X Marks The Spot

X will be the new Caribbean inspired club in town. Located where the old Alcapulco Night Club stands and only a mile and a half from my house.  Haven’t gone by to see the progress yet and don’t have many details but I’m intrigued.

I seem to blog a lot about drinking establishments. Oh well!  (drinks).

 

 

 

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TIKI at Lost Lake to TEA at The Drake

I had been wanting to go for a while. Once, a couple of years back, we even made an attempt but after seeing a line outside, it was decided we’d come back some other time.  So when I was making plans on where to celebrate my birthday this year, the Saturday before the actual day, I chose that particular tiki bar. It’s so close to home, easy to get to and oddly, although I’m not a big fan of rum, I AM a fan of the tiki bar; one of my favorites being Three Dots and A Dash. Also, I just really like the name: Lost Lake. The idea was to get there when they opened at 4 p.m.  One of my friends thought I was being a little nutty when I said I wanted to get there early before the crowds. Bars don’t usually get that crowded at 4 p.m. But I had an inkling this one would. Besides what I’d seen outside before, this place has good reviews. Both the owner bartender (I mean mixologist) and the bar have gotten quite a bit of press and awards. Lost Lake, according to their website is a place that:

“….evokes both the glamorous tropical escapism of 1930s Hollywood and the rugged nautical, island aesthetic of the world’s first tiki bar — the original Don’s Beachcomber Café.”

I was hoping.

I’m not sure I got that vibe.

Even though we arrived only a little later than planned, my feeling was correct, it was pretty crowded already.  The place itself is fairly small so maybe there weren’t really that many people? but between having to stand elbow to elbow and wait almost 30 minutes to get our drinks, it was hard soaking in the ambiance.  It wasn’t too long after we got our drinks though, we were able to get a small table in the back.  Ah, much better. We ordered one of those smoky drinks to share then headed off to another party.  Some of us agreed we would try this place again. But only on an “off” night.  In the meantime, if I’m looking specifically for a tiki bar, I’ll stick to Three Dots….. which, by the way, still gets very crowded also. It’s just a bigger place with many more tables. And if I’m being really honest, better drinks. I’ll save Lost Lake for a weekday when I want something a little different and don’t want to travel too far from home.

On my actual birthday, the weather was gloomy and it started to snow. Depressing because it’s mid April; but we didn’t let it get to us.  Instead, a dear friend of mine took me for afternoon tea.

I have always wanted to do a fancy afternoon tea.  Of the hotels I know that do it well, Palmer House and The Drake were my top two choices. The Palmer House’s fascinating history and the times I’ve enjoyed there: whether for drinks, dinner or events, has made it one of my absolute favorite places. Trader Vics, a tiki bar/restaurant that I used to frequent has long since closed (sad day). I adore the ornate, grand lobby and can sit there for hours taking it in. One day, I’ll get around to the tea.

The Drake Hotel is iconic, classic Chicago. Situated at Lake Shore Drive across from Oak Street beach. As many times as I’ve walked passed it, sat across from it at the beach, looked up at it with wonder and imagined what it was like back in the day, would you believe I have never really explored the building?

The tea was a lovely idea. We sat next to a beautiful limestone fountain in the middle of the room; tables decked out in white linens. The only thing missing was the harpist who plays later in the week and weekends. Our waiter from Bosnia, was also celebrating an anniversary… 20 years here in Chicago.  I was celebrating many more years than that here on earth. What an elegant way to spend a cold afternoon.

After tea we went to explore a little. The Gold Coast room was empty so we were able to go in.  What it must be like to have a wedding there! I just might have to find a way to get invited to an event. With splendid views of Lake Michigan, it was cool being able to see it from the other side……to look down at the lake rather than looking up at the building. I no longer have to wonder.

 

River to Rooftops

What is it about a river?  Life-sustaining;  a way of travel; civilizations have grown around them.  Rivers are the inspiration for song.

If the lakefront is our heart, the river is our soul.  It runs through the city, through downtown and the neighborhoods, for 156 miles and it runs in reverse. It is the place to learn about Chicago history (the learning center to our lakefront playground) and take in spectacular views of the architecture. Watch a movie filmed in Chicago and chances are you’ve seen the river.

