Prior to moving to Chicago, I never considered going to the grocery a social event or outing. To me, groceries consisted of stores like Meijer, Giant Eagle or Kroger, where you park, grab a cart, buy a bunch of items to take home and leave. This all changed roughly two years ago, when I was first introduced to Sunday ‘world’ wine and cheese pairings at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park.
Whether you’re a local or a tourist in Chicago, visiting one or many of our ‘groceries plus’ (as I have deemed them) is an enjoyable activity any time of year, any day of the week. You can grab a beer or wine plus a cart, and drink, sample, shop and eat your way through these smorgasbords. Below is a comparison of my four favorite groceries plus (which are Plum Market, Mariano’s, Whole Foods & Eataly), along with a shout-out to Treasure Island. [Note, the items with ‘**’ are what I consider to be the standout features of each grocery plus).
Plum Market is my favorite grocery plus. As a matter of fact, I was just in Plum Market redeeming a reward I earned today before I sat down to write this piece. Old Town Chicago is Plum Market’s first location outside of Michigan, and we have welcomed it with open arms.
- **Its Story: Located only in select cities in Michigan and now Chicago, Plum exclusively sells local, organic, natural and specialty food products. Most products in the store are produced in Michigan or Illinois, and the product owners are in the store handing out samples at tables and discussing their products weekly. You can find everything you need at Plum – from fresh produce and meats, to a giant cheese area, to an apothecary featuring organic and natural health and beauty products, to natural household and pet products, to a Zingerman’s bakery, to a candy and chocolate counter featuring See’s chocolates, to a huge wine and beer section, to an exquisite floral section.
- Prepared Food: Most of the far-right portion of the market side of Plum is prepared food to buy and eat either in the store, or to take home with you. My recommendation is to purchase food, then head over to Intelligentsia (which is in the store) or to the wine and beer bar to have a drink while you eat. Prepared food includes: a large salad bar, a rotisserie, sandwiches and other gourmet wraps and meals, pastas, soups, international cuisine, an all American food bar, a dessert bar, Swirlberry froyo, and Takashi Yagahashi-branded sushi (from the sushi chef of Slurping Turtle and Takashi).
- **Wine & Beer to drink in-store: Plum has a mini wine bar within the actual beer and wine section of the store that is open most of the time for tastings of select wines, along with a true wine and craft beer bar beside the Intelligentsia on the far right portion of the store. The wine bar is run by Madeline Triffon, the first American woman (and second woman in the world) to become a wine sommelier, and most bartenders behind the bar are in various stages of sommelier training. Fun fact: Jimmi Carney (our co-founder) and I met Madeline and drank with her the first time we visited Plum Market. The wine bar hosts wine events most Thursdays (and some Tuesdays). For $20/person, you sample featured wines from around the world and enjoy a buffet spread of food from the market.
- Other Perks: Rewards program; Free parking; an Intelligentsia in the store.
- **Samples: Lots of free samples each day (especially Saturdays) featuring vendors at tables discussing their products.
- Price Range: Moderate. I wouldn’t shop for all items I ever buy here, or for a family, but it’s a perfect place for Jimmi and I to grab dinner, a drink, and some of our main provisions.
Mariano’s is truly local only to Chicago. I’ve only been to the Lakeview East location, but I’ve enjoyed it each time.
- Its Story: Located only in Chicago and the surrounding area, Mariano’s is truly Chicago’s grocery plus. It carries all the same types of products as Plum Market, but not all products are natural and organic (so you can purchase your Life cereal at Mariano’s, or some Kraft mac & cheese).
- Prepared Food: Mariano’s has a wide variety of prepared foods at different stations on the top level of the store. You can find anything from pizza, to a fresh salad bar, to soups, to Oki sushi, to a rotisserie, to baked goods, to Vero coffee, to Vero gelato, and basically whatever you can imagine in between. There also is a nice eating area with lots of windows where you can feast.
- Wine & Beer to drink in-store: I know Mariano’s has a wine bar, but – unless my memory is failing – I don’t believe it serves beer, nor is it quite as large as the bars in Plum Market, Whole Foods and Eataly. That said, there is a piano on the top level of the floor that adds to the ambiance and may make up for a lesser selection of booze to consume in-store.
