"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

Monday, January 21, 2013

West Loop Gate

The Breakdown
An overview: Didn’t we already do the West Loop?  How is this different?  Well, yes, we did indeed cover the entire West Loop back in May of 2011.  However, we chose to come back and focus on the neighborhood’s eastern-most section for two main reasons.  First of all, our 2011 entry neglected the portion east of I-90/94.  As this entry will show, there are many wonderful things to do in such a small geographic area.  Secondly, we’ve had an incredible two years exploring your neighborhoods.  Now, we want to take you on a tour of ours.

Like Greektown, West Loop Gate is a neighborhood within a neighborhood within a community area.  As stated above, West Loop Gate is the easternmost portion of the West Loop neighborhood, which itself encompasses a relatively centralized (though spanning much of the east-west length) portion of one of the City’s largest community areas: the Near West Side.  Despite officially being a part of the Near West Side, West Loop Gate really serves more as an extension of the Loop, rather than a portion of the greater West Loop or Greektown.

But it hasn’t always been like that.  Relatively new as an in-demand place to live, West Loop Gate is continuing to grow taller and denser, much like its residential loft and high-rise bearing cousin the South Loop.  And as more and more people desire its location and fashionable condos, West Loop Gate’s lifestyle options continue to grow and expand with it.

The boundaries: The geographically small West Loop Gate is bordered by Lake Street to the north, I-290 to the south, I-90/94 to the west, and the Chicago River to the east.

The Sears Tower overlooks refurbished lofts
and modernist architecture in West Loop Gate
Population make-up: West Loop Gate has seen tremendous growth in the past decade with new high-rises and converted lofts.  The 2010 Census count for the neighborhood was a dense 9,716 residents, which is a 76% increase from its 2000 population of 5,523.  The neighborhood’s racial make-up in 2010 was such: 63% white, 22% Asian, and 6% each black and Hispanic.

A brief history: A summary of the history of the West Loop is summarized in our original West Loop posting.  Still, there are several things worth noting about the history of West Loop Gate.  Obviously left in ruins by the Chicago Fire of 1871 that started just south of the neighborhood, Old St. Patrick’s Church is one of seven still-standing buildings that survived the devastating event.  Its immediate proximity to the Loop, served the area as a hub for industrial activity.  As with much of the Rust Belt, manufacturing declined steadily after the 1960s, leaving this slice of the City as susceptible to vacancy and crime.  The first wave of new residents arrived in the mid-1980s with the completion of the four monolithic Presidential Towers apartment buildings.  In 1999, Paul Kahan opened Blackbird in the still relatively shady neighborhood.  This infusion of new business, along with the conversion of many formerly abandoned warehouses into lofts and condominiums, helped to draw 24-7 traffic to West Loop Gate.

The Clinton Green/Pink Line L station
marks the neighborhood's northern border
Today, the neighborhood continues to grow upward, and the demand for newly renovated commercial and residential space has made it not only one of the most in-demand neighborhoods, but one of the most expensive.  And once-blighted parcels and surface parking lots are quickly being snatched up and developed.  Not long ago, West Loop Gate existed only as western growth from the Loop and otherwise ignored after 6pm.  But with the influx of new residences and funding, the West Loop Gate is only getting better, and its brightest days still lay ahead.

Getting there: Being in such close proximity to the Loop has its transit advantages.  By L, you can get to the southern edge of West Loop Gate via the Clinton Blue Line station.  Also, the Clinton Green/Pink Line station will put you at the very northern tip of the neighborhood as well.  Otherwise, the neighborhood is an easy 5-10 minute walk west from the Washington/Wells and Quincy/Wells Loop L stations.

Metra is definitely an option with the West Loop Gate playing host to Chicago’s two busiest train stations.  Both Chicago Union Station and the Ogilvie Transportation Center call the neighborhood home.  Also, due to its proximity to the Loop and the train stations, countless buses run to/from/through the area.  Rather than listing them all here, your best bet is to check the CTA website.  With major streets such as Lake, Washington, Madison, and Jackson running through the neighborhood, as well as Halsted to the immediate west, chances are good you can find a bus to get you there.

Avec (615 