The Chicago river  sure has changed since I was a child (well, in the last century really, but I wasn’t there so I’ll leave history to the experts).  Unlike the lakefront walks I took with the family, except for the boat tours, and Riverview Amusement Park of which my memory is vague, I don’t recall much going on by the river. I do recall hearing back then, there was a vision: that one day the river would be a place for entertainment and bring many visitors here.  The day is here……

The Chicago river is pulsating with life:  music, entertainment, walking or boat, history or leisurely tours and the like. There’s an Irish pub, a tiki bar, a French café, steaks, brunch and blues. And a special event or two. You can get to Navy Pier from there and you could spend days exploring. One of my favorite things to do is take a water taxi to Ping Tom Park in Chinatown; have a picnic, walk around, grab some dim sum or a bubble (boba) tea or go during an event. Last year we saw a Polynesian themed show with hula and fire dancers. It’s also the site of the dragon boat races.  I don’t know exactly why but I feel a special connection to Chinatown. Perhaps it just seemed like different and exciting place to me when I was young and that memory stuck. I like it even more now that I found Ping Tom Park on the river.

If I were to change some words to the song God Bless America to be more Chicago specific,  instead of:

“from the mountains to the prairies…”

It might go something like:

“from the river to the rooftops….”

Rooftop establishments have really become quite the thing in this new millennium. It makes sense  in a big city when there’s so much congestion. Why grow out when you can grow up. Especially in a city with such spectacular views. Rooftop bars and restaurants are the fastest growing establishments it seems. I probably couldn’t name them all here, at the rate they’re opening, I’m not sure I can keep up.  But,  I will give a shoutout to two of my favorites thus far.

The J. Parker – located in a boutique hotel across from Lincoln Park. You get the view of the skyline, lake, park and zoo. I love going in early fall when the leaves on the trees are changing color and the little tableside fire pits are going.

London House Hotel – Named after the London House jazz club that used to occupy the ground floor.  It’s a historic building, a skyscraper from the 1920s with great views that overlook……

the river.

Can’t get any better.

 

 

 

P is for Pizza

There’s been a long-standing debate on who has the best pizza: New York or Chicago? Before I weigh in on the subject, I’d just like to say one thing: If you like big, floppy slices of hard to manage tomato soaked bread with greasy cheese, New York pizza is for you. I prefer the true Chicago pizza… the thin crust…. that I, and most Chicagoans I know, grew up on.  With that in mind, I’m going to eliminate the New York pizza and ask the real question:

Thin crust or deep dish (aka Chicago style)?

Thin crust pizza is cut into squares making it more manageable to eat. It’s also known as tavern style. For me, the thinner and crispier the crust, the better. Like a cracker.  For locals, thin crust pizza outsells deep dish. Any day. All day. Two pizza places near my home that have become favorites: Bartoli’s in Roscoe Village and Marie’s in Albany Park. Although they’ve both been around for a while, Marie’s was established in 40s, I only recently discovered them for myself.  Hey, with so many restaurants in Chicago, it took me a while.

What is now known by most as Chicago style, deep dish pizza has a thicker outer rim of crust. Like a pie. A 2 inch deep pizza pie. And although it is good, it’s not the thin crust we grew up on. Exactly who invented the deep dish pizza here has also been debated.  Some say it was the Pizzeria Uno founder, Ike Sewell, in the 40s; others say it was the chef, Rudy Malnati.  Whichever the case, I can tell you, many of us prefer Lou Malnati’s (son of Rudy) version best.   Pizano’s (Rudy Jr’s place) also makes a really great pizza.  I’d go for the thin crust there, I think, and stick to Lou’s for deep dish.  Either way, you can’t go wrong with pizza royalty.

Pizza options are endless in Chicago… Neopolitan, stuffed, deep dish, wood fired, tavern crust, hand tossed….

Whatever you are in the mood for, when it comes to pizza, you can find it here. Even New York style. You may even find that we do it better than New York.

