Until very recently, I was the only member of my family not to have visited Chicago. Both my wife and my sons have been their individually on music trips. My drama trips head to New York, and so while I had been to the Big Apple a dozen or so times, I had not gotten around to visiting the breezy city on Lake Michigan.
What was I waiting for?
Chicago has so much to see and do, and the people I encountered were very friendly. My friend Al and I arrived at O’Hare early Saturday morning and quickly made our way to the subway. Our CTA three day pass cost 20 dollars. It entitles you to unlimited subway and bus rides during that time, which turned out to be an excellent deal for us. The subway ride from O’Hare to downtown takes almost an hour. Much of the subway is actually elevated above ground, earning it the nickname of the “El”. Each station clearly lets you know when the next train will be arriving.
Like many other cities, the onboard P.A. keeps up a steady stream of matters for moral improvement such as prohibited activities (eating, smoking, gambling, soliciting), and encouraged deeds (giving up your seat to the elderly, pregnant or infirm; keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior or unattended packages). I also got a kick out of their method of announcing the station we were entering: “THIS IS Monroe”. I was kind of hoping later on when we encountered a problem, that the voice would pronounce “THIS IS an unforeseen delay” in as chipper a voice. Our hotel, the Whitehall, is an older brick building that like the Hollander in St. Petersburg advertises itself as a “boutique” hotel.
Presumably this means that the charm of the place will distract you from the lack of certain amenities. The Whitehall, though, like the Hollander, was an utter delight. Who cares if the lobby is tiny and doesn’t boast a fountain with glass dolphins spraying forth towards the impossibly high ceiling. How much time do you really need to spend in the lobby when you have a city with so much to offer? The two elevators are tiny (capacity of five persons each), but they really move, and we rarely had to wait more than twenty seconds for one to arrive. When our room with two queen beds was not ready when they said it would be, they upgraded us to a suite with a pull out couch, a mini-fridge, second bathroom, additional television and dedicated work area. The location, just off the Magnificent Mile in what is termed “The Gold Coast” was fantastic; close to subways, buses and to Sprinkles Cupcakes, purveyors of salty caramel cupcakes and accessible 24-7 thanks to the Cupcake ATM right outside the store.
A definite highlight of the first day was the river tour run by the Architectural Society of Chicago. The Chicago River allows for a wonderful view of the buildings that are part of the city’s allure. Our “docent” was spectacular; her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the city, the architects for each building and the particular approach they took to solve particular challenges was impressive and delivered in an entertaining manner. There were easily two hundred people on board, including a lot of children, but our guide managed to keep everyone’s attention and didn’t tire, despite speaking continuously for the ninety minute tour. One thing she didn’t mention was the odd makeshift homeless encampment on the banks of the river. The tents were a stark contrast with the grand buildings that were the official focus of the tour.
Still, they are a reality of the current city and I think that the tour guide could have incorporated this to provide a more balanced view of how Chicago has evolved, rather than ignoring them as if they didn’t exist. What the guide did comment upon was excellent and really provoked my interest in architecture.
After the wind-blown tour, we warmed up in Dylan’s candy store, a three floor homage to candy, old and new. One of the most arresting displays was of a box of Pez dispensers featuring several Presidents of the United States.
It was interesting to see Richard Nixon on the shelf next to Sponge Bob and Iron Man. Al was eager to hit the Billy Goat Tavern as it inspired Saturday Night Live’s “Cheeseborger, Cheeseborger” skit.
This was the first of several Chicago meals that could hardly be classified as hearth healthy. The approach to the Billy Goat we went to was curious. You feel that you are on ground level walking along the Magnificent Mile, but actually ground level at certain points is a flight of stairs below. The restaurant was located underneath the Magnificent Mile and unless you are seeking it, you are not likely to run across it.
