"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

Saturday, July 21, 2012

South Loop/Near South Side

The Breakdown
Sparkling new residences line a South Loop street.
An overview: It wasn’t that long ago that the South Loop was much like the West Loop, a haven for industry and not much else.  Today, and very much like present-day West Loop, it is something very different.  Dozens upon dozens of new condo buildings and converted lofts line Michigan, Wabash, State, and Lake Michigan south of Roosevelt Road.  New shops, bars, and eateries occupy the first floor of historic low-rises and new high-rises.  Urban professionals, retirees, and young families are out-and-about at seemingly all hours of the day, taking advantage of the amenities of the neighborhood, or that of the Loop immediately to the north.

The South Loop (or “Near South Side” community area as recognized by the City of Chicago) is also home to one of Chicago’s true cultural gems, the Museum Campus.  You know the usual suspects: the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and the Adler Planetarium.  However, it’s also home to Soldier Field and Northerly Island (formerly Meigs Field Airport).  Although it’s always been a neighborhood, the South Loop as it looks today is one of Chicago’s newest and up-and-coming areas, if not already there.

The boundaries: The South Loop and the Near South Side are essentially synonymous.  The Near South Side is one of Chicago’s 77 officially recognized community areas, while the South Loop is an informally designated neighborhood.  Either way, for the sake of this entry (and according to maps from the City of Chicago and Explore Chicago), the two names will be used interchangeably for the same geographic boundary.

As for the boundaries, they are: Roosevelt Road to the north, 26th Street to the south, and Lake Michigan to the east.  The western border is a little more complicated, but it’s essentially the Chicago River north of 18th Street, and the L tracks once you’re south of 18th.

Chicago's fastest-growing neighborhood
Population make-up: The South Loop grew RAPIDLY between 2000 and 2010 in response to extensive, dense development.  In those ten years, the population more than doubled, leaping from 9,509 in 2000 to 21,390 residents in 2010 (a 125% increase).  The racial demographics are 48% white, 28% black, 6% Hispanic, and 15% Asian.

A brief history: The history of the South Loop has been, for better or worse, a startlingly tumultuous one.  With the removal of Native Americans from the area, pushing them further westward, immigrants from western Europe settled the area to work in the lumber yards and manufacturing within the general area.  By the 1870s, the neighborhood was home to some of the city’s most elaborate mansions (and eventually the H.H. Richardson-designed Glessner House in the 1880s), as well as the city’s first all-Black neighborhood.  A fire destroyed a portion of the area in 1874, and along with the extension of elevated rail to the area in the 1880s, this led much of the neighborhood’s wealth to re-locate.

The turn of the century brought both good and bad, notably the rise of an infamous vice district, home to numerous seedy taverns and bordellos.  Despite the eventual closure of this district, the neighborhood’s upkeep and reputation continued to decline.  Remaining residences were becoming boarding houses, with more area being taken up by industry or open space into the 1940s.  On the positive side, the Near South Side became home to the present-day Museum Campus.  This parcel of land along the Lake just south of Roosevelt Road is home to some of the city’s most famous cultural institutions: The Shedd Aquarium, the Field Musuem, the Adler Planetarium, and Soldier Field (home of Da Bears!).

Bertrand Goldberg, architect of Marina City,
designed the distinctive Hilliard Homes
What was once, to many, an unkempt industrial wasteland, has become something of a success story in the past 20 years.  Home to former Mayor Daley, the Near South Side is, by far, the fastest growing community area in the city.  High-rises and upscale single-family homes have sprouted up along Michigan, Wabash, and State.  This has also brought along restaurants, shops, and nightlife, all within a short walk from the Loop.  With the ever-increasing density of the area, the CTA is planning to re-open a Green Line station at Cermak & Wabash, to service the south end of the neighborhood, as well as McCormick Place.  Despite the drop in home-buying due to the economic recession, the future still looks very bright for the South Loop.

Getting there: By L, your best bet is the Roosevelt Red/Green/Orange Line station, which will drop you off at the very northern end of the neighborhood.  However, you can also get off at the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line, which will give you entryway to the southwest corner of the South Loop.  Metra is also an option to get you to the east side of the neighborhood, with stops at 18th Street (Metra Electric) and McCormick Place (Metra Electric and South Shore Line).

There are several bus options as well.  Going north-south: Clark (24); State (29); Michigan (1, 3, 4); and Indiana (129).  Going east-west: Roosevelt (12, 18, 62) and Cermak (21).  Also, you can take the Archer bus (62) if you’re coming in from the southwest.

