1300 N Dearborn St
Chicago, IL 60610
Sean C: Mengsha and I took a trip to Chicago a few weeks ago to visit her family and hang out with friends of ours who live in the area. Our dinners during our stay alternated between being fed delicious home cooking courtesy of Mengsha’s parents and going out to exercise our foodie muscles with Sean and Jenny at classy restaurants. (They recently wrote a guest post for us on Kameya, a ramen shop in Chicago. Read that here.)
Mengsha: Foodie outings with Sean and Jenny are definitely one of my favorite parts of going home. I’m currently in graduate school, so the number of friends we have in LA who are willing to spend some moolah on food is pretty small. It’s always nice to hang with people who share your interests – and to take a break from conversations about work! For this particular outing, they took us to one of their favorite watering holes in the neighborhood: 3 Arts Cafe, which sits smack in the middle of Restoration Hardware – a furniture store.
Sean C: Restoration Hardware is located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, one that resonates with my attraction to the upscale, well-to-do parts of a city. Think Hayes Valley in San Francisco or Columbus Circle in New York: not the most fancy parts of each of their respective cities, but up there.
Before this excursion, I had never heard of RH before, though apparently they’re a California thing. After being filled in by Sean and Jenny on the store’s premise of selling rustic furniture and decor that’s supposedly fashioned from repurposed materials, I can say that, yes, RH is definitely a California thing.
The exterior of the building very much evokes a private schoolhouse in a posh neighborhood: an imposing four-story box of a brick building ringed by perfectly-trimmed hedges and lawn. Entering through the heavy wooden doors, you’re immediately met by a towering Greek statue that very much resembles David. Definitely not what I would expect from a hardware store of all places, but then I guess Restoration Hardware’s name really ought to be interpreted with a large pinch of salt.
Mengsha: Airports, museums, and shopping centers all have had food courts for a long time, and with not-great results. Now, furniture stores are jumping onto that bandwagon. It’s a concept deserving of your skepticism.
Jenny: There’s no arguing that 3 Arts is a tack-on to a store. And one might think – what could possibly be so good about a little tack-on to a store?
The answer is: all of it. The 3 Arts Club Cafe is one-of-a-kind.
The cafe somehow maintains a bizarre, ethereal ambience weighted by the sheer fact that you’ve stepped out of a furniture gallery into someone’s mansion garden. You look to your right, and a massive grand piano graces your presence and reminds you that you’re still indoors. You look to your left and spot a large fountain and green vines. Where am I?
Walking inside, a sunroof brings in the day’s glory. The feeling of being outdoors is heightened by the natural lighting, the white noise of rushing water, and the stone ground. Meanwhile, servers in refined yet casual tucked-in white shirts and dark jeans rush past the guests with trays full of wine and food. It reminds me vaguely of a wedding at a botanic garden.
Sean Q: The thing that 3 Arts does so incredibly well is merging luxury and accessibility. You walk into the main dining room and you just feel like a million bucks. The ceiling is glass, giving you a sense of being outside in a courtyard. When the day has darkened sufficiently, sconces and chandeliers light the room with a warm flame-like glow. The tables and chairs exude a similar sense of invitation and warmth with their worn but bright grey color, matching the uniform of the front of house in their dressy aprons. The food is brought to your table pristine, bright with life, flavorful and rustic in elegant, but friendly-looking serveware.
And not a thing is over 25 bucks.
Jenny: We settle in a pair of comfortable canvas couches to the sound of the laughter and conversation of our fellow diners. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. In a place with such a perfectionist approach to their design, you’d expect people to be more hands folded, elbows off the table, don’t make any sudden moves. It is surprisingly the opposite.
Now don’t get me wrong. During this visit, I wasn’t a first-timer. I’ve already been to 3 Arts Club about four times. I bring friends and family by to dine with me and to experience what their cafe does best: letting simplicity shine.
Right, Jenny. Because their furniture is really simple. (It actually is in some ways, but don’t get my designer side started or else this post will never end.)
Mengsha: To interrupt Sean and Jenny’s waxing poetic about the atmosphere and decor of 3 Arts, I have to give you my opinion about the air of the place. I have been outnumbered 3 to 1 in favor of the decor, so 3 Arts must be doing something right, but still something about it rubbed me the wrong way. To be fair, I was in a pretty crappy mood that day, (I was feeling sick), even though we were hanging out with some of my favorite people in the world. As a result, I was pretty persnickety and critical. And what I had my eye on to be critical about was the decorating.
Restoration Hardware is – as one of us put it – the rich man’s IKEA. The entire 4-story building is showrooms, and that includes the cafe. Everything we sat on and ate off of was for sale. It was like paradise… or a movie star’s patio. But instead of having a fancy magazine spread feel, it gave off a distinctly utopic-dystopian atmosphere. Think The Giver or Brave New World. Each piece of furniture would definitely belong in a magazine on its own, but the way the furniture lacked diversity completely robbed the setting of individuality and a lived-in feel. Everything matched too well. Once we went upstairs and saw the rest of the showrooms after the meal, I understood the style of RH’s pieces better, but they still could’ve done more to mix it up.
