Chicago: Charm and Chow Warm a Chilly Traveler
By Will McGough
When I arrived at the Intercontinental on the Magnificent Mile and opened my suitcase and realized I had forgotten my winter hat – my tuque – the only satisfaction I received was the knowledge that I would not be the object of any jokes that night.
The locals thought I was crazy, given the temperature was over forty degrees.
I did, too, for being absent-minded enough to forget something so important to my comfort.
But I would have gratefully accepted a little wind in the hair over the rain and misty weather that hung around for a majority of my trip to the Windy City. Rain canceled our scheduled architecture boat cruise down the Chicago River. Chilly nights made my west-coast bones shiver.
While frustrating, any traveler knows that this is something you deal with, something you must make the best of when you’ve already booked the hotel and the flight and bragged to all your friends that you’re going on vacation.
Fine Chicago, bring on the rain, I thought as I paid the driver. I shall take shelter within.
Heads Up: It’s All in the Details
One of the most impressive things about the city is the extreme detail that was put into the construction of the buildings. There are so many examples – the stones from around the world in the walls of the Tribune Tower being my favorite – and the craftsmanship makes the city truly pleasant to walk through (even in the rain), each building boasting its own charm and character.
I was aware of my hotel’s elite location prior to my arrival (a five-minute walk to the Wrigley Building and the Chicago River), but I was not as prepared for the deep story behind its development.
Originally constructed as a men’s club in 1929, the two-tower luxury hotel is loaded with personality. Heads up: Back in the day, a woman always had to be accompanied by her man – except in rooms with a blue ceiling. It was fun to notice which ceilings were blue throughout my stay.
I find that sort of history very thought-provoking, a snapshot of a mindset that seems so distant, so far removed, yet it existed less than a hundred years ago.
That first night, weary from traveling all day, I had dinner at Bandera (only a block from the hotel). When you walk in, immediately on your right is a rotisserie, glowing a soft orange and slowly spinning chickens, the skin golden-brown. To your left was a classy rectangular bar, and past that large windows that allow you to peer out over the streets as you dine (too bad it was raining).
It was a nice touch to be greeted by the sight and smell of the chicken and thus I had no choice but to order the Bandera Rotisserie Chicken. A tortilla-soup gravy was ladled over the top, and upon seeing the dish I began to think about the homey, comfortable feeling that chicken and gravy brings to mind, and how the Mexican-influenced twist on the idea gave it some class.
Another highlight of the meal was a local Chicago beer that was recommended to me: Goose Island Matilda Belgian Ale. The first sip reminded me of Allagash White, but future sips would reveal more spice (yet it still goes down rather smooth). It provided a nice pop at 7% alcohol and was perfect for the dinner table and as a complement to my chicken.
The relaxing setting and live music of Bandera made me feel rather content – satisfied with a beer and some conversation before beginning my evaluation of the hotel mattress (it passed!).
Wrigleyville After Dark Not My Style
Like any seeker of nostalgia, spending time in Wrigleyville was high on my list. Rain prevented me from walking through during the day, but I was able to swing by on a Friday night (coincidentally right after I went to the White Sox game…took the Red Line to Addison Ave).
The stadium is beautiful, very grand and putting out an aura of tradition and mystique (unfortunately it is not very photogenic at night, however). I wish I could say the same for the surrounding area.
Sure, it’s a neat little bubble, but that said, I think I am done frequenting bars where wearing a jacket immediately becomes a regret. It’s not only that I couldn’t find a chair to hang my coat on – if it touched the floor I might have chosen to abandon it (I eventually found a bar stool, then sat on my jacket).
A majority of the bars in the area are too collegiate for my bones – sticky floors, extremely limited or non-existent seating, loud music, young people who can’t handle what’s in their glasses, etc.
Take a walk through Wrigleyville during the day, grab some lunch, soak in the history, but keep an eye on the sun. As it begins to depart, so should you.
