"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

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lincoln Park

The Breakdown
Beautiful architecture lines Armitage Avenue
An overview: Hey, we knew it was gonna come to this.  Arguably the City’s most well-known neighborhood, and the one most synonymous with wealth, enjoys a healthy and safe reputation.  It’s a haven for nightlife, high-end dining, and top-notch entertainment.  Some of the City’s (country’s?) most beautiful architecture can be found here, especially along Armitage Avenue.  As a result, Lincoln Park is one of Chicago’s most expensive places to buy or rent.  That doesn’t mean you can’t visit.  Sure, you could drop $350 a person for dinner at Alinea or Charlie Trotter’s (as long as you made that reservation six months in advance), but there are some other great options in Lincoln Park that won’t need you to make multiple runs to the ATM.

It’s impossible to truly experience Lincoln Park in one or two visits.  There’s just TOO MUCH to do.  We’ve tried to cover a fair amount of ground in this entry via only four stops, but this is a neighborhood that we’ll undoubtedly be revisiting (probably multiple times) down the road.  One more thing worth noting, the neighborhood of Old Town covers the eastern part of Lincoln Park and a northern portion of the Near North Side.  We are going to save Old Town for its own entry as there is plenty to do there as well.  This entry will focus mainly on the western portion of Lincoln Park, along with a stop in the DePaul area.

Dillinger's Last Stand
The boundaries: Pretty simple: Diversey Avenue to the north, North Avenue to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, and the Chicago River to the west.  The Old Town portion of Lincoln Park (which we’re saving for another entry) is Armitage Avenue to the north, North Avenue to the south, Clark Street to the east, and Halsted Street to the west.

Population make-up: The 2010 population of the Lincoln Park community area is about the same as it was in 2000.  It decreased by 0.32%, down to 64,116.  The white demographic is the largest at 82.8%, followed by Hispanic (5.7%), Asian (5.1%), and black (4.4%).  Economic data isn't available for the 2010 census.  However, at the 2000 census, Lincoln Park was the wealthiest of Chicago's 77 community areas with a median income of $68,613.

A brief history: Originally part of Lake View Township, Lincoln Park was on the northern border of Chicago (North Avenue) until it was annexed into the City in 1889.  Although it may be the iconic neighborhood in terms of architectural beauty and amenities, Lincoln Park hasn’t always enjoyed a pristine history.  The area was a victim of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.  Residents quickly rebuilt the neighborhood, however, many of the structures became dilapidated and dangerous during the Great Depression.  Neighborhood associations were created to combat blight and poverty, often controversially, as many poorer minorities were displaced.  The area became prime real estate due to its proximity to the Lake and downtown.

We want to eat here, but we can't.
It's just too expensive.
There’s little debate today that Lincoln Park is one of the most stunning examples of a thriving neighborhood.  It is home to one of the country’s best public high schools, Lincoln Park High School.  DePaul University adds a greater presence of cultural amenities and educational opportunities.  Lincoln Park is also home to incredible fine dining, notably Charlie Trotter’s, which helped revolutionize haute cuisine in the Windy City.  And also there’s Alinea, which was named the BEST RESTAURANT IN NORTH AMERICA (boo-yeah NYC, boo-yeah) and the sixth best restaurant in the world, by S.Pellegrino.  And there’s Lincoln Park Zoo, proving that you can still get something good for free (unless you have to park you car…that’ll cost ya).

Getting there: Lincoln Park is extremely accessible by public transit.  Via “L”, you can take the Red Line to Fullerton and North/Clybourn which will put you on the southern end of the neighborhood.  Also, the Brown Line (and the Purple Line Express during rush hour) can be taken to Diversey, Fullerton, Armitage, and Sedgwick on the southern border.

By bus, going north-south: Clark (22, 36); Halsted (8); Ashland (9).  Going east-west: Diversey (76); Fullerton (74); Armitage (73); North (9, 72).  There’s also the Lincoln bus that runs northwest-southeast (11).  There are express buses that run on Lake Shore Drive too (151, 156).

Lincoln Station Bar & Grill (2432 N. Lincoln Avenue)
A bar so nice they named it twice
We couldn’t do Lincoln Park without visiting the DePaul area.  There’s a great strip of bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues on Lincoln Avenue between Wrightwood and Fullerton.  Lincoln Station is always a good bet.  Across the street from the infamous Biograph Theater, Lincoln Station is one of the best stops the neighborhood has to offer.

Michael’s Take: Lincoln Station is a likeable bar.  It definitely fits the college niche without being a pit.  As a result, the prices are cheap for Chicago, but of course expensive for a college town.  Still, a $5 Metropolitan lager from the tap is hard to complain about.  The atmosphere is cozy and completely unpretentious.  It’s a good place to go to watch some college football on a Saturday and have some space to lounge, and it definitely picks up in the evening as a younger crowd fills the joint.  Overall, it’s worth a stop regardless of time or day if you’re in the vicinity and want a reasonably priced beverage and a comfortable atmosphere.

