Travel Feature Story

The Many Faces of Chicago

By CANDICE MERRILL, Travel Editor
Published: Wednesday, December 26, 2018 | 4:30 PM

What comes to mind when you think of Chicago? Architecture, food, art, theater or all of the above? Chicago is a treasure-trove of sights, sounds, tastes and experiences. There is as much to do and see in Chicago as that other big city on the east coast and Chicago’s a lot closer.

Having never been to Chicago, I was a blank slate. I came to the Windy City with no preconceived notions of what to expect. It was an exciting and event-filled trip. I discovered a vibrant city with kind people, great food and theatre, and connections to Pasadena.

There is no doubt about it, Pasadena and Chicago have much in common, from architecture to Midwest sensibilities to art-forward thinking, much of Pasadena’s roots come from the City of the Big Shoulders. Throop University, now know as Caltech was founded by Amos Throop, a former Chicago city treasurer who secured financing to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire. Of course we all know of the Wrigley’s whose mansion sits on Orange Grove and is now the headquarters of the Tournament of Roses, they too came from Chicago. One of our greatest and most influential architects outside of the Greene brothers, Myron Hunt came to Pasadena via Chicago. He designed many iconic buildings in our city from Caltech to the Valley Hunt Club. Chicago kind of felt like home, only colder, and bigger and taller.

So what can you expect if you take a trip to Chicago? Let me count the ways.

1. The Theatre

Chicago has a vibrant theatre scene. It ranges from large productions to intimate experiences, with experimental theatre thrown in. Although there is a central theatre district, you’ll find productions all through the neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, 2019 was designated as the Year of Chicago Theatre. Throughout the year expect special performances and experiences all focusing on theatre in Chicago. During my stay I saw four productions; Lady in Denmark, Hamilton, Southern Gothic, and Caroline, or Change.

Lady in Denmark was a one-woman performance, produced by Goodman Theatre. The play was written by Dael Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It’s a 90-minute monologue, delivered artfully by actress, Linda Gehringer as Helene. The story revolves around the death of Helene’s husband and their shared love of the music of Billie Holiday. Although there are some snippets of Holiday’s music mixed in, one wonders why a production that revolved around Billie Holiday contained so little of her music. The production is now closed.

Chicago’s production of Hamilton was a tour de force. It’s the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s self-made first treasury secretary, sung in modern hip-hop, R&B and pop. From the opening refrains of “Hamilton” and Aaron Burr’s declaration, “I’m the damn fool who shot him,” to the closing song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” I was hooked. Leaving the theatre with tears in my eyes, it was an emotional ride that I will long remember. Tickets are currently on sale through January 20, 2019.

In the Irving Park Neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side, the Windy City Playhouse’s production of Southern Gothic takes participatory theatre to a intimate level. With an audience of only 30, the production company invites viewers onto the set to experience the action up close and personal. Set in 1961, the play takes place during a 40th birthday party. Drinks are consumed (by the audience too), words are said, and old wounds are opened. I suggest going with a group of friends and then getting together afterwards to discuss who saw what. I found myself interested in one aspect of the story, while others in my group got involved elsewhere. As we spoke we put the full story together. It was a lot of fun. Tickets are on sale through January 27, 2019.

Caroline, or Change was a full-on musical produced by Fireband Theatre and performed in The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage in the Wicker Park Neighborhood. The play is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It’s a time of great change both in the nation and in Caroline Thibodeaux’s life. Mother of four and maid for the southern Jewish Gellman family, Caroline deals with outside change and inside change, while trying to help the boy of the house who struggles with the loss of his mother. It’s a complex story, sung with strong, clear voices. This production is now closed.

2. The Food

Situated on Lake Michigan as it is I was not expecting the plethora of fresh seafood I found in the many restaurants I visited while in Chicago. I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to seafood so I was pleasantly surprised at the freshness of the offerings.

Walton Street Kitchen + Bar: The fare is termed neighborhood Americana, the ambiance is comfortable library with plush chairs and dark woods. The dish I enjoyed that night, King crab spaghetti, was delicious. It was full of sweet King crab and marinated tomatoes and was dressed in a cream sauce with a hint of parsnips. As I enjoyed my rich pasta dish those around me ordered Berkshire pork chops, roasted Crystal Valley Chicken and Steak frites. Everything looked delicious.

