As someone who has adopted New York as my home I will admit that I am a more than I little chauvinistic about other cities in the United States. I mean, if I didn’ t think New York was the best, what would possible justify paying the high cost of living here?
Chicago has a reputation as the United States’ “second city,” which seems unwarranted, because Chicago is very much its own city with a very particular history and very strong city pride. I have had the opportunity to visit Chicago several times over the past year and I found a city that I could easily get into *almost* as much as New York (okay, enough already).
Chicago took me by surprise. Before the fall of 2011, the last time I visited was in 2002 when I drove across the United States in twice in one summer. I loved it then, but that was 10 years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and Chicago is a sprawling, complicated, segregated city. It is frustrating and fantastic, both familiar (if you enjoy and know how to navigate big cities) and totally strange. In late March I got to spend several days there and found that the city offered me exactly what I needed and didn’t even know I was looking for.
Since Chicago is a big city, I thought I would break down my discovery by neighborhood, though be forewarned, it is very Northside heavy.
Probably the most “Killerfemme” place in Chicago. Kat Asharya first pointed me towards this neighborhood and she was right on. Hip, mellow, scruffy and a little bit odd. Logan Square is on the edge of the Blue Line fueled gentrification, but also significantly far from the downtown, so a decidedly chill vibe pervades the place. Highlights include: New Wave Coffee, which is a perfect place to work all day, with plentiful outlets and ice tea and free wi-fi and new wave record covers halfheartedly tacked to the wall. Who doesn’t love a dingy, hipster coffee shop? For those looking for a French treat, next to New Wave Coffee is La Boulangerie, which services sweet and savory crepes and sandwiches.
Cafe Lula is mobbed for brunch on the weekends, but serves a stellar breakfast on the weekdays, as well as a beautiful dinner and perfect late night cocktails. I managed to eat every meal here and would happily do so everyday if given the opportunity. Around the corner from Cafe Lula is Wolfbait and B Girls, a perfect boutique selling handmade and vintage clothes, accessories and decor items all made by local Chicago artists and crafters. I found a ring made out of a typewriter key and a charming hand sewn headband.
Diagonal across Logan Square from Cafe Lula is Longman & Eagle, another perfect bar and cafe complete with dark, wood paneled ambiance. Apparently, they are also an inn with rooms to rent. Their menu features seasonal cuisine and more perfect cocktails. And, speaking of cocktails, if that’s really what you are after try The Whistler, which has a hip, “speakeasy” type vibe and hosts live music and DJs to boot, but carries it off with an air of relaxation instead of pretension.
Also, it is nowhere near Logan Square, but in far East Chicago you will find Smoque BBQ. You cannot miss this. Tender brisket, perfect pulled pork, ribs galore, beautiful mac and cheese and huge salads. It’s worth the trip and while the atmosphere is nearly “fast food” the BBQ dinner you will have is unforgettable.
Densely gentrified and more packed than Bedford avenue on a Sunday afternoon (okay, quit with the NYC references), you can’t visit Chicago without visiting Wicker Park. Quimby’s has been my required Chicago stop for years for the best in zines, independent comics, art books and other small press delights.
My other Wicker Park classic is Reckless Records, where I picked up an LP of My Bloody Valentine rarities, Wedding Present 7″s and the Rodan record in perfect condition. My favorite part is the employees write record reviews that are stuck to the front of the vinyl to let you know why you must own this particular record. Wormhole Coffee is full of odd 80’s video game references and good coffee drinks, though it is kind of loud, so Dave and I opted for taking our beverages to the actual park in Wicker Park.
I was also lucky enough to stumble upon The Blue Line, which is literally right under the Blue Line stop, and the answer to one of my needs that weekend: a place to watch the season premiere of Mad Men. Lucky me, not only do they show Mad Men every Sunday (“With sound!” they are pleased to advertise), but also feature Mad Men drink specials, like $6 Manhattans. The Blue Line feels like a streamlined cocktail bar from the 20s, making it the perfect Mad Men environment.
To recover from all my walking and shopping I had dinner at Handlebar, which as spectacular vegan and vegetarian options for dining and a beautiful Bloody Mary on offer. A vegetarian specific restaurant has to be really good if I am to like it and Handlebar definitely passed the test! Besides, who doesn’t like a bike themed restaurant?
The West Loop
The West Loop, which is directly west of downtown Chicago, features two things I love: art and food. This area is refreshingly uncrowded and still full of meat and food suppliers, which harken back to Chicago’s not-so-distant past as a hub of stockyards and meat processioning plants. There are several fine provision shops which also serve sandwiches, including J.P. Graziano’s. You order your sandwich from a Deli counter, and then peruse imported Italian specialties, bulk spices and fresh cheeses. When your sandwich is ready a sweet old lady at a cash register behind a window rings you up.
Also in the neighborhood is Publican Quality Meats, which is a more casual version of the Publican restaurant across the street. They serve deli sandwiches and have great provisions on offer. And if you need caffeine (which I always do) La Colombe is a light, airy and minimalist cafe with perfect espresso drinks and pastries. There are also galleries like Three Walls, which nurtures emerging artists and has created a great opportunity for both local and national artists, and the member-driven Chicago Artists Coalition.
The Loop/The Magnificent Mile
Downtown is not usually my favorite place in any city, as it is often full of tourists, business people and chain stores, and in some ways, Chicago is no exception. However, one really cannot go to Chicago and not go to the Art Institute of Chicago or Millennium Park to see Anish Kapoor‘s Cloud Gate (nicknamed “The Bean”).
I also took a wander down the “Magnificent Mile,” which is to Chicago what 5th avenue is to Manhattan or the Champs Elysees is to Paris: historic, beautiful, expensive, crowded, overblown, full of wandering tourists and pricey stores (many of them international brands full of things you can buy anywhere), but unmissable. In my wandering I managed to score some brightly colored slim jeans from Old Navy and a perfect non-leather jacket from Zara.
I spent a few moments at an do-it-yourself gallery in Pilsen, which is fast becoming the neighborhood for artists, but I still haven’t managed to get a real sense of it (next time!).
I came to Chicago fresh off of South by Southwest, a little frayed and frantic, and was steadied by the sense of adventure and comfort the city offered. Hard edged, but welcoming and spacious, proud, boastful, but friendly. I wanted friends, cocktails, a place to work with wi-fi, handmade goods, a bar in which to watch Mad Men, and to meet new people and see old friends. Chicago offered me all of this.
However, here is one more New York chauvinistic note about Chicago: While the “El” train is good for transportation, if you need to do any serious getting around you will have to take the bus. But fear not! Many of the bus lines enable you to send a text message to find out when the next bus is coming and because I was staying at the Chicago Getaway Hostel (which I highly recommend) in Lincoln Park and going to Logan Square almost every night I got very comfortable with the 74 Fullerton bus, and fairly familiar with the 8 Halsted bus.
Also, I could not walk, drive or take the bus around Chicago without thinking of my favorite movie of all time, The Blues Brothers. As cliche as it sounds, I can’t be in Chicago and not sing “She Caught the Katy” or “Sweet Home Chicago” to myself. Finally, the twelve-year-old in me cannot get over the epic car chase scene and who can walk or drive through Chicago and see a sign for “Lower Wacker Drive” and not think of this scene: