Ditka's scores with casual atmosphere, diverse menu
Heaven help me if I jinxed the Chicago bears.
On a recent Saturday evening I dropped by Ditka's for dinner -- as in former coach Mike Ditka's new steak and chop house in Arlington Heights -- and snapped a selfie with his jersey thinking I could somehow channel Da Coach's greatness and direct it toward the team. I don't need to tell you that didn't work.
Ditka's2000 W. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights, (847) 496-3800, ditkasrestaurants.com
Cuisine: Steaks, chops and seafood
Setting: Heavy wood and rich colors, but not overtly masculine
Dinner entrees: $17.95-$42.95
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Must be that all the Ditka greatness swirling around the universe lands right back at his restaurant, because chef Eduardo Castillo has a winning menu that's scoring big points with diners.
Ditka's Restaurant opened, or rather reopened, in June. Back in the 1980s when Trackside opened as off-track betting facility at Euclid Avenue and New Wilke Road, the hall-of-famer operated a restaurant there. That relationship lasted a handful of years.
The reintroduction makes Ditka's Arlington Heights spot the largest of his three Illinois eateries (others are in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago) with 312 seats in the main dining room and space for another 250 in a private room. In warmer weather, the terrace seats 125.
Yet, the dining room doesn't feel cavernous. Dark paneling and glass partitions break up the dimly lit room into comfortable spaces. The sports-themed art is understated (save for the Chicago legends mural and the framed jerseys in the bathrooms) and, most unexpectedly but definitely most appreciated, there are no TVs in the dining room. If you want to eat while watching the ponies or a game -- the Blackhawks, perhaps? -- you can do so in the bar at Trackside.
My small group settled into a comfortable table (I noticed no booths) and set about discussing the beverage and appetizer options. A nice selection of cocktails, craft beers and stadium brews and wines by the glass or bottle is available and we found a few glasses in the $7 to $10 range to sate our thirst. And then we attacked an order of Coach's Pot Roast Nachos. Tender shreds of slow-cooked beef mixed with melty cheddar-jack cheese sat atop a mound of crisp tortilla chips. Jalapeños and tomatoes added color and flavor without overpowering. If I stopped into Ditka's for happy hour, this is all I would need to make me happy. Bruschetta with Brie, fried calamari and habanero chicken wings are among the other starters, but seriously, get the nachos.
The Arlington Park spot is more casual and affordable than Ditka's more traditional steakhouses. A number of sliders and artisan pizzas could be enjoyed as either appetizers or lighter meals; plus there are entree salads, burgers and tacos that appeal to those not wanting a gargantuan hunk of meat. Chicago steakhouse a la carte rules don't apply here: Ditka's steaks, chops, seafood and pastas come with a house or Caesar salad. But if you want soup or a side, such as creamed spinach, jalapeño hash browns or island rice, it will cost you extra -- quite a bit extra if the side you desire is Coach's Lobster Mac and Cheese.
Our game plan included a masterfully seasoned and perfectly cooked 12-ounce prime rib (available Friday and Saturday only), salmon with a mélange of sauteed vegetables and the house specialty: Da Pork Chop. I didn't have high hopes for the double-boned Berkshire chop; pork chops so easily can get dried out. But the kitchen was at top of its game and executed the juiciest chop I've had the pleasure to know. Served with sweet potatoes and cranberry chutney, the dish celebrated autumn.
The salads were equally pleasant, though I wouldn't have turned down a grind of fresh pepper. My highest praise goes to the cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Fresh and bright, it comes standard on the entree Cuban salad and makes the simple house salad sing. Next time I'm asking for a bottle of it to go!
We strayed from steakhouse classics Key lime pie and chocolate cake and discovered that the raspberry cheesecake with soft shards of white chocolate deserves a more prominent spot in the dessert lineup.
You'd do well to add Ditka's to your dining lineup this season, whether for a pregame Bloody Mike (a beefed up Mary) with buddies, or a nice night out with your home team.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.