London Calling

Falkland Arms, the Cotswolds’ Hidden Gem

Oh don’t I wish London was calling. It’s not, but it’s top of mind, of course, with the Queen playing Bond girl and the opening of the Olympics.

And even more so this morning, when my husband showed me this story. He and I spent a night at Falkland Arms in the Cotswolds three years ago on our British summer invasion, en route to London.

Falkland Arms

I’m not gonna lie; there was some colorful language used when navigating to the charming inn. We had been in Painswick staying at another cute boutique hotel and Falkland Arms was going to be a stop on our way to Oxford. The narrow, winding roads of the Cotswolds weren’t on our side (no pun intended).

But once we got there, a calm set over us because the place is just so darn cute and peaceful — truly a hidden gem. We were a little perplexed, though, because the inn was all closed up and the doors locked, yet we had dinner reservations that night.

So we made do by taking in the gorgeous scenery.

Falkland Arms grounds

Alas, the staff arrived and opened up shop and we got a few pints to enjoy on the back patio before dinner.

Guzzle, guzzle, guzzle

It really is a great place for a pint. It’s just so… British. The back patio overlooks rolling hills and it’s just so quiet and still, except maybe for a cow mooing nearby.

We could’ve spent all night on that patio, but a girl needs some nourishment.

The food in the restaurant was again, quintessentially British, natch. Think heavier things like beef, potatoes, mushy peas, shepherd’s pie and the like.

Falkland Arms dining room

We were beyond stuffed when we finished our meal. Maybe we were trying to make a statement — it took us this long to find the place, and we’re going to make it worth our while, dammit! We wanted to stick around and have another pint, but my mouth refused to let me put another thing in.

My genius idea was to take a stroll around the grounds, you know, to aid our digestion. Only, I clearly had a memory lapse. We were in the middle of English countryside. There were no street lights. We walked out the front door and it was pitch black, literally. We had no other choice but to turn in for the night.

Our friend who smartly recommended this cute little inn went on and on about the great food. Interestingly, he never mentioned staying overnight, but that’s what we had planned.

Being typical American travelers, we had two massive suitcases with us, which we had the pleasure of lugging up a teeny, tiny, rickety spiral staircase. Claustrophobia immediately set in when we ducked into our room. Well, I didn’t duck, but Kalyana certainly did; old English inns aren’t necessarily designed for 6’2″ giants.

Did I mention that the room was teeny tiny? It was also hot. Yes, hot, in England.

Falkland Arms

Thank goodness for that little fan and those little windows.

Falkland Arms guest room

They say travel is all about the adventure, though, and sleeping with my 6’2″ guy in that little bed for a night was certainly an adventure.

Moral of the story — definitely worth a trip for the pint(s) and the food. Period.

Gene’s Sausage Shop

Day Drinking at Gene’s Sausage Shop

I’m a fan of day drinking no matter the season, but somehow a beverage tastes even better atop a rooftop bar in Chicago in the summertime. All the better when you add a warm, crusty pretzel and a grilled brat to the mix.

And that’s exactly what you’ll enjoy at Gene’s Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square. Their rooftop bar opened either last summer or the summer before, and for whatever crazy reason, I only just visited for the first time recently.

Gene's Sausage Shop rooftop bar

The first two floors consist of the shop itself, which boasts fresh produce, pastries, European treats, beer, wine and most importantly, a butcher. They make sausage by hand daily.

Gene's Sausage Shop

But back to the rooftop bar, which is on the third floor. The space is great and there’s even a clean bathroom up there. Yes, this is key once the seal has been broken.

If you’re not into brats (what’s wrong with you?), there are plenty of other sandwiches and German favorites to choose from, all pretty reasonably priced, I might add.

Playing Tourist in Chicago

Millennium Park | Cloud Gate | Portillo’s | Sears/Willis Tower

I’ll be honest. I kind of like it when we have visitors who give us the excuse to do touristy things in our own city, especially when those touristy things are things I’ve never done before and wouldn’t do otherwise, regardless of how much I might want to.

