Friday, July 15, 2011

A Weekend in Chicago.

The third largest metropolis in the United States, Chicago is a mid-way point. It’s neither New York nor Los Angeles. It has a flavor of its own, both big city and small city, neighborhood-friendly and enriched with the diversity of a complex culture.

I’ve never been TO Chicago before. I’ve been through it a few times, heading one way or another through Midway or O’Hare, never enough time to disembark and set my feet on the ground. But it’s long held intrigue for me.

If the idea of a trip to the Windy City takes your breath away and you’re looking for places you should try, let me help. These are the places I’d recommend for your weekend escape.

A Day In And Around Millenium Park.

For a first-timer to the city, the best place to start is Millennium Park. You can spend an entire day within a few blocks of the park and still find you haven’t covered it all.

The park itself is magnificent -- a newly created space that’s open and free to all comers for summertime concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, for lounging in the Lurie Garden or playing in the cool of the Crown Fountain. It can be the center for a day’s worth of activities in and around the park.

I’d suggest starting a bit south of there at the corner of Wabash and Roosevelt, at The Bongo Room for breakfast or brunch. The retro lounge doesn’t take reservations, but it does feature a weekend brunch that includes Chocolate Tower French Toast, BLT Eggs Benedict and White Chocolate Four Berry Cheesecake Flapjacks. Expect a wait that’ll be worth it -- it’s not only great food, it’s reasonably priced, too.

From there, take a breakfast-burning stroll up Michigan Avenue past Grant Park up to the corner of Millennium Park, where you’ll find the Art Institute. Here you’ll find one of the most comprehensive Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the world, along with some of the most iconic paintings in American culture (Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks are both on display). You could lose a couple of days exploring the spaces and artworks within. Even the most disinterest tourist will discover that hours have flown by within the walls. I highly recommend the recently opened Modern Wing which features works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Frank Lloyd Wright.

You’ll probably find yourself famished when you realize how much time has passed. Head to the Park Café and pick up a picnic lunch -- a Millennium Meal featuring a sandwich, chips or fruit, dessert and bottle of water; or a Picnic for Two with sandwiches, a cheese board, hummus and olive dip, artichoke dip, pitas and market vegetables.

Take your lunch out and consume it while watching children playing in and around the Cloud Gate. Anish Kapoor’s “big bean” has become an iconic symbol of Chicago of the 21st Century. The perfectly unblemished reflection catches strange views of both the city and the people who come to view it.

Dessert can be enjoyed in the beautiful Lurie Garden. A stream trickles between the dark and light side of this park -- on the lake side, trees that will one day cover the area in a shady canopy; on the other annuals, herbs and bulb plants that provide a great spot for floral photography or a peaceful walk. The paths through the garden are wide enough for hand-holding. There are wide benches throughout the space, perfect for reflection or to catch up on a little good reading.

When it gets hot, cool off in the Crown Fountain. A shallow pool between two transparent glass brick obelisks, the area is often filled with children and adults alike removing their shoes and soaking a little cool water as faces form on the obelisk screens. The videos shown are usually of the faces of different Chicagoans, though sometimes other medium-specific art installations appear.

Throughout the summer, free concerts are offered in the afternoons and evenings through the Grant Park Music Festival. Lounge on the lawn of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and absorb the sounds of the Grand Park Orchestra and Chorus, individual musicians and chamber groups.

For dinner, you don’t even have to leave the park. Park Grill offers up so many fantastic dishes with a bent on local produce, high-quality ingredients and excellent service. At dinner, the emphasis is on share plates featuring items such as Iowa Ham and Burrata Cheese, Cassoulet with duck comfit and garlic sausage and Rainbow Carrot and Arugula Salad. Great American dishes such as Beef Pot Roast, Half Amish Chicken with fingerling potatoes and Midwestern Whitefish are on the entrée menu. But if you get a chance… you have to try the burger. The Park Grill Burger is a work of art -- fresh beef from Wisconsin matched with a house-made poppy and sesame seed bun, with add-ons such as butterkase cheese and balsamic onions (my choices), ancho cured bacon, /Amish bleu or Herkimer cheddar or mushrooms. Cooked to order, it’s been proclaimed by many as Chicago’s best burger, and now I know why.

