"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Thursday, May 26, 2011

West Loop

The Breakdown
The West Loop, where today meets the 70s...the 1870s.
An overview: The West Loop is one of the great Chicago neighborhood success stories of the past few decades.  A dangerous industrial wasteland as recently as the late 1980s, today the West Loop hosts a bevy of upscale residences and some of the nation’s most well-known and highly regarded restaurants.  Love her or loathe her, Oprah Winfrey’s sphere of influence takes much of the credit.  She curiously chose this area as the home of Harpo Studios in the mid-80s.  Her television program quickly became a tourist destination and an economic development tool for the West Loop.  Today, the neighborhood boasts numerous shops and dining establishments that have followed the successes of those before them, sprouting up around the home of Ms. Winfrey’s empire.

The West Loop is also home to Greektown, a small but wonderful ethnic strip along Halsted.  There are more than enough places to eat and drink in Greektown alone, so we’ll save that one for another entry.

The boundaries: Although adjacent to the Loop, the West Loop is located mostly within the Near West Side community area, however a small northern portion also resides in the West Town community area.  Its unofficial boundaries are usually regarded as Grand Avenue to the north, the Eisenhower Expressway to the south (I-290), Ashland Avenue to the west, and the Chicago River to the east.

Population make-up: The West Loop consists essentially of four census tracts: 2801, 2819, 8330, and 8331.  Unfortunately the latter two tracts don’t seem to have data available on the American Factfinder website.  Even though most of the West Loop is within the Near West Side, it’s such a diverse community area that it’s not reasonable to speculate demographics based on the data from the whole community area.  Sorry, we’re going to have to leave this one blank.

The House that Oprah Built...figuratively speaking.
A brief history: Chicago wasn’t founded in the West Loop, but it was re-born here.  On October 8, 1871 a fire broke out at the O’Leary residence.  Less than two days later, over two-thirds of Chicago had burned to the ground leaving hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.  The ultimate result of the Great Chicago Fire was not devastation, however.  Wooden homes and walkways were replaced by brick, building and fire codes were strengthened, and in just over two decades the residents of Chicago displayed their resurrected masterpiece to the world.
But this is not the only history seen in the West Loop.  It was also the host of the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886 that saw a peaceful labor demonstration turn violent.  The neighborhood has been an industrial district (especially meat-packing) since its foundation.  However, the last two decades have seen revolutionary change.  What was fairly recently a neighborhood that you didn’t venture to after dark is now home to condominiums and some of Chicago’s most noteworthy restaurants.  It’s here you’ll find arguably the most hyped-up restaurant in the City’s history: Next.  You’ll also find other highly acclaimed restaurants like Moto, Blackbird, and a few others you may have heard of, but we’re getting to that…

Getting there: Plenty of ways.  Via “L”, the Green Line has stops at Clinton to the northeast and Ashland to the northwest.  The Blue Line has three stops along the neighborhood’s southern boundary (from east to west): Clinton, UIC-Halsted, and Racine.  By Metra rail, you can visit the West Loop at Union Station or the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

By bus there are also many options.  Travelling east-west throughout the entire neighborhood: Grand (65), Madison (20), and Jackson/Van Buren (126).  East of the Kennedy (I-90/94), there are many other options, but it’s probably best to visit the CTA website than just taking it from us.  Going north-south, you have bus options along Halsted (8) and Ashland (9).


The Publican (837 W. Fulton Market)
Through the haze, a beacon of flavor.
Perhaps no chef in Chicago translates Chicago’s industrious history into cuisine as well as Paul Kahan.  Blackbird helped define Windy City fine dining in the early 90s.  Later entries have consisted of Avec (also in the West Loop) and Big Star (Wicker Park).  The Publican is appropriately located along Fulton Market, across the street from hulking warehouses in one of Chicago’s great historic meatpacking districts.  The food represents this atmosphere with an array of meats, organs, and offal.

Laura’s Take: Our waitor encouraged us to get what I thought was an inordinate number of appetizers ... and now I see why.  These pork rinds should be illegal.  I’m not that much of a “bacon fan” or even a ham lover, but these were disgustingly good. Furthermore, they should be classified as a new type of matter.  Crunchy to the point of being almost hard, and flavorful but absolutely weightless, not to mention that they spontaneously pop and crackle… loudly.

Pork rinds.  SO good.
OK so next, I was blown away by the oyster experience (my first one). I chose to go Atlantic to Pacific with the tasting progression (briny to sweet), and being na├»ve as I am, I popped the briniest one, from Alpine Bay, Prince Edward Island, right into my mouth: no lemon, no mignonette, no chaser.  Let’s just say I won’t be forgetting the experience any time soon.  I think I probably had a very confused look on my face as I tried to chew while completely overwhelmed by the taste, which I can only liken to exactly how the ocean smells. The Pacific-types became easier and easier to enjoy, and I realized there is a reason they put the little jar of garlic and vinegar there: it helps the more briny beasts go down.  The selection varies, but we got the chef’s choices of 6 that day, which included samples from Chatham, Massachusetts; Pope’s Bay, Virginia; Olympia, Washington; and British Columbia.  Lastly, the waitor recommended a beer for my meal.  I’m glad he did because the scope and variety of the beer selection here was truly staggering.
Sweetbreads.
No, it's not really "bread."