Though the subway was our preferred method of transportation, we did hire four Lyft rides (Lyft is like Uber, but cheaper) over the course of the trip. The Lyft app gives you an option if you want a private ride or a shared one. Our first driver, Shabbaz, picked us up and shortly thereafter, picked up two Russian girls who were not what you could call loquacious. Lyft was an option if we were tired or if the subway really didn’t get us much closer to where we needed to go. It also came in handy in the early hours of Tuesday morning when we needed to get back to O’Hare.
I was intent on having deep dish pizza at some point in our stay and had read impressive reviews on a chain called Lou Mulnati’s. Of course when I asked the hotel clerk, I thought he was talking about another restaurant altogether called Luminati’s. It was only after reflection, that I realized this was the product of his Chicago accent. Unfortunately, the closest Lou Mulnati’s was hosting a private function Saturday night and wasn’t opening to the public until 11:00, so we moved to plan B, which was another highly regarded deep dish place called Giordano’s. It was packed when we arrived and we decided to wait in the bar. Unfortunately, the hostesses weren’t exactly crystal clear on the fact that we should pre-order our pizza to avoid the customary 45 minute wait for a pie. They did hand us a menu, but certainly no one entreated us to pre-order. When we got our table about a half hour later, the upstairs hostess asked if we had pre-ordered. The result was that we spent a good chunk of time in the restaurant. Al had thin crust, but I opted for deep dish and was satisfied, though I certainly have had similar pizza in Toronto.
Our next stop was Second City where we had tickets for the 11:00 showing of “Winner of Our Discontent”, their latest stage show. I was looking forward to it since the current political situation in the States would seem to provide a treasure trove of material for a keen comic mind. The show was a disappointment. I thought there was only one truly gifted member among the cast of six, and the writing ranged from predictable to sophomoric. Perhaps someone who had never seen this style of theatre would be impressed, but I could count on one hand the number of times I really engaged in a full belly laugh. The saving grace was that they returned for a third act of pure improve and it was more enjoyable. I have to give the cast credit for coming back well after midnight and having performed two shows that day to do improve. There were some funny moments, though what must have been a local reference to Target stores was lost on us. I also failed to find the frequent references to the Spice Girls to be as hilarious as the cast seemed to think they were. Afterwards, Al and I wondered if our luke warm response to the show was a result of a generational disconnect, because the rest of the audience which was considerably younger than us was laughing harder and more frequently than we were. This was the first of two consecutive evenings of theatre for us; the second would not disappoint.
Sunday morning featured a nice breakfast at “The Original Pancake House”. To speed things up a bit, we agreed to an outdoors table, despite the chilly weather. Throughout our stay, the sky was clear and the sun was present, but it never edged above 12 degrees Celsius and was frequently considerably cooler than that. After breakfast, we headed to Wicker Park, a neighbourhood that Al heard was “up and coming”. Upon arriving, Al felt it was like Chicago’s version of Brooklyn.
Brimming with cool at all costs coffee shops, record stores reminiscent of the one in High Fidelity, book stores and niche or vintage clothing shops, Wicker Park attracted a healthy crowd on a Sunday afternoon. The record shops range in terms of snobbery, with Reckless Records containing the most vinyl, biggest staff and haughtiest attitude. My query as to whether they carried posters was met with disdain. Still, I did buy a couple of Band CDs there. The two streets with the most action seemed to be North Milwaukee Street and North Damen Street. Lunch at Big Star was agreeable. Big Star is this taco restaurant with a mammoth patio and a separate take out place across the street. The place was packed, and not only with diners, but with dogs and babies too. It was the second time today that we were eating outside with dogs right beside us. The woman beside us was insistent that the staff turn on this mammoth propane heater, which was funny because her dining companion looked very comfortable in shorts. Nonetheless, the staff spent the better part of ten minutes trying to light the heater, and then switching places with another one to try and warm this woman up. In the meantime, we were baking in the sun and when the heat finally got going, we felt like we were eating tacos in Mexico; maybe that was the climate she was hankering after.