So in addition to being super excited that my niece was in town for her birthday, along with my nephew and sister, I was equally happy to “get” to play tourist, especially at the Sears (or Willis, depending on who you ask) Tower. In my three-plus years living here and many visits before that, I’ve never been.

Luckily the oppressive heat and humidity spared us a bit this past weekend, so we packed Saturday with outdoor sights, beginning with Millennium Park and its impressive bean (or Cloud Gate, if you insist on going by its real name).

Cloud Gate

I’m biased in that I think Chicago’s skyline is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, but what other city’s skyline is reflected in a shiny 110-ton elliptical structure?

Still, it’s nice to escape the awestruck crowds milling around the bean in the gardens on the south side of the park.

Millennium Park

I never even knew this part of the park existed until my husband and I had our engagement photos taken and the photographer led us down this little path. The field is sprinkled with lavender and sunflowers and other beautiful blooms.

Millennium Park

All that traipsing through the park made for some hungry kids, though, so I had to honor my nephew’s request for a Chicago dog. And where else to do that than the Chicago landmark, Portillo’s.

Portillo's hotdog

And I know it’s sacrilege to admit, being a Chicagoan and all, but I’m not the biggest hotdog fan, Chicago-style or not. I’m happy to eat one at the ballpark, but that’s about it. And in my humble opinion, Portillo’s chopped salad is much, much better anyway!

Portillo's chopped salad

Sorry, but the cake shake was devoured too quickly for me to get a shot.

Onto the highlight of my weekend — Sears Tower (sorry, I can’t call it the Willis Tower). A word to the wise: if you aren’t dead-set on going during daylight hours, don’t. We arrived around 12:30 p.m. only to find the line wrapped around the outside of the building. Novice mistake.

So we went back after dinner around 9:00 p.m. and happily breezed through the non-existent ticket line and up the jam-packed BO-infused elevator to the skydeck. Here I go again on my “best skyline ever” soapbox, but the views are just fantastic.

Chicago at night

A wise man once said, “anything is peaceful from 1,353 feet,” and he’s right. Seeing the city so peaceful like this almost made me forget about the horn-honking and pan-handling going on below.

Chicago at night

The coolest part by far, though, was the ledge. Not intended for those with a fear of heights, the glass ledge extends out about 4.5′ and offers up a whole new view.

See the tiny cars down there?
See the tiny cars down there?

Maude’s Liquor Bar

Bastille Day Dinner: Maude’s Liquor Bar

I’d like to say that I strategically booked last night’s dinner at Maude’s Liquor Bar to coincide with Bastille Day, but in reality, it was sheer coincidence. In fact, I booked the reservation probably a month or so out, when we found out we’d have a friend visiting from NYC, and when Bastille Day wasn’t remotely on the brain.

Before I get into my take on the place, I have to preface this post by letting you know that I have no photos to share. Why? Because the place is so damn dark that I could barely find my iPhone in my purse, much less take pictures with it (sans flash – I hate being that girl lighting up a restaurant like I’m the paparazzi). If you’d like to whet your palate or get a sense of the vibe, though, there are some beautiful photos on Maude’s blog.

Always up for French cuisine in Chicago, I’ve wanted to try Maude’s since it opened I think a little over a year ago. Everything I’d read and heard about it led me to believe that it was a trendy spot with solid food. And I found out last night that that assessment is true.

Maude’s is on Randolph Street, Chicago’s restaurant row, catty-corner from another fave of mine, Girl and the Goat. When we strolled up for our 8:30 reservation last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see they had outside seating, albeit it only enough space to accommodate 10 or so patrons.

We checked in with the hostess and headed to the bar in the back. I might be exaggerating a bit if I said I had to be very careful with each step so as to make sure I didn’t run into any tables, but the place is seriously dark. I thought I was going to have to whip out my phone to shed a little light on the drink menu. Seriously. The bar on the first floor is small with just eight or ten seats, and it was jam-packed. The mixologist was a little preoccupied flirting with the darlings seated at the bar, so it took a while to get our drinks — St. Germain Fizz for me — and the hostess was whisking us to our seats as the last of our three drinks was poured. Thank goodness. There really is nowhere to congregate by the bar if all of the seats are taken, given the setup. There’s a small thoroughfare between the bar, kitchen and restrooms, so hanging out sipping a beverage there isn’t the most ideal spot. The setup is a little awkward but I think the bar upstairs is more spacious.

