i’d heard from a few people—chefs, cooks, my dingus brother—that I would love the loyalist.
Here’s what I knew about it before I went: it’s the sister restaurant to culinary mecca Smyth (literally underneath it), John Shields is the executive chef/owner, and they have a burger that has its own Instagram account and cult following.
I landed in Chicago, dropped my bags off at my brother’s apartment, then we marched straight through the West Loop to the restaurant.
Like so many subterranean Chicago hot spots, it feels like a moderately fancy speakeasy. For the St. Louisans reading, think Elmwood and Taste combined. We were seated in a black leather booth at the back of the restaurant, which gave us a great view of hopeful diners jostling for position to grab the next empty bar seat.
I decided to let my brother do the ordering because 1) I am magnanimous 2) Chef Shields started his career in St. Louis, which means he can do no wrong, which means my brother couldn’t order anything bad.
Food started hitting the table fast and furiously. Chef de Cuisine Julio Morales (who I met after the meal, thanks to another St. Louis connection) and his team came out swinging. The foie gras eclair, topped with fried corn and drizzled with lavender honey, hit the table first—delicate and decadent, as only the French can do. The subtle, smoky, somehow creamy ‘biscuit’ wafer with shallot purée and aged cheddar followed it immediately. To quote my girlfriend, “holy fuck.”
I knew right then that all the people who told me I was going to love it were right. French as shit techniques mashed into American bar fare.
I can’t even keep track of all the food we ate next. An incredible beet salad with apple, tarragon and Banyuls. A gigantic ‘pop-over’ spritzed with beef garum, resting above a pool of beef jus for dipping. Escargot toast topped with Benton’s country ham. Gigantic pillowy ricotta gnocchi. Then, out of nowhere, an absolutely perfect camembert omelette with a koji beurre blanc and caviar. Julia Child would have had an orgasm.
As incredible as all those dishes were, I just didn’t see how the signature Loyalist Cheeseburger, nor their special burger, could compete at all. How can you follow all that refined amazingness with a burger and fries?
Well, it turns out it’s pretty fucking easy when you’re making what has to be one of the best burgers in the country.
Here’s the deal: the chuck and short rib patties are cooked on the flattop (while being brushed with bacon fat), topped with American cheese, and finished with onions 300 ways. If you’re a dork who doesn’t like onions or, even worse, pretends to be allergic to them, you don’t deserve this. Seriously: charred/sautéed onions, onion oil, mayo made with onion oil, and probably some other onion stuff too. That’s all thrown on a bun, along with pickles and their secret sauce, and boom. A burger that will make you rethink all other burgers. Forget waiting at Au Cheval down the street.
Plus, the burger comes with their incredible fries served with the most garlicky aioli in the history of garlic aiolis and a cup of pickle juice.
So…how good was the meal? To quote food writer/historian Lolis Elie, “The real question is not so much whether I enjoyed myself that night, it’s whether or not the next day I’m saying, ‘when am I going to be able to go back?’”
We went back three days later. Twice in one week. We did it all over again. We straight up repeated most of the dishes, though we also tried a few new ones, like the Little Gem salad with a smoked whitefish caesar dressing (which gives the Loafers little gem a run for its money).
And, of course, we got the burger again. No regrets.
Foie Gras eclair
smoked trout, roe
shallot purée, aged cheddar
bacon, sea lettuce, hollandaise
sourdough, smoked whitefish casear
Benton’s country ham
ramps, green strawberries
toasted yeast, oyster mushrooms
camembert, koji beurre blanc, caviar
The sign outside the loyalist
So you know you’re in the right place.