by Suzanne Graham
Swiss-Gruyere in Lincoln Park
On one of my final days in Chicago, I mentioned to an old friend that there was one restaurant left to visit in order for me to complete my culinary tour of the city’s finest restaurants.
Geja’s Cafe has been delighting locals and tourists for over 50 years with an intimate and romantic fondue dining experience. Tucked away on a smaller side street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood just north of downtown, the restaurant is in an area with many upscale boutiques, other restaurants and cafes, as well as beautiful townhomes. Reservations are recommended, but since we arrived relatively early in the afternoon, we ended up being the only diners in the restaurant for a portion of our visit.
To enter Geja’s Cafe from Armitage Avenue, my friend and I walked just a few steps down from street level. The dining areas are dimly lit by candles, with booths on the sides separated by shelves holding bottles of wine, giving off the feeling of dining in a wine cellar to the sounds of classical and flamenco guitarists.
The color scheme is earthy, with brown, red, and cream tones throughout. Arriving at our table, we saw two menus propped up against an orange colored fondue pot, all resting on a white tablecloth. A candle rested near one end of the table, giving off a soft, yellow glow.
We ordered a chicken breast and a vegetarian fondue dinner with a few glasses of both red and white sangria. Fondue dining is communal, and Geja’s serves a three-course meal.
The first course arrived soon after placing our order – a light green salad with sliced cucumbers and a vinaigrette dressing, as well as a Swiss-Gruyere blend of cheese fondue served with a basket of bread, apple slices, and grapes. While we were enjoying the first course, the orange fondue pot was heating up for our main dishes. Shortly after finishing, our main course arrived raw, and on a platter.
The orange pot that had been heating up at the end of the table would be used to cook our main course. Uncooked chicken breast cutlets and tofu were served with an assortment of raw vegetables, including potatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, and zucchini.
The sides of the platter were lined with eight different dipping sauces, including dill, teriyaki, and barbecue, which ended up being our favorites. Fondue forks are color-coded at the ends, making it easy to determine who’s food was cooking in the pot of oil, and the server instructed us on how long each of the pieces should be cooked.
My friend remarked during the main course that she appreciated feeling encouraged to fully enjoy each piece of food – likely a reflection of how the meal progresses, as well as the incredible attention to every detail that has been and continues to be made in operating the restaurant.
Just as we started to think we were getting a bit full, our main course was cleared and dessert was offered.
Though we were given a chance to wait for several minutes while dinner settled, we opted to have the final course served right away – a mixed dark and milk Belgian chocolate fondue, served with a basket of large marshmallows, pound cake, rice krispie treats, pineapple, and sliced bananas. I decided to enjoy the dessert with a glass of amaretto on rocks.
When dessert is served, a fire is lit in the pot, which burns for roughly two minutes – just long enough to roast the marshmallows. After the fire went out, the cake, fruit, and marshmallows were dipped into the chocolate and enjoyed.
Throughout our visit to Geja’s Cafe, the service was excellent and attentive without being intrusive.
Additionally, we felt encouraged to take our time and fully enjoy the experience, without being rushed or hurried out the door at the end. While Geja’s has been voted Chicago’s, as well as America’s most romantic restaurant, we left feeling like it was also the perfect place for great friends to reconnect after several years apart.