I was smart enough to stop at one Fizz and switch over to wine, as much as I would’ve enjoyed another one (or two). It was so refreshing on a hot summer night and went down way too easily.

Like so many other restaurants now, Maude’s menu consists of small to medium plates meant to be shared by the entire table. While the shellfish tower looked divine, we opted to start with a dozen oysters. They were fine. Not the best oysters I’ve ever had but by no means am I an oyster connoisseur. I like them, but I can’t tell the difference between east coast or west coast. I know we had both, and I know I liked them just fine. The end.

We also shared pomme frites (two orders, perhaps unnecessary but I didn’t complain), which, with the garlic aioli, were amongst the best I’ve ever had; cassoulet; steamed mussels and the salmon tartare special. Although not the most summery dish, the cassoulet was one of my faves of the night, decadently rich and hearty. Our server commented that despite that, it’s still one of their most popular dishes even in the summertime. The salmon tartare, however, matched perfectly with the season — light and refreshing.

Even though we were completely full, we still perused the dessert menu, but there wasn’t much to peruse with only two options — chocolate mousse and creme brulee. We passed.

The pomme frites alone — and the St. Germain Fizz — will definitely bring me back.

J’aime Paris

Paris

In honor (or honour, more appropriately) of Bastille Day, I’m taking a trip down memory lane… to Paris.

New Year’s Eve in Paris

My first trip to Paris was in 2007. It was a stop on my European Christmas/New Year’s Eve extravaganza which began and ended in Germany. I met a friend in Paris for New Year’s Eve; we actually arrived on New Year’s Eve day. Oh, to be young and stupid again…

Yep, I'm in heels and my partner in crime is in open-toed strappys!
Yep, I’m in heels and my partner in crime is in open-toed strappys!

The thing to do in Paris on New Year’s Eve — if you’re not going to some tre magnifique party, I suppose — is really to go park yourself someplace where the Eiffel Tower is visible and wait for it to shimmer and sparkle. (Again, low-cut dresses and heels are optional.) Oh, and take a bottle (or two) of champagne with you. Everyone does. Then clink your bottles and say “chin chin” and “happy new year” at the stroke of midnight.

Eiffel Tower

The other great thing about New Year’s Eve in Paris? The Metro is free for the night.

Aside from trolling the streets like hussies in inappropriate footwear, we did quite a bit of sight-seeing, even a — say it with me, it’s one of my favorite things — hop-on/hop-off bus tour. I’m telling you, it’s seriously one of the best ways to get accustomed to a city for the first time.

Academie Nationale de Musique

Cliche though it may be, I fell in love with Paris on that very first trip. I loved the energy, the style, the accents (the cheese, the bread, the chocolate!).

Arc de Triomphe

Most of all, though, I loved the wide, tree-lined boulevards. That first trip was spent being a tourist, though. I didn’t leisurely stroll the beautiful boulevards without a care in the world until a few trips in. Rather, I went to the Louvre (which I hated), Musee d’Orsay (which I loved), window-shopped on the Champs Elysees (which I also hated), saw the Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries.

Rue Mouffetard

A colleague tipped me off to Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement and though it took a little work, I eventually found it. I suppose it can be a bit touristy, but I enjoyed browsing the eclectic shops and popping in for a crepe here and there. Lining the streets are countless cafes but I preferred the walk-up panini shops.

Rue Mouffetard

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to Paris now. I thought I’d go more often when I lived in London since it’s so easily accessible via Eurostar, but I think I only made it there twice then.

My most recent trip was on New Year’s Eve again, in 2010. Unlike my first New Year’s Eve in Paris, this one was a bit more civilized. My husband and I had a romantic picnic dinner in our hotel room and then ventured out for the night.

New Year's Eve picnic

 

Funny how the attire changed once I became a smug married.
Funny how the attire changed once I became a smug married.

