Updated: August 15, 2013 6:21AM
As soon as Jaime Lyn Beatty placed a plate full of deep-dish pizza in front of me, I knew I was in for a treat that would linger for hours.
Beatty is a tour guide for Tastebud Tours Chicago, a delicious business that is owned and operated by a Northwest Indiana family. Founded in 2009 by Lynn Jaynes of Chesterton, the year-round tours offer a daily guided feast to several eateries and other iconic sites within walking distance along the beautiful Gold Coast.
“Are there any vegetarians here?” asked Jaynes inside Pizano’s Pizza on north State Street. “No? Well, thank you. This specific tour is great for meat lovers.”
This past Thursday, beginning at 11 a.m., I attended a lunch-time Tastebud tour with a dozen other guests, including from Northwest Indiana, Chicago, other states, and even one family from France.
Jaynes welcomed us to the tour while we sampled pizza, then he whetted our appetites by explaining our upcoming plans for the next three hours. After Pizano’s, we would walk to the famous Drake Hotel, then to L’Appetito, an Italian deli and bakery in front of the Hancock building, followed by Downtown Dogs, Billy Goat Tavern, Fannie May, Heaven on Seven, and other spots in between.
Our tour group followed him and Beatty, who offered endless tidbits, fun-facts and history about the Windy City while we noshed on hot dogs, cheeseburgers (Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger!), and brownies, which originated in Chicago, we learned.
“If you have early dinner plans tonight in the city, I suggest you cancel them,” quipped Jaynes, who also has a home in Chicago. “Look at those poor people on the bus tours, wishing they could be you.”
While walking along Oak Street, Jaynes joked that he has to be a “plastic surgeon” there because he has to extract his wife’s credit cards, due to all the high-priced store items.
Jaynes is part businessman, part showman, part historian, part Barnum, and part Bailey. He wrote the initial script for the Tastebud tours but he encourages his ever-entertaining tour guides to improvise along the way, appropriately so in the Second City.
Jaynes seems perfect for this food-meets-fun, foot-friendly company, which he founded after getting laid off from a sales job he worked for 30 years.
After a soul-searching, middle-aged period of “What do I do now?” he used the timeless recipe of purpose and passion to invent Tastebud Tours, with his wife, Karon. Together, along with their 29-year-old daughter, Tiffany Jaynes, they have since expanded the family business with similarly-styled tours in New Orleans and San Francisco.
“There are 77 ethnic neighborhoods and 7,700 restaurants in Chicago,” Lynn Jaynes told me as we walked toward the iconic Billy Goat Tavern on the lower level of north Michigan. “Here, it’s more about the ambiance than the cheeseburgers.”
I’ve always thought the same thing about that place: You eat there for the flavor of the joint more than the flavor of the food.
At the Drake Hotel, Beatty gave guests behind-the-scenes history lessons, including its “wall of fame,” celebrity guest stories (such as Princess Diana’s one and only night there), and the legend of the hotel’s infamous “Lady in Red” ghost sightings.
On a picture-postcard-perfect day for such a walking tour, we strolled across the drawbridge on Michigan Avenue, dined at a sidewalk eatery, and learned that Fanny May is a fictional name whose best seller is still the chocolate pixie.
“Chicago is the best city in the whole world,” said the manager of the Drake Hotel’s popular Palm Court, a native of Malaysia who just received his green card for permanent U.S. residency.
Indeed it is, as this lively yet leisurely experience reminded me.
Throughout the tour I felt like, well, a tourist, clutching a map and following a tour guide who held a “FOOD TOUR” sign to lead our way. But a well-fed, well-walked and well-educated tourist who had a wonderful time learning more about the city while downing Fanny May chocolates, seafood gumbo and spicy jambalaya.
At Heaven on Seven, a Cajun-style restaurant with a Mardi-Gras atmosphere, I got a kick from the hundreds of bottles of hot sauce lining its walls, including my favorite label, “Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally.”
I’m not a big history buff, but I found every historical tidbit a lot tastier than ever while sampling a smorgasbord of Chicago-style treats along the way. (Visit www.post-trib.com or my Facebook page to watch a video of Jaynes in action and for more photos.)
While listening to Jaynes explain the history behind certain sites and sounds in the city, I realized not enough region residents know about this locally owned, internationally known business, which also caters to birthday gatherings, bachelorette parties and corporate events.
The company also offers a “Flavors of Chicago” “Savor Chicago” and “Sweet Chicago Dessert” tour, and it is ranked highly on the TripAdvisor website. Other restaurant participants include The Berghoff, Devon Seafood Grill, and Sugar Bliss.
At the end of my tour, I heard one female guest tell another with a happy sigh, “I’m pooped.” Her friend replied with a smile, “And I’m stuffed.”
I felt the same way, though I still had the energy to attend the Taste of Chicago later that day. (It was no comparison to Tastebud Tours.)
For more info or to book a tour ($44 per guest), email at email@example.com, call 929-6648, or visit www.tastebudtours.com. Use this special “PT” discount code, be sure to wear comfortable shoes, and definitely bring an appetite.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.