One of the most historic restaurants in the city has become beloved for more than its food.
“The Walnut Room is best known for its holiday tradition,” says executive chef Brad Saylor, as a 45-foot Christmas tree towers in the middle of his dining room. “We just celebrated our 115th anniversary, so we go back as one of the oldest restaurants in Chicago. I call ourselves the protector of traditions.”
Its most iconic dish, Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, is said to date back even further to 1890. The chef brought back The Field Special, an open-face sandwich and salad combo from the 1940s, for the holidays. The pot pie, however, remains the fan favorite year-round, whatever its true origin story, but new traditions have emerged around The Great Tree.
“During the holidays, the Poinsettia and The Walnut Room Old-Fashioned are the bestselling drinks,” Saylor says.
The Poinsettia simply pours sparkling wine and cranberry juice together. But a nonalcoholic variation substitutes TÖST instead. The relatively new spirit-free sparkling beverage is made with white tea, white cranberry and ginger for a dry and complex finish.
The Walnut Room Old-Fashioned, on the other hand, mixes bourbon by FEW Spirits with housemade walnut-infused simple syrup and black walnut bitters. It is the signature drink on the chef-created craft cocktail menu.
“We figured out about five or six years ago that we really wanted to be local with our beverage selections,” Saylor says. “All of our beers are local. And we partnered with FEW out of Evanston, which was huge for us. Because people come from all over the world to go to The Walnut Room. And the people who are not from Chicago are like, ‘What can I try that’s local?’”
Before he knew it, his staff was selling about 20,000 old-fashioneds, alongside 30,000 chicken pot pies, just for the holidays.
There’s also a limited-edition holiday mug, an elegant, clear glass cousin to the Christkindlmarket’s ugly sweater mugs. This year, The Walnut Room mug is etched in white with a tree on one side and a 115th anniversary banner on the other.
But the chef’s tour of the store formerly and forever known as Marshall Field’s on State Street does not start at the restaurant.
“If family comes into town, the first place we’re going is the dome for sure,” says Saylor, who has worked in the building for 19 years. “The Tiffany dome is my favorite spot. You’re talking about 1.6 million pieces of iridescent glass that were hand placed. That’s my Zen place. If I’m having a bad day, I will go to the Tiffany dome and I can stare at that thing forever. It’s such an architectural joy to be around, and I don’t know that a lot of people know that it’s even there.”
His favorite vantage point can be found by taking the Randolph Street elevators to the fifth floor.
Then comes the full Walnut Room experience, but it doesn’t begin in the dining room.
“I show them our culinary studio, which I think really sets us apart from other restaurants as we have our own space where we can demo celebrity chefs,” Saylor says. “It’s all decorated for Christmas, so it looks really pretty.”
To find the studio from the restaurant, walk west toward the kitchen doors.
When asked if he had a favorite table in the dining room, the chef paused before answering.
“Everybody has their own,” Saylor says. “But for me, I have to sit on the State Street window side.”
Especially with memories of a very special guest.
“I invited my mother, before she passed a couple of years ago,” says the chef. “She came in with her friends — and we’re talking about her friends since fifth grade. We put them by the windows and it snowed, like really heavy snowflakes. It was like being in a snow globe, it was so beautiful.”
After dark, the twinkling lights glow even brighter, woven within tree branches and the wreaths hung in the windows high above State Street. The restaurant is called The Walnut Room because of the warm walnut wood that cocoons the room, specially imported from Russia in the early 1900s, as were the crystal chandeliers from Austria.
The chef’s tour also includes a visit to the fountain on the first floor. Designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham in 1904, the plans were lost, so the water feature wasn’t built until a store renovation in 1987.
You might find it on your way down to the basement, home to a sweets shop and adjacent wine shop, where you’ll find Frango mints in boxes, liqueur and beer.
“We probably sell 2 million pounds of Frango chocolate a year,” Saylor says.
You’ll also find Brown Sugar Bakery-branded chocolate, since critically acclaimed chef Stephanie Hart took over Cupid Candies in 2020.
Holiday reservations at The Walnut Room traditionally open early in October. The tree lighting ceremony takes place on the first Saturday in November. The tree remains lit until the first Sunday in January.
The restaurant’s reservations are officially booked until Jan. 3, but you can still get a seat sooner if you know where to look.
You’ll find a few reservations most easily on the OpenTable app (notably, though, not on the website), likely due to cancellations. You can also set an alert for a notification if a table becomes available at a specific date and time.
The Walnut Room is located on the seventh floor of Macy’s on State Street. You can take an express elevator, but it can be packed during the holidays. Escalators offer glimpses onto every floor.
You can also walk into The Wine Bar at The Walnut Room. A host and a server said on a recent visit that small parties can find seats just about any time at a communal table with private club vibes. It has a view of not only the tree, but the main dining room overlooking State Street too.
The former ladies’ lunchroom may be a destination best appreciated after dark during the holidays, but there are also drag brunches filled with boisterous fun. The menu features some traditional brunch items, but expect some specials created for each event.
“I have the freedom to do whatever I think might match up well with the theme,” the chef said. “I’m proud to be a part of it. And it’s all walks of life that come.”
The new holiday traditions go beyond Christmas, though the next drag brunch will be a Mariah Carey-themed “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on Jan. 7.
111 N. State St., 312-781-3139, macysrestaurants.com/walnut-room
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