The Merchandise Mart is uniquely Chicago. Once the largest building in the world, the massive structure spans multiple blocks and feels like a little community of its own. If you don't work in the building (or the building attached by pedestrian bridge, River North Point), you may only visit "the mart" if you're a wealthy, soon-to-be homeowner or you need a bite to eat. We're here to help you with the later. Despite the high-end showrooms that fill both the first and second floor, most of the restaurant options in the Merchandise Mart are disappointing chains. If you're not in the mood for a McDonald's cheeseburger or a Dunkin Donut, here's where to head.
Mezza Mediterranean Grill
At the East end closest to the Brown Line there is an actual food court and this is where you head straight to Mezza Mediterranean Grill. I hate to use this term, but Mezza really is a hidden gem among the other counters you'll pass. They're producing quality Mediterranean food and the staff is incredibly friendly. The lentil soup is some of the best I've had; plus, even a cup-sized serving leaves you pleasantly full. It's almost creamy in texture, with a hearty lentil flavor. The falafel is also solid—the balls are crisp and topped with a generous tomato cucumber salad in a warm, soft pita. I often judge a falafel based on the hot sauce and this one is spicy without lacking in a smoky, chili-packed flavor.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop
It may be a chain, but it's Chicago's chain. You can't go wrong with a Potbelly's sandwich, so grab one on the first floor of the Mart at the northeast end. And stick to the sandwiches, preferably one of the original mainstays—while Potbelly has expanded its menu to include salads and new flavor combinations, the original menu really has the best items. I almost always opt for the Wreck. It's a meat-lovers dream, but not in an overwhelming meat-lovers-pizza kind of way. The giardiniera is one of my favorites, and essential on this sandwich, complimenting all that salty meat and cheese. Don't leave without an oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie, which are much better than they have any right to be.
If you're looking for a real, sit-down restaurant, Nick's Fishmarket is your best bet. The extensive menu is focused on seafood, but with enough options to also appease carnivores and vegetarians. The crab cake is straight-forward yet tasty, with a pineapple slaw that's fresh and bright, which is a nice contrast with the vinegary sriracha mayo. I've found that sauces are the highlight here; the Black and Blue Ahi Tuna is seared rare and served with a wasabi vinaigrette that had me resisting the urge to lick the plate. The atmosphere can feel a little stiff with the white tablecloths and overly attentive staff, but it seems they're simply making up for the informality that permeates the rest of the building's food options.
Artisan Cellar Sandwich at Artisan Cellar [Photograph: Roger Kamholz]
If you didn't know where to look, you'd definitely miss The Artisan Cellar. I did, for the first couple months I worked in the Merchandise Mart, and I regret waiting so long to discover it. The small space in the middle of the south end on the first floor is primarily a wine shop, but it has a cafe counter with coffee and paninis as well. There are even a couple tables nestled into the shelves of wine bottles and books. The shop has an excellent selection of Italian and Spanish ingredients and if you're looking for something unique, try the Bocadillo panini. Crusty Italian bread is layered with salty Serrano ham, sweet pimentos, and milky Mahón. A swipe of quince paste gives a tart sweetness and Spanish mustard lends a punch of acidity. There's nothing quite like this in the building. You can even grab a beer from the cooler to have with your lunch or uncork that bottle of wine you just bought if you're looking to stay awhile.
Where to Eat Nearby
If you can easily find your way out of the enormous building, there are some genuinely great places close by. All of these picks are within a two block radius.
Slurping Turtle: This spot by Takashi Yagihashi boasts the best bowl of ramen in downtown, and the rest of the menu, including grilled items and sushi, is just as good.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse: If you're looking for the total steakhouse experience—you know, fawning service, cold shrimp cocktail, and oversized steaks—it's hard to beat Chicago Cut. Plus, it has exceptional views of the Chicago River.
Hannah's Bretzel: This local sandwich chain serves high quality ingredients on house-baked bretzel baguettes.
Bow Truss Coffee Roaster: This is the second location for Bow Truss, which specializes in roasting coffee beans from Kenya and Ethiopian.
The Sodikoff Options
In just a few years, Brendan Sodikoff has dramatically transformed the dining options in the area just north of the Merchandise Mart, and it looks like he has no plans to slow down. While Dillman's, his "deli-inspired American brasserie," recently closed, it is planning to reopen in a smaller location soon. And he's already filled the space with space with Cocello, which we are looking forward to checking out soon.
- Bavette's: While there are a number of steakhouses nearby, including the very good Chicago Cut, if you're a fan of dry-aged steaks (as you should be), the best option is also the closest. But even if you don't want steak, Bavette's has you covered with a number of bistro-inspired dishes, including an excellent roast chicken and a stunning wedge salad.
- Gilt Bar: Before Brendan Sodikoff owned every other restaurant in the area, he first opened Gilt Bar. The atmosphere is still seductive, and it makes for a great place for an afterwork drink.
- Doughnut Vault: Chicago has this minuscule joint to thank for the boom in fancy new doughnut shops scattered around town. While the lines are often long, the hours short, and the prices high, it's hard to argue with these exceptional offerings.