- Other Perks: Rewards program; Free parking.
- **Samples: Usually. Some days it has lots, others it has none. It’s hit or miss.
- **Price Range: Cheaper than Whole Foods, Plum Market and Eataly. Although I prefer the atmosphere and ambiance of Plum Market and Whole Foods, Mariano’s seems to be cheaper, carries more name brand items, and you can only find it in Chicago! Eataly is its own beast, so I won’t try to compare it here.
Whole Foods in Lincoln Park is my second favorite of the groceries plus.
- Its Story: I’m sure most of you know Whole Foods, so I won’t go into too much detail here. It’s very similar to Plum Market. The Lincoln Park Whole Foods has everything Plum Market has (and all of its food is natural and organic), but less of its products are from the Illinois and Michigan areas (at least I assume this is the case, but I can’t prove it). Anything you want in a grocery, you can find at this Whole Foods.
- **Prepared Food: This is where Whole Foods has the other groceries plus (other than Eataly) beat. The last time I was in the store, it had mini-restaurants that served all of the following food: a fresh salad bar, deli, hamburgers/rotisserie, pizza/pasta, Vietnamese and noodles, sushi, Mexican, sandwiches, soups… and more.
- **Wine & Beer to drink in-store: Whole Foods has a separate craft beer bar along with a wine and cheese bar. What I love most about these are their locations within the store. The beer bar is near the entrance and exit, so you can grab a beer and a cart, shop, hit the wine bar in the middle of the store and grab a glass of wine, then drop off your beer glass on the way out. Another thing unique to Whole Foods is that the wine bar is a wine AND cheese bar. On Sundays it features international wine and cheese pairings, which are always a real treat. Finally, for Chicago sports enthusiasts, the beer bar has a TV and is always showing a Chicago sports match, so it’s a great place to catch a game.
- Other Perks: Rewards program; Free parking.
- Samples: Some, but fewer than Plum Market and Mariano’s.
- Price Range: Moderate (about the same as Plum Market).
Eataly isn’t exactly a grocery plus – it’s more of a high-end Italian specialty market – but I wanted to include it here anyway.
- **Its Story: Located only in New York, Chicago, Italy and Japan, Eataly is a true experience. You want to go to hang out and see the place, purchase high-quality ingredients for an Italian meal, purchase an Italian-food-themed gift, or stock up on high-end food and cooking products on occasion. I believe I saw a nearly $200 bottle of olive oil there, so it’s not a place to do your regular shopping. It boasts many restaurants, a market, a school, a wine shop, and private dining & events. Fun fact: Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway.
- **Prepared Food: Eataly doesn’t have prepared food, it has restaurants. The restaurants in the Chicago location are: a meat/cheese/apps restaurant, a meat restaurant, a vegetable restaurant, a pizza/pasta restaurant, a gelato restaurant, a Nutella restaurant, a fish restaurant, a rotisserie, a focaccia restaurant, a beer restaurant, a Panini restaurant, a dessert bar, and Baffo (a separate sit-down restaurant located on Grand Ave.). Note, though, that Eataly is located in the tourist district, so it will be more packed with tourists and it is often difficult to get a seat at its most popular restaurants (i.e. La Pizza and La Pasta) without a long wait.
- **Wine & Beer to drink in-store: Eataly has an extensive Italian wine store, a restaurant dedicated to Italian beer, and beer/wine that is served at each of its restaurants within the store.
- Other Perks: Free parking; Classes; High-end gift items.
- Samples: All I found were testers of Italian beauty products located by the restrooms on the second floor (and I tested the s&*t out of them!).
- Price Range: High: Expect to spend $20/plate on a meal and around $12/glass for wine. Expect other gifts and products to cost high-end prices.
Treasure Island is not a grocery plus, but it is a great, less-expensive and European-style grocery that has high-quality products for cheaper prices, along with a salad bar and some prepared food. It also is located only in Chicago. Treasure Island is where I usually go if I truly need to stock up (either that or Walgreens…). It hosts cooking classes and events around Chicago.