Chicago's Best Hot Chocolate: Ten Places to Love.

Chicago's Best Hot Chocolate: Ten Places to Love.

CHICAGO, Thursday, December 20, 2012. It's coming, the cold bitter winds, the icy streets, the big white flakes that are all part of a Chicago winter. This December hosts the earliest winter since 1896, with the official first day of winter blowing in with the solstice at 5:12 A.M. this Friday, December 21 (CST).

With the "cruelest" months still ahead it's important to be armed with the perfect antidote to winter's chill, hot chocolate.

But what makes a good cup? Is it the cup, the ingredients, the company, the atmosphere?

Although the Aztecs and Mayans were drinking a crude version of hot chocolate many moons ago, their drink bears little resemblance to today's brews. Made from cocoa beans that were also used as currency, the Aztec/Mayan drink was a thick, cold, unsweetened drink, flavored with hot chili peppers, called xocoatl.  The bitter drink was believed to be a health elixir and was drunk more for that reason than as a pleasurable indulgence.

Now hot chocolate is a delicious sweet treat enjoyed year round but especially during the winter and holiday season.  The basic cup of hot chocolate is a combination of chocolate, sugar and either milk, cream or water. From there the sky's the limit. There's the trendy bean to cup hot chocolate where the cocoa beans are ground on-site, not unlike coffee beans, and then served in various guises.   Less trendy spots just add Swiss Miss powder to hot milk (or, worse yet, water), stir, pour the mixture into a Styrofoam cup and call it a day.

After sampling and surveying hot chocolate from all around the town, we have put together a menu of eclectic hot chocolate choices from the popular Mexican hot chocolates,  salted caramel hot chocolate, Belgian and Spanish hot chocolates, boozy hot chocolates to hot chocolates infused with coffee, tea, peppermint and more for your winter survival guide.

1. The Park Cafe or the Park Grill in Millennium Park.

The Park Cafe, located in Chicago's winter wonderland known as Millennium Park, offers a milk chocolate flavored hot chocolate topped with mini marshmallows for $2.50 either, to-go, or to drink inside.  The Café, located next to the park's fabulous ice rink even has rubber mats on the floor so skaters can keep their skates on.  In addition to hot chocolate, the Park Café serves coffee, churros and other handheld desserts. The more upscale Park Grill, located next door, serves its creamy milk chocolate hot chocolate topped with a vanilla marshmallow for $5. They also offer an adult hot chocolate where you can add a shot of your favorite liquor.(whipped cream and other infused flavors are also available at both restaurants) 11 N. Michigan Ave.

2. George's Ice Cream and Sweets.

George's Ice Cream and Sweets located in Chicago's trendy Andersonville neighborhood is a sweet lovers dream for everything from their cupcakes to milkshakes.  But their specialty hot chocolates do not take a back seat to anything.  They are infused with a unique mix of seasonal flavorings from pumpkin spice and the to die-for Nutella to the refreshing mint--simple but delicious or simply delicious.  5306 N Clark St.

3. xocoatl.

Maybe it was the churros, maybe it was the price, but for an uncomplicated cup of xoco (cocoa) this Pilsen enclave, xocoatl, named after the original Mayan drink hits the spot. Choose from five different hot chocolates, Abuelita Mexican, White, Spice Mexican, Mayan Mocha and Peppermint from $2 to $3 plus made on the spot churros for $1 each.  Sans the Styrofoam cup this place rocks.  Pilsen (2214 S. Wolcott) and five other locations.

4.  Allium at Four Seasons.

Allium, with its inviting fireplace and cozy lounge and bar seating, is an ideal place to toast to the holidays or escape winter's icy bite with a specialty hot chocolate or a chocolate cocktail.  The recently opened Allium at Four Seasons (February 2012) that replaced the stuffier Seasons has become a favorite for many Chicagoans for their imaginative and creative menu created by Chicago's superstar chef Kevin Hickey. Their holiday hot chocolate menu paired with complimentary roasted chestnuts will put you in the spirit. You can choose the non-alcoholic virgin hot chocolates or the spiked versions of:  Mexican Hot Chocolate, $11: or $16 with a shot of Tequila,  Guajillo, Abuelas Churros and Dulce De Leche; Haute Chocolate, $14 or $20 with a Shot of Grand Marnier, Spiced Marshmallows, Pumpkin Truffle; or Jack Frost, $15 Stoli Vanil Vodka, Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, Peppermint Schnapps, Housemade White Chocolate Peppermint Bark. 7th Floor, inside Four Seasons Hotel Chicago at 120 E. Delaware Place, 312 799 4900.