 

 

Night Out in the Neighborhood

It was October and we were celebrating my sister’s birthday on the swanky rooftop of a  boutique hotel with some of the best views of the city. Afterward , we decided to take our party “down-to-earth” and opted to go back to the old neighborhood to have a nite-cap. None of us had been there before so what a surprise we had in store.

As we entered the corner tavern,  the front area was pretty empty but for someone making tacos. Suddenly we were hungry.  Before sitting down to eat though, we went to check out the situation in back where the norteña music was pumping.  “Vamos a bailar!” someone shouted.

Men in cowboy boots and hats, button down non-flannel plaid shirts with piping (the kind you might wear with a bolo tie) and tight jeans lined the bar and dancefloor alongside curvy, long-haired beauties with short tight skirts or well fitted jeans and high, high heels. We were just a little out of place. Not because we weren’t beauties ourselves but the age of the crowd was at least 15 – 20 years younger. We weren’t exactly wearing our “clubbing” clothes either.  And then my friend Anna spotted a guy she knew. “Oh my God, that’s a friend’s husband with another woman!”. We made our way back up to the quiet front and Anna told us the story about how she and her friend were no longer close due to a falling out about this known cheater.  Apparently the husband must have spotted her too because before we knew it, shots of  “please don’t tell my wife you saw me here”  tequila were lined up in front of us. This was the alcohol equivalent to “hush money”.   Later, more drinks were brought over by the owner who had never seen us before and wanted to make us feel welcome. We chatted for a while about his business and about our connection to the neighborhood. A regular who comes from  tortilla-making royalty here and another patron who, for whatever reason, felt it necessary to let us know “if anyone bothers you, you tell me” also stopped by to chat.

Then…..

I turned around as the door behind me opened and one by one, men in drag started coming up from the basement…… What the wha…?! Now this was totally unexpected. And I thought: maybe I’d had too much tequila. I mean I’ve been to drag shows so no big deal but …. here? In my old neighborhood? where guys were teased and bullied for even being slightly different than expectations. Here? In what seemed a testosterone driven, tequila fueled establishment?   Not. in. a. million. years. And, as surreal as the night may have been at first, I smiled at the thought that my old neighborhood wasn’t so “old” and had maybe caught up? Afterall, the ladies were having good time putting on the show and the patrons were having a great time cheering them on. And, dancing too.


 

 

 

L is for Lakefront

When I first started to blog about the lakefront I thought, “this will be the easiest to do”. Turns out, I was wrong……

With twenty miles of walking, running, biking; of beaches and boating, parks and nature trails, golfing and jet skis;  of dining and cocktails and music, it’s hard to how to start and where to end. Whether I’m taking an early morning yoga class at North Avenue beach, attending a full moon drum circle/fire show at Foster beach or cruising down Lakeshore Drive, day or night, being at the lake gives me a deep sense of connection to the city.

So rather than words, I thought I’d let some pictures do most of the talking. Here is how I like to explore Chicago’s playground.

 

1 and 2. Osterman (at Bryn Mawr). My favorite quieter beach with a sweet little Mexican spot. 3. Montrose Harbor and Beach: I call it the “everything” with 60 year old bait shop, nature trail and bird sanctuary, boat dock, restaurant, live music, jet ski, volleyball. 4-7 taken at North Avenue beach. Probably the most popular beach gets very crowded in the summer. The spot for the world renown Air and Water Show and volleyball teams that play everyday, all day it seems.  I prefer a quiet morning yoga class, maybe see a band at the top of the boathouse “Castaways”, check out the Chicago History Museum nearby (5 minute walk) or sneak off to the farmers market (Wed/Sat) in Lincoln Park then stroll thru the free zoo, (pic 8). 9 and 10. Oak Street: A favorite with the tourists and locals alike.  There’s a concession stand, a bar with DJ, and a massage therapist. Also plenty of shopping right on Michigan Avenue,  iconic buildings like The Drake Hotel and the Hancock.  North Ave and Oak Street are great for watching the sun rise. 11 – 13. Ohio Street: Another popular spot is near Navy Pier. It’s actually become one of my favorites over the past couple of years. Especially when there’s a DJ spinning (reggae anyone?) at Café Oliva (same owners as Dock At Montrose). 14 – 16. These were taken at the end of Navy Pier. A beer garden hosts live bands all weekend in addition to fireworks (Wed/Sat)You can watch the boats go by or take a boat tour from there.  17 and 18. At Randolph Street, The Columbia Yacht Club hosts events. Pic 18 is just some people out enjoying the weather on their boat. And it was actually a nice day in October. 19. The Chicago flag blowing in the wind on a boat ride I took with my 5 year old niece. It was her first time on a boat. She was nervous at first but eventually enjoyed it. 20. The sunrise at 31st beach. Watching the sunrise is one of my husband’s (and mine) favorite things to do at the lake. That is, when I can get up early enough. Also there is a spot called Pier 31. They have bands and dj’s as well and feature different genres of music from hip hop to salsa to jazz.

