Been to Chicago lately? If not, you’ve missed its transformation into a chic international destination. There’s no better time than now to see the Windy City, with its classic landmarks and colorful history.
CHICAGO Is in transition. New skyscrapers overtake classic landmarks almost overnight. The latest music, couture, and culinary trends wash up on the shores of Lake Michigan daily. But this most American of cities has a way of celebrating both the timeless and the hip. Here’s where to stay and what to do in a city where even the old is new again.
Classic • Lou Mitchell’s Vintage would be the polite way to describe Lou’s place, which has been frying eggs and slinging joe as long as anyone in the Loop can remember. “We do our own Quality Baking” trumpets the sign outside. But the retro diner—a stone’s throw from Greek Town—also serves up fluffy, jumbo omelets with tomatoes, peppers, feta, Greek sausage, and other fixings. Like things rich? Try the bacon-bit-laced sour cream omelette special. Just don’t tell your cardiologist. 565 W. Jackson Blvd., 312-939-3111.
Chic • Bongo Room A favorite with Wicker Park hipsters and South Loop up-and-comers, this contemporary eatery specializes in flapjacks with flavors like s’more banana and cornmeal apple cranberry. (The portions are ample. Ask for a half order.) À la carte items, like eggs and Thai ginger–chicken sausages, are also available. 1152 S. Wabash Ave., 312-291-0100; 1470 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-489-0690.
Classic • Architecture River Cruise History and art come together seamlessly in this popular one-and-a-half-hour cruise operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. As the boat meanders up the city’s once-fetid waterway, docents regale passengers with facts, figures, and a few fables while pointing out such landmarks as the Merchandise Mart, Tribune Building, and Marina Towers. Tours depart late April through mid-November from the southeast corner of the bridge at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. Reservations through TicketMaster, 312-902-1500.
Chic • Segway Tours Yes, they look ridiculous. But if you don’t like boats, buses, or blisters, there’s no better way to get around town. Segway Experience of Chicago offers two-hour tours that include a driving lesson and stops at Grant Park, Soldier Field, Buckingham Fountain, the museum/aquarium/planetarium campus, and the lakefront for $70 per person. 224 S. Michigan Ave., 312-663-0600.
Classic • Chicago History Museum The Chicago Historical Society is celebrating its new name with a new exhibition that spotlights the city’s richly textured history—from the arrival of its first non-native settler, a black man from France, to the protests that plagued the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Of particular note is a display that focuses on the role of Latino families in shaping Chicago—a favorite with Spanish speakers, who will find placards produced in their native language. Clark Street at North Avenue, 312-642-4600.
Chic • Museum of Contemporary Art Wedged between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago’s premier contemporary-art museum features photography, sculpture, video installations, textile art—well, anything that passes for art in the modern age. Upcoming shows include “Exposed: Defining Moments in Photography,” as well as an exhibit of new works from Mexico City artists, and, next fall, “Sympathy for the Devil,” an examination of the links between art and rock ’n’ roll. 220 E. Chicago Ave., 312-280-2660.
Classic • Walnut Room In an age when trends and fashions come and go as fleetingly as corporate logos (Field’s, Federated, Macy’s), it’s nice to know that some institutions remain unmeddled with. The classic Walnut Room, with its dark paneling, crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths, and fussing wait staff, is a safe harbor of immutability. The menu still lists potpie served with peas and carrots, as well as coconut shrimp and Frango mint chocolate pie. Macy’s, 111 N. State St., seventh floor.
Chic • Eleven City Diner This deli-style eatery serves up pastrami, matzo-ball soup, and cabbage soup so delicious you’ll swear it’s New York that deserves Chicago’s erstwhile moniker, “Second City.” A blackboard advertises “a nice piece of fish” and asks “Why not add a schmear of chopped liver?” And who wouldn’t love a table set with Hebrew National mustard (slogan: “We answer to a higher authority”)? 1112 S. Wabash Ave., 312-212-1112.
Classic • The Drake Hotel Heavy drapes, heavy cream—you get the picture. But high tea in the Palm Court isn’t that stuffy. Dressy jeans are allowed, but no baseball caps, please. 140 E. Walton Pl., 312-787-2200.
Chic • Argo Tea Café Replace your Starbucks mocha with a teappucino or a maté latté from Argo and see if you make the switch from bean to leaf. Tea seems to be the preferred quaff among Chicago’s cosmopolitans, judging by the laptop-toting crowds that swarm Argo locations on weekends. 16 W. Randolph St., 312-553-1551; 819 N. Rush St., 312-951-5302; 958 W. Armitage Ave., 773-388-1880; and other locations.