The Gage: Not Your Typical Irish Pub
One of the writers I had lunch with told Billy Lawless, the owner of The Gage across from Millennium Park, that he ordered the fish and chips in an attempt to remind himself that he was dining at an Irish pub.
This was after the meal and I smiled, mainly because it echoed the same thoughts I had the entire lunch. We were eating mussels with curry and another dish of mussels with a traditional cream sauce and foie gras and raw fish, and they were offering us local craft beers and wines and digestifs that did not contain whiskey. Everything that came before me was delicious, and I was impressed that the wide selection did not come at the expense of quality.
The restaurant filled up quickly once the lunch hour came around. It’s the sort of place that seems to be able to accommodate any mood – you can sit at the bar and have a beer and a sandwich or dine in the back at a classy table and sip a femet on date night.
After the meal I decided to take a walk across the street to Millennium Park for a peek at the Bean. Often labeled a tourist trap, I found the small crowds worth navigating – something about the mirror affect gives the piece of art a fun feel, almost reminiscent of playing in front of a mirror as a child (I was a weird kid).
Call me crazy, but I enjoy settings that encourage adults to act like children, where you can sit for a few minutes and watch people take pictures of themselves taking a picture.
Maybe it’s not a spot you build your trip around, but it’s much more than a tourist trap.
Giordano’s Deep Dish Delivers Temporary Satisfaction
There was no way I was leaving Chicago without trying some deep dish pizza. To be honest, though, I thought it was all some sort of novelty, something for the tourists (like the Bean!). You know – no place a local would be caught dead.
Yet after the first hour of waiting at Giordano’s, I began to reconsider my little theory. Quick side note: every pizza place in Chicago is packed on a Saturday afternoon – we tried several and an hour was the standard wait. This particular parlor at the corner of Rush and Superior was packed with locals, people waiting patiently at the bar, groups of friends splitting a pie and leaning back in their chairs.
And trust me, you’ll want to split a pie. This isn’t the kind of pizza you would order every Friday night. It’s heavy and not simply topped with cheese – it’s filled with it. I think my friend hit the nail on the head when he described it as “delicious while you’re eating it.”
If you’d like to give it a try from the comfort of your own home, have one shipped to your doorstep.
A “Wilde” Night Out in Lakeview
Wilde Bar and Restaurant in Lakeview is named and themed after poet Oscar Wilde, complete with a mock library in the middle of the restaurant and famous quotations on the walls. The place has a sense of class and a neighborhood feel – the theme isn’t overwhelming or shoved down your throat.
I must admit I only ordered the grilled iceberg salad with chicken because it was recommended as a salad option, not because it caught my eye. It turned out to be the perfect dish for me that evening, given the Chicago pizza still sitting heavily in my stomach. Simple, light and different, the grilled lettuce was crispy and the chicken well-seasoned. I would try something else next time, though, something a bit more complicated.
I would also try to get a seat closer to the library. It is sort of an interesting concept because libraries used to be a place of gathering, and now it seems our culture prefers pubs and bars (not that I blame them). To see the two merge in this setting – a reflection of the past infused with the modern trend – was something I enjoyed.
A few beers and some conversation at Matilda followed dinner (also in Lakeview, not to be confused with the aforementioned beer).
Bye-bye Wrigleyville – no one under 23 is permitted in this bar (quite possibly the best form of “adult swim” I’ve seen in some time).
Lincoln Park Provides Nice Escape
On my last day the sun came through the clouds and the rain disappeared, and I was able to take a long walk through Lincoln Park with a friend. He told me that old Chicago ordinances attempted to ensure no person’s residence was ever more than a few block walk from a park, but I was never able to confirm that piece of information.
Whatever the reason for the abundance of green space, it is that particular component that makes the city so livable, so much more reasonable than the typical constraints of metropolitan living.
I found myself taking in the view that Sunday afternoon, amazed by the availability of calm and peaceful space in a city of two and a half million people.
Now, if only we could do something about that damn wind.
Will McGough is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. He covers travel and writes fiction on his website, wakeandwander.com
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