"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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012: The Year in Review

For Big Shoulders Atlas, 2012 began on the South Side and it ended back on the South Side.  With lots of transition occurring, including a move back to the City after spending the first half of the year in the suburbs, getting to neighborhoods wasn’t as easy as back in 2011.  Still, we had some incredible experiences in neighborhoods both familiar and foreign.

All in all, 2012 reinforced why we love this city and why we do the blog.  Some of the best meals we’ve ever had were consumed in this past year’s neighborhoods.  There were several cultural surprises, and some “new favorites” that will have us going back to re-live our incredible first experiences.

So here’s looking back to what Chicago offered us in 2012, before we look forward to exciting things in 2013…

Hyde Park is one of the City’s most beautiful areas.  Within 1.5 square miles is a perfect lakefront setting, some of the country’s best architecture, and one of the world’s top academic institutions.  We’ve only gone back to revisit two neighborhoods over the two years of our blog’s existence, and this was one of them.  It was for good reason.

Despite mixed feelings about Park 52, the ambiance would have us come back for another round.  However, the shrimp and grits was a definite standout.  Woodlawn Tap is a fantastic bar with classic neighborhood atmosphere, a diverse crowd, and helpful service.  It’s worth a stop if you’re in Hyde Park.  Also, Piccolo Mondo surprised us with an interesting take on tapas and at an affordable price despite its white tablecloth aura.  But speaking of affordable, the real highlight was a park.  Promontory Point, which juts just east of Lake Shore Drive, offers a spectacular view of downtown on its magnificent lakefront spot.  Chicago has some amazing public park space, and yet this one even manages to stand out from the crowd.

Hyde Park is a must-visit for any Chicagoan.  If there’s only one deficiency, it’s a lack of immediate access via the L.  But it’s still an easy drive, an express Lake Shore Drive bus ride, or a quick Metra ride from downtown.  Hyde Park is so representative of Chicago in its diversity of people, its mix of housing, and its incomparable cultural footprint.

We didn’t visit, but you should: Museum of Science and Industry

Greektown is one of Chicago’s simple pleasures.  It’s a true ethnic neighborhood, where you’re just as likely to hear Greek in a Halsted Street restaurant as you are to hear English.  The majority of attractions are food-related.  But it’s easily accessible via the Blue Line, and a pleasant half-mile stroll to take in the entire lively neighborhood.

Greek Islands is just one exemplary option out of several in Greektown.  This one has pleasant outdoor seating, and the house wine and people-watching took us back to Europe.  Although we didn’t cover them, we also value Santorini and Artopolis as other great dining options.  Pan Hellenic Pasty Shop is a new favorite.  Wonderfully attentive service and some killer baklava highlight this charming bakery.  You gotta have a gyros in Greektown and Zeus Gyros is a solid place to go.  Although not covered in our article, the appropriately named Greektown Gyros is another good one.  And of course, it wouldn’t be Greektown without…an Irish pub.  Dugan’s has modesty to spare, but getting a window seat facing Halsted on a late spring afternoon is a treat.  If an Irish pub in Greektown doesn’t feel right, stop in at Gyro Bar (aka Ambrosia Sports Bar).  Virtually hidden, it shares a doorway with Greektown Gyros on Halsted just north of Jackson.

It’s awesome to see Greektown continue to thrive.  What was once a small shining beacon in the middle of an otherwise unexciting part of the Near West Side is now one of many bright stars in the West Loop, one of Chicago’s great redevelopment success stories.

We didn’t visit, but you should: National Hellenic Museum.  Just opened in the past year, Greektown hosts a national museum dedicated to the history of culture of the Greeks.

From 2000 through 2010, the City of Chicago’s population shrank by about 200,000 residents.  Although outer neighborhoods saw their numbers decline, in and around the Loop residential development boomed.  This was no more evident than in the Near South Side (or more commonly referred to as the “South Loop”).  During this first decade of the new millennium, the South Loop swelled from 9,500 residents to nearly 21,400.  To serve the denizens of these dense high-rises, new businesses have sprouted up all over the South Loop.  We were fortunate enough to enjoy a few of these.

Waffles serves a niche by specializing in breakfast’s most underrated dish.  Both Brussels and Liege waffles are knockouts in sweet and savory varieties, and hot chocolate flights are a nice extra touch.  Opart Thai stands out in a crowded field of Windy City Thai eateries.  Very reasonably priced, but make a reservation, as it gets jammed during normal dinner hours.  Weather Mark Tavern is a solid if unspectacular place for a beverage.  The nautical theme and decor is something different, but we didn’t get a chance to try the food.  And of course the Adler Planetarium is another unique and exceptional museum that helps Chicago stand out among most other American cities in the cultural department.

The South Loop is already an exciting neighborhood.  One of the City’s “newest” neighborhoods has grown from a home for industry to a home for high quality of life.  As people continue to locate near downtown Chicago, the South Loop will continue to grow and excel.

We didn’t visit, but you should: The Field Museum and The Shedd Aquarium

Often paired with University Village, we felt there was enough to do in what is historically known as Chicago’s Little Italy to allow it an entry to itself.  We were right.  Little Italy has gone through many changes throughout its history.  An early haven for Italian immigrants, the neighborhood began to change and shrink after being partially demolished in the 1950s to build the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290).  As the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has begun to shed its reputation as a commuter school, students and young professionals have looked to Little Italy as a great place to live, dine, and socialize.

Three Aces has gained a deserved reputation as one of the city’s hotspots for trendy wining and dining.  Unique menu options abound, but for the less adventurous there is a variety of delicious pizzas and burger options.  Beviamo is a hidden gem, a classy and intimate lounge that has become a personal favorite of ours.  John Sabal, who often performs on Friday evenings, is just fantastic and can play just about any artist you request on piano and guitar.  Vintage Lounge is an appropriately named tavern with a nice interior.  Another great spot to sit by the window on a crisp afternoon and watch life unfold on Taylor Street.  And what else can you say about Al’s Beef?  This is the spot where the Italian Beef, the iconic Chicago sandwich, was born.  It’s still one of the culinary world’s great guilty pleasures.

Little Italy is already a must-visit, and there’s so much untapped potential still there.  Swaths of space along Taylor near Racine are waiting for the economy to fully recover to bring in new residents, shops, services, and eateries.  Some of the best views of the skyline are found here too.  Even though Little Italy isn’t quite as authentic an ethnic neighborhood as Greektown, elements of its Italian heritage remain.  And as any great neighborhood does, Little Italy still savors elements of its past, while looking to an exciting future.

We didn’t visit, but you should: Some of those great Italian restaurants the neighborhood is known for, both classics like The Rosebud, and newer hotspots like Davanti Enoteca.

Speaking of hidden gems, East Village offers a wealth of amenities in a neighborhood that most people consider part of the Ukrainian Village or Wicker Park.  However, East Village boasts its own unique identity.  A vibrant mix of hipster, Hispanic, and Eastern European cultures, East Village is slowly drawing more attention to itself as distinct from its surrounding neighborhoods.

Roots Handmade Pizza is hip and tasty.  Always nice to see another place’s take on something, Roots brings strip-cut Quad City-style ‘za to the Windy City.  Happy Village relishes its status as your local dive bar, but also offers some back room ping-pong and a beautiful little beer garden to separate itself from the pack.  The Anthem is as unique as the neighborhood it calls home.  Possibly the trendiest sports bar we’ve experienced, food and beer are both good and plentiful (and supposedly so is the Juicy Lucy which we didn’t try – sorry Aaron).

It’s not as flashy as Wicker Park, not as gritty as Humboldt Park, and not as well-known as Ukrainian Village.  What East Village can boast is copious charm and eccentricity right in the heart of West Town.  Beautiful homes and trees line side streets while business corridors on Division and Chicago Avenues handle heavy foot traffic, especially on the weekend.  As all of West Town continues to evolve, so will East Village.  This is a neighborhood to experience now, and keep an eye on in the future.

We didn’t visit, but you should: St. George Cathedral, a beautiful and historic Russian Orthodox house of worship.  East Village and Ukrainian Village remain rich in these historic Eastern European churches.

The metaphorical capital of Soxdom (even though the grand palace that is U.S. Cellular Field is actually in Armour Square), Bridgeport is one of the South Side’s iconic neighborhoods.  Not too long ago, it was largely forgotten by the younger crowd, also suffering from gang-related issues.  No longer the case, it is now a hotbed of the arts, and one of the City’s safest neighborhoods.  It is also emerging as a destination for dining and nightlife.  From new school mixed-use developments, to old school bungalows, Bridgeport has something for everybody and is well worth a trip…even if you’re a Cubs fan (hey, Sox fans go to Wrigleyville too, you know).

Han 202 is exemplifying excellent fine dining at an affordable price.  The secret is out on this Asian restaurant though, so better make a reservation, and by all means bring your own beverages.  Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar is your place in Bridgeport to buy that Malört.  Definitely stay for a drink in the bar too; it’s one of the City’s best.  Nana shows that the fresh, sustainable thing works on the South Side too.  Absolutely amazing brunch, but definitely get there early to avoid the lunchtime crowd.  The Bridgeport Art Center flaunts the neighborhood’s commitment to the arts with artist residences and a public viewing gallery.  Don’t drive by because you think it’s just a storage building…it’s that too, but trust us, there’s an entrance to the art center in the back by the giant parking lot.

Bridgeport is one of Chicago’s next truly hot neighborhoods, if it’s not there already.  Rapid growth might be held back by limited L access (although there is an Orange Line station at the northern end of the neighborhood at Halsted and Archer), but it is easily accessible by car, and the Halsted bus (8) can get you there as well.  Further putting a stamp on Bridgeport is the Asian community, many of which are a spillover from the adjacent Chinatown.  Their mark is made in many of the shops and restaurants lining the streets.  Bridgeport is a wonderful neighborhood with its best days still ahead.

We didn’t visit, but you should: Co-Prosperity Sphere and Zhou B Art Center are two facilities helping make Bridgeport an arts Mecca.

In Summary
Although we didn’t get out to nearly as many neighborhoods as we had hoped, that just leaves us with plenty more to visit in 2013.  After heavily emphasizing the North Side in 2011, we wanted to make a point of spending more time on the West Side and South Side.  Each new neighborhood we visit is eye-opening.  It never ceases to amaze us, the wealth of culture, diversity, and amenities in the City of Big Shoulders.

If we leave with you with anything, there is so much to explore in Chicago.  When a lifetime isn’t long enough to experience everything your hometown has to offer, you know you’re living in a truly world-class city.  Don’t limit yourself to downtown, or your neighborhood.  Take yourself out of your element.  Try something new.  Chicago is certainly not lacking in its variety of restaurants, museums, boutiques, live theaters, taverns, and so on.  And please, make sure to support these local businesses that help make Chicago what it is today.  We can’t wait to see what 2013 has in store for us, and we look forward to sharing that with you.

The neighborhoods we visited in 2012 and the Loop (blue): East Village (brown), Little Italy (magenta),
Greektown (cyan), Near South Side/South Loop (green), Bridgeport (orange), and Hyde Park (yellow)