviar.

Check out unique menu items at Steadfast
Check out unique menu items at Steadfast

The presidential suite was beautifully appointed with sleek modern fixtures in a gray/white/black theme and was, well, presidential in its grandeur – easy to picture a president relaxing there. Other size rooms and suites were equally handsome though somewhat smaller, of course. On the 15th floor the rooftop restaurant/bar BOLEO offers a menu with a South American flair and a comfortable place to take in some unique views of downtown. The grand opening featured a hot-tempo video/DJ combo and soulful trumpet by Kafele playing along.

Kafele playing hot licks in the cleared-out dining space of Boleo
Kafele playing hot licks in the cleared-out dining space of Boleo
Elegant. Understated. Service-oriented. Kimpton always does a great job. And now The Gray is a new top pick among the Chicago Loop’s eat-drink-and-stay choices.
Even the powder rooms are cool at The Kimpton Gray Hotel
Even the powder rooms are cool at The Kimpton Gray Hotel
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Indulge and learn – thanks to Villa Maria NZ wines

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Villa Maria wines evoke visions of New Zealand’s North Island – rolling hillsides, misty mountain tops, lush fields and clear, easy-flowing rivers. These are beautiful wines from a beautiful country. And what a great idea to compare NZ wines with like types from California and France. A good way for Americans to really feel/taste/experience the differences and similarities.
Luxury white wine comparison
Luxury white wine comparison

Villa Maria winemakers recently invited trade and press to do just that at Chicago’s Tavern on Rush; they organized a comparative tasting of six elegant white wines, only two of which were their own, one French and the rest top-selling American Chardonnays. Just sitting at the table with professional sommeliers and the owner/original winemaker himself, Sir George Fistonich, and listening to Nick Picone, Villa Maria’s current head winemaker, was an educational adventure as well as a tasting treasure.

The six wines were set out in pairs to be tasted parallel with each other. Notes on the first pair:
  1. Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2014 (Napa Valley). Grown in clay soils and aged 1/3 in new oak, this wine shows many layers of flavor and gives taste sensations all around the mouth. California chardonnays are generally heavier than French versions, Nick said. Adjectives for this wine included low-oak, semi-dry, slightly dusty with lots of minerality. He said California wines tend to stay in the 13 plus-or-minus percent alcohol range.
  2. Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay 2014 (Carneros). A best-selling wine in this price category. Light, almost translucent with toffee, butterscotch and vanilla notes. It’s aged one-third in American oak, which is rich in lactone, the compound that gives vanilla hints and a slight sweetness, according to the winemaker. This, he said, makes this wine very popular in the U.S. where it’s often served as an aperitif and not with food. Alc 14.5%
The second pair were both Villa Maria Chardonnays, which Nick says are more comparable to white burgundies than to American chardonnays:
  1. Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 (Hawkes Bay). They started making this wine in 2002, when it used to be a bigger wine with more oak made of 100% Chardonnay grapes grown in red clay soils in their flagship vineyard. Mature wines now are all fermented with 100% wild yeast. Nine months in French oak barrels; the wine has a hazelnut sweetness from the lees. They make only 500 cases of this for the entire world. You may not be able to buy a bottle of this at your local retailer, but it gives you an idea of the superb quality being produced at Villa Maria. Loved this one – top rating.
  2. Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyards Chardonnay 2011 (Marlborough). This wine is completely different but has a similar fruit ripeness and freshness and acidity like a white burgundy. It’s grown from Malbec vineyard in an area with a big diurnal swing (day to night temperature range) and known for its Sauvignon Blanc. All that gives the wine “a touch of green fruit, a bit of brininess, even a hint of grapefruit. The wild yeasts give it a smoky sulfide taste – like striking a match,” said Nick. “We like that in a burgundy,”  Again, only 500 cases of this are made for the world. Ditto on finding this at Binny’s.
The third pair made an interesting contrast, one a California Chardonnay and the other a French white:
  1. Far Niente Chardonnay 2014 (Napa Valley). This pair is the most expensive of the six wines. Napa has a warmer climate than Carneros, which greatly affects the wines grown in each region. This wine is aged 60% in new French oak, so has a nutty, toasty, buttery flavor, much more subtle and very Burgundian in style. Especially high quality – top rating.
  2. Joseph Drouhin Meursault 2013 (Burgundy). This one comes from a cooler climate and is grown in slate soils with more minerals. It’s not as rich as some of the others; rather it has high acidity and great freshness with a slightly briny taste of oyster shells. Delicate, slightly lighter, drier, very good for pairing with foods.
Villa Maria gorgeous Reserve Cabernet
Villa Maria gorgeous Reserve Cabernet

