Fogo de Chão (Restaurant, River North)
Location: 661 N. Lasalle Blvd.
Phone: (312) 932-9330
Everyone is a star at Fogo de Chão, the Brazilian steakhouse, or “churrascaria,” which takes up a large portion of downtown real estate at 661 North LaSalle Boulevard. And large portions carry over to the culinary offerings as well, as it’s almost impossible to leave hungry or dissatisfied — you may leave wanting more but your better nature will persuade you to save it for your next visit. The restaurant operates on a fixed price, all-you-can-eat menu: lunch is $29.50 per person, and dinner, $48.50. A substantial chunk of change to be sure, but most agree it’s worth every penny. (I follow the adage that the difference between a $10 meal and a $50 meal is stratospheric, while the difference between a $50 meal and a $150 meal is cosmetic). The price for unlimited trips to the beautiful flower-adorned gourmet salad bar without the meat is $20.50, a good option for vegetarians as this is easily the best salad bar in town. But this is a steakhouse, and the recommendation for the rest of us carnivores is to go easy on the salad bar.
“Have you dined with us before?” It’s a common question greeting patrons of downtown restaurants. Of all the times we hear it, occasionally rolling our eyes at the pretense, this is one instance where it’s totally necessary. Ensuring the absolute freshest of cuts, the ordering system is brilliant in its simplicity, but it takes some getting used to, and eventually strategic planning. Each patron is supplied with a colored coaster: green on one side, red on the other. It starts on red, which is a signal to the servers to “hold off.” This is an opportune time to visit that famous salad bar, an amazingly stocked rectangle of cured meats, smoked salmon, sautéed vegetables, and various salads. A word of advice: get the lay of the land first before piling items upon your plate. Many have made the mistake of filling up a large dinner plate with fresh bread and imported cheeses before making it a quarter way around the bar. The salad bar even features a platter of bacon strips — nice, but if you know what’s coming next you might resist the redundancy.
A wonderful trio of starchy sides — garlic mashed potatoes, caramelized bananas, and cheese sprinkled polenta — has arrived along with a basket of cheese bread rolls at the table — and now comes the moment when each patron, according to their own free will and appetite, is ready to flip their potent little coaster to green.
Within no time, out come the “gauchos” — expert meet carvers in traditional ranching garb, i.e. denim shirts, scarf-ties, baggy riding pants and riding boots. Rushing between the tables carrying skewers of meat fresh off the flame and long chefs blades, they swarm around the green coasters like bees around a flower. Let there be no mistake, this is some of the best meat in town, or anywhere for that matter. Gaucho after gaucho sidles up to your table and asks you if you are interested in a particular cut. The size and “doneness” is up to the diner. Keep it small and sample what you can — there’s a lot of choice on hand and you will surely be offered more seconds later. Our table sampled a variety of fantastic cuts: Picanha, tasty prime sirloin flavored with garlic; the irresistible filet mignon wrapped in bacon; the succulent Alcatra, top sirloin; Fraldinha, bottom sirloin; Beef Ancho, tender prime rib eye; Cordeiro, leg of lamb; and pork sausages.
Everything was paired perfectly with Fogo’s signature “Caipirinha,” the Brazilian cocktail of cachaça, muddled limes, sugar, and ice. Were we full? Of course we were full, but were easily tempted to try the house-special dessert, a refreshing and delicious concoction of papaya blended with vanilla ice cream topped with crème de cassis.
A courtly room, the dining space could accommodate an army (as could the food), yet, with its low slung natural-wood beams and trickling fountain bubbling along the entire length of the side wall, still feels cozy. A table alongside the fountain wall could easily make for a date every bit as intimate as one in many rooms half the size around town.
The service at Fogo, provided by a well oiled machine of circulating maître d’s, servers, and gauchos, is beyond attentive. Chairs are continuously pushed in for customers returning to their tables, while used plates and silverware are continuously replaced.
This is one of those beloved “not just for tourists” downtown institutions. Yes, you will rub shoulders with tourists and corporate conventioneers, but I know of many locals who name Fogo as one of their all-time favorite restaurants. In this room, with this service, with this food, it would be near impossible not to feel like a pampered star nestled in the lap of luxury.