Michael’s Take: Had never had sweetbreads before.  Was NOT disappointed.  Lightly spiced and breaded, merely hinting at the taste of fried chicken, the appearance is far less offensive than the uninitiated organ consumer may think, and the texture is inoffensively soft with a slightly crisp exterior.  Oh, and those pork rinds.  I’ve never liked pork rinds.  Ever.  I LOVED these.  They literally pop in your mouth, yet are light and airy after the initial few bites.  Oysters were also enjoyable.
Oysters, or at least remnants thereof.


Anything Else We Missed: This is a fine dining establishment that truly embraces beer.  They have an outstanding selection, many of which connoisseurs will drool over.  Prix-fixe meals paired with beer tastings are not uncommon here, so if interested, you may want to bookmark their website.


Bottom Lounge (1375 W. Lake Street)
Located alongside the roaring Green/Pink Line, Bottom Lounge is a likeable quasi-dive bar.  We went on a Saturday afternoon, so there weren’t too many others there.  Still, it boasts a surprisingly impressive beer selection, and a really sweet old school Blackhawks pinball machine.

Laura’s Take: So I really liked this place. Maybe it was the surroundings or the open layout, but I got that meatpacking, green-liney feel from it in a good way. The morning-shift bartender was in quite a jovial mood, probably because it was his birthday and he was about to end his shift. You can feel the spirit of all the Hawks fans who I’m sure populate the place before and after games.  Their food list looked awesome, although we didn’t have time to order anything this time. We will have to go back and see how service compares when it’s busier, but we were treated well and got some free beer as the keg on Mike’s order ran out.  I would say that this bar has a more urban, less homey vibe, just to put it in perspective.



Bottom Lounge.  Bottoms up!
Michael’s Take: Let me just get the complaint out of the way.  Considering there were only two other patrons there besides us, and it was a Saturday afternoon, the music was on way too loud.  It’s not a terribly sexy bar, but it’s likeable.  Our servers were pleasant, there are some seriously good beers on tap, and it’s huge.  More like a warehouse than a traditional bar, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re going for.  If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a look and it’s a pretty easy walk along Lake Street from the Ashland Green/Pink Line station.




Anything Else We Missed: Like the Blackhawks?  They have a free shuttle to and from the United Center on game days.  If that isn’t incentive enough to pregame there, we dunno what is.  It’s also the frequent hangout of one of the best sports blogs out there.


Cafe Ciao (939 W. Madison Street)
Euro bistro, welcome to the West Loop.  The place can’t possibly seat more than 20, and that adds a unique vibe to it.  You may sit in a wooden chair, you may sit on a bar stool, you may even sit in a club chair.  Either way, this charming restaurant in a nondescript storefront is a real hidden gem and is worth seeking out.
Yeah, we almost missed it too.


Laura’s Take: This little setting worked really well for a small intimate guitarist's concert. Our appetizer and meals were good but nothing too off the charts. It does remind me of a European bistro in its tiny atmosphere and what seems to be reliable quality. Their signature dish that I ordered is the rigatoni.  I thought it was good, although I was incredibly hungry at the time.  The Pinot Noir that we ordered with our meal was surprisingly tasty for the price. This would be a great date spot or stop-off for some cocktails.

Michael’s Take: After a slight misunderstanding about the seating at our table (see below for the cause of the confusion), we were able to sit comfortably at a couple small pushed-together tables.  The menu is fairly limited, which is something I appreciate (I’d rather you do a few things well than a bunch of things in mediocre fashion).  Bruschetta was about what you’d expect, but the Argentinian empanadas were outstanding.  Options are chicken, beef, or spinach, but the wisest will ask for a mix of all three.  Their chimichurri was a perfect accompaniment.

Anything Else We Missed: They have live music (how often?), which we inadvertently signed up for when we made our reservation.  The Brazilian acoustic guitarist set a great mood, but we had to cop out early due to other commitments.  The big issue here: WHERE IS THE WEBSITE?  A great opportunity for Cafe Ciao to market itself is being missed out on.


Beer Bistro (1061 W. Madison Street)
Not as much of a bistro as Cafe Ciao, but the “beer” part of its name is genuine and makes it a great place to get a beverage.
If you dine outdoors,
a hybrid SUV will guarantee your privacy.
Laura’s Take: Love that Chicago neighborhood bar deal. You could come here any time of day for a break.  I think their bar area ranks especially high for aesthetic appeal (see photo), plus they have all those things you expect: microbrew list, large tables in the back, small tables outside on the patio, and friendly bartender service.