A Day of Shopping and Relaxing.

For your second day, start in a more northerly direction. Start off the morning at Houlihan’s, right on Lower Wacker a half block east of Michigan Avenue. The brunch offers lots of diversity, from grits and potatoes to yogurt parfaits and made-to-order omelets. Comfortable and pleasant.

Or, if you’d rather save the time of a long sit-down meal, head up to Chicago Avenue a block and a half west of Michigan and pop into Leonidas Chocolate Café. Coffee, danish and the best chocolate-filled croissant I’ve had in my life. The shop specializes in its own hand-made chocolates and marzipan and sells macarons, cookies and half a dozen other chocolate-based delicacies.

Whichever you choose, brace yourself for a day of shopping along America’s most famous commercial thoroughfare. Michigan Avenue isn’t known as “The Magnificent Mile” for nothing. Neiman Marcus, Banana Republic, Saks Fifth Avenue, Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Cartier, Coach, Eddie Bauer, Guess, Gap, Armani -- the list goes on and on. So does the shopping.

You’re going to need energy to get through the day. I suggest stopping in at Big Bowl at Ohio and Rush. The small chain offers both Chinese and Thai favorites. Instead of an entrée, consider sharing items off the To Share list and the appetizer sections of the thick menu; I found the Spicy Sesame Peanut Noodles to be a great snack, and the calamari was tasty.

Once you’ve secured your shopping in your hotel room, head out to Navy Pier for an afternoon of fair-like fun. Sure there’s shopping -- for souvenirs, for novelty items, for exotic purchases from Indian, Balinese and Irish vendors and the like. And there are plenty of places to grab a quick snack along the way. But the real reason to head out to Navy Pier is to play -- whether it’s on the water via a shoreline cruise, inside the IMAX theater complex or within the amusement park that sports a carousel, miniature golf and a constantly-turning Ferris Wheel that offers amazing and unbeatable views of the Chicago skyline. Go early. Take a taxi back to your hotel… you will be tired.

One more suggestion. Leave Navy Pier for dinner and head back south to The Exchequer Pub over on Wabash Street (a block and a half south of the Palmer House). The ribs and burgers are excellent -- but it’s the pizza you will want to try. Rather than the traditional Chicago style with sauce on top, The Exchequer Pub features a crispy bottom crust to its deep dish delight, with a spice-filled marinara and layer after layer of cheese. This better-than-an-inch thick pizza will stay in your memories long after you’ve departed. Get a medium for the two of you -- if you want breakfast the next morning. Get a small if you don’t want to have to carry some on the plane back home.

Undiscovered Treasure: Psistaria Greek Taverna

This Lincolnwood staple is a couple blocks off I-94 at Exit 39B, a block and a half west of Cicero on Touhy Avenue. It’s worth a drive from downtown -- and there’s free valet parking, to boot.

A family operation for decades, Psistaria is not much to look out on the outside. Inside, though, it’s straight out of Santorini… complete with fresco. The real smashing décor, though, is what you can order off the menu -- Chicken Breast Spanaki (stuffed with spinach), Triple-Cut Lamb Chops, Roast Leg of Lamb; a selection of seafood including Stingray, Sea Bass and Giant Scallops; Sweetbreads, Loukaniko (Greek sausage) and Baby Octopus.

But the best deal is by far Psistaria’s Family Style Plate. For $20.50 a person, three or more people can enjoy a veritable feast of Mediterranean delights. The show starts with the fiery delivery of Saganaki (imported Kefalotyri cheese flamed with ouzo) to the table. It’s accompanied by an Italian style bread with butter; a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and Feta; and a gyro appetizer with gyro meat, tomatoes, pita quarters and some of the richest Tzatziki sauce I’ve ever encountered.

