Culture | May 3, 2022 8:00 am

Chicago’s Most Unbearable Tourist Destination Is Now a Foodie Haven

From tourist trap to hedonist delight

Navy Pier
Navy Pier
Mike Schwartz Photography

Those looking for an Instagram-worthy before-and-after story should look no further than Chicago’s Navy Pier. And just like most good before-and-after stories, this one contains major obstacles to get to that finish point: A pandemic, riots and a swarm of mudpuppies.

Sable at Navy Pier Lobby
Sable at Navy Pier Lobby
Mike Schwartz Photograph

Before

Navy Pier, the 3,300-foot pier on Lake Michigan’s shore, has never lacked visitors. Frequently cited as the number-one tourist destination in the Windy City, Navy Pier contains the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and plenty of conference and party space — which naturally draw guests.

But. . . it also has vendor upon vendor selling Chicago T-shirts, keychains, necklaces, teddy bears — and all other souvenirs known to visitors. Combine that with a McDonald’s, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and hordes of slow-moving, camera-strapped tourists, and this is a spot for locals to avoid at all costs. 

So Navy Pier’s governing body made a decision: It was time for a reboot.

“Navy Pier has made a deliberate effort to attract more restaurants and small businesses to take up residence here,” says Nick Pullia, the senior advisor to Navy Pier.

The Obstacles 

Cue the pandemic. Just as Navy Pier decided to add a hotel and plenty of local and high-end restaurants, the pandemic forced massive closures, resulting in deficits of $20 million to the pier just in 2020 alone. And still, construction continued. 

Sable At Navy Pier hotel, designed to draw visitors and locals looking to stay directly on Navy Pier, actually completed the majority of their construction in November 2020, and were nearly ready to open their doors when the pandemic arrived — and riots, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, soon followed.

And then came the Wisconsin mudpuppies. These fish are active throughout the pier, and they spawn in March. 

“When the Department of Natural Resources realized that we would be working in March, they asked us to stop until the middle of April 2020, so that the mudpuppies would spawn,” says Bob Habeeb, the CEO of Maverick Hotels & Restaurants, trying not to laugh at his misfortune. “We sat idle for the month.” 

After 

They made it through a pandemic, riots and Wisconsin mudpuppies. And Navy Pier is now nearly unrecognizable. The Sable Hotel, complete with Offshore Chicago and Lirica restaurants, brings luxury to the pier. They even boast the world’s largest rooftop bar, and have the World Records to prove it. 

And Navy Pier itself added a handful of local restaurants, ranging from Harry Caray’s Tavern (the barbecue here is just beyond) to The Original Rainbow Cone (quite possibly the best local ice-cream ever) to Xurro (specializing in churros and funnel cakes).

“One of our great success stories is Stephanie Hart and her Brown Sugar Bakery,” Pullia says. “We discovered Stephanie’s shop selling down home delights on 75th street, and invited her to open a second location at Navy Pier.” 

Next up: Art Smith’s Reunion restaurant — from the Hyde Park native who gained fame as Oprah’s chef — is expected to open this summer. 

Suite, Sable at Navy Pier
Suite, Sable at Navy Pier
Mike Schwartz Photograph

Bringing All the Guests 

As they hoped, Navy Pier killed their pre-pandemic numbers, and they expect these to rise even higher soon. According to their most recent weekly attendance data, 235,000 people visited between April 6 and 12, 2022, compared with 101,000 in 2019 during that same time. They’re anticipating 35,000 visitors for a single event in June, as Navy Pier is the only US location of SaleGP, the global, breakneck hydrofoil race.

“If you haven’t been to Navy Pier in the past five years, you haven’t been to Navy Pier,” Pullia says. 

True story.