Classic • Prairie Avenue District Once home to the meatpacking Armours, the piano-making Kimballs, the train-car-building Pullmans, and the department-store-operating Fields, Prairie Avenue was Chicago’s toniest address. In the early 20th century, when industry moved into the area and the nouveau riche moved to the suburbs, mansions were subdivided or demolished. Happily, a handful of the historic residences, including some heavily rusticated houses by H. H. Richardson, survive. Spend a night at the Wheeler Mansion (formerly a butter-and-egg distribution factory, now a B&B), and pretend you’re one of the 75 millionaires who once inhabited the neighborhood. Prairie Avenue between 18th and Cullerton.
Chic • Andersonville What Minnesotan wouldn’t feel welcome in Andersonville, a north Chicago neighborhood with shops that serve Scandinavian-style pastries and potato sausages? Or where the water tower is painted with the colors of the Swedish flag? But don’t let all the Dala horses, the Swedish Bakery, and Svea, a Swedish café, fool you into thinking this section of the city is populated by Old World immigrants. Andersonville is increasingly popular with antique aficionados (check out Scout for novel finds), lager lovers (the Hopleaf Bar has one of the largest selections of tap and bottle beer around), and gay folks (show tunes are the staple at Hamburger Mary’s). Clark Street between Bryn Mawr and Foster.
Classic • The Village Where else can you appear to be dining al fresco in January? The marinara and cannoli aren’t cheap, but the chance to sup in a room designed to look like an old Italian village, complete with a midnight-blue-painted ceiling and twinkling stars, makes the prices worth paying. Kids will be charmed; adults with a sense of irony will appreciate the shtick. The Italian Village Restaurants, 71 W. Monroe St., 312-332-7005.
Chic • Saltaus Recently featured in the New York Times and on the cover of Chicago magazine, this two-story restaurant serves up nouveau American entrées and some remarkable desserts (try the phyllo-wrapped chocolate with pistachios). The minimalist interior—and the cool clientele it attracts—are equally intriguing. 1350 W. Randolph St., 312-455-1919.
Classic • Gibsons Steakhouse Chicago made much of its early fortune in stockyards, so it’s no surprise that steak houses are chockablock in most neighborhoods. The fare and the scene at Gibsons on Rush Street (in the Gold Coast area, just northwest of the Magnificent Mile) is Rat Pack perfect: massive martinis, prime cuts, turtle pie, and plenty of creamed vegetables. As Ol’ Blue Eyes might croon, “Seems Like Old Times.” 1028 N. Rush St., 312-266-8999.
Fogo de ChÃo –
Photo by Terry Brennan
Chic • Fogo de Chão Loosely translated, Fogo de Chão means “protein-lover’s paradise.” Brazilian gauchos in pantaloons scamper from table to table, sawing hunks of meat from large skewers onto patron’s plates. Beef, pork, chicken, lamb—there are 15 cuts in all, from rack to tenderloin, plus sides of polenta, potatoes, and a salad bar. (If you become a churrasco convert, you’ll be glad to know the São Paulo–based chain plans to open a location in downtown Minneapolis early next year.) 661 N. LaSalle St., 312-932-9330.
Classic • Auditorium Theater Chicago architect Louis Sullivan made the most of minutia—primarily gold stenciling and thousands of light bulbs—in his 1889 Auditorium Building, designed with partner Dankmar Adler. The building’s heft (110,000 tons of stone were used in its construction) contrasts nicely with the lightness of the fare that regularly cross its stage: past bills include The Producers, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Alvin Ailey company. 50 E. Congress Pkwy., 312-922-2110.
Chic • Harris Theater This 1,525-seat theater, dedicated to music and dance, is a model modern performance space. Patrons enter on Randolph through a glass façade, descend via elevator to a neon-lit lobby, and take their seats in an auditorium with fantastic acoustics and sightlines. The Harris is host to many of Chicago’s mid-size arts organizations, including the Chicago Opera Theater, the Apollo Chorus, and the Chicago Children’s Theatre. 205 E. Randolph St., 312-334-7777.
Classic • Osaka Garden Created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Osaka Garden on Wooded Island was funded by the government of Japan—and its arched bridges, carefully pruned trees, and stone lanterns were many Americans’ first taste of Asian culture. Recently restored, the garden is an oasis of calm in a busy city—a place where the gurgle of water flowing over rocks (some of which came from Morton, Minnesota) almost sounds like singing. Located in Jackson Park, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry.
Chic • Millennium Park Public art has probably never received a better reception than in Chicago, where Millennium Park (which opened in 2004) has quickly become a must-see destination. Built over a former railroad yard, the greenscape features an outdoor amphitheater designed by starchitect Frank Gehry and a silver sculpture by Anish Kapoor that locals have dubbed “The Bean.” Plus, there’s a fountain that features glowing faces spewing water—drenching kids and unwitting tourists. Already, it’s a Chicago icon. Michigan Avenue, between Randolph and Monroe.
Joel Hoekstra is managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.