Best of Chicago
Published: May 2009
By Alex Kotlowitz, Joanne Trestrail
With groundbreaking urban design and a bumper crop of inventive new restaurants and shops, Chicago may well be the most vibrant city in America today.
The novelist Richard Wright, who migrated from Mississippi and spent his formative years in Chicago, got pounded by the city's drama. But in time he came to admire it. Wright later wrote: "There is an open and raw beauty about that city that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life."
Such is the predicament of Robert Guinan, a painter, who is one of Chicago's keenest observers. He can't decide whether to celebrate or grieve the city's passages. The city in recent years has undergone a remarkable transformation: the prettification of the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods, an explosion of new and renovated houses, the opening of Millennium Park, even gondola rides on the Chicago River. Some, like Guinan, fear that with such changes the city will become like any other, that it will no longer push and pelt the senses, that it will lose its poetry. For Guinan, Chicago has always been an exotic place—like Bombay or Istanbul—and he doesn't want anything to dampen that.
Guinan, 71, is a slender man who wears an expression of constant amusement. For nearly 30 years, he has been painting the underside of the city, sketching the homeless and prostitutes, barmaids and immigrants, hustlers and blues musicians. His paintings have been compared to Edward Hopper's and sell for upwards of $60,000. Ironically, he's been virtually ignored in Chicago, his home and the subject of his work. But he's adored in France, a place, like the rest of Europe, that seems obsessed with Chicago, America's city. (An Italian television crew is filming a series here because, the producer told me, "We want to understand America.") This summer, Guinan is being honored with a retrospective at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome. He's never, though, had an exhibition in Chicago. His neglect might be reason for bitterness, but Guinan says he's just glad that his work is appreciated somewhere, and, besides, he's in good company. Chicago often turns away from its own. The novelist Nelson Algren, who always felt shunned here, and who eventually left, in 1961 wrote that "anyone in Chicago can now become an expatriate without leaving town."
I met Guinan for lunch recently at the Cliff Dwellers, a 98-year-old club for the city's painters, writers, and musicians. From the penthouse location overlooking Lake Michigan, the view may be the most awe-inspiring in the city. On a clear day you can see the aging steel mills 15 miles south, once the source of America's industrial might. Guinan and I have a table by the window, and together we take in the winding lakefront, which is what allows the city to breathe. (Bordering Lake Michigan is the equivalent of having a city butt up against a 22,300-square-mile tract of wilderness.) Just to the south is Soldier Field, the stadium that houses the Chicago Bears. It opened in 1924 as a memorial to American soldiers, and for decades resembled a Roman coliseum (leading Studs Terkel to comment, "Every time I go by it I just want to say, 'Bring out the lions! Bring out the lions!'"). But it was recently renovated, and in an effort to preserve the old, they added onto and reshaped it, so it appears as if the Starship Enterprise crash-landed on a Neoclassical structure. It is, I tell Guinan, one odd sight, especially from above. Guinan shakes his head, and while I figure this is an opening for him to riff on the loss of what first seduced him about the city, he says simply: "I love this place. I'm sure there's plenty of old Chicago left, you just have to look harder."
Guinan is still painting, and is working on a portrait of members of a motorcycle gang: meaty, self-absorbed young men in black sleeveless tees. He sketched them 15 years ago at a tavern called the Double Door, a former country-and-western honky-tonk that morphed into a rowdy biker bar and is now a more refined music venue for the young professionals and artists who have moved into the neighborhood. I asked Guinan if, in the end, he feels the exotic Chicago is lost to the past. He tells me about a 1940's Life magazine article in which an elderly musician, speaking of the city's jazz age, told the magazine: "This was Chicago then, but nothing has happened since." Guinan laughs. "What he didn't know was that the late forties was the beginning of Muddy Waters and the Chicago blues." His point is this: the city is constantly reinventing itself, and while some things pass, there's always something waiting, usually something equally real and alluring.
