Chicago Tour: West Loop
Originally a warehouse district, West Loop is quickly becoming home to upscale residences, restaurants, and galleries. Many businesses occupy former warehouses, taking care to display the old brick and duct work. To get a sense of the neighborhood’s juxtaposition, walk west from Union Station on Adams to Halsted, then north to Fulton Market, and west to Racine. Along the way, you’ll pass Old St. Patrick’s Church, Greektown, Paul Kahan’s Bib Gourmand restaurant The Publican, wholesale meat warehouses, and finally Mars Gallery. It’s this eclectic collection of businesses that makes West Loop so unique. History buffs will want to know the spark of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started in a barn in the West Loop neighborhood. According to urban legend, a cow kicked over a lantern. If you walk past 559 West De Koven today, you’ll see the commemorative Pillar of Fire.
Built from a 1890s print shop, this West Loop restaurant celebrates both the traditional and contemporary. Inside the dining room, glass encased chandeliers hang above the custom Art Nouveau tile floor, while Windy City memorabilia covers the walls and vintage stemware sits on each table. Showcasing natural, organic, and sustainable ingredients, chef Andrew Zimmerman creates a seasonal New American menu with dishes like pork porterhouse served with buttermilk mashed potatoes, collards, and ham hock. The libation selection compliments the menu with artesianal winemakers and handcrafted cocktails.
Behind an all-glass storefront, Blackbird’s interior is sleek and minimalist, adorned with bare white walls, hardwood floors, and metallic chairs facing high-backed gray banquettes. Seating is closely packed, but diners are willing to overlook the loud, crowded environs for imaginative New American cuisine from award-winning chef Paul Kahan. The seasonal menu may include such highlights as the organic pork belly sandwich with garlic frites as well as unusual desserts like the almond financier with plums, curried couscous, and Thai basil. Patrons especially appreciate the affordable lunchtime prix fixe menu.
Long before The Publican served the first sweetbread schnitzel and hay-smoked “ham chop” from a menu that reads like a map of boutique American farms, Chicagoans were in a tizzy of anticipation. Why? Because this sly tribute to Teutonic beer halls comes from the team behind the wildly popular Blackbird and Avec. Now hordes of beer geeks, oyster lovers, and pork-rind addicts crowd the wooden tables in the loud, sprawling room. The Publican’s huge list of global microbrews is complimented by such devilishly clever noshes as a pair of boudin sausages accompanied by a cluster of salamander-crisped grapes. When you see this dish copied all over the world, just remember: it came from Chicago.
Specializing in outsider and contemporary pop art, Mars Gallery is said to possess a special energy due to its location atop a purported vortex within the earth. Whether you’re a believer of the energetic vortex or not, the regular exhibitions are worth a visit to this one-of-a-kind gallery.
Chicago Union Station
Even if you’re not traveling by train, Chicago’s Union Station is a destination in and of itself. Originally designed by the celebrated architect Daniel Burhma, the Great Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns, pink marble floor, and five-story vaulted ceiling, is breathtaking.
Artopolis Bakery, Café, and Agora
The airy, bright atmosphere of Greektown’s Atropolis is a welcome respite from the concrete of the city. Modeled after European cafés and central marketplaces or agoras of Ancient Greece, Atropolis welcomes patrons to shop for the sweets in the bakery and browse through the Greek delicacies, including jars of olives, jam, and olive oil, in the agora. In the café, choose from a menu of traditional Greek foods, like spanakopita (spinach and feta pastry) and briammi kefte (oven-baked ground lamb and beef kabob), or just enjoy an afternoon treat of almond baklava and a Bellini.
Chicago French Market
Founded on the principle of supporting local farmers and artisans, the Chicago French Market houses a collection of vendors selling anything from olive oil soap to grass-fed beef. Shop for artisanal goods and grab a snack at one of the several prepared-food purveyors.
The Tasting Room
Enjoy great wines and knowledgeable, friendly service in this former warehouse/current wine bar. The warmly lit, romantic ambience, stunning views of the Chicago skyline, delicious cheeses and charcuterie, and, of course, wine make The Tasting Room a fashionable destination.