Waffles (1400 S. Michigan Avenue)
Waffles.  Famous for...ribs...
After wallowing for decades in the shadow of pancakes, waffles are finally getting their due at the appropriately named Waffles, just south of Roosevelt on Michigan Avenue.  Now, most people know there are two kinds of waffles in this world: Belgian and frozen.  Ahhh, but here at Waffles, they’ve unearthed a great truth: “Belgian waffles” are actually called “Brussels Waffles”.  And frozen waffles aren’t really waffles at all.  The other type of waffle is the “Liege Waffle” (more on this in a scosh), also named after a Belgian city.  Either way you can’t go wrong.  But if you can’t book a flight to Belgium, or make them at home, then take it from the local experts and head over to 14th and Michigan.

Michael’s Take: Favorite meal of the day: breakfast.  Doughnuts, cereal, eggs, cinnamon rolls, they’re all awesome.  Most underrated breakfast food: the waffle.  Now, I’ve had a multitude of Brussels waffles in my life, but here was my chance to try something new.  I went with eggs benedict but served on top of the Liege waffles.  The eggs were PERFECT.  Two little white pouches of flavor, drained of their goodness onto tender pork shoulder.  Also, the hollandaise sauce, which can make or break an eggs benedict, was buttery, and neither runny nor too thick.  Oh, and those waffles.  AWESOME.  Liege waffles are smaller than Brussels.  But what they lack in size they more than make up for in taste.  They’re texturally chewier and slightly crisp on the outside.  This is due to caramelization that gives it a sweeter taste as well.  Overall, an awesome brunch.

Hot chocolate flight
Laura’s Take:  Do not worry if super sweet breakfast isn’t your thing. I was a little worried when we walked in and the first two things I saw were a red velvet waffle (great for dessert I’m sure) and something covered in whipped cream and chocolate. Don’t let all the sweets fool you. You can still get what you want at Waffles. Not to say the Mexican waffle (chocolate, whipped cream number) and such wouldn’t be great if you were in the mood. This time, I opted for the “Albondigas” waffle, served with pork/lamb meatballs and a tomato-y sauce. The sauce was just a tad spicy and complimented the meatballs and brought the whole thing together. Sounds weird, tomato sauce with waffle, but this one was so mild and to me just provided the carb that I so wanted (needed). Everything was quite flavorful. We also had a hot chocolate flight, with caramel, mint, and chocolate numbers. These were all right, but again, sometimes I am not in for the super sweets and I would have preferred a little bit less sugar mixed in or maybe to have them at the end of the meal. On a side note, the couple bites I tried of the liege waffle was a revelation – unlike any waffle I’ve had before, it was almost underdone-chewy with a deep, rich, eggy, creamy taste that carmelized on the outside. I’d go back for that.

Anything Else We Missed: Waffles was the recipient of the “Best New Breakfast Award 2012” by Time Out Chicago in their annual “Eat Out Awards”.  And you don’t hafta get waffles here too (and you don’t hafta get a steak at Gibson’s, yadda yadda…).  Huevos rancheros, steak and eggs, and chipped beef hash are all part of their repertoire; full lunch menu too with salads and sandwiches.  In toto, this new South Loop eatery is clearly doing its part to help Chicago maintain its reputation of “GREAT Brunch Town”.

Liege Waffles Benedict.  Nice.

Opart Thai Restaurant (1906 S. State Street)
Along the border of the South Loop and Chinatown, among the aged manufacturing and historic Hilliard Homes, is a beautiful new mixed-use development.  You can debate what this structure’s anchor is, but before you look, I’ll just tell you the real answer…Opart Thai.  This revered Thai restaurant serves an extensive list of dishes and beverages with a variety of spice levels and flavor profiles.  Depending on the night, you may want to get a reservation, as the place does fill up quickly.

Michael’s Take: Just for a warm-up, we got some pot stickers.  I’ll leave the description to Laura, but rest assured, they were awesome.  What I got for myself was the poh tak.  It’s a very tasty, spicy, citrusy soup with a variety of Poseidon’s favorites: shrimp, squid, and crab stick (ok, so 2 out of 3 ain’t bad).  The broth is ludicrously tasty, balanced with lime and lemongrass, and has a ton of kick.  Shrimp and squid were cooked just right, neither too chewy.  The crab was, well, processed.  Still, I can forgive that.  I knew what I was getting into, and if you can’t get real crab, the fake kind is the next best (remaining?) option.  Only real disappointment, the apportionment of seafood is limited.  The result is that you may run out of protein before you’re halfway done with your broth.  Still, for flavor, and bang for your buck, I was still happy with my supper.  Service was polite and not overbearing.