Guinan likes to tell people that he can't go out anymore to sketch because he can no longer drink or smoke, and so what fun would it be?But after two glasses of red wine over lunch, he recounts the time not long ago when a friend brought him to a bar on the corner of Halsted and Milwaukee; it didn't have a name, just an Old Style sign in the window. The bartender was named Rocky, and one of the men there, a union guy, started talking about Machiavelli. Guinan was taken with a young woman at the bar, and so he sketched her on the back of a pizza box. "I smoked Marlboros, I drank Scotch," he said. "God, I enjoyed that night. It was like old times." But that's the thing. Chicago will always be smoking and drinking, and it will always have bars without names, and its men and its women will forever be discussing the great philosophers and how to make a buck. It's the beauty of this place: that even with all that's new, it's always like old times. Guinan understands that better than anyone. "We're surrounded by beauty," he tells me, paraphrasing a Sufi poet. "But we usually have to be walking in the garden to notice it....Let's face it, this place is alive."
From new restaurants, bars, and shops to mini-tours of the neighborhoods most worth an afternoon—or a day—of your visit, here is T+L's insider guide to the greatest places in the Windy City in 2005
BEST NEW RESTAURANTS
Le Lan 749 N. Clark St.; 312/280-9100; dinner for two $95. This French-Vietnamese joint venture between revered local chefs Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat at first struck some people in Chicago as almost more good fortune than we deserve. Le Lan is now drawing crowds with delectable dishes such as curried halibut with vellum-like pommes maxim.
Moto 945 W. Fulton Market; 312/491-0058; dinner for two $130. Unlike at some restaurants of its kind, Moto's hypercreative small plates—the "baked potato" is a dab of intensely flavored purée; pear-fennel salad arrives with "aromatic utensils" (thyme laced through flatware handles)—transcend their own cleverness. Every bite is a revelation.
Avenues 108 E. Superior St.; 312/573-6754; dinner for two $136. After chef Graham Elliot Bowles arrived last September, the Peninsula hotel's dining room (with one of the prettiest views in town) kicked into high gear. Settle in and savor sturgeon with smoked fingerling potatoes, and don't be surprised if the amuse-bouche is accompanied by a tiny glass of cucumber soda—top pop.
HotChocolate 1747 N. Damen Ave.; 773/489-1747; dinner for two $75. Mindy Segal's perfectly crafted pastries at MK made her the sweetheart of downtown diners; she left last year to open HotChocolate, and Bucktown/Wicker Park couldn't be happier. Her savories (green-curried mussels, rabbit rillettes with baby carrots) are excellent, but dessert is what you really come for: linger over rhubarb pot pie or one of Segal's terrific hot chocolates.
Vermilion 10 W. Hubbard St.; 312/527-4060; dinner for two $120. Chef Maneet Chauhan makes Indian-Latin fusion seem like an obvious (and brilliant) idea. Dishes like mint paneer fritters with chipotle mole are a delight, and there are fabulous desserts, too—don't miss the frozen cajeta (goat's milk) mousse.
Thyme Café 1540 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773/227-1400; dinner for two $55. Fans of John Bubala's terrific Thyme (464 N. Halsted St.; 312/226-4300) greeted this Wicker Park offshoot with cheers. The place is much more grown-up than you might expect on such a raucous street. Try the artichoke fritters with tarragon sauce or the pepper steak with spinach.
16001800 NORTH HALSTED STREET How much excellence can one block support?First there was Boka (1729 N. Halsted St.; 312/337-6070; dinner for two $90), a lively spot convenient to Steppenwolf that won over theatergoers with what co-owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz call "progressive American" food: squash bisque with toasted pepitas; grilled wild salmon with corn, tomatoes, and littleneck clams. At press time, high-flying chef Grant Achatz, formerly of Trio in suburban Evanston, had just opened 2005's most anticipated restaurant, Alinea, at No. 1723 (312/867-0110; dinner for two $150), while Boehm and Katz were aiming to follow up Boka in late June with a 10,000-square-foot late-night restaurant-bar, Landmark, at No. 1633.
RANDOLPH STREET The buzziest place on this stretch off the Loop—known for big, jumpin' restaurants such as the French Marché (833 W. Randolph St.; 312/226-8399; dinner for two $100) and the Pan-Asian Red Light (820 W. Randolph St.; 312/733-8880; dinner for two $100)—is small, jumpin' Avec (615 W. Randolph St.; 312/377-2002; dinner for two $64), next door to its sleek sibling, Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.; 312/715-0708; dinner for two $84). Although Avec doesn't take reservations, and its austere interior is more beautiful than comfortable, the house-cured salumi, artisanal cheeses, and small bites like paillard of swordfish with beets are all stellar.