Michael’s Take: Add this one to the list of enjoyable Windy City bars.  Unpretentious, and it can get packed on weekend evenings.  This is the first place we’ve seen that carries Finch’s Beer, the latest addition to the Chicago microbrewing revolution.  They only produce two beers right now, a blonde ale and a pale ale, and Beer Bistro has the pale ale.  Don’t just come for the Finch’s though, come for the atmosphere and come thirsty (and responsible too).

Anything Else We Missed: Oh yeah, did we mention FREE bus rides to and from Blackhawks games?  Yeah, we did.  Oh wait, that was Bottom Lounge.  Well, guess now you can pregame/postgame at TWO different places.  Sweeeeet.



Girl and the Goat (809 W. Randolph Street)
As Stephanie Izard’s next big venture, Girl and the Goat has received a large amount of attention and press.  Ms. Izard won television's Top Chef in 2008 and the debut of Girl and the Goat in 2010 has been touted as one of the most hyped restaurant openings here in recent memory.  The restaurant, focusing on charcuterie, is meat-centric at its soul, but there are categories on the menu for Vegetable and Fish in addition.  Your food will be served basically as small plates that can be shared.  The restaurant’s famed popularity and booked-solid reservation list show that Stephanie must be doing something right… not to mention Food & Wine has named her 2011’s Best New Chef.
The line's not out the door, it's actually in the reservation book.

Laura’s Take: If you can get reservations, I recommend trying to sit toward the back where you have a view of the many focused chefs turning out your food.  It is a sight to behold and a really cool aspect of the atmosphere inside the restaurant. There is an underlying current of professionalism in the place, which I found in the food, the service, and the surroundings.  At the same time though, they make it clear that they know that you are coming there to gorge yourself on meat, that that’s okay, and that they do their best to accommodate whatever path you want to take to that end.  Perhaps the path of least resistance would have been to order the >$100 goat leg (or was it a whole goat?) available to share among your party. Instead, we ordered just about every other small plate on the menu.  Everything was supremely flavorful and well-seasoned.  The meat was really cooked to perfection. The vegetables were worthwhile, too, not there just to be there by any means. Some of the more famous dishes are meant to feature less-used parts of the animal: pig’s face, for example.  You can be assured it will all be quality, imaginative, and delicious.

Michael’s Take: Flat out one of the best dining experiences you'll have, inside or outside of Chicago.  Yes, the decor is nice.  Yes, the youthful staff is helpful and polite.  The star is the food.  Besides the fact that we didn't have one bad dish in the bunch, here are a couple of personal standouts: grilled baby octopus, chickpea fritters, and of course the pig face.  No, it doesn't come out looking like it was just lopped off the head, just nice slices of flavorful meat.  Don't expect to make a reservation for this weekend, call either months (and months and months) in advance, or try to slip in late during the week or Sunday.  Along with the Publican, this restaurant further enhances what an incredible neighborhood the West Loop is for dining.

Anything We Missed: They also make their own wine. With fresh baked bread, micro-beer, and farm-raised meat on the menu, I guess it stands to reason within the scheme. This will have to be tasted at another visit!


West Loop: The Final Tally
West Loop's meatpacking history is a major facet of the neighborhood today.
The West Loop is where Chicago’s past, present, and future all come together.  The shocking history, the still-present warehouses, and the overhead roar of the Green Line cling to the City’s Rust Belt past.  Upscale residences, trendy restaurants, and safer streets mark the neighborhood’s present.  The future looks even brighter for this in-demand neighborhood, aided by its immediate access to the Loop and multiple forms of public transit.  The extensive growth in both the Loop and Near West Side in the past ten years (an increase of over 20,000 residents while the rest of the City lost over 200,000 residents) validates its seeming popularity.  The West Loop is home to Old St. Patrick’s Church, one of about five or six structures still standing that survived the Great Chicago Fire.  It hosts the MetraMarket in Ogilvie Station, just opened in the past two years, Chicago’s own French Market.  The West Loop is a great place to experience Chicago’s might and modesty in one place.  And while its future is certainly a bright one, there’s no need to wait.  Now is as great a time as any to visit.  That’s something you couldn’t really say just 20 years ago.

West Loop outlined in red.  Green labels are Green/Pink Line stops.
Light Blue labels are Blue Line stops.  Red labels are Metra stations.


Downtown is only a heartbeat away.


Bottom Lounge has plenty of chairs and stools to kick back.

Just some duuudes enjoying the West Loop.

10 comments:

  1. I actually didn't realize Harpo Studios was there: amazing how she singlehandedly revitalized an entire neighborhood.

    Oh, and if the pork rinds describe "a new type of matter," is it also a new food group?

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  2. Although I should not speak for Mike, I think these would fall under Crunchy.

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  3. I love the blog! Do you let folks repost your blogs?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks! You're more than welcome to repost as long as you cite us and/or provide the link to our blog.

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  5. I wanted to ask the same pork rinds question (food groups). Maybe a combo of crunchy and burnt? Mertes, we're gonna need a ruling on this one.

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  6. Sorry to disappoint, but they weren't burnt...just crunchy.

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