A couple of other notable lakefront to-dos not pictured: The Museum Campus (Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Planetarium). My cover photo was taken from here. There’s also a small beach (12th Street) and a taco place adjacent. Several miles further south are Osaka Japanese Gardens in Jackson Park The gardens were built for the 1893 World Expedition.

 

 

J is for Jukebox

My mom was just a young lady during the jukebox heyday of the 1950s. Back then they’d go the to the soda shop, diner or later, the tavern: put a nickel in the slot, press their selection and voila! music!  Diners often had smaller, individual tableside versions where one could play what they wanted without disturbing other patrons. A nice invention.

By 1978, 1979 when I was in my mid teens, my friends and I would go to a place in the neighborhood called Charlie’s Grill. It was a small place so there were no tableside … well, anything. We’d order our french fries and pop (that’s what Chicagoans call soda), put a quarter in the machine and watch the 45s drop. Rick James’ “Mary Jane” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” were a few of the songs  played. Music in the background, we’d put a quarter in a different slot. The pinball machine! Hours upon hours of pinball. Man, I’d eat, sleep and dream pinball! still able to feel the sensation of the metal edge of the machine on my palms long after the night was over.  What a great way to spend the weekend especially in a cold Chicago winter. (On a side note: there are a couple of places in the city, The Emporium, where pinball and old arcade games (my favorite, Pac Man) are available. I still enjoy going once in a while especially in the cold Chicago winters.) Okay, I digress.

I guess it wasn’t too long after that jukeboxes started to become somewhat obsolete. At least the way we knew them. You can still find them in certain places,  re-invented for the digital age. No more watching the records drop.

At this point you may be wondering: so what does all of this have to do with Chicago anyway? Well…. two names:

Seeburg and Rock-Ola. The biggest in the jukebox making business were based right here in Chicago.

Seeburg , who came to Chicago from Sweden, was originally in the piano business. But soon  his innovations would change the face of the jukebox industry. The company created the first to hold 50 records, 100 songs (playing both sides) and the first to play the 45s. They also made a tabletop version, the Wall-O-Matic. It’s unclear to me if that was the first of it’s kind  because Rock-Ola also made one.

Named after the man from Canada, David Rockola came to Chicago and worked at other companies; eventually becoming the slot machine manufacturer for the mob. The story is he even went to jail for a bit because he refused to rat ’em out.  Recognizing the rising popularity, he became one of the most successful manufacturers of the jukebox.   And may have even been the inspiration for the term “rock and roll”.  I wonder just how much being linked to the mob contributed to the success of his business? Which reminds me of another jukebox story.

Rummaging through some old photos, I came across a black and white that I  should have probably never seen. It was a man lying in a pool of blood. I asked my father who it was; he said it was someone he knew. A guy who owned a tavern (Dad knew many of them) and refused to pay the mob their cut of the jukebox profits. So, they got rid of him. At first I thought this was just urban tale. But……

They say back then one couldn’t own a restaurant or tavern without having to pay protection money. About the picture, I always thought: how sad that someone should lose their life over something as wonderful as a jukebox. A machine that brings so much joy to those who listen to the music inside.