These are luxury category wines; suggested retail prices run between $35 and $60.  And look for more premium and luxury wines from Villa Maria – like their fabulous Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. And in case you fall in love with one or more of their wines and want to learn more, pick up a copy of the book, The Winemaker: George Fistonich and the Villa Maria storyIt’s an extraordinary tale of how one visionaory man built a worldwide business that parallelled the growth of the New Zealand wine industry. He’s dedicated all of his energies to the pursuit of excellence in winemaking. And you’re sure to enjoy experiencing the end results with a Villa Maria wine in your glass.

The story of George Fistonich and Villa Maria
The story of George Fistonich and Villa Maria
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Shaw’s puts the OYSTER in Oyster Fest 2016

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7 on the half-shell
7 on the half-shell

It’s Oyster Fest week, people! Shaw’s Crab House Chicago is making this week a real standout on the calendar with multiple events honoring the king of bivalves, the oyster.

Yesterday, for example, author Cynthia Nims and Shaw’s invited press and industry pundits to hear about the amazing things she learned about oysters in writing her book, Oysters: Recipes that bring home a taste of the sea. Guests were treated to a wide variety of oysters made with recipes taken from her book and lovingly prepared by the oyster expert chefs in Shaw’s kitchen.

The event started with a sinus-cleansingly-hot wasabi oyster shooter and went on with a tray of oysters on the half shell from various regions of the US. These included the delectable small Olympia oyster from Puget Sound, several with Japanese names (and origins) from both East and West coasts, one from New Brunswick, Canada (very close to the Prince Edward Island known for its mussels) and one large, flat variety from Casco Bay Flats in Maine. The Olympia was a favorite.

Next on the menu came steamed-then-chilled Shigoku oysters, one dish made with a super-fresh and original mix of watercress, cilantro, Asian pear, candied pecans in an orange vinaigrette that was simply delicious. Another covered the oysters in a sake-ginger butter sauce full of flavor.

Next course was a trio of hot oysters – one baked with leeks and thyme, another gratineed with kale, and a third grilled and covered with a bright green arugula-almond pesto. Meanwhile Cynthia regaled guests with stories of how oysters filter the water in which they live and how their taste is profoundly affected by their environment, somewhat in the way wines are heavily influenced by their terroir. She said in all her years of food writing she’s rarely seen the passion and the partiality of oyster lovers in fans of other food groups.

Check out other oyster-related events at Shaw’s here and get ready for their huge Oyster Fest, on deck for tomorrow, Friday September 30, 3 to 10pm. Rain or shine the fest is on – and Shaw’s stands ready to help you enjoy it no matter what. They’ve purchased 1000 rain ponchos to pass out should the weather decide not to cooperate. Whether you join the teeming crowds, or you purchase the new-this-year VIP seated/service option, come on down and thrill to the live music, the great food and fun crowds at Shaws Chicago Oyster Fest 2016.
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DMK Fish Bar home run menu items

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Fish Bar menu from DMK Restaurants
Fish Bar menu from DMK Restaurants

Have loved DMK Burger Bar at 2954 N. Sheffield ever since it opened several years back. Been meaning for a long time to get to their Fish Bar around the corner and finally did this weekend.

Seating available inside or out – it was a bit too loud and hot inside we can climbed onto one of the unusually proportioned picnic benches outside (the bench seat is set a little closer-in than average). Rolls of paper towels dot the tables in lieu of napkins. The menu’s interesting, ranging from fresh oysters, Seared Tuna Salad and Head-On Prawn Salad to tacos, sandwiches (including po’boys), entrees, and some smaller items called “Crispy.” I realize only now that the menu did not contain any variety of French fries – and I didn’t even miss them. We really liked the of taste of the wine-of-the-day, Squandra Rosato rosé, and ordered a bottle ($27).

Paper towel roll on stand
Paper towel roll on stand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ordered the seafood special of the day and got two nicely seared, very large scallops served with a little pile of crispy-bacon-lardon-studded Brussels sprouts. Very good. Companion raved about the fried shrimp po’boy ($12) – said it was one of the best sandwiches she’d ever tasted, and the shrimp were entirely ungreasy. A good-sized helping of out-of-the-box-colorful cole slaw was big enough to share.

