Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chi-Town Musings

Best. Birthday. Weekend. EVER!

I went to visit the Baby Sis last weekend, courtesy of Boy, who did it up rather nicely with a lovely room at the 4.5 star+ Hotel Palomar in the River North area of Chicago and several rather ridiculous meals all over this mid-western destination city. Led by Baby Sis (whose yearlong residence qualifies her as a legit Illinoisian now), her boy Carlos (a delightful teddy bear), and accompanied by Baby Sis's childhood friend and Boy, plus my awesome former sorority sister and newly Chicagoan Kristin, this was definitely an accidental group vacation for the books.

I haven't been there since a two-day detour on a road trip during college, but this weekend led me to a few realizations ... some which have me super-stoked to go back, and others that I'm finding to be universal truths.

Reasons to go to Chicago:

They are very, very serious about brunch in Chicago. Not only are brunch menus readily available at the nice restaurants throughout the downtown area (the Loop, Streeterville, River North, Magnificent Mile, Old Town, and Lincoln Park -- which I can't help but spell "Linkin" in my head), but also in the more out of the way spots. Edgewater's m. henrietta (40 minutes away on the CTA's Red Line) almost brought me to tears. Their seasonally influenced menu, beautiful farm-to-table inspired platings, lusciously balanced New American flavors, and custom-blend dark roast Metropolis coffee (the equivalent of New Orleans' PJ's coffee, the local premier coffee roasters) was one of the most delightful experiences I've ever had in any meal. Pauline's was another fair contender, but more on brunch in a separate post.

They are simply everywhere. It was a delightful surprise during my morning runs to stumble on massive congregations of purveyors of baked goods and farm-fresh produce, glistening from the morning dew. Andersonville, a more local destination, and Lincoln Park's Green City Market are big draws, but I bumped into a big on right in Old Town as well. People on bikes with baskets of crunchy bread for tortas (which, I found out, is a Mexican sandwich ... not a cake or a tart lol) and the healthiest-looking vegetables I've ever seen and dog-owners with leashes in one hand and a reusable shopping bag full of pies and richly hued fruits in the other. If I lived here, I'd live here every weekend.

An active lifestyle is the norm here. With 18 miles of unspoiled lakefront trails off Lake Shore Drive, there's good reason. Although Illinois and Chicago are frequently cited for obesity, there is nearly no evidence of it here along the water. Six-packs and tans, panting dogs and Spandexed cyclists filled the wide, even-planed track as I ran past beaches, beachfront restaurants, and big steps that also serve as seats. With gorgeous, wide expanses of green space like Millenium Park and Grant Park, plus smaller parks interspersed along the liberating Lakefront Trail, there is no shortage of opportunities to get active and stay stimulated. Plus, I was excited to learn that all summer long, free outdoor yoga, kickboxing, pilates, zumba (less excited about this, though), and other classes are offered to anyone that wants to go. Pretty damn awesome.

Music! Food! Art! Dance! More music! There is absolutely no shortage of summer goings-on in Chi-Town. We went for Taste of Chicago (obviously), but in one weekend alone, there were at LEAST four different festivals to join in on. We had a hard time trying to get to anything else while trying to fulfill all the criteria for the quintessential Chicago experience. Chinatown was hosting their annual Asian celebration, the Chinatown Summer Fair. Indie music was happening at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Art installations were going on in the streets all over the place. There is just no end of public congregation, all in the spirit of food, fun, and culture.

Made up of small, easily navigable (the grid system in Chicago is insanely well-planned) neighborhoods, all with their own distinctive flairs and characteristics, there's no end of things to look at in this city. Due to the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed a third of the entire city's valuation over 2,000 acres, much of the architecture and design of the city reflects a more contemporary aesthetic, highlighting "originality rather than antiquity." Because of this, all of the neighborhoods are unique, and most are remarkably awash in vibrant, life-affirming green.

Good eating is a given in any major metropolitan city. However, in the heartland of agriculture, where the surrounding states are covered in cornfields (Indiana) and dairy farms (Wisconsin), it only makes sense that it is exceptional here. Our hotel is the home of Sable restaurant, headed by talented Top Chef cheftestant (and major bitch) Heather Terhune. Her victim of the season, Beverly Kim, is also based here, at the aria restaurant in the Fairmont. And don't forget Top Chef winner Stephanie Izzard of the Girl and Goat (good luck getting into her restaurant, though). Plus, Graham Elliot and master chef Rick Bayless make this city their home base, but again, your reservations need to be made well in advance -- I'm talkin' months. (Cheat tip: Grahamwich and XOCO, both downtown, are a cheap, fast, no-reservations way to check out their flavors. Bam.)

Now for the truths:

There's a fine line between local/regional chain and tourist trap. I found this out when I set out to sample the city's most famous "deep-dish" pizza at Lou Malnati's (original location) and their well-known Italian Beef Sandwich at a suburban post of Portillo's. Both were the most disappointing meals I had in the city, but like the Chicago-style hot dog, both had to have been tried JUST IN CASE it was as good as that damn dog.

Parking fees add up here, as in most major cities. Hotel taxes will rape you. We were surprised by a whopping 28% tax on our hotel stay, which sucked and made it a doubly good thing that we didn't pay full price for a nightly rate.

... Because we certainly couldn't find it. We went all the way to Greektown to try to find an old-school, gangster-style steakhouse, but they don't really advertise the historical mobster ones as such, making it hard to seek an authentic, old-timey experience. Even with two local guides in tow, it was a challenge, especially at a reasonable price point. There were a few downtown, but they smacked of tourist traps and expensive hotel-owned formulas.

All of that being said, this recent trip was definitely a winner, and I can't wait to go back. Flights from NY to Chicago are mad cheap -- down to $107 round-trip in September. With a two-hour travel time, this is a kickass weekend getaway. Do it for the brunches, the Polish sausage with all the Chicago fixin's, the weather, the lakeviews, the fireworks on the Navy Pier, the museums, and to just chill on a rooftop overlooking one of the world's most famous skylines.