You could easily fill up on just the starters. They’re followed by massive platters for each person that include tender slices of roast lamb or chicken, a choice of fabulously hearty pastitsio or opulent mousaka -- plus a selection of sides including a fragrant golden rice with saffron, citrus-spiced potato slices, savory peas and fresh stuffed dolmedes (stuffed grape leaves).

Add in coffee and your choice of dessert -- a popular and well known rich baklava, crème caramele or galactobouriko (a phyllo-crusted milk custard pie covered in honey syrup) -- and you have one of the best dinner deals you’ll find in the area.

Psistaria Greek Taverna * 4711 W. Touhy Avenue (Lincolnwood) * (847) 676-9400 *

Grand Tradition: The Palmer House Hotel

The oldest continually operating hotel in the United States, the Palmer House brings elegance to the Millennium Park district, the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the south end of Michigan Avenue.

The original hotel, a gift from Potter Palmer to his blushing bride, burned in the Great Chicago Fire just 13 days after it opened in 1871. Palmer took out a $1.7 million dollar signature loan and rebuilt bigger, better and stronger. The second Palmer House was opened in 1875, seven stories tall. The city grew -- and so did the hotel, back in the 1920s when the Palmer Estate decided to expand the hotel to 25 stories. Rather than shutting down the place, tearing it down and starting over from scratch, the hotel was rebuilt in stages.

In more recent times the whole affair has received a huge facelift. Thor Equities under Joe Sitt bought the hotel from Hilton (the chain still runs the hotel under its Historic Hotels of America brand) in 2005. It underwent a restoration and renovation over three years -- never closing. Today it’s a jewel amongst Chicago hotels, and a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.

But how comfortable is the Palmer House experience? I spent two nights at the famed hotel during my research for this article. What did I discover?

This 1600 room hotel manages to still feel intimate and personal in the areas that count. For the individual traveler there are rooms with one double bed with handy and comfortable access to every amenity. For the unassociated business travelers who share a room, rooms with two beds and two separate bathrooms are available. Layouts are reasonable and there are plenty of pillows. While rooms are outfitted with traditional furnishings, bathrooms have been updated to a contemporary status.

Common areas are grand, gilted and gorgeous and decorated not just with extraordinary artwork but with seasonal plant life. During my stay I noticed the large amount of artichokes in floral displays around the place. Unusual and memorable.

The lobby, though, has to be the most amazing decorative feature. My suggestion is to join company there for afternoon tea, sit way back and view the ceiling. The incredible work from corner to corner contains scenes from Greek mythology. It was painted by the French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal in the 1920s.

You’ll find The Palmer House’s location a prime starting point for exploring the area, including Millennium Park, the Art Institute and beyond. There’s an L station right on the corner.

The Palmer House Hotel * 17 East Monroe St. (corner of Monroe and Wabash) * (312) 726-7500 *

Magnificently Modern on the Mile

Looking for a great hotel close to both shopping the Magnificent Mile and having a good time at Navy Pier? The Affinia Chicago is worth a check-out.

You won’t find a more ultra-modern and hip accommodation within The Loop. The official hotel of Navy Pier is situated on Superior a block off Michigan Avenue. The rooms are almost cavernously large, with glass and stainless steel fixtures and furniture and plush bedding.

The amenities at The Affinia are almost tragically hip -- a choice of six different pillows at no extra charge, use of special kits during your stay (the BYOB kit, for example, is a picnic basket with lawn throw, wine cooling sack and bottle opener, with a wine guide thrown in to boot). The Affinia also benefits from a fabulous roof-top bar and from Marcus Samuelsson’s famed C-House fish and chops restaurant downstairs.

Affinia Chicago * 166 E. Superior * (312) 787-6000 *

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