BEST NEW BARS AND LOUNGES
Japonais 600 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/822-9600. Some of the city's most popular new hangouts are Asian-inspired. This one, set in lavish quarters in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse, serves very good modern Japanese cuisine (try the lobster spring rolls), but the cushy lounge areas on the lower level are where it's really at. In warm weather, the scene spills to an outdoor space overlooking the river.
SushiSamba Rio 504 N. Wells St.; 312/595-2300. The formula that went down so well in New York and Miami—Japanese-Brazilian fusion restaurants that are as much about having fun as dining—is a hit in Chicago. Delicious eccentricities, such as fried empanadas stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, are on the menu; the room is high-energy; and the crowd is well dressed and up for anything.
Tsuki 1441 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773/883-8722. Cooler in mood and more purebred Japanese than Japonais, Tsuki is a lovely (and excellent) restaurant with a large, comfy lounge attached. There's a wide selection of sakes and sushi, all right on the money and gracefully presented.
X/O Chicago 3441 N. Halsted St.; 773/348-9696. This newcomer is lighting up Lakeview with flights of Cognac and Scotch, accompanied by well-conceived small plates such as five-spice duck breast with spaghetti squash.
Chestnut Grill & Wine Bar 200 E. Chestnut St.; 312/266-4500. It's all about good old-fashioned drinking here, in a subdued clublike room with a chanteuse in the corner. The adjacent dining room serves steaks and seafood.
BEST NEW SHOPS
In downtown Chicago you can, of course, find the same big retail names as in New York and San Francisco. Recent entrants include Bulgari (909 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/255-1313), which completed a gorgeous redo of its shop; Camper (61 E. Oak St.; 312/787-0158); and H&M (840 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/640-0060). But the city's passion for shopping is revealed in its smaller, more individualized boutiques: check out the new favorites listed below and many more in our neighborhood tours.
Clever Alice 750 N. Franklin St.; 312/587-8693. There's lots to love at this bright, cheerful shop: artist-painted T-shirts, chunky necklaces, and tailored but funky blazers from designers both familiar and on the rise.
Yu-Me 1 E. Delaware Place; 312/932-9300. This tiny spot sells one-of-a-kind women's accessories, most by local designers. Look for offbeat jewelry and great handbags (a design with seat-belt buckles was a recent hit).
Henry Beguelin 716 N. Wabash Ave.; 312/335-1222. Mingle with the city's most stylish and get a heady whiff of leather while browsing Beguelin's line of luxurious, beautifully crafted shoes, bags, and accessories from Milan.
Graff 103 E. Oak St.; 312/604-1000. Oak Street and North Michigan Avenue are still the places to go for big-name luxury goods and jewels. Among the newer faces is this dazzling store, which sells over-the-top—and expensive—diamond and gemstone jewelry.
Josephine 1405 N. Wells St.; 312/274-0359. A dizzying range of enviable women's shoes and bags (Christian Louboutin, Sigerson Morrison, Pucci) is given an opulent, glamorous backdrop in a space designed by Nate Berkus, Oprah's interior-design guru.
One O Six 106 E. Oak St.; 312/202-9600. One of the city's top outposts for women's shoes is this temple to the needle-nose stiletto, with a well-edited selection that features designers like Stephane Kélian and Cesare Paciotti.
Chicago wouldn't be Chicago without Marshall Field's (111 N. State St.; 312/781-1000), which is looking better than ever in its 112th year. The grande dame has been elegantly redone and now features stores-within-the-store from Levenger, Thomas Pink, Designer's Guild, and more. Also worth a peek is hometown retailer Crate & Barrel's newer spin-off, CB2 (800 W. North Ave.; 312/787-8329), where the snappy, colorful housewares entice a younger, hipper crowd.
River North is shaping up to be one of the best places in town for housewares and furniture. Find replated silver coffeepots and flatware from old hotels at P.O.S.H. (613 N. State St.; 312/280-1602), an early tenant in the refurbished 19th-century Tree Studios building, which once housed artists' studios. Orange Skin (223 W. Erie St.; 312/335-1033) is the place to go for European minimalism, from aerodynamic kettles and salad sets to streamlined seating. Svenska Möbler (516 N. Wells St.; 312/595-9320) sells handsome Swedish furniture that dates from 1840 to 1940. And don't miss a stroll through LuxeHome, a new paradise of high-end kitchen and bath showrooms (Merchandise Mart; 312/527-4141).