Eris Brewery and Cider House: Housed in a former Masonic temple built in 1910, Eris Brewery and Cider House is located in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood. Its decor is eclectic with old radiators used as railings and plenty of wood and tufted upholstery. With a brewery and cider house on the premises, Eris offers a unique blend libations. I tried a small pour of a blueberry cider (Van Van Mojo), and a Mandarina Bavaria-hopped semi cider (Setting Orange). The food is also inventive. I sampled a number of dishes like the Herb Tossed Fries topped with shiitake bacon, scallions, red pepper, micro green, roasted garlic tahini, fresh jalapenos and radishes (fries and tahini, a winning combination), Candied Bacon with a brown sugar glaze and wildflower honey Sriracha (outstanding), and the Northwest Havana sandwich filled with pulled pork, ham, jack cheese, dill pickles, spicy mustard, tomato and pepper vinegar (wow), the food was delicious.

Steadfast: Located in the Kimpton Gray in the financial district of Chicago, Steadfast uses Midwestern ingredients from local suppliers. All the breads, charcuterie and desserts are made in-house. When I visited, our table decided on the Fall Tasting Menu, a 5-course food extravaganza. It’s not as filling as you think, all the dishes are scaled down. Each course has two choices to suit the diners tastes. Some of the stand-outs for me where the Artisan breads (four different tastes of baked goodness), the Alaskan King Crab accompanied by sticky rice, nori and old bay seasoning (the crab was succulent and accompaniments really made it sing), and the Foie Gras and Banana with apple, balsamic and pink peppercorn (I know this sounds weird, but it was a wonderful pairing of richness and sweetness, I loved it). I really enjoyed this restaurant and when I return to Chicago it will be one I will visit again.

Wells Street Market: Located close to the Riverwalk and the gateway to the Loop, Wells Street Market is a bustling space with nine different restaurants, a bar and a flower stall. Our table was treated to an eye-popping assortment of dishes from many of the restaurants in the Market. There was a beautiful and tasty platter of sushi from TABO Sushi by Takashi, new world pierogi from Chow Bros., tacos, chips and guacamole from Dos Toros, ramen from Furious Spoon, Tempesta’s flavor-filled sandwich, avocado toast and a bowl full of goodness from Fare, loaded tots from Pork and Mindy’s and a selection of high balls and a platter of shrimp and oysters from Grand Central Bar. I tasted as much as my stomach would allow, and it was all great. The Wells Street Market is a lively space and a great place to enjoy a bite and people watch.

Big Jones: Southern heritage cooking dominated Big Jones located in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Southern specialties like Gumbo, Shrimp and Grits, Catfish and Crawfish Pie grace the menu of regional favorites. Because I have found memories of my mom’s Pimiento Cheese I selected the Burger loaded with the pimiento cheese, onions, grassfed beef on a buttermilk roll along with the ham-fat fried potatoes. Excuse me while I drool all over again. It’s not something I could eat often but as a treat it’s hard to beat.

Blue Door Farm Stand: Located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, the Blue Door Farm stand serves seasonal fare in an open airy space. With mimosa in hand, I enjoyed a plate of Chilaquiles, topped with a fried egg, Chihuahua cheese, sour cream, avocado and salsa roja. I was curious about how a Midwestern State would interpret Chilaquiles; they did just fine. Not only did it look beautiful it tasted wonderful too.

3. The Accommodations

Kimpton Hotel Allegro: A beautiful Art Deco era hotel, the Kimpton Hotel Allegro is located in Chicago’s theatre district surrounded by the Loop. The hotel offers a social hour every night from 5:00 – 6:00 p.m. with complementary Champagne and morning coffee and tea service from 6:00-10:00 a.m., both in the beautifully decorated hotel lobby. There’s a yoga mat in every room and turn-down service. Expect to come back to your room with relaxing music playing from the yoga classes the hotel televises and a special treat. I really enjoyed the bathtub after a long day of walking around. The bed was comfy-cozy and the heating ample, but not too stuffy.

