(Not) shopping in New York: Eataly Chicago edition.

Eataly storefront on Ohio Ave

Eataly storefront on Ohio Ave

Whenever we’re in the Flatiron district, I love to teasingly goad Michael into dropping in on Eataly; lately, his response has been simply “OK, see you at home then.” You may recall our initial impressions of Eataly New York when it first opened over Labor Day weekend in 2010; I’ve made a few visits there since then on my own, and I can’t say that my initial impressions have changed all that much. Any time I’ve purchased ingredients to make dinner I’ve been extremely satisfied with the results, and on my last visit I treated myself to a Neapolitan-style pizza that was easily among the best pizzas I ever had. But on the weekends the place was nearly as claustrophobic  as it had been on opening weekend, and for all of the text on the walls celebrating Italian food culture, I was still left rather…cold.

Over Christmas I had heard that there were other Eataly locations opening up in the next few years, with a Chicago location having opened in November and space on a spot in Philadelphia allegedly secured. In chatting with my brother-in-law and his boyfriend about the latter, reflecting on the good and the disappointing, I realized that it had been a while since I went there and maybe, just maybe I had been too hard on the place, that I was trying to make it into something it never set out to be anyway. So when we were in Chicago a few weekends ago and I realized that Eataly Chicago was open and right off of Michigan Avenue, I decided to see if perhaps the second iteration had improved upon the first.

My first stop in was early (at least for a Sunday morning), just to get a cappuccino to enjoy on my walk to the Museum of Contemporary Art.  The market had just opened and very few people were milling about, so I was able to get a feel for the place before the really busy period of time. This space was enormous—it felt like it was practically twice the size of the New York store—and everything was distributed among two floors. Everything was still laid out in a haphazard way so you would snake past the various restaurants and food counters, but they didn’t feel quite as serpentine or as narrow this time around. It was also much brighter: instead of walls painted in deep colors of wine-red here and there, everything was starkly white. But the real test would come when I would come back for lunch to see what this place was really like.

It's a little busy...

It’s a little busy…

Yeah, foot traffic had picked up exponentially when I returned. While it wasn’t as cramped as I remember in the New York store, it was still extremely busy. The wait was predictably long at La Pizza & La Pasta if you wanted a table for a group of three or more, and the crush of diners meant that those of us seated along the counter had to wait a while before a wait staff member came to get our orders.

That left me a mite cranky, because I was hungry and once I had decided on trying the cacio e pepe, I really, really wanted it.

Cacio e Pepe (and yes, it was delicious)

Cacio e Pepe (and yes, it was delicious)

Was it worth the wait? Well, kind of—while the dish itself was executed flawlessly, once again I was left feeling cold, as if I found myself in a very high-end cafeteria and the intent was to get me in and out as quickly as humanly possible while only given the bare minimum when it came to friendly service. I paid and took my glass of wine to wander some more around the store, wishing it were feasible to stuff some bags of pasta into my carry-on.

The view from La Piazza (i.e. the wine bar)

The view from La Piazza (i.e. the wine bar)

My story would have ended there had a bottle of white wine not caught my attention; wanting to find a reasonably priced one to leave in the room for Michael, I headed to the central wine bar to ask for a glass and take in more of the crowd. As I stood and sipped, two older women sidled up next to me to get some glasses of their own, and the three of us ended up gabbing for a good hour and a half about anything and everything. One of them mentioned to me that within the first week of business, the store had to close because it had run out of food, a fact that continues to perplex me to this day.

It is admittedly much more pleasant to shop the aisles here...

It is admittedly much more pleasant to shop the aisles here…

Maybe I expected them to expect the rush because Eataly does not strike me as a place prone to that kind of unpredictability. Everything feels very calculated and deliberate and carefully engineered to get you to part with as much of your money as possible. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of vision and it certainly has proved to be very successful, it doesn’t make the idea of going to Eataly one that is particularly exciting. The fact that Mario Batali has congratulated himself on not charging an entrance fee into what is, in essentials, a grocery store is extremely telling—yes, the food is really delicious and yes, it is a destination of sorts, but why on earth would anyone willingly pay for the privilege to shop for groceries?