BEST NEW HOTEL
Amalfi Hotel 20 W. Kinzie St.; 877/262-5341 or 312/395-9000; www.amalfihotelchicago.com; doubles from $309. This small hotel brings a boutique sensibility to a slightly off-the-beaten-path (but still convenient) location: a short hop west of Michigan Avenue, within walking distance of the Loop, and close to River North's restaurants, bars, and shops. Amalfi's colorful, sleek décor goes beyond the predictable (linens, for instance, are in soft pastels rather than the ubiquitous white), and rooms are long on thoughtful touches, from good lighting and ottomans beside easy chairs to intriguing reading material (vintage detective novels, say). There's a great breakfast buffet set up on every floor each morning, so you can just throw on a robe and grab something to take back to your room; nearby dinner options include the excellent Keefer's for steaks and seafood.
For more on where to stay in Chicago, including the inside scoop on T+L readers' favorites, go to www.travelandleisure.com/hotels.
Looking for a refuge from the city's hubbub?Here are five places where you can see something interesting, or just relax, at no charge.
Chicago Cultural Center 78 E. Washington St.; 312/744-6630. Site of the city's official Visitor Information Center, this 1897 building, originally the main library, is a perfect place to sit, snack, use the bathroom, and check out art exhibitions.
Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows 600 E. Grand Ave.; 312/595-7437. Slip into the serene recesses of this museum, along the lower-level terraces of Festival Hall, to admire more than 175 works of stained glass.
Steps of the Art Institute of Chicago 111 S. Michigan Ave.; 312/443-3600. An easy meeting place, the steps are also a first-rate spot for people-watching. If you time it right, you can see the sun set down the canyon of Adams Street.
Rainbow Lobby of Adler Planetarium 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr.; 312/922-7827. Stop in when the sun is bright in the west and you'll see tiny rainbows dancing around the room, thanks to prism-like beveled glass in the entrance doors.
Arts Club of Chicago 201 E. Ontario St.; 312/787-3997. The main-floor gallery, a quiet retreat just off Michigan Avenue, is open to the public. Take a look at the temporary exhibits and Mies van der Rohe's "floating staircase," transplanted from the club's previous quarters in 1997.
Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Mies are heroes in Chicago, a city that in many ways is an open-air museum of American architecture of the past 150 years. For years, the Chicago Architecture Foundation's tours have been the easiest way to see the city's most important buildings. Led by volunteer docents, the tours—by foot, boat, bus, bicycle, and train—can be arranged through the foundation's ArchiCenter (224 S. Michigan Ave.; 312/922-3432; www.architecture.org); river cruises are especially good. The ArchiCenter's shop also sells Chicago-themed merchandise devoid of kitsch.
New stores and restaurants have been popping up like crazy in Lakeview, especially along Southport Avenue. Of-the-moment shops for women include Red Head Boutique (No. 3450), Krista K (No. 3458), and Jake (No. 3740), which sells hard-to-find labels for men, too. Stop in Trousseau (No. 3543) for deliciously impractical lingerie; other style-driven boutiques worth checking out are She One (No. 3402), Flirt (No. 3449), Freesia (No. 3530), Shane (No. 3657), and Cece (No. 3729). Kuhlman (No. 3724) sells bold men's shirts and ties; Beansprout (No. 3732) has gear for kids. Fourth World Artisans (No. 3727) stocks a global selection of art and jewelry. Near the south end of the strip is Southport Lanes & Billiards (No. 3325), where human pinsetters have manned bowling lanes since 1922. At the north end, the 1929 Music Box Theatre (No. 3733; 773/871-6604 for showtimes) is the best place in town to catch art-house films. For a pick-me-up, try Julius Meinl (No. 3601), the only American outpost of the Viennese coffee company.