Tracy Letts is the playwright who wrote August, Osage County which our school put on a few years back. I’ve been impressed with his writing since then, so when Al informed me that his newest play, Linda Vista, was on at Steppenwolf Theatre while we would be in town, I was really excited. This show did not disappoint. If you’re interested in my impressions, see my separate blog (coming soon) in which I review the show. Meanwhile, the drama wasn’t confined to the stage. I needed to visit the restroom prior to the show and discovered that there were no gender specific washrooms at all. There are two separate washrooms, each with a number of stalls, but no urinals. When I left the stall and went to wash my hands, there was a woman washing her hands, presumably having just used one of the other stalls. While I certainly don’t count myself as a prude or a diehard traditionalist, I must admit there was something jarring about exiting the stall and being confronted by a woman. In Florida, I came across single bathrooms that were non-gender specific, but this was something again, a multiple user bathroom anyone can access. I suppose it’s a boon for women who normally fume at men who saunter right into the washroom while women wait in endless lines. Al had to visit the washroom at intermission and needed to line up. Two women ahead of him in line looked somewhat nervous and when it came time for the first to enter, she whispered to her friend: “Wish me luck!” I’m not sure the genderless restroom will catch on beyond the relatively cultured theatre crowd, but if it does, it will be interesting to see if it changes behaviours.
Monday was a huge walking day for me. I tried a little shopping on the Miracle Mile but found that even the stores known for discount prices had little in the way of bargains. I decided to walk to Navy Pier and it’s quite a hike to navigate the whole pier. On the way back, I walked along the shore of Lake Michigan for a bit. It’s kind of amazing to realize that there is this major road right on the shore of a Great Lake. Monday was probably the least successful day of the trip, with the exception of the salty caramel cupcake I had at Sprinkles. I had read decent things about the Chicago History Museum, so Al and I decided to bus out there to see it. Had to wait quite a while for the bus, and the museum seemed geared to elementary school kids. The exhibits just scratched the surface of moments in Chicago history and the film was embarrassingly juvenile. This is a museum to avoid as it did not add much knowledge to my understanding of the city.
We decided to check out a trendy burger restaurant called Au Cheval which had generated rave reviews from a number of people, including one of our Lyft drivers named Javier. We phoned ahead but were told they don’t take reservations. So after taking a subway ride on two different lines, we were told in a matter of fact tone by the hostess that the wait would be two hours. I guess this doesn’t faze locals who know how popular the place is. So, we did what any self-respecting modern consumer would do: we got on Yelp and looked for places to eat nearby. Turns out we found a place right across the street that had received rave reviews. It was a wine bar called The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet, and they had a table waiting. As the menu was very limited and I had burgers on the brain from anticipating Au Cheval, I ordered the burger. It was ok, but not worth the price. I found the beer prices high, but the Miller High Life to be very reasonable. Read the fine print. It was a “pony” bottle, only six ounces. Interestingly, the waiter and water boy must have made thirty separate trips to our table to see if we were ok. Maybe they thought we were food critics? Décor in the place was whacky. Suspended from the ceiling, they had five black, open bird cages. I would love to have been in the meeting in which that idea was pitched. On the wall opposite us, there was a painting of an immense skull.
The music was unusual too. Each song seemed to be a cover of a pretty famous tune. I asked the manager if the cover of “Sounds of Silence” was Tom Waits and he said no that it was by a hard core metal band called Disturbed. While it wasn’t a terrible meal, it was the least satisfying and most expensive meal of the trip. Perhaps the yelp review was so high because the place was so new.
All in all, I definitely enjoyed Chicago and left plenty to do for my next trip here including seeing live jazz and blues, catching a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, checking out Looking Glass Theatre and improv at iOTheater, taking a walk on the 606 Elevated Walking Trail, exploring Oz Park, tasting an ice cream at Rainbow Cone, visiting the Smart Museum of Art and the International Museum of Surgical Science, and catching up with the Tamale Guy.