Laura’s Take: Lincoln Station is a nice stop off. It has a little atmosphere and a little bit of a 'tude, judging by the bartenders' decor. I don't doubt that it becomes more raucous at night as the Lincoln Parkers come out and get rowdy. I enjoy the mural on the back wall in the first room... quite atmospheric!

Anything Else We Missed: We didn’t try the food, but in the spirit of Chicago being a great brunch town, Lincoln Station currently offers $2 mimosas on Sundays.  That’s a good deal.
It's kinda like the wallpaper in your apartment, right?

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba (2024 N. Halsted Street)
Shhh, I think the tapas are in there...
If you asked someone to suggest a tapas restaurant in Chicago, chances are good they’d say “Cafe Ba Ba Reeba”.  It’s something of an institution in the city, and when you’re synonymous with a type of cuisine, you’re probably doing it right.  For the uninitiated, tapas are Spanish small plates of food, usually shared.  So you’ll likely order 4-6 different plates per person over the course of the evening, but you get to sample a bunch of different things.  Also, you don’t necessarily (and probably don’t want to) order all of them at once.  Just order one or two at a time, enjoy, and then order more as you please.  Still packed on weekends, still tough to get a reservation, Cafe Ba Ba Reeba seems poised to be one of Chi-Town’s hot spots for a long time.

Michael’s Take: I guess the beauty of tapas is that you can spend as much, or as little, as you want.  The downside, delicious bite-sized plates are interspersed with just average ones.  I’ve had the good fortune of eating here three times now, and all three times I’ve been satisfied with my experience.  Service is usually pretty quick considering how crowded the place gets, and considering the nature of tapas requires the waiters to keep a frequent eye on your table.  Suggestions: fried calamari, goat cheese, stuffed mushrooms, and empanadas of any variety.  The calamari is cooked perfectly and comes with a slightly spicy and creamy red sauce.  Chicken and beef empanadas are beautifully flaky with flavorful meat fillings.  Stuffed mushrooms and the goat cheese more-or-less speak for themselves, but they’re straight-up tasty, and that’s hard to argue with.
Calamari.  Like regular
calamari, but better

Did we forget to mention the tuna
crostini? Cuz that was DELICIOUS
Laura’s Take: Cafe Ba Ba Reeba makes tapas very accessible to almost anyone. The bright colorful menu comes in sections and the wait staff is used to answering questions. There's an endless dining room and quick turnover of tables. My thing with Cafe Ba Ba Reeba is that it feels mass-produced, like tapas with a stamp. It IS good, especially the fried calamari dish in my opinion, but it's not THAT good. I do think you basically get what you pay for here, and the atmosphere is definitely enjoyable. I just don't know how authentic and/or unique it really is, especially after repeated visits. Bachelorette parties galore! That's because it will make everyone happy, though. My two favorite parts of my recent visit were 1. the Chica de rojo cocktail: grey goose, bacardi melon, cointreau, mint, and watermelon slice; and 2. the calamari dish. The outdoor patio is highly coveted in nice weather and would definitely be worth it.

Anything Else We Missed: If small portions aren’t your thing, they also feature paella.  We haven’t tried it ourselves, but they offer three different varieties a night from about $10-$13 a serving.  Again, for the uninitiated, paella is a fluffy rice dish with an assortment of meats and/or vegetables.  Oh and the sangria really hits the spot too.

Goose Island – Clybourn Brewpub (1800 N. Clybourn Avenue)
The kettles let you know the story
Another Chicago icon.  Are we noticing a pattern here in Lincoln Park?  Before the craft-brewing boom, there was a Goose Island.  They were Chicago’s lone signature brewery for years.  It wasn’t that long ago when high-end beer drinking involved Michelob, and nobody knew what an IPA was.  Goose Island’s Honkers Ale provided something different than what the macrobreweries were producing.  Goose Island was recently purchased by Belgian corporation InBev (who also owns Anheuser-Busch) much to the chagrin of Windy City beer aficionados.  This is not the time to panic.  With craft brewing eating up more and more of the market share, this will allow Goose Island’s delicious product to reach a much broader audience, without changing what makes this place so special.

