It’s been a stressful year, with everyone having many demands on their time and running here and there trying to get things done. So, when my friend Judith’s birthday rolled around, I thought it might be nice to do something relaxing to celebrate instead of having a party or event that required a lot of planning. What we all needed was to get away from all that. I needed to find a retreat where my friends and I could relax, spend time together, and make sure that while we did that, the birthday girl was being treated like a princess. And I did when I contacted The Spa and Lockwood Restaurant at the storied Palmer House in downtown Chicago. I arranged a Girls’ Day Out, complete with facials at The Spa and then High Tea at the Lockwood Restaurant.
My friends Judith and Kelly and I left Kelly’s house with high hopes that morning and headed downtown in beastly traffic, but we made it in time. But, if you’re coming from the suburbs as we were, leave yourself extra time for Chicago’s notoriously random traffic jams. It won’t hurt you to arrive early.
Built by Potter Palmer for his wife Berthe, the first version of the Palmer House Hotel burned 13 days after its grand opening. A second, even grander hotel was immediately rebuilt, opening in 1875, and the Palmer House has been a luxury Chicago institution ever since. The present hotel is the third built on the same spot, designed by Holabird & Roche and constructed in the 1920s, it is full of opulent Art Deco touches and is an absolute treasure for anyone who admires that era’s architecture. It reminds you of an era when going to a luxury hotel truly meant something. And the staff there absolutely takes that heritage seriously.
You can also see the hotel’s age by the state of the parking garage, conveniently located in the basement of the hotel, which is supported by far more piers than would be seen in a modern structure. It made parking somewhat of a challenge, thank Heavens for backup cameras. But the convenience could not be beat and the $18 price for 6 hours of parking is quite reasonable for the location, so there’s no reason to park elsewhere and walk.
After a short elevator ride upward, you emerge into the opulence of the Palmer House’s lobby. It’s truly one of those breathtaking treasures, built to rival the best hotels in New York or Europe. It still evokes a sense of antique grandeur today. A short walk takes you to a second bank of elevators and a quick trip up to the ballroom floor deposits you in a large lobby. A half flight of steps and you arrive on the 5th floor at The Spa at Palmer House and after checking in at its sleek, modern desk, you are whisked away into calm serenity.
We were early, so as we waited for our aestheticians to become available we were treated to tea for me, a glass of Chardonnay for Kelly, and nothing for Judith because she’s like that. We sat in the serene and well-appointed hallway/waiting area on plush modern furniture and chatted in hushed voices because there were other patrons enjoying The Spa’s serenity and we didn’t want to be those nasty suburbanites. You know the ones. The tea, wine, and atmosphere were all excellent. And The Spa takes your care seriously, so we filled in forms about our health, just like we were at the doctor’s office, to ensure they knew everything they needed about our skin before our appointment.
The Spa truly is a wonderful place to relax, and though we were all there for facials, we did peek in at the many other services The Spa offers including the beautiful hydrotherapy room, serene massage rooms, elegant bathroom and shower facilities. The other patrons were similarly respectful of everyone’s space and relaxation and though there were people sitting near us, it was as though we were all in our own little bubbles of peace inside the larger facility.
We were soon joined by our aestheticians. Mine, Katie, had helped to check us in when we’d arrived. I knew she was in for a time as I have rosacea and nearly everything you can put on my face will give me a flare-up. I told her this and she used a suite of aloe-based products that, quite honestly, did a remarkable job of cleansing my skin, including removing the usual grit I get in my nose and a tiny blackhead that was starting on my cheek from spending too much time outdoors. The exfoliant did give me a bit of a reaction, but it did its job and she applied a wonderfully soothing mask on after that that immediately calmed me down. I’ve had facials many times before, from excellent professionals, but the one I got at The Spa is the best I ever have had anywhere. And she had a miracle vitamin K eye cream that made me look like I’d gotten enough sleep despite the fact that I am a chronic insomniac. Both of my friends agreed the facials were exceptional and we all looked fabulous when we were done with our treatments.
Because I’m a reporter, I chatted with Katie the entire time she was working on me and got the lowdown on The Spa. It’s a privately-owned establishment that leases the space at the Hotel, part of a large chiropractic practice, Balanced Flow Wellness, and they take a holistic medical-based approach to the spa experience. Katie has a particular interest in skin problems caused by medical issues and is taking classes to gain even more expertise. It’s undoubtedly why she was so skilled at handling my rosacea. If you have problem skin and wish to have a spa experience, this may be the place for you. They offer a medical grade facial and a completely organic one as well.
Their massage services are similarly medically based, with therapeutic, warm stone, pre-natal and reflexology among the choices. They do hydrotherapy and various body wraps. There’s also access to the hotel’s pool, steam room and fitness facilities on the 8th Floor.
Beauty services like haircuts and styles, manicures and pedicures are also offered. They’ll even apply makeup.
They offer you the opportunity to purchase the products they’ve used on you, but there is no pressure whatsoever to buy. The products are beautifully displayed in the main room of The Spa.
Once we had all emerged with our skin looking like a million bucks, it was time to adjourn to the Lockwood for tea. So downstairs we went.
Full disclosure, we are all tea junkies. Both Kelly and I have entire cupboards devoted entirely to tea and Judith is a foodie of the first water. If you look up my other stories, you’ll find reviews of other tea rooms. It is a thing we like to do and we had high hopes for the Lockwood.
