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Chicago

August 6, 2011

Chicago is a great summer city. The lake and beaches are beautiful, there are leafy trees and big flower beds lining many streets, and it seems like residents of every age and ethnicity are out mingling and enjoying what the city has to offer. Which is a lot. There are outdoor orchestra concerts in Grant Park, numerous festivals downtown and in different neighborhoods, fantastic restaurants, public art all over the place, two baseball teams, and great shopping on the Magnificent Mile.

I went there last weekend for my sister’s bachelorette party (that explains the pitiful dearth of photos here- we didn’t do much sightseeing) and wish I could have stayed longer. Here are some highlights and travel tips.

First, you can use the CTA Trip Planners to figure out how to get from place to place using buses and trains. For example, when I had to get from my friend’s apartment to the airport, it told me exactly which bus to take at what time, then how to walk to the train station and which train to take from there. The bus stops flash on screens in the front and middle of the bus, so even someone with waning big city skills knows when to pull the cord to request the next stop. Beware though- try really hard to have correct change. I had exactly the right amount for the bus and am not sure what would have happened if I didn’t, but I only had $5 to pay for my $2.25 train ticket, so then I ended up with an extra $2.75 on the card. Whoops. Also, do not try to pull your suitcase through the turnstile, like I have before. Either lift it up over your head, or see if the station attendant will open up a gate to the side of the turnstiles for you after you put your card through the reader.

Second, don’t miss Argo Tea, which has numerous locations all over the city. It is like Starbucks for tea lovers, with probably two dozen hot and cold drinks to choose from and a menu full of pictures so you can’t go wrong. So far my favorite has been the chocolate chai.

Southport Grocery & Cafe is half market, half restaurant, and a great place for breakfast, lunch, baked goods, or foodie items to take home. One wall is painted an airy light blue and the cushioned bench running the length of it is chocolate brown. Round orb lamps hang in a row above the tables, and brown and white abstract art makes a splash on the walls. I had the homemade granola, which was delicious and a little bit tangy.

I also ordered a vegan blueberry cornmeal muffin, but obviously had to save it for later. Did you see how much granola was piled on my plate?!

My friend had some sort of egg dish with black beans and tortilla chips, and the beans looked so fresh that I wanted to reach over and take some off her plate.

Other tempting menu options were baked almond oatmeal, pancakes made with cupcake batter, and the “grown-up pop tart” with marcapone cheese and roasted vanilla walnuts. Southport is at 3552 North Southport near the intersection of Southport and Addison in the Lakeview area of the city. I hear there is a long wait on weekends.

My other new favorite restaurant of the trip was Twist, which serves tapas amid brightly colored mosaic walls near Wrigley Field at 3412 North Sheffield. The baked goat cheese was soupy with sauce and complemented the flavors of the garlic bread it was served with perfectly. One of the specials that night was a soft, moist corn cake topped with sauteed summer veggies- it was fantastic. We also had stuffed mushrooms, which I thought were just so-so, and jalapeno gnocchi, which were too spicy for me but had a great texture and bright orange color. I wanted to try the asparagus with sesame seeds, but didn’t have room. Twist is only open for dinner.

We ate dinner one night at Carmine’s, which had delicious Italian food in a brightly lit, lively part of town. The minestrone had wonderfully huge pieces of zucchini and potato in it, and the eggplant salad with mozzarella and tomato was a big, gorgeous tower piled high with arugula and far more vegetables than cheese. The lighting was too low for a good picture, but trust me, it was something special. I couldn’t finish it, though. It may have been enough for a light meal all by itself without the soup. You can find Carmine’s at 1043 North Rush Street. Reservations are suggested and they’re open everyday for both lunch and dinner.

For a much more casual dining experience, we planned to eat at Paddylong’s Beer and Bacon Pub at 1028 West Diversey in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. But, we never made it there. I know it is weird to write about a bacon pub on a plant-based blog, but along with all the meaty fare and bar food you’d expect to satisfy your carnivorous friends or family, I spotted vegetarian options like a hummus plate, veggie and goat cheese panini, caprese panini, and brie and apple panini that you could order without the turkey. My husband says the bacon-wrapped dates were amazing.

A similar carnivore-friendly casual spot is Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap at 1970 North Lincoln Ave. and 324 South Racine. For $13, the weekend brunch buffet had huge fresh fruit displays, cereal, bagels, Caesar salad, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, waffle boats, mashed potatoes and gravy, and an omelet bar. They also have an American Whiskey Bar, as well as a Bloody Mary Bar with huge cups and 38 ingredients to choose from, if you are trying to entertain, say, a bachelorette party-type crowd. :)

Another breakfast and lunch spot is Yolk, which had nice big salads and tempting orders of French toast made with chocolate cake or red velvet cake. They have 3 locations in the South Loop, River North, and Streeterville areas.

Grand Lux Cafe at 600 North Michigan Ave is owned by the Cheesecake Factory company and is very similar in atmosphere and menu to those restaurants. Initially I was impressed with the plant-based options: a spicy Szechuan tofu dish, a veggie plate with brown rice, and the Manhattan salad with white beans, lentils, and a whole bunch of vegetables. I ordered the salad and was disappointed- it was mostly lettuce with only a few beans and lentils scattered throughout, and no sign of several of the veggies mentioned in the description. However, they did give me half of an avocado when I ordered it as an addition.

We stayed at the W Hotel, City Center location at 172 West Adams, because my sister’s friend got a special rate. The lobby and hotel bar were swanky and enjoyable, as was the self-serve hibiscus spritzer near the check-in desk in the afternoons. The rooms were big and comfortable, and I was impressed with the bathroom goodies: lemon-sage shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash, lotion, and face wash. The location didn’t turn out to be great for us though- we ended up taking cabs everywhere we went. I’m not sure if walking, buses, or trains would have been good options because I didn’t investigate that part of our party planning, but you might want to look into it before you book there.

If you want to save money on hotels, my husband and his friends usually fly into Midway airport on Southwest, then stay out there by the airport in the Midway Hotel Center. I have done that with him once before, when we were in town for a wedding and couldn’t stay with my friends. You can easily take the hotel shuttle back to the airport to hop on the train to get into downtown, but that line does go through the south side of Chicago, which is not the best of areas. So, you may not want to do that if you would be traveling by yourself or with a group of girls, though you could always take a cab back to the hotel at night if that made you feel better than riding the train.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

AGG August 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I love the idea of making pancakes out of cupcake batter – will definitely have to try that one!

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