Delicious pot stickers
Laura’s Take: In a not super bustling corner of town, Opart offered a noticeable increase in population density. This was the first good sign, along with the smell in the dining room. I’m a total sucker for Thai food. Our appetizer, pot stickers, were done in a slightly different way – fried after being stuffed with pork. Needless to say, this came out more than satisfactory. I think we were both squirted by pork juice when cutting into our bites. The dipping sauce (dark soy color, complex, tangy and salty flavor) made these an even more appetizing appetizer. For my entrée, I ordered a ginger chicken dish that was marked spicy, and it came out perfectly zippy. At the time I think I described the sauce as containing “crack”. It came with the rice as well, but you probably want to ask for a second scoop if you like plenty. I also ordered a Mai “Thai”, and as this was my first one outside of the United Center, I allowed myself to enjoy the fresh flavor even though I felt slightly guilty for cheating on the Hawks.

Anything Else We Missed: Definitely affordable.  Entreés go anywhere from $8-$15, but the majority lean toward the latter.  Also, if you don’t want to make the trek to the south side (wimp), they have another location in Lincoln Square just outside the Western Brown Line station.
"Zippy" ginger chicken

Weather Mark Tavern (1503 S. Michigan Avenue)
Walk by and you might miss it
As the South Loop grows, more and more restaurants and taverns are popping up south of Roosevelt Road.  While Wabash and State have done a nice job of attracting places to wine and dine, the main strip still seems to be Michigan Avenue.  Just a couple blocks south of Roosevelt, you’ll find Weather Mark Tavern.  You may literally have to FIND it, as it takes up part of the ground floor of a nondescript two-story building and boasts only one doorway with a relatively small awning.  Still, if you’re looking to get out of Chicago’s unpredictable weather, stop into Weather Mark Tavern for some smooth sailing (note: sailing = beverage drinking).

Michael’s Take: There’s nothing wrong with theme bars.  In fact, it’s nice to see a place that goes for a particular aura.  And I’m sure in one of Chicago’s notorious winters, this makes a very welcome escape to the Caribbean.  Even if you don’t care much for tropical drinks, there’s still a fair beer list featuring good local and regional breweries.  The South Loop isn’t quite a nightlife juggernaut yet, but it’s slowly building a reputation.  While Weather Mark might not be confused for a Map Room or Hopleaf (or as a buddy of mine would claim, Durkin’s), it has its charm and is worth a visit for a tasty bev.

The nautically-themed interior of Weather Mark Tavern
Laura’s Take: We stopped by the Weather Mark to let some spotty rain pass, coincidentally. This establishment has committed to a nautical theme and along with it, there was a tempting list of rum-based specialty cocktails. With an above average beer list, you will definitely find something to satisfy your needs. There are about two outdoor tables on the street, one of which was shaded, so come off peak hours if you like an al fresco table.

Anything Else We Missed: Didn’t try the food, but there’s a ton of variety on the menu.  Big selection and lots of nice little spins on classic fare (salmon comes with cous cous, blackened tuna comes with a lime sour cream, etc.) and it’s nice to see some nice seafood options in-line with the sea-faring theme.  Also, they offer brunch on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 10:30am.

Adler Planetarium (1300 S. Lake Shore Drive)
Copernicus welcomes you to the Adler Planetarium
Along with the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium completes the trio of world-class institutions on Chicago’s Museum Campus.  Built in 1930, it was the first planetarium built in the Western Hemisphere.  It remains a haven for astronomical artifacts, grammar school field trips, and celestial-themed cafeteria foods (like the Galactic Burger – you cannot make this kind of stuff up).  In all seriousness, put Adler on your list of Chicago must-dos.  It remains one of the world’s top planetariums and is an educational and architectural all-star in a city loaded with them.