The entry to the Lockwood is in the main lobby of the hotel. In fact, part of the restaurant extends into the lobby, which, if you choose to sit there, places you in perfect position for people-watching. As we like to do that, we opted for the lobby positioning and were treated to the sights and sounds of the busy life of the hotel, including the adorable troop of flower girls for a wedding going on in one of the ballrooms that happened halfway through our tea.
When we were seated, the Lockwood’s manager on duty, Irina, came by to speak with us, as she knew I was there for the magazine. She, similarly, is a tea fiend and we all enthused about the Lockwood’s signature brand, Harney and Sons. If this isn’t a tea brand you ordinarily drink, go out and purchase some right away, the Vanilla Comoro and Hot Cinnamon Spice come highly recommended by me, Kelly, and Irina, tea nerds all. Lockwood has a good selection that doesn’t include either, so both Kelly and I got Darjeeling while Judith opted for a fragrant organic herbal passionfruit. While I love a good tea, I am mostly a black tea drinker and the Harney and Sons Darjeeling is an excellent single varietal with vibrant flavor. I know people always order Earl Gray (which was on offer), but I dislike the bergamot and favor Indian tea over Chinese styles so Darjeeling it was. We each got a lovely pot to go with our Palmer House china tea cups.
When you start with an excellent tea like the Harney and Sons, you start your High Tea off right. The Lockwood then offers a selection of scones (buttermilk and cranberry orange) that come with strawberry jam, whipped butter and the best lemon curd any of us have ever eaten and we all like lemon curd and eat it whenever it’s on offer. Lemon curd can be greasy and this was perfectly flavorful and not greasy at all. It paired perfectly with both types of scones.
If the scones had been the best thing on the menu, the tea would have been a success─they were that good. But, then, we tackled the sandwiches. As I’ve said, we like High Tea. Among the three of us, we’ve attended quite a few High Teas over the years. The Lockwood has hands-down the best tea sandwiches any of us have ever had. They are swoon-worthy and it all started with the bread, baked on premises. The bread was firm, flavorful and was paired with the sandwich ingredients with the care a sommelier takes with selecting the best wine to go with your meal. Each one was practically a poem. If you are having High Tea in place of a meal rather than in place of dessert – go to the Lockwood.
I am super nerdy, so I ate my sandwiches in the order of most subtle to strongest-flavored. I began with the Cucumber sandwich, which was on a nutty multi-grain bread that was delicious all on its own. The cucumber sandwich included yellow squash, radishes, baby spinach and a roasted garlic spread and I could have eaten it all day. It was the best sandwich, in my opinion, but I’m a sucker for a good, hearty multi-grain bread. Next came the prosciutto and asparagus with cream cheese on white. This was a European-style white that had actual body, it wasn’t cakelike, so it paired wonderfully with the meat. It was also delicious. Next was the best chicken salad I’ve ever eaten with red grapes, celery and scallions on white again, which surprised me but worked. This was my second favorite, but still couldn’t quite knock the cucumber off the throne. Then last (and least in my and Judith’s opinion, but first in Kelly’s) was the smoked salmon mousse with capers, cucumbers and fresh dill on marble rye. It was very strongly flavored and good and we were all super happy with the capers, but I would have preferred another cucumber or chicken instead. Kelly had no shame and ate the last half of mine when I couldn’t finish it (I was saving room for dessert).
The desserts were: Lemon vanilla Madeleines – which Judith and I both thought was probably the best we’d ever tasted, but Kelly found too plain because they were Madeleines, which is fair. A macaroon with walnuts, apricot, and chocolate ganache, which I thought was really good but both the others were not as enthusiastic about. A Financier with pistachio and amarenna cherry that was just outstanding and beloved by all. A Verrine with blood orange white chocolate mousse, Brittany cookies, bittersweet mousse and ganache – this was excellent, but I couldn’t finish it. And a Caramel cake pop that I forced myself to taste despite hating cake pops. It was a cake pop, so overly sweet, wet and not worth eating, though it was nice to look at and people who like cake pops would probably like it. But I’m a hater and I’m gonna hate. But our overall assessment was, the sweets were good, 3 of 5 outstanding and one of those was a vanilla Madeline.
It’s a LOT of food. We are not dainty flowers, hadn’t eaten all day, and we couldn’t finish what was set before us. And those sandwiches are substantial and there are 4 of them. People don’t go to High Tea for value for money, but oddly, that’s what Lockwood provides. It’s a gorgeous experience and the food is extremely high-quality and it’s the actual meal portions, rather than the sweets, that are truly exceptional. That was the takeaway surprise of the day. Go for the sandwiches.
We stayed and chatted a bit longer. Each drank a second pot of tea, because that’s how we are, and then piled back into the car to go home. It was, in fact, the perfect Girl’s Day Out.
The Lockwood also puts on family teas with a children’s special menu, so it might also make a superb family day. Especially during the holiday season where there are additional holiday activities.
If you’d really like to make a day of it, reservations for rooms at the Palmer House can be acquired here, and you can sample the pool and the steam rooms (though you can do that through The Spa as well.)
Photography provided by The Spa at the Palmer House, The Lockwood Restaurant and Suzanne Magnuson.