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Exploring Chicago's New Style

A view from the Art Institute of 
Chicago’s new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano, overlooking Millennium 
Park and the Frank Gehry amphitheater.

Photo: Jonny Valiant

As Shane Gabier, who, with his partner and boyfriend, Christopher Peters, runs a design collective called Creatures of the Wind, told me, “Chicago is a really casual place these days.” Over roast chicken one night at Lula Café, a bustling restaurant in Logan Square, Gabier remarked that Chicago has become “kind of like Portland or Seattle, but with some edgier moments, at this halfway mark between the Pacific and New York.”

In style terms, that mash-up quality is embodied at the upper reaches by Blake, a minimalist retail temple where the Martin Margiela clothes are displayed with ecclesiastical reverence, and also by Ikram, a crammed Rush Street boutique owned by Ikram Goldman, the woman who acts as Michelle Obama’s unofficial style consigliere, not that you would ever get Ms. Goldman to admit as much in print.

At a more accessible point on that arc lie stores like Hejfina, the Wicker Park emporium that some claim has the best fashion selection in the Central time zone and others accuse of having passed its hipster use-by date. Certainly Hejfina is well stocked with the limited production labels like Loden Dager and Adam Kimmel (jumpsuits, anyone?) that give the fashion-addicted the vapors.

But after years of following this stuff occupationally, I have learned that, if you only track the new, you risk missing out on what is classic and still first-rate. Instead, in a city I don’t know, I’m often happiest playing the tourist card. Why not try the hokey double-decker bus tour? Why not see a new place the way you might if you were on a Shriners outing, but minus the name tag and the fez? After all, it would require several lifetimes to experience every one of what Chicago city maps call “22 unique neighborhoods,” places in which English is barely a second language and where individual museums are dedicated to the cultures of Poland, Mexico, Greece, Sweden, and Ukraine, and, at the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, to the artist Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal, population: 1.

With just a little advance planning, I was able to cover art and architecture and also to make the important stations of the foodie cross—going high at gastronomic shrines like L20 and Avenues at the Peninsula (where Curtis Duffy is fast becoming a chef to watch), and low at winning ethnic joints like the funky Korean street food spot Urbanbelly, in Avondale, that drive Chowhound types to rapture.

“I really believe that, in the last two years, what people are saying about the food in Chicago mirrors what’s going on in the culinary world,” I was told by Michael Nagrant, a local journalist who blogs on Serious Eats. Once you have sampled the local cooking there is really no arguing the point. Sure, chefs like Laurent Gras at L20 have conjured a style of deconstructed cuisine that can sometimes feel obsessive in its wizardry and a wee bit Las Vegas in its effects. A dry-ice ritual performed at a rolling cart beside my table one evening was enacted with such priestly solemnity that I wondered whether I was being served an appetizer or receiving Communion.

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