5.  Katherine Anne Confections.

Katherine Anne Confections  is a local organic chocolatier with an amazing array of exquisite chocolates from truffles to rich luscious, creamy hot chocolate. It has been said that Katherine Anne's hot chocolates contain almost as much chocolate as a half-pound box of truffles. At $7, the price is a little steep, but oh, so worth it.  2745 W. Armitage.

6. Xoco.

A favorite of many is Rick Bayless' 40-seat casual Xoco Restaurant--a hot chocolate lovers paradise. His bean-to-cup Mexican "sipping chocolate" is made with freshly ground cacao beans, roasted on the premises.  Rick pays the same attention to detail with his sipping chocolate menu as he does with his world-famous margaritas.  Popular choices include: Authentic: Fresh-ground Chocolate and Water at $2.75; Aztec: fresh-ground chocolate + water + chile + allspice for $2.75: a classic: chocolate shot + 2% milk for $3.25; an Almendrado: chocolate shot + almond milk for $3.25 and a Mexico City Thick (Champurrado) for $3.25. 449 N. Clark Street.

7.  Julius Meinl.

Julius Meinl, a well known name in Vienna, Austria and Central Europe, has brought a taste of Vienna to the Windy City.  Their Euro-style cafes, in three Chicago North Side locations, are known for their stylish settings and unique presentations featuring silver platters. A great escape on a cold winter's day and a welcome addition to Chicago, Julius Meinl's "drinking chocolates" are made with steamed milk and 70% strength imported cocoa providing a full-bodied dark hot chocolate, that is masterfully balanced to be neither bitter nor overpowering..  Southport and Addison, Lincoln and Montrose or 4115 N. Ravenswood.

8. Caribou.

Who knew Caribou Coffee, with locations almost everywhere, is a favorite with hot chocolate connoisseurs.  After hearing the name Caribou come up, over and over again, whenever I mentioned hot chocolate, I decided to give it a whirl. I was not disappointed. Caribou offers a rich, decadent hot chocolate menu with a nod to the European approach of blending melted chocolate bars into the milk. The only difference, Caribou uses melted chocolate chips (dark, milk or white) mixed with a variety of flavors for their popular hot chocolate creations.

9. Mindy's Hot Chocolate.

Not to be left in the cold, Mindy Segal's Bucktown Hot Chocolate restaurant has to be on the radar of any hot chocolate lover.  Segal's rich hot chocolate, can be ordered by the per cent chocolate for your taste. She has seven varieties of hot chocolate including light (milk chocolate), medium (with a dollop of caramel) to dark, and her popular Black and Tan, which is part hot chocolate, part hot fudge. 1747 N Damen Ave, 773-489-1747.

10. The Walnut Room at Macy's on State.

Looking for a traditional cup, Macy's serves both an adult and children's hot chocolate in the Walnut Room under the "Great Tree" during the holiday season from the first week in November through the first week in the New Year. For adults there's the Peppermint Patty Hot Chocolate featuring cocoa, peppermint schnapps, vodka, Goldschlager, topped with whipped cream for $6.95.  For the little ones the hot chocolate beverage is included in the price of the lunch on the kids menu and comes in a decorated take-home glass mug stamped with the year and drawing of "The Great Tree". The Walnut Room, 7th floor, Macy's, 111 N State St.

PLUS...

Christkrindl Market on Daley Plaza (if you hurry).

My sweet tooth and the cold got the best of me after visiting the Sweet Home Chicago exhibition at the Harold Washington Library Center. I needed something sweet and warm...and even better chocolate. So I headed several blocks north to the Christkrindl Market at Washington and Dearborn for hot chocolate in a boot. Every year Dinkles Bakery serves a variety of sweet treats including their popular Stollen and their must have hot chocolate that can be purchased in a souvenir holiday ceramic boot. The hot chocolate in the boot is $7 with as many $1 refills as you want. If you just want the hot chocolate in a paper cup it is $3. For ages 21 and up, the boot can also be filled with hot spiced wine. Through December 24.

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