I traveled with my parents recently to Chicago, Illinois for a week of displacement and the entertainment that ensues. My time was enjoyable and low key, full of new discoveries and ample free wifi time at Borders for work. I thought I would share some of the things that made this trip stellar. Here are ten great ideas for Chicago (the order is chronological).
1. The Megabus
Instead of driving the 3+ hours along the Chicago Skyway and through the cornfields of the Region, my mom snagged us discount seats on this double-decker bus equipped with AC, free wifi, a bathroom, and a full skylight across the entire second deck. Aside from the woman talking loudly on her phone for the last 10 miles, the ride was fantastic and well worth the normal ~$20 ticket price. However, we bought ours on a special promotional deal for $1 each. You read right...
2. The Signature Room
Riding the elevator up to the 96th floor of the Hancock Building is a tad typical for an out-of-towner to do (a Chicagoan friend laughed at me later for doing this), but I think my two other friends from Chicago (who accompanied me on this excursion) would agree: the Signature Room at sunset is cliche for a valid reason.
Not only was the wait tolerable, but we snagged the best table in the house, at the very southwest edge of the building closest to the sinking sun. We ordered schmancy cocktails and took photos of ourselves with Chicago's pastel skyline. People continuously bumped my back trying to get in for that final shot of the disappearing star, and though I wanted to shout, "YOU NEED A TRIPOD!," I followed the mantra of "serenity now" and enjoyed the view for all it was worth. And ladies, note the best city view is actually from the ladies room! Just another reason why we're better...
3. The Best Tapas in Town
I received word from two different people that Cafe Ba-Ba-Reebas! in Lincoln Park had the greatest and most authentic tapas in the city. Since my cousin is a budding foodie and my other friend lived in Spain and learned to cook there, I took their advice as fast as I took down my sangria.
Rioja short ribs with manchego mashed potatoes, house meat plate with serrano, salchichon, chorizo, chicken & artichoke paella, crispy spicy potatoes with sun-dried tomato alioli, and warm potato & onion omelette - everything tasted so flavorful, even my friends who had been here before were amazed and raving. The thrill of good food doesn't get old.
4. The Blues at Kingston Mines
Though I haven't sat in a classroom for 1.5 years, I flashed my international student ID (courtesy of STA Travel, ha) for a $5 price cut off my cover into Chicago's oldest and largest real blues joint. It was an older, very relaxed crowd that felt completely opposite to the environment we'd previously been in at a local college bar.
Duke Tumatoe claimed the late shift that Saturday night and had people dancing like flopping sardines in the little space allotted just in front of the stage. I had some beers, put my hands up, and let my boots do some stompin'. I like the blues, and I love atmospheres like this one.
5. Brunch in Lincoln Park
Sitting on the sidewalk, orange leaves falling into my hair, I ate some high quality granola, yogurt, fruit and poached eggs with good company. Regardless of where you dine in this neighborhood, I think this is the ultimate way to take in a good weather day in Chicago. John's Place isn't a Mecca of breakfast food but it's no exception to the rule either. My advice is to find a similar place with a relaxed atmosphere, and you're guaranteed to spend the rest of your day in a fairly good mood.
6. Carnivale for the Taste Buds
This restaurant embodies the essence of the word and the party. What seems to be a massive warehouse, covered in brilliant paint with lights the size of elephants, makes up the main arena for the festive food consumption. I got on those caiprinhas without a lick of hesitation but let our waiter guide me to the best entree of the house: the pork chop.
My cousin hit the bullseye twice, once with the tapas joint and twice with this "nuevo latino" recommendation. He and his newlywed, Ashley, joined us in tackling the awesome appetizers, entrees, and the final kahuna: a three-layer, ice cream cake with chocolate syrup. I forget what it's called because I pulled a "Homer drool" upon seeing it placed on our table.
7. The Art Institute of Chicago
This is no hidden gem; this is an obvious item on on the list. The AIC is up there on the list of the nation's best art museums and truly has the ability to impress most, if not all, art lovers. Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus now sits in an oversized room with many of its similar style and proves itself superior to all. Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day begins the long line of impressionist works through the central galleries. I made a little video to illustrate the AIC experience. Come on along with me...
8. The Siskel Film Center
Whether this attraction is popular or not is a bit ambiguous judging from the Monday night crowd of tens, but its location lends to the idea that everyone knows about the Siskel Film Center (across from the Chicago Theater). It calls itself "Chicago's premier movie theater" and shows world-class international, independent and classic cinema.
My parents and I viewed the film Afghan Star, which is:
A sleeper hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival...In an Afghanistan recently freed from the Taliban, the equivalent of American Idol has become the national obsession. Two men and two women make it to the finals, and the country’s first baby-steps into democracy involve voting for their favorites via cell phone. The excitement is at fever pitch, then one of the female contestants performs an unthinkable, horrifying, death-defying act: she lets her head-scarf slip a bit and she dances on national TV.
9. Three Happiness in Chinatown
Don't be confused by the massive restaurant of the same name that smacks you in the face upon getting to Chinatown. That's not the establishment I'm referring to. Apparently, locals refer to it as "little three happiness," as the acclaimed restaurant seems but another modest family-owned joint among many.
I had no idea what to order and hoped the lady would sense I was up for anything, even the pot-o-love created for their employees' lunches. The waitress treated me very kindly but assumed I wasn't too experienced with Chinese food (since I told her I had no preference and wanted her recommendations). I asked for spicy and got medium...along with silverware. Slap in the face! I put my ego aside and just enjoyed what she brought me: schezwan chicken with vegetables over steamed rice. I don't think I left a grain of rice on the plate, nor a drop of tea in the kettle.
It was worth it just to get away from the high rises for a few hours and see a neighborhood less visited than most. If only Indianapolis had similar 'hoods.
10. The Silver Palm and the Little Pigs
At a sorority sister's recommendation, I took the blue line out to The Silver Palm Restaurant, a stop on my list thanks to the Chicago episode of No Reservations. As my friends and I strolled into this train car-turned-dining room, ginger gimlets and margaritas on our lips, I felt the challenge summoning me. I ordered the house speciality: the Three Little Pigs sandwich. After Tony's rave review, I had no choice but to order:
"This is a work of genius, in an evil way.... A two-fisted symphony of pork, cheese, fat, and starch... that sandwich is the greatest sandwich in America. This is the apex of the sandwich-making art... the sandwich that dreams are made of."
I did it. I can't believe I ate the whole thing. I couldn't lie on my stomach that night, but I felt pure satisfaction after its consumptions, quickly followed by meat sweats.
Other great ideas for Chicago (courtesy of my friends):
Mahzoh ball soup at Frances on Clark Street Walk along the lake to Millennium Park Have a wine-centric meal at BIN 36 The Greek Islands restaurant in Greektown on Halstead The Museum of Contemporary Art Playing a game of Whirlyball Having lunch behind the Civic Opera Building The Violet Hour Bar Seeing Jersey Boys or the Million Dollar Quartet Going to Nookies for Omelets Staying up until the wee hours and ordering a chocolate shake at the Weiner Circle Hot Doug's for a Chicago-style hot dog The Map Room with its wild selection of craft beers Great hibachi restaurant called Ron of Japan's on Ontario
What do you think about my ten great ideas for Chicago? Any personal experience with these or do you have one to add to this ever-growing list? Comment below, and thanks for reading!