Back in the day, the finest steakhouses proudly cut their meat to order. They served up classic cocktails and hearty sides in an intimate setting with live piano playing in the background.
Oh, wait. That’s how the Chicago Chop House still does it after more than three decades in business. Now, under new ownership, the iconic and much-lauded River North eatery has been fine-tuned for a modern palate and an appreciation of the city’s storied past.
“We are an old-school steakhouse doing it in an old-school way with a new-school twist,” says managing partner Matthew McCahill, whose hospitality management cred includes Chicago’s Godfrey Hotel and Dana Hotel and Spa.
The four-story Victorian brownstone that houses the Chicago Chop House was built in the late 1800s after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was home to various families and businesses, including a palm reader, before being turned into a steakhouse in 1985.
The building is also the residence of a ghostly 9-year-old girl whose giggles can occasionally be heard. (Really!)
The walls are lined with over 1,400 vintage black-and-white photographs that reflect Chicago’s history. The images are of street scenes, famous buildings, crooked politicians, meat packers, bootleggers and gangsters.
Also on display is a collection of white shirt collars from the era when a gentleman didn’t dare to dine without one.
(You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the 1939 Buick Touring Car, complete with suicide doors, parked in front of the mansion.)
Since McCahill took the helm at the Chicago Chop House, the historic building has been meticulously restored inside and out. Special events and a late-night bar menu were added. A speakeasy bar with access through the kitchen and patio dining are in the works.
The kitchen overlord is Executive Chef Hector Villegas, who has been with the restaurant since 1989. He’s been instrumental in preserving its true “chop house” status by continuing to butcher in-house and pioneering steak trends such as dry aging.
The menu offers 26 cuts, including a 64-ounce grand porterhouse and a 24-ounce “tomahawk” ribeye (so-named because with the attached French-trimmed long bone, the steak resembles a weapon). The American “Mishima Reserve” Waygu is marbled beyond USDA prime. If none please, Chef Villegas is happy to chop one for you, using the blade saw back in the kitchen.
Wet aging and dry aging, which are done onsite, both produce an ultra-tender steak. Some people find dry-aged steak to have a more robust flavor.
“We give people the opportunity to make the decision they want,” McCahill says. “But I’ll tell you, we do not sell much wet-aged tomahawk. If people want to go big, they go big. They want the dry-aged tomahawk.”
If you’re a regular, the restaurant will engrave your steak knives and set your table with them whenever you dine.
Although the Chicago Chop House specializes in beef, the menu also offers delectable seafood and salads. Sides include au gratin potatoes, potato pancakes, creamed spinach, truffle mac and cheese, and crispy brussels sprouts.
Pair your meal with a selection from from the award-winning wine menu, which lists more than 650 international labels.
Or try the signature cocktail, Al’s Old Fashioned, named for Chicago’s most notorious gangster Al Capone. It’s a blissful concoction of rye whiskey, Grand Marnier, sweet vermouth, bitters and an orange swath garnish. I promise you’ll want more than one.
Chicago Chop House, 60 W. Ontario St., Chicago IL 60654
(Many thanks to the Chicago Chop House, who hosted my visit–and for the beautiful steak knives! Also, thanks to Leigh Loftus Photography for use of the featured image.)