4. The Sights/Entertainment

The Skydeck: Located in the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), the Skydeck provides a 360 degree view from 1,353 feet in the air. You can see four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan and 50 miles on a clear day. There are glass boxes that extend out 4.3 feet from the Skydeck, it’s like standing on air. The views are spectacular. Although it was cloudy, I could see for miles because of the flat terrain. The Skydeck is open 365 days a year and offers a special “Pie in the Sky” dinner for a romantic date or family outing.

Auditorium Theatre: A National Historic Landmark, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University is the resident home of the Joffrey Ballet and hosts other events throughout the year. There are also opportunities to tour this Historic building designed by the famous architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan. The tour takes viewers on a behind the scenes look of the 24-karat gold-leafed ceiling arches and wall mosaics and murals by Charles Holloway and Albert Fleury. It’s a beautiful building with a fascinating history.

Chicago Architecture Center: Sharing the stories of Chicago architecture, the Chicago Architecture Center offers a 4,250-building scale model of Chicago and “Building Tall” a display of supersized scale models of famous skyscrapers from Chicago and around the world. They also have daily tours of Chicago by boat, walking, bus or “L” train with expert, volunteer docents. In October they hold a free Open House Chicago festival. If you want to get a feel for the city and her history this is the place to visit.

Chicago Architecture Foundation Center’s River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady: Cruise down the Chicago River while a highly trained docent describes the various architectural styles of the Chicago skyline. There are also insightful stories about the people who helped design the city. Not to be missed are the spectacular views of the Chicago skyline when returning to port. The river cruise season has come to an end (it’s really cold out on the water), but they will reopen on March 30, 2019.

Chicago Magic Lounge: Chicago has many claims to fame like their spectacular deep dish pizza and skycrapers, they also claim a specific type of magic. It’s called, what else, Chicago-style magic and is basically table magic, slight of hand, card tricks, that type of thing. In Andersonville in an old laundromat is the Chicago Magic Lounge. A ticket to the magic show buys you close-up magic during the cocktail hour, followed by an hour of stage magic featuring two magicians performing feats of prestidigitation and sleight of hand. No one will be sawed in half during this magic show nor will anyone levitate, it’s magic in its most basic and fascinating form.

5. Epilogue

I had no idea of what to expect when I flew into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I was told the city was cold, it was, and windy we had some of that. What I didn’t understand was the vastness of the city and the great pride they have in all of its accomplishments. I also didn’t realize how much Chicago and Pasadena had in common. The five days I spent there were wonderful and I will want to return to experience more of the Windy City.

The 411:

Theatre

Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago
(312) 443-5151, www.goodmantheatre.org

CIBC Theater, 18 W. Monroe Street, Chicago
(312) 977-1710, www.hamiltonmusical.com/chicago

Windy City Playhouse, 2229 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago
(773) 891-8985, www.windycityplayhouse.com

Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago
(773) 697-3830, www.firebrandtheatre.org

Food

Walton Street Kitchen + Bar, 912 N. State Street, Chicago
(773) 570-3525, www.waltonstreetchicago.com

Eris Brewery and Cider House, 4240 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago
(773) 943-6200, www.erischicago.com

Steadfast at the Kimpton Gray, 120 W. Monroe Street, Chicago
(312) 801-8899, www.steadfastchicago.com

Wells Street Market, 205 W. Wacker Drive, Chicago
(312) 614-4176, www.wsmchicago.com

Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark Street, Chicago
(773) 275-5725, www.bigjoneschicago.com

Blue Door Farm Stand, 2010 N. Halsted Street, Chicago
(312) 265-0259, www.bluedoorfarmstand.com

Accommodations

Kimpton Allegro, 171 W. Randolph Street, Chicago
(312) 236-0123, www.allegrochicago.com

The Sights/Entertainment

Skydeck Chicago, Willis Tower, 232 S. Franklin Street, Chicago
(312) 875-9447, www.theskydeck.com

Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, Chicago
(312) 341-2310, www.auditoriumtheatre.org

Chicago Architecture Center, 111 E. Wacker Drive, Chicago
(312) 922-3432, www.architecture.org

Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady, 112 E. Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago, (847) 358-1330, www.cruisechicago.com

Chicago Magic Lounge, 5050 N. Clark Street, Chicago
(312) 366-4500, www.chicagomagiclounge.com

Choose Chicago, 111 N. State Street, Chicago
www.choosechicago.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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