Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Garnering the sort of praise usually reserved for European palace hotels.

My friends in Chicago have always bragged that theirs is the perfect city, a place of great architecture, culture, and sophistication but with a pace more livable than New York's. (They never mention the winter, but let that go.) Having only ever passed through O'Hare, I decided to test their claim by moving in for a weekend. This also allowed me to scratch a professional itch I have long had: Why does the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago get the sort of praise usually reserved for European palace hotels? I've even heard people say that it's the best Four Seasons in the world, which means it's better than New York, better even than Milan.

Evidence that this just might be true surfaced a few days before checking in, when I called Abby Hart, the head concierge, and asked her to research restaurants, shops, and architecture guides.Within the hour, Abby had the organizational machinery rolling, and over the next two days she called with recommendations, reservations, suggestions, and then made appointments for me.

My first impression on site was even better. The staff, from the doorman up, combined professionalism with a warmth that I've rarely seen in big-city hotels. The lobby, which comes across as a bit stilted and formal in pictures, is actually a knockout: traditional Four Seasons luxe but turned up a notch—even more gleaming marble than usual; a larger, more ornate chandelier; a sweeping staircase outlined by a filigreed banister; a huge floral display center stage.

Our one-bedroom Royal Suite (1,392 square feet), on the 46th floor facing south toward the Sears and Tribune towers, had a top-of-the-world feel. The living room was furnished with classic chesterfield couches covered in cotton damask, Louis XVI chairs, and a perfect-for-lingering chaise longue, with yet another in the bedroom. (You can never have too many pieces of furniture on which to repose.) The only discordant note was the pink floral bedspread—not up to the rest of the fabrics.

We watched spellbound as the skyscrapers clicked on, then we dressed for round one of culinary Chicago, ready for Charlie Trotter's (816 West Armitage Avenue, 773-248-6228; $220 for two), the city's best restaurant by all accounts. Dinner here requires gustatory stamina and a sense of adventure, since Trotter views dining as a jazz riff. In the past, that hasn't always spelled success: "Charlie went through a stage of doing some really weird food," as one local told me. But he's in the groove now, having won the James Beard award for Outstanding Chef in 1999.

To make a long dinner short, I'll just say we had seven courses, from a salad of pheasant breast with Asian pear, matsutake mushrooms, hazelnuts, and seared foie gras, to persimmon brioche pudding. The sublime balance of flavors left us speechless, although we regained this faculty when we met Charlie Trotter at the bar on the way out.

To see Chicago from the ground up, we met Rolf Achilles ($170 an hour—two hour minimum; 773-477-8138), a charming art historian and museum director, for a private architectural tour (arranged by Abby Hart) of the town's greatest hits: Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House; Mies van der Rohe's apartments at 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive; the gothic Tribune Tower, which was derived from the design of a French cathedral. As our last stop, Rolf suggested Graceland Cemetery, the final resting place of many of the city's social lions, who, judging by their mausoleums, even attempted to outdo each other in death. Of special note: Marshall Field's monument, a mini-version of the Lincoln Memorial. (With a bit more notice the Four Seasons can arrange an architectural tour with Achilles by private boat.)

That evening we had dinner in. Room service was prompt, and the meal was set out on the dining room table with great flourish. But mostly the hotel staff took care of things in a quiet, understated way. The waiter in the café downstairs remembered that I liked my cappuccino double strength. The concierges remembered where I had already been, and suggested other places when they saw me in the lobby. It sounds absurd, but I was most impressed by the personalized fax cover sheet guests receive.

The next morning cultural guilt drove us to the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, 312-443-3600) instead of to the eighth-floor pool. We went specifically to see the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. These are modern European masterpieces that include Toulouse-Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge, Cézanne's The Basket of Apples, Matisse's Woman on a Rose Divan, and Seurat's famous Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Then we browsed the galleries in the River North district, particularly Marx-Saunders (230 West Superior Street, 312-573-1400), which features stellar exhibits by contemporary glass artists, and Michael Fitzsimmons Decorative Arts (311 West Superior Street, 312-787-0496), a terrific source of Arts and Crafts furniture. (We finally made it to the pool after four. The attendant told me gently that I looked as if I could use some rest, and urged me to take a few hours off. Rather than overstepping, it was a nice, caretaking touch—and advice I took.)

That night we went to the city's new fave rave, Tru (676 N. Saint Clair Street, 312-202-0001; $140-$250 for two), now Trotter's competitor for the most ambitious, experimental, and lavish set menus in the city. The vast whitewashed room reminded us of SoHo: The banquettes were navy blue, the waiters, who radiated downtown cool, were attired in dark minimalist outfits; the art was Andy Warhol lithographs, natch. There are several menus at Tru: vegetarian, seafood, the Grand Collection, and chef Rick Tramonto's eight-course collection "designed to create sensory overload." (You can also order à la carte.)

We have enough sensory overload in New York, so I opted for the Grand Collection, a mere seven courses. First up: the staircase of caviar, which is exactly that, a Plexiglas stairway with various caviars and accoutments on each step. It looked like a prop model for a Busby Berkeley set. From there I careened from seared bluefin tuna in basil foam to red snapper with pumpkin gnocchi and smoked mussels (via sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras with blueberries and wild mushrooms), finally ending up with a roasted-pineapple carpaccio with a coconut cilantro dressing. Some of the flavor combinations were thrilling, some chilling. (I would rethink the venison with truffles and chocolate sauce.) In the end I gave Trotter the blue ribbon for flavors, Tru for presentation. How can you not marvel at tuna, salmon, and yellowtail served in a glass bowl with a Japanese fighting fish swimming underneath?

Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Address 120 E. Delaware Place
Rates $425-$3,500; one-bedroom Royal Suite, $2,000.
Reservations 800-332-3442; 312-280-8800; fax 312-280-9184

Tip If you can't get the Royal Suite, take a 25-series executive suite, which has Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan views.

Member of Platinum Card Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas

Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in March 2000, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.