Michael’s Take: I remember going once as a kid, when I was in love with astronomy, and was just blown away.  Now as I’m older, and equally mature, it is smaller than I remember (funny how that happens as we get bigger).  Still, it is no less impressive.  From the planets, to the celestial sphere, to the Big Bang, to the quarks that make-up our universe, it’s all covered in stunning detail at the Adler.  As any great museum should be, there is plenty to capture the attention span of adults and youths alike.  Interactive exhibits are entertaining for all, such as the one where you can recreate leaping on the Moon; I know this from personal experience, just ask Laura.  Although only on loan, Gemini XII is on display and is an absolute wow.  This is the actual spacecraft taken into orbit and manned by “Buzz” Aldrin (2nd man to set foot on the Moon) and Jim Lovell (famously portrayed by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13) in November 1966.  Also awesome, the t-shirt in the gift shop that says “Mmmmm…π”.  Hahaha, no wonder nerds rule the world!

Gemini XII capsule.
And you thought Excalibur got cramped!
Laura’s Take: On any given Saturday afternoon in Chicago, which museum down on museum campus has the longest line snaking outside? Well, the answer is not the Adler Planetarium, apparently. I’m guessing that it has something to do with the dorkiness of the subject. In any case, I was perfectly happy about our wait time and about the opportunity to nerd out about outer space. One of the exhibits focuses on the evolution of the universe. While I know that there are a variety of viewpoints out there, the museum has committed to presenting a purely scientific one from beginning to end. If you are a hardcore creationist, beware: there will be no accommodation for you in this exhibit! As with any world-class museum, there is a little something for everybody, including an “Astronomy and Culture” section, which included a setup from a medieval European university where pupils first were schooled in the cosmos. If you are by chance into astrological instruments, old telescopes, planet facts, or even a REAL spacecraft that went into orbit containing astronauts (!), you will make good memories at the planetarium. My favorite item was probably the open, actual notebook page in which Alan Guth mathematically realized the idea of cosmic inflation (the early universe quickly blew up or inflated) at Cornell University in 1979.  The top of the page is handwritten, containing crossed out equations and the date. The top of the page starts with the uppercase letters “SPECTACULAR REALIZATION:” outlined in double boxes.

Anything Else We Missed: Basic entry will cover/entertain you for at least a couple hours.  Cost is $12, but only $10 if you’re a Chicago resident (yeah, that 5-bedroom McMansion in Barrington now isn’t looking so sweet, is it?).  If you want to see the theater shows though, that’ll cost you extra.  As you can imagine, there are numerous special events and discount days, several of which permit free general entry.  Oh, and we had a Caprese Panini there too.  Believe it or not, REALLY good.

South Loop: The Final Tally
Coliseum Park.  Probably the best thing to come from
Mayor Vespasian's administration.
It’s easy to see the allure of the South Loop.  Its access to downtown is convenient and immediate.  Housing is new and relatively affordable.  Some of the city’s top cultural attractions are only a short walk away.  Trendy eateries are finding their way to the area.  It is one of the city’s safer neighborhoods as well.  Even though the economic downturn hurt housing and put a handful of buildings into foreclosure, this has not stopped the energy of the neighborhood.  Once one of Chicago’s smallest community areas in terms of population, the South Loop is now a boomtown and the City’s fastest growing neighborhood by far.

Many potential retail and restaurant spaces still sit vacant.  This will change as the economy picks up.  There is too much opportunity, and the density of the area will be further enticing to chains and independents alike.  But what’s NOT there, isn’t what’s important.  It’s all about what IS there.  A youthful vibrancy mixing with an older population brings a diverse crowd to the streets at all hours of the day.  What’s going on in the South Loop is as exciting as anything in the City’s other neighborhoods.  It will be absolutely fascinating to see how it evolves over the next ten years, and if the population will continue to move further south towards IIT’s campus.  Until then, there is plenty of reason to visit and enjoy the South Loop as it stands today.

South Loop/Near South Side and all the sweet places we went

Poh Tak.  So spicy!
Albondigas waffle.
So savory!

Below Lake Shore Drive, an entryway to the Museum Campus

Incredible view of the skyline from the Adler Planetarium

The Near South Side community area (green) abuts the Loop (blue) along Roosevelt Road


  1. Just found your blog via search....really good stuff. I always enjoy people who are willing to explore and talk about what they find great.

    I'm in the West Lawn (southwest side) neighborhood, and would love to make some recommendations of places to visit. Drop me a line and I'm more than willing to help out.

  2. Hey thanks Gordon! Always appreciate any feedback we get. I (Michael) used to have grandparents who lived in Ashburn, but I haven't been down to that part of Chicago in years. Make no mistake, we'll get down there. Would definitely appreciate your suggestions when we do. Thanks again!

  3. You're darn right that skyline from the Adler terrace is awesome. It's where I got engaged!

    Also, I want that pi shirt.