I think therein lies the crux of my issues with Eataly: for a place that is meant to be extremely food-centric, it veers far too close to being devoid of passion. I may visit it from time to time if I want a specific bottle of wine or a specialty product I know they carry, but I don’t think it will ever be the kind of place I’ll visit just for fun.

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11 comments
  1. biz319 said:

    I live about 55 miles NW of Chicago, and have yet to make the trek to the city to go there. My husband hates the hustle and bustle of Chicago, while I miss it tremendously. One of my favorite things was going out to eat at lunch when I worked down there.

    My daughter and I plan on making a downtown day in the spring when we can walk around, and I will definitely stop for wine and pizza there!

    • I definitely believe it’s the people you go with who make the trip fun, because the place itself is decidedly…not. It’s just very antiseptic and sanitized and very few people who work there seem happy about working there. I’m biased because I get to shop at Fairway regularly, but I’ll gladly take half of the theatrics for better foods, prices, and nicer people working there, you know?

      • biz319 said:

        Yep – I totally get it. That’s one reason I get better tables at the restaurant I work at because good service, A SMILE! makes all the difference! :D

  2. I absolutely agree, at least about the NYC Eataly. It has great stuff all under one roof, which is nice and convenient, but it also feels just so over-enginered, and fake, and ohmygod isn’t this the greatest.

    It’s like the Vegas of markets.

    • It really is, and I was expecting so much more–maybe because they trump up how much they are into the Slow Food movement and the like–which is why I think I was so disappointed initially.

  3. Brianne said:

    I…want to go to there. We don’t have things like this where I live. I can understand your sentiment, though. I went to a Trader Joe’s for the first time last month (this is what life is like in Maine) and felt the same things you felt at Eataly. It was overhyped and it felt fake. Food is kind of a scene, you know? Like people who put a really fancy kitchen in their house but never use it? It’s cool to be a foodie. Eataly sounds like a really (embarrassing) public acknowledgement of how cool it is it to be a foodie. I hate the word foodie. I just love to cook and love to eat. But I still want to visit an Eataly.

    • The thing with Trader Joe’s that I don’t love is how much of an emphasis they place on packaged/prepped food rather than the raw ingredients. (That at least was my impression when I was last in one a few years ago.) But like Trader Joe’s, it’s still worth a visit to Eataly at least once if you’re visiting New York or Chicago to see it for yourself–just try to avoid it at all costs on the weekend!

      But if you make it to New York, try to visit a Fairway Market if you want to visit a place that really is all about the food. I think you’ll enjoy comparing it to the Eatalies of the world. :)

  4. Maybe it’s the Euro part of me, but I’ve walked by Eataly NY many times and always thought, “Oh, I’ll go in and look around” but then I see the masses of people inside and say, “Hell. No.” Still haven’t been. Again, it may be my Euro-ness speaking, but I don’t think any place that is so constantly mobbed is worth the trouble.

    • Browsing on a weekend day is never advisable–it’s like trying to navigate La Boqueria, but without all of the charm. During the week it’s not nearly as crowded, but that’s because it’s 2PM on a random Thursday–I would hope it wouldn’t be mobbed at that time.

  5. I can’t decide if this place looks super fun or super anxiety-inducing. I wish it were possible to enjoy the food and the space without the crushing crowd though I’m sure the crowd is part of the reason why people go there. I’m glad you were at least able to get a good bowl of pasta!

    • The best time to visit really is during the week at lunchtime, as the crowds are far smaller and it’s not nearly as frenetic…but that’s because everyone is at work. So I guess if you happen to be on vacation during the week in either of these cities, it’s not a bad place to visit…

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