You're supposed to go left to right, but it IS a free country
Michael’s Take: Two Brothers, Metropolitan, Half Acre.  They all make GREAT stuff.  But in my mind, Goose Island still is king in this town.  Honker’s Ale really kind of revolutionized my taste buds and showed that there’s accessible beer beyond large-scale rice-based lagers.  Several years back, they introduced their “vintage” collection of ales: Sofie, Matilda, Fleur, Pere Jacques, and Pepe Nero.  These are Goose Island’s masterpieces.  All five are Belgian ales of various types.  My personal favorite is Sofie, a stunning saison, lightly spiced, crisp and refreshing.  I enjoy saisons a lot (which are growing in popularity after being difficult to find just a few years ago), and this is one of the best I’ve had.  The most accessible of the vintage collection is Matilda, their Belgian pale ale.  It’s another wonderful beer, not too bitter, but really flavorful, and slightly caramel-ly.  Man, I need a beer right now…

Laura’s Take: Goose Island has a streamlined, practiced, and established routine. You will sense this if you come in for a tour. Afterwards, you are sent into a large room, lined up at wooden tables, and provided with a mini-beer tasting lesson along with 5 or 6 neatly poured brews. The beers are great, although you will quickly find some that you like much better than others. Don't expect the intimacy that you get on a small up-and-coming brewery tour, but do expect to find a tour guide who's done this before and knows his/her brew.

Four friends just hangin' out
Anything Else We Missed: This is Goose Island’s original location, and they offer weekend tours on the weekend for $10, but you’ll likely need to make an advanced reservation.  The brewpub is really rather stunning with its wooden interior.  The beer goes straight from the kettles, to the taps, to your body.  It doesn’t get any fresher than that.  However, you can also get the Goose Island experience at their brewpub in Wrigleyville (3535 N. Clark Street).  Their location where they produce and distribute the majority of their beer is in the West Loop, but I don’t believe it’s open to the public, so if you want a tour make sure you head to the Lincoln Park location on Clybourn.  The tour offers a brief beer-tasting course, which is interesting and fun even for the most seasoned connoisseur, and you get to sample six different beers.  For more information on Goose Island, and other Chicago microbreweries, please visit our entry on Chicago: America’s Next Great BrewTown?

Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N. Halsted Street)
Why don't you come with me, little girl
On a magic carpet ride...
Here’s a real Chicago institution.  In a city loaded with outstanding theater companies, Steppenwolf is arguably the most famous.  Co-founded by Gary Sinise, it’s also helped pave the way for the acting careers of John Malkovich, Joan Allen, and Laurie Metcalf.  Their performances run the gamut from classics to experimental.  The experience is always top-notch, and if you go on a weeknight, surprisingly affordable (can be as low as $20 a ticket depending on the show).  Over 35 years and still going strong, seeing a show at Steppenwolf should be near the top of the list of MUST-DOs for any Chicagoan.

We've had the pleasure of seeing three shows here in the past couple years.  Each time was a different, engaging experience.  If there’s one consistent in Steppenwolf’s performances, there’s also a lingering element of dark humor that lingers along the show from beginning to end.  The shows tend to last between 90 minutes and two hours, with an intermission.  This makes it very palatable for even the most restless.

The acting is also tremendous.  Don’t be surprised if you see a show involving an actor you’ve seen from TV or film (although the aforementioned Sinise, Malkovich, and Allen usually don’t come back to do shows here anymore).  The shows tend to be full, and they offer snacks and alcohol before the show and during intermissions.  It’s hard to explain the aura of seeing a show at Steppenwolf, but for quality live theater it is definitely worth your time and money.
A scene from the outstanding "Middletown"
(Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Co.)

Anything Else We Missed: If you want the Steppenwolf experience, but don’t want to spend the money, there are two other options for you.  First Look Repertory allows you to see first run productions at an affordable price (~$20).  The most successful of these plays end up having runs either at Steppenwolf’s main stage, or elsewhere.  Then there’s Garage Rep where Steppenwolf supports smaller theater companies who are trying to make a name for themselves and usually present shows aimed at an age 21-35 crowd.  These shows are also very affordable (~$15).

Lincoln Park: The Final Tally
Shopping is also an option in Lincoln Park
It feels great to just BE in Lincoln Park.  The streets are alive at all times of the day, making just walking around a worthwhile venture, savoring the atmosphere and historic architecture.  That being said, there is absolutely no shortage of dining, shopping, and entertainment options.  Lincoln Park boasts the perfect balance of amenities.  It’s hard to think of something the neighborhood doesn’t have. Crime is a far off concern and you will always be close to the best of whatever it is you want.

If there's one complaint to be had (and that's literally just one), there is not a staggering amount of diversity.  The great majority of Lincoln Park is very wealthy, and very white.  The exception to this is Cabrini-Green which, although in the midst of substantial changes, is the complete opposite of this demographic (many don't realize that the infamous housing project is actually located within Lincoln Park).  Today changes are being done to make it a diverse, mixed-income area.  Otherwise, as a cultural, recreational, and residential mecca for the Midwest's biggest city, Lincoln Park defines its own brand in terms of standard of living.

Where we went.  Lincoln Park community area outlined in red.  Old Town is the area in blue.

Looking down from the Armitage Brown Line Station.  All is quiet in Lincoln Park tonight.

Everybody wants to know how Goose Island does it

Lincoln Park (red) is very close to the Loop (blue)

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