My main issue with this approach is that “magazine perfection” only looks good in magazines. Personally, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m afraid to mess something up. It makes it hard for me to feel relaxed, and that’s the last thing you want in the hospitality industry.
But I have to be honest – the food was good. It’s simple, well done, honest-to-goodness comfort food. (For me, beet salad and grilled fish are comfort food, and let me tell you, those beets were perfection.) I don’t know if this type of cuisine is hard to find in Chicago, but I definitely seek it out in California.
Jenny: Exactly. They focus on simplicity.
Just look at their menu. First off, the design is minimalist and clean. Secondly, they don’t house two hundred items on there – everything fits on one page. They hit variety without exhausting categories; you really don’t need to have ten different salads and eight different burgers.
Perhaps the biggest factor of all is the quantity of ingredients and techniques per dish. Take one of my menu favorites: local yogurt with granola, fresh fruit, almonds and honey. It sounds like what you might eat for breakfast at home. So what’s so great about it?
It fucking tastes good and looks unpretentious. That’s really it, and that’s what we often forget about when we try to go to a nice, fancy place to eat. We justify to ourselves that we’ve spent the huge bucks, so it has to taste good. We sometimes even fool ourselves into thinking that it actually does.
That being said, food at 3 Arts is by no means extraordinary, but it is delicious. Take the local yogurt; it has a creamy, cheesey taste followed by a sweetened, crunchy toasted granola and the familiarity of soft bananas and tart berries. The food doesn’t have to be extraordinary; it just needs to be good.
Sean C: We all agree that the food here is good. Of particular note to me were the yogurt and cheese platter. The portioning of the yogurt really suited our party size: it doesn’t arrive in little individual-sized cups. They give you a large platter to share, which I bet is something you don’t see often with yogurt. The natural sweeteners came in the form of honey and the berries, with extra-crunchy granola chunks providing backbone when it comes to texture. Each spoonful goes down very well and makes you sigh a breath of contentedness once it has. I wish I had more time in the morning to whip myself up something like this for breakfast.
And then there’s the cheese platter. The cheese we were served is called Délice de Bourgogne, and we were told by our server that it tastes like a stronger brie. Brie is one of my favorite cheeses, and Délice has all the flavor of Brie, times two. It was really good, especially spread on the bread along with the fig jam, but I don’t think it takes the cake over Brie in my heart.
Sean Q: We keep saying this. The food is simple. But that doesn’t mean no thought has gone into it. Quite the opposite. It’s clear just from looking that each dish has been thought through and made with care. From the point of view of a cook, one of the distinguishing elements of a professional is the way they finish things. Nothing is ever simply unadorned dumped on a plate. An amateur home cook would take the filet of fish she or he was cooking and slide it onto a plate. A mound of salad beside it might make it a complete meal. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, a chef would take that same piece of fish, glaze it lightly with some olive oil, dust with some flaky sea salt, maybe a sprinkling of chives, and transfer it to a plate where it would sit seductive and shiny and alive with the finishing touches.
That’s the difference; we always hear that God is in the details. Those few extra seconds of care and attention results in something that I would say is very qualitatively different from the utility home food that we are used to. (Pro tip: when cooking at home for your friends and/or family, let them see you perform these final finishing touches to the food you prepared. Let them see you finish a pasta with fresh parsley or grind black pepper over a steak which you rested and sliced to show off the texture or zest a lemon over a juicy chicken thigh. Expect questions and oohs and ahhs.)
This concept of finishing is something that 3 Arts does in abundance. The simple prep of fish is dressed with crisp radishes lightly glistening with a citrus vinaigrette that you can still see the zest in. The beet salad is garnished with black and white sesame. The yogurt is decorated simply with organically but purposely placed shards of granola. I could go on and on about how, if you really look, you will see these little extra steps that the staff there take to bring their food to the next level.
Jenny: The food is not special, but you can’t say that it doesn’t taste good and doesn’t feel holistic. What makes 3 Arts wonderful is that the atmosphere feels expensive, but rather than carrying that high-end feel out in the price of its food, it carries it out in quality and care. It’s actually quite affordable and on the lower mid-tier of Chicago dining. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in the city. The simplicity of the food, combined with their friendly service, brilliant decor, and relaxed atmosphere is what makes 3 Arts Club worth a visit.
When the night goes on, the candles come out and the center chandelier shines brighter. You never lose the sense that you’re in this strange but fairly enjoyable limbo between being outdoors and indoors. The air is suddenly more intimate with the dimmed lighting, but you still feel like this is a time to connect with your friends, family, or significant other. The conversational comfort tells you that. The couches tell you that. The service tells you that. The simple food tells you that.
3 Arts Club is the first of RH’s dine + shop concepts, part marketing genius and part legitimate care for ingredients. I sincerely hope it stays for a long time.
Review by Mengsha Gong, Sean Chen, Jenny Phan, and Sean Quan