A favorite for us both was the small plate of Crispy Lemon Rings ($5) served with crispy slivers of onion and slices of jalapeno. Absolutely delicious. The tempura-type breading was barely-there and deep-fried, well, crispy but not greasy. The lemon slices, skin-on, melted into something quite tasty and not at all puckery. This might be a dish I’d want to get with whatever else I order here next time.

And there will be a next time. Soon.

 

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Eat haute and help inspire new chefs – Charlie Trotter Project

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Chicago always inspires
Chicago always inspires

Eat at a gourmet restaurant any day between today, Thursday August 17 and Sunday August 21, select a Charlie-Trotter-inspired menu item, and know that proceeds will benefit the Pillars of Excellence Mentor Program of The Trotter Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire, train, and provide opportunities for aspiring chefs and hospitality professionals.

Special thanks to United Airlines, the official airline partner of The Trotter Project that will donate $1 for every Choice Menu Bistro on Board item sold on all domestic flights, August 17-21, 2016.

Stay up to date with menus and new restaurant additions to Charlie Trotter Day: follow @TrotterProject on Twitter and @TheTrotterProject on Instagram, LIKE us on Facebook, and join the conversation with #CharlieTrotterDay. And go visit one of these fine restaurants in the city:

  • A10
  • Acadia
  • Ampersand Wine Bar
  • Appellation Wine Bar & Restaurant
  • Balena
  • bellyQ
  • Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
    Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

    Brindille

  • The Bristol
  • Formento’s
  • Goddess and the Baker
  • GreenRiver
  • GT Fish & Oyster
  • Intro
  • The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago
  • mfk
  • MK the Restaurant
  • Naha
  • Salero
  • Swift & Sons
  • Taus Authentic
  • Yusho Hyde Park
  • Yusho Logan Square
    * All restaurants are in Chicago
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The Spanish Square’s got some of the real stuff

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Amontillado sherry and tuna-stuffed pepper
Amontillado sherry, marcona almonds and tuna-stuffed pepper at The Spanish Square

Spain is divided into several regions and each one has a multitude of cultural and culinary icons, from bullfights and seafood paella in Madrid to various Freixenet wineries and jamon-with-everything around Barcelona. The Spanish Square tapas bar and restaurant and retail shop at 1358 W. Belmont brings genuine recipes to Chicago and lovely hand-painted pottery, as well as a wide array of regional specialties in jars, cans and boxes, including a selection of wonderful Spanish olives and olive oils. The space is light with clean lines and comfortable seating at tables and at the bar. The menu reflects authentic Spanish tastes, and the restaurant features special prices on paella every Wednesday.

Spanish Square goodies for sale
Spanish Square goodies for sale
Freixenet makes great cava
Freixenet makes great cava

 

 

 

 

 

I remember the taste of the marcona almonds – warm and freshly roasted and lightly dusted with salt – on the flight back from Barcelona recently. The Spanish Square has them for sale in containers. And, though they did offer several sherries (the owner’s a big fan) and a couple of Spanish cavas, I was sorry I couldn’t order a glass of any of Freixenet’s lovely cavas or other wines. Hopefully one day soon, the retaurant will remedy that situation. Meanwhile you can pick some up at your local beverage store.

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5 cool brunch places in Chicago

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English: Both the largest and the meatiest blo...
English: Both the largest and the meatiest bloody mary I’ve ever had. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chicagoans take their brunch very seriously, so it’s no surprise that one of the city’s prolific hospitality firms, Four Corners Tavern Group, is behind some of the most playful and delectable offerings. Their brunch menus offer creative fare and superior service in relaxed, yet lively surroundings. From music to munchies, you’re bound to find something to love in one of these neighborhood concepts.

 

Benchmark (1510 N Wells) in Old Town retracts the patio roof when the weather’s right. Their brunch goes for $35 per person with a $15 unlimited mimosa package (served Saturdays 10am to 2pm) features all-you-can-eat food stations like a carving station, plates of smoked brisket, the famed Doughnut Vault tower, a seafood tower, a sinfully-sweet waffle bar; and a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar

Hurry on out to Gaslight Bar & Grille’s (2450 N Clark) rustic beer garden with communal tables. Only until September 30 they’ve got brunch specials on offer the first Saturday and Sunday of each month (11 am to 2pm) and include Chicken & Waffles with organic honey, Nueske’s bacon and fresh fruit ($10), Biscuit Sliders with scrambled egg, cheese and a side of tater tots ($9), a Mimosa package ($10); Bloody Marys ($8); and Trop Bombs ($5).

