I have been suffering from a severe lack of fondue. When my wife suggested we go out on a date Saturday night, I knew where I wanted to take her - Geja's on Armitage in Chicago.
For years, Geja's has been rated the "Most Romantic Restaurant in Chicago". I'd been there once many years ago with a girlfriend, but I hadn't been back since and more inexcusably, I had never taken my wife there.
We arrived at Geja's on foot from the Armitage El station, about a three to four block walk. The restaurant itself is down a few stairs. Not a problem, except that a gaggle of women who were presumably too young to try out the meat market at Gibson's were blocking the stairs. A few "excuse me's" and dirty looks and the more oblivious of the tarted up post-Trixies moved out of the way to let us pass.
Inside, Geja's looks pretty much the way I remember it from a dozen plus years ago and probably the way it's looked since it opened in 1965. Bottles hid behind cages with wooden breakfronts set in rich wood panelling to divide the space into small rooms with warm low candlelight and stained glass ceiling fixture lighting. On entry we were told it would be about an hour before we could sit. Normally, I'd have made a reservation, but Geja's does not take reservations after 5:30 on weekends according to its voicemail.
We retired to the bar and sampled some excellent Reislings by the glass while we were waiting. A live guitarist played classic guitar that was pleasant, but never intrusive. On each table, cellophane wrapped crackers in a wicker basket were accompanied by a crock of cheese spread and a spreading knife. The cheese was great, but unwrapping the crackers made me feel a little like I was in a diner ordering soup.
We were seated after only about twenty minutes under an in-ceiling light fixture covered by a stained glass window. I'm not 100% certain, but it may have been the same table I sat at a dozen years prior. On the table a small Le Creuset pot sat with lid on, under which a can of sterno gel sat. The waiter lit the sterno under the lidded mystery pot and let us look over the menu.
The most common way to have fondue at Geja's is to get one of their full meals which consists of cheese fondue appetizer, vegetable and meat or seafood fondue, followed by a chocolate fondue. We went with the scallop meal which at first felt pricy at $28/person, but considering it included three courses, is actually pretty reasonable.
Our first course consisted of slightly stale white and black bread cubes, grapes, and apples that we dipped with color coded long fondue forks into a second fondue pot brought to our table that had melted cheese with wine, nutmeg, garlic, and white pepper. This is the classic dish people think of when they think of fondue. It was very nice and the shared dipping experience was good for conversation. I recommend leaving grapes in the cheese a good minute so the grape will warm up.
With the second course, the purpose of the pot that had been lit when we sat down was revealed. Inside it was oil, which now boiled. We were presented with a large tray of scallops, thickly sliced onions, small peeled potatoes, white button mushrooms, broccoli, green and red pepper slices. The waiter clued us in to the key technique, which is to put a scallop on your skewer then put a potato or mushroom on the end to keep the scallop from falling off.
Also included were an array of dipping sauces including curry, horseradish cream, teriyaki, butter, barbecue, dill, cocktail sauce, and a sweet buttermilk dressing. The routine - load a skewer, sink it in the hot oil, and let it go for a couple of minutes, then pull it out, dip and eat. I enjoyed the horseradish and cocktail sauces the most, but the teriyaki went well with the scallops and the barbecue was pretty good on a well cooked mushroom.
By this point we were stuffed, but out came the chocolate fondue. A glaze of alcohol on top was lit on fire and we toasted marshmallows over the flame. When the flame died down, we dipped a few apple slices, canteloupe chunks, strawberry slices, pineapple chunks and pound cake cubes into the liquid chocolate goo.
We left the restaurant one wafer-thin mint away from exploding.
I loved the romantic but outdated decor of Geja's and enjoyed the food, though it was way too much grub for the two of us. I recommend the restaurant to couples and friends looking to share an unusual meal, recapture the late 1960's, or recreate an experience in a Swiss mountain chalet (especially good if you break a leg first).
Because of the pots of boiling oil on the tables, I think I'd avoid bringing kids to dinner with you here, though it might be a good place to share with parents or in-laws who don't dislike you (again - the proximity of pots of boiling oil).
340 West Armitage (between Lincoln and Clark)
Chicago, Illinois 60614