Last year, the Chicago Bulls failed to reach the playoffs, which prevented them from playing in front of fans at the United Center. The Chicago Blackhawks also missed the postseason, but the NHL team was allowed to play end-of-season games in front of a 25-percent full arena in May.
When the United Center hosted Chicago media on Monday afternoon, it was the first time since the pandemic that one of the city’s sports arenas had held a food preview. It’s a positive sign after the last 20 months. The Blackhawks opened its home schedule Tuesday. The Bulls will do the same Friday. In a post-vaccine world, there’s a decreased risk of spread and the United Center is gearing up for a full season at 100 percent capacity. Still there a few rules for fans:
- COVID-19 vaccine or negative test required for ages 12 and up
- Masks required unless “actively” eating or drinking; yes — even while seated
- No paper tickets; only mobile for entry
- Cashless payments only
- No bags — even purses — other than medical or diaper bags (there are bag checks on premises). Maximum size for a wallet is 4 inches by 6 inches by 1 inches.
With the extra care due to COVID-19, it shouldn’t be much of a shock that there are no new food stalls this season. The labor situation, which sees restaurants struggling in filling staff positions, is one factor. Another is not many chefs can afford to leave their restaurants and spend time at the United Center, to teach arena workers how to properly cook their food. They’re needed at their own restaurants to keep their ships afloat.
But that doesn’t mean the stadium’s food experience won’t be different. Check out what’s new at the home of the Bulls and Blackhawks.
A struggle in past seasons, the United Center has stepped up its game with a — according to management — secure way of ordering food via mobile phone. Fans don’t want to miss the game while waiting for an order, and the United Center doesn’t want to see large lines during a pandemic. Customers can order from their seats and pick up their food from lines dedicated to mobile orders. As away from the arena, fans grew used to reading menus on their phones with QR Codes. United Center management feels mobile ordering will increase this season, above the 20 percent of food orders in past season. Fans need to download the United Center app. Also, look out for QR codes littered throughout the arena that will bring up menus via smartphones. Be sure to call up the menu that corresponds to the correct section.
This year, United Center has a heavier reliance on cashless payments. Though, some will point out inequalities with going cashless, there’s also a fear about COVID-19 spread through the handling of money. Then there’s the aforementioned labor shortage — why hire a human to count money when a card reader can provide a higher return on investment?
With that, welcome to the 1800 Market, located near the Jordan Statue in the East Atrium upon entering the arena. Fans can also access it via Section 107.
Customers can enter the market by swiping their credit card to open the doors. They can then grab Garrett’s Popcorn, candy, Kettle Chips, salads, ice cream novelties, and — yes, even canned Bud Light or Goose Island and wine (two drinks per ID; yes they still check customers if they’re of drinking age). The market, powered by Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech, keeps track of what customers pick up (the shelves are weighted), and when they exit, they’re automatically charged for what they take. Fans can get in and out in under a minute, management claims. Similar markets are at TD Garden in Boston and Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.
More Veggie and Vegan Options
Legacy Burger (Sections 108, 213, 313), the United Center’s in-house smashed burger stalls, is going veggie this year with patties from Lightlife. Meanwhile Chicago Dish (Sections 104, 222, 305, 322) will serve up a veggie version of a Chicago-style hot dog with Field Roast wieners.
Meanwhile, the most popular dish at the United Center media tour was the Light Life Plant Based Tender; the starving press corps gobbled the entire allotment up on the tasting table. Hopefully, whoever is working the fryer on game day is paying attention and won’t under or over cook them — these tenders are fine when paired with ranch or barbecue.
New Dishes in Old Places
Chicago’s Plate, the program of luring chefs from restaurants into the United Center, continues, but there are no new recruits for the reasons outlined above. Instead, the UC chose to encourage past vendors to weave new items into their menus.
- This Little Goat Went to the Taqueria (Sections 114, 230), Iron Chef Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat, Cabra) returns with a tasty new short-rib taco and the “Nacho Average Nachos” (shredded Hong Kong beef short rib, pickled red onion, pickled peppers, queso fresco) that will compete with stadium helmet nachos (Earlier in October, Bulls announcer Adam Amin lavished praise on White Sox Park’s identical version while on-air alongside St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Adam Wainwright). In a curious bit of marketing, the Blackhawks are pushing fans to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos on October 27 with Izard’s tacos and drinks from Don Julio and Smirnoff Spicy Tamarind. Hockey, gringo tacos, and vodka make somehow sense for this crowd.
- Lillie’s Q (Section 119), Pitmaster Charlie McKenna has been a United Center fixture for years, and he returns with the LQ Sampler Platter (pulled pork, brisket, hot links, fries, pickles, onions), a pimento dog, and a very impressive loaded brisket fries platter.
- Honey Butter Fried Chicken (Section 115), HBFC’s food is consistent and they’re finally bringing the actual honey butter with them to the stadium along with corn muffins.
Queenie’s Supper Club
Now fully under Levy after Heisler Hospitality’s (Queen Mary, Sportsman’s Club, Pub Royale) exit, Queenie’s, the full-service restaurant located above the East Atrium has a new chef: Aaron Browning (Tortoise Supper Club). The menu includes “Queenie’s Lazy Susan” (in the tradition of Wisconsin Supper Club relish trays), pan-seared scallops, chops, and cocktails. Read the full menu below.