WestEnd (1326 W Madison) puts out brunch in an expansive sports bar atmosphere. Feast on $10 brunch specials like Chorizo Sloppy Joe with Texas toast, poached egg, cilantro, avocado and a side of house chips and French Toast Sticks served with whipped cream, powdered sugar, bourbon pale syrup and Fireball-infused crème anglaise. Build-your-own Moscow Mule Bar ($10); unlimited mimosa package ($15); and cheeky beverages such as the insta-worthy Cupcake Shot ($5) out on one of the two dog-friendly sidewalk cafes or inside the new, enhanced game room.

Fremont (15 W Illinois).  Think Vegas with this version of Sin City’s legendary over-the-top buffet ($35 per person with a $15 unlimited mimosa package). The distinct social dining experience can take you well into the night if you so desre. DJs spin top hits throughout the bi-level, sleek and chic space with retractable roof. Every Saturday and Sunday, from 10am, reservations recommended. The unlimited assortment includes carving station, Doughnut Vault tower, omelet station, seafood tower, waffle bar with extravagant accoutrements, and a DIY Bloody Mary bar with fun surprises,

Weekend brunch at SteakBar
Weekend brunch at SteakBar

SteakBar (1500 N Wells). This dining-to-nightlife hotspot, introduced brunch service every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 3pm. Elevated breakfast options include:

  • Steak & Eggs with succulent skirt steak, roasted tomato and sunny side up eggs ($20)
  • Scramble made from farm eggs, crème fraiche, avocado and chives, served aside Texas toast ($11)
  • Avocado Toast, a popular choice with crushed avocado, cherry tomatoes and radish atop toasted multigrain ($11).
  • Unlimited mimosa package ($15) is also available with purchase of a dish.
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Chicago meets Mullan Road Cellars at Swift and Sons

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Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars
Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars

It’s unusual to find a winemaker – someone whose name is already associated with a justly famous brand – setting out to create another completely different brand. But Dennis Cakebread, long associated with his namesake wine brand Cakebread Cellars, came to Chicago recently to introduce and promote his new wine brand, Mullan Road Cellars out of the Columbia Valley, WA area.

Dennis undertook to showcase his new products at hot new restaurant location, Swift and Sons, 1000 W. Fulton Market in West Loop. This Boka Group affiliate undertook to open for lunch – they don’t usually – to help Dennis Cakebread showcase his new wines along with a few from Cakebread. Dennis takes a warm and folksy approach to touting his products; it was a pleasure hearing his stories about the winemaking life.
The Cakebread Chardonnay a 2014, a 4-star beauty, went perfectly with the butter-poached king crab leg set off with a dribble of miso sauce and a slice of preserved lemon.
Then came a couple of slices of roast chicken – gorgeously succulent and tender – with succotash and bacon lardons, served with an extraordinarily lovely Pinot Noir from Cakebread. We give a rare 5-star rating to this Two Creeks Pinot Noir 2014. The wine is available retail at around $40 and, for the times you choose to spend that much for a bottle of wine, this would be a great one to invest in.
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013

Next, a narrow but thick slice of medium-rare, firm-textured rib roast came out accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms in a bordelaise sauce. For this course Dennis presented two Mullan Road Cellars reds blends, from 2012 and 2013. Their typical  blend is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The 2012 was delightful; Wine Spectator gives it 90. The 2013 tasted somewhat tart at first, but smoothed out after it breathed for a while. It’s certainly a wine worth watching. Both vintages are on the market at a retail price of around $45, give or take.

Those who stayed to sample the Blackbottom Pudding dessert – multiple layers of black cocoa crumble, baked dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate pudding and white chocolate sorbet – raved about it afterwards. From the description, that dessert alone sounds like enough incentive for another trip to Swift & Sons.
Mullan Road Cellars’ biggest distribution for export so far is in Canada, with the Caribean second in line, then Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. Look for more from this brand. And Swift and Sons did a stellar job with the pairings to create a memorable occasion.
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

P.S. Might want to try the bar, too. Cold Storage, attached to the Swift and Sons’ space, offers appetizers, entrees, and a nice-looking seafood station along with a full bar.

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