By this last visit, I was a natural, for all intents and purposes. I didn’t need to wait in line to see the Notre Dame, didn’t need to hike up the Eiffel Tower and certainly didn’t need to traipse down the Champs Elysees (although we did do that). This time, I got to leisurely stroll those glorious boulevards. Finally.

Paris

I loved how deserted the streets became at night and it felt like we had that little pocket of Paris all to ourselves.

Paris at night

Seven Days in Seagrove Beach

I’m back in Chicago, much to my chagrin, after spending seven super relaxing days at this beautiful beach house, appropriately dubbed “Brown Your Buns,” in Seagrove Beach, Florida. And no, my buns aren’t brown now, but the rest of me certainly is!

Brown Your Buns

We road tripped it there and thank goodness for the GPS. I don’t know what Google was thinking, but their directions took us way off the beaten path in Alabama on Friday night when we were trying to get to our hotel. Let’s just say we took the scenic route to Decatur, Alabama… Thereafter, it was GPS or bust.

We landed on Decatur simply because it was a good middle ground stopping point. And although hotel options aren’t particularly limited in Decatur, we needed a place that accepted dogs and wanted something close to the freeway. So we wound up at a Microtel to the tune of a very economical $67.00! It did the trick for a night’s rest and one of my biggest guilty pleasures was right up the road (hint: “Eat Mor Chikin”). Daisy happily got our money’s worth for us for her pet fee.

After getting our Starbucks fix on Saturday morning, we were back on the road to finish up the drive. While the first half of Alabama was actually very pretty (yes, I say “actually” because I wasn’t expecting it to be), the second half was less so and there was an overabundance of rubber-neckers on the road that day. And the closer to Seagrove Beach we got, the worse the traffic became. I know this is nothing profound, but beach traffic is a beast! Thank goodness for diversions like Betty’s for a little comic relief.

Betty's Fireworks

We finally arrived in Seagrove Beach early Saturday evening, but it was well worth the journey. The many pictures we found online don’t do Brown Your Buns justice — it truly surpassed our expectations. How lucky are we?!

Brown Your Buns
The back of the house overlooks the community pool.

The house is huge — three stories with multiple outside balconies/decks and an elevator. Off the second floor wet bar, there is a great screened-in porch which is key with all of the hungry mosquitoes. That quickly became our morning coffee spot. Of the four bedrooms, one is handicap-accessible and another is essentially a kid’s dream come true. It’s a room full of bunk beds with an air hockey table in the middle of the room. And it’s the only room on the third floor (except for two bathrooms) so it gives kids their own space (and more importantly, it gives the adults their own space!).

Brown Your Buns is part of Greenway Park, a small neighborhood of ecological homes. Right now, I think there are only three homes in the subdivision, including Brown Your Buns, and they all share a community pool which Brown Your Buns butts up to. So pool access couldn’t be more convenient. And we spent nearly every single day there. There’s a beautifully landscaped yard with a gazebo and patio which is where we spent most of our nights (along with the pesky mosquitoes and geckos). The day that we left the next group was coming in for a wedding that was going to be held on the grounds.

Brown Your Buns gazebo

Brown Your Buns gazebo

We went to Seagrove Beach — the actual beach — a handful of times. It’s just across 30-A and down May Drive, which is a little rocky road directly across from Brown Your Buns. The sand was so soft and the beach wasn’t miserably crowded.

Seagrove Beach, Florida

This vacation was truly all about rest and relaxation. Although, I don’t think I ever managed to sleep in much past 7:00 a.m. But that’s okay. My past seven days pretty much consisted of getting up, slipping into a bathing suit and either hitting the pool or going to the beach. Life doesn’t get much better than that, as far as I’m concerned. I even read two books which is monumental for me — “Every Last One” by Anna Quindlen (loved, loved, loved) and “Heart of the Matter” by Emily Giffin (meh, quick/easy but unimpressive read), and started on a third — “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat” by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas (so far, so good).

Brown Your Buns

Is it any wonder that the thought of going to work tomorrow makes me want to cry?