The Walnut Room — a Chicago Christmas tradition. Everyone and their mother wants to squeeze in a lunch there during the holiday season, especially after a bit of Christmas gift shopping on State Street. For over a century, Chicagoans have made their way up to the seventh floor of the Marshall Field building (yes, I still refer to it as Marshall Field’s, though it’s been Macy’s for however long). The Walnut Room radiates its history — operating since 1907, it’s a time capsule of Chicago history, tradition, and stories.
It’s amazing to think that my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents and their siblings, as well as my generation, have all been able to enjoy a day of our holiday season at the Walnut Room. It’s spacious, yet warm, with its grand entrance and wood-paneled walls, and its many windows feature views of the city, offering glimpses into a century’s worth of holiday memories. Turn your eye toward the Walnut Room’s center, and you come upon the pièce de résistance: the Walnut Room’s Grand Tree, with a decor theme that differs year to year. And as for food, it’s all delicious, but tradition will have it that someone needs to order Mrs. Hering’s Chicken pot pie as their entree.
But if you were hoping to make this traditional Chicago experience a part of your holiday this year, I have to be the bearer of bad news. Go to their website, and the first thing you’ll read is “NOV 18TH TO JAN 3RD RESERVATIONS ARE FULL.” I looked in early November, and I was devastated to come upon this.
So I’m thinking, what gives? How is this one restaurant supposed to be a Chicago tradition when it’s booked up before the holidays even begin? This restaurant carries the responsibility of offering a tradition to a city of 2.8 million, a metropolitan area of 9 million, and don’t forget about people who happen Chicago this time of year and may have snagged up a reservation from you, me, my grandma, and whoever else wasn’t able to get their res in two months early.
I love Chicago. I love tradition. I love Christmas. And even though I feel denied, I love the Walnut Room. But Walnut Room — you’re not able to meet my Chicago Christmas tradition needs.
I would like to propose an idea, perhaps controversial. We need another “Walnut Room.” We need a space that offers a similar holiday tradition, one that offers the experience of the holiday to more of us.
But where? Are there other historic, iconic Chicago institutions that can step up to the plate? Where else downtown can hold a ton of people, a massive tree, and carry the load of Chicago Christmas tradition and memory for four generations more? The downtown places I’ve been considering are as follows:
The Lockwood Restaurant at the Palmer House
A six-minute walk south on State Street from the Walnut Room, the Lockwood Restaurant at the historic and iconic Palmer House (now a Hilton Hotel) could definitely be a contender for the next traditional holiday spot. Geographically, it’s still in the Loop. The Palmer House is one of the oldest hotels in Chicago, certainly one of the grandest, and to tip it off, it’s the very spot where the brownie was invented in 1893. The only things to consider are the hours — the Lockwood Restaurant is only open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. from breakfast and lunch, and the Lobby Bar at Lockwood (a full service bar that offers great entrees) is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Nonetheless, the Lockwood at the Palmer House certainly hits much of the criteria.
The Palm Court at the Drake Hotel
At the northernmost part of Michigan Avenue, the historic and iconic Drake Hotel serves as a wonderful space for the holidays, especially in its historic Palm Court, where afternoon tea is served. A holiday tradition in and of itself, really, the Drake is decked out for the holidays. Things to consider: you’d have to switch from State Street to Michigan Avenue for the holiday shopping, and you’re limited to between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. for high holiday tea with a delicious spread of snacks, sandwiches, and sweets. Depending on the day, you can make your reservation when carolers will be present. This is all at $74–78 per person, which may initially seem steep, but you’d be paying for a warm and beautiful holiday tradition.
The Signature Room at the 95th
On top of the Hancock Building (the name says it — on the 95th floor), you can have your holiday tradition include the north, west, and south sides of Chicagoland and Lake Michigan. Not necessarily the most historic, but the Signature Room certainly covers iconic. The food prices are actually not so unusual for a downtown establishment. Things to note: they do have a dress code, and you have to make a reservation. They’re only open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and you’re required to get an entrée. This one may also take a bit of preparation and planning as well, especially if the plan is to do it post-holiday shopping.
May this all be an exercise in vain? Perhaps, but tradition always begins with someone, somewhere, at some time. Maybe not this year, but by next November, let’s brainstorm where else to make a holiday tradition for ourselves. That, or set next year’s reminder on your Google Calendar to make your reservation for the Walnut Room as soon as they take them!