If edginess has an epicenter in Chicago, it's the intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen Avenues; Damen is a particularly good destination for shopping. Start at Jolie Joli (No. 1623), which sells fashion-forward clothes for both sexes, then move on to p.45 (No. 1643) and Helen Yi (No. 1645) for women's wear from small and up-and-coming designers. Belly Dance Maternity (No. 1647) stocks supremely flattering clothes for pregnant women; Psycho Baby (No. 1630) has stylish togs for kids. Moving north, there's Tangerine (No. 1719) and Clothes Minded (No. 1735), for eclectic selections of clothes and clutches; Apartment Number 9 (No. 1804), for men; and custom T-shirts at the T-Shirt Deli (No. 1739). For the house, you'll find exotic furniture and ornamented pillows at Embelezar (No. 1639); modern furniture and rugs at Stitch (No. 1723); and Chinese and Tibetan antiques at Pagoda Red (No. 1714). Stop for lunch at Caffè De Luca (No. 1721), a casual place with good sandwiches and salads.
Andersonville is the city's traditionally Swedish enclave; the Swedish American Museum Center (5211 N. Clark St.) is a great place to acquaint yourself with the neighborhood's immigrant past. Just up Clark there are also two atmospheric Swedish delis, Erickson's (No. 5250) and Wikström's (No. 5247); their fiercely loyal customers tend to patronize one or the other, but not both. The popular Swedish Bakery (No. 5348) is known for its cakes, butter cookies, and cardamom breads.
A beloved fixture on Clark Street is the Women & Children First Bookstore (No. 5233), an independent shop that covers all the bases but is especially strong, as its name implies, on feminist subjects and kids' books. Andersonville even has pockets of style now: find cool men's shirts and jeans at Laundré (No. 5205) and His Stuff (No. 5314), vintage furniture and collectibles at White Attic (No. 5408) and Scout (No. 5221).The area's booming restaurant scene includes Reza's (No. 5255), a boisterous Persian restaurant, and the contemporary American Tomboy (No. 5402). A Taste of Heaven (No. 5401) is a longtime standout for great chicken pot pie and other homespun treats. Want more tastes of Sweden?Go for the meatballs and lingonberries at the equally popular (and good) Svea (No. 5236) or Ann Sather (No. 5207).
Many mark the arrival of the Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln Ave.), which in 1998 breathed new life into a former public library, as a turning point for this neighborhood. Other new businesses, most notably a handful of excellent restaurants, are now thriving here, including Bistro Campagne (4518 N. Lincoln Ave.), Tank Sushi (No. 4514), Acqualina (No. 4363), and Charlie's on Leavitt (4352 N. Leavitt St.).
North of Leland Avenue, Lincoln becomes a quasi-mall, with broad sidewalks and limited access for cars. This stretch is home, most famously, to Merz Apothecary (No. 4716), established in 1875, which sells European bath and beauty products. Other German outposts in the neighborhood include Delicatessen Meyer (No. 4750), with wonderful displays of sausages, cheese, wine, beer, breads, and candies, and the Chicago Brauhaus (No. 4732), which has been serving pork shanks, spaetzle, potato dumplings, and steins of German beer for decades. For lighter meals and snacks there's Café Selmarie (No. 4729); buy a whole Sacher torte at the bakery up front—or at least a sugar cookie. There are several new shops on Lincoln that are also well worth a look: Traipse (No. 4724), for playful Mary Janes and pumps; the Book Cellar (Nos. 473638); and the Chopping Block (No. 4747), for cutting-edge cookware.
Home to the University of Chicago, Hyde Park offers little to buy but lots to see. If you have kids in tow, the Museum of Science & Industry (57th St. and Lake Shore Dr.) is a sure hit. Otherwise, head for the Oriental Institute (1155 E. 58th St.), where the recently reopened Assyria and Megiddo galleries display an extraordinary array of decorative and religious artifacts. Just down the street is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, the 1910 Prairie-style Frederick C. Robie House (5757 S. Woodlawn Ave.). Currently being restored, its distinctive golden exterior and art-glass windows sparkle once again.
One of the few commodities in great supply here is books. Bibliophiles will love the packed shelves at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St.) and the Seminary Co-op Bookstore (5757 S. University Ave.). O'Gara & Wilson, Ltd. (1448 E. 57th St.), the city's oldest bookseller, is known for rare books; Powell's (1501 E. 57th St.) has less-rarefied used volumes.
The university campus is a classic of neo-Gothic architecture; its main quad runs between 57th and 59th Streets and S. University and Ellis Avenues. The soaring Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.) is especially worth a stop. For lunch, try the excellent burgers at Medici on 57th (1327 E. 57th St.); be sure to scan the wood tables scarred with erudite graffiti.