I arrived in the Windy City of Chicago with a list of must-try bars and restaurants from my cousin, who’s lived in Chicago for a few years and spent several before that regularly travelling there from his native St. Louis.
The No. 1 eatery on the list? Au Cheval, an upscale-looking burger joint he called “a must-go for dinner.” His advice: “Just wait for a table, no matter how long.” His sister told me she once waited four hours to eat there, and it was completely worth it.
The rest of America seems to share the sentiment. The Food Network named Au Cheval’s flagship cheeseburger the No. 1 burger in America; Business Insider included it on our ranking of the best burger joints in the country; Eater called it one of the 21 essential hamburgers of America; and Time Out Magazine said the restaurant is “a master class in textures and proportions.”
Below, check out my visit to the iconic Chicago burger joint.
Au Cheval opened in 2012 and is located in Chicago's West Loop, at the end of a strip of restaurants with beautiful outdoor seating and patios (sadly, there's no outdoor space at Au Cheval).
The building is completely nondescript; the only sign of the restaurant is on the front door. I like to think it's because the restaurant is blissfully understated, but after looking at older photos of the facade, I think the building is just undergoing a renovation.
Au Cheval opens for brunch every day at 11 a.m., except Sundays (the day we went), when it opens at 10 a.m.
There's a makeshift waiting area outside the restaurant, where just a few people were waiting when we arrived around 11:15. I was pleasantly surprised -- I had expected to see a line around the block.
We stepped inside to put our name on the list and were told the wait would be about 1.5 hours for a party of two. After giving the staff our phone number, we immediately received a text to sign up for the No Wait app, which would update us on our place in line.
With our name on the list and over an hour to kill, we headed to a nearby bar. Haymarket Pub and Brewery is also a hotspot in the area and has a clear view of Au Cheval from its kitty-corner spot.
We started at 18th place in line, and within 30 minutes, we jumped ahead 11 spots. We figured we could pay our check at Haymarket when there were about two or three parties ahead of us.
But within minutes, we got a text telling us we were next in line and needed to be back at the restaurant within 10 minutes.
Au Cheval is billed as an upscale version of an American diner. The dimly-lit space fits the diner theme with big booths and a long bar facing the galley kitchen.
There's also what looks to be a well-stocked bar flanked by more than a dozen local, domestic, and international beers on draft.
The brunch menu features some classic breakfast options like an omelette and granola, in addition to some unique dishes like potato hash with duck heart gravy and scrambled eggs with foie gras.
And of course, the cheeseburger à cheval, which means 'on horseback' in French. In this case, à cheval refers to a sunny-side up egg 'riding,' or sitting atop, a beef patty. It sounds better in French.
We were also given a lunch/dinner menu (served from 11 a.m. until midnight), which gives you the option of a 'single' or 'double' cheeseburger. But don't take the names at face value ... the 'single' is actually two five-ounce patties and the 'double' is three patties.
We were seated at the end of the bar with an intimate view of the kitchen -- it turned out to be the best spot in the house. It was mesmerising to watch the cooks operate like a well-oiled machine.
A total of four cooks were in the kitchen at all times: the man nearest to us was the fry guy, the one next to him cooked up perfectly fried eggs, the next guy toasted the buns and readied the plates, and the last cook seasoned and flipped the burgers.
First up, our 'breakfast beers.' At just 3.8% ABV and $5 a pour, the local Off Colour Fierce was crisp, light, and semi-tart -- the perfect beer for brunch.
While we waited for our food, we sat back and watched the cooks crank out plate after plate. Individual containers of fresh-cut potatoes and tortilla chips were stacked up in the kitchen, ready for the fryer.
The buns were toasted right above the stovetop under an open flame. It was impressive to watch the cooks seamlessly navigate this cramped kitchen.
Our side of fries came within 20 minutes of ordering -- and they were worth the wait. Medium-cut, perfectly salted, and with what tasted like a hint of truffle-infused flavour, these fries were delicious.
I normally don't dip my fries in mayo, but this pairing was perfect. There's also the option to go à cheval on the fries, but I decided an egg on my burger was enough for one meal.
I ordered the single cheeseburger à cheval, which came with two flattop-griddle patties, a slice of American cheese, diced onions, a Dijon-and-mayo-based sauce, pickles, and a beautiful egg, sunny-side up with a sprinkling of chives.
I smashed the two sides together and the egg yolk poured off the burger. If you like fried eggs, this is a wonderful sight to behold.
The first bite into this burger was absolutely divine. It wasn't overwhelmingly large, and I actually forgot there were two patties. And despite the combination of sauce and egg yolk, the bun didn't get too soggy.
The amount of each topping was perfect, and the egg seriously elevated the burger to new heights.
The aftermath: I'm somewhat notorious among friends and family for eating an entire meal save for one bite, because I'm so stuffed that the last morsel will set me over the edge.
In this case, I left about two bites. But make no mistake: I was completely satisfied.
Au Cheval also has some drool-worthy desserts, though I'm not sure how anyone could have room for one after downing a rich burger. At one point, we saw a cook preparing the filo dough for the mille-feuille, a French pastry dessert with vanilla custard.
Our check came out to about $A25 per person before tax, which is a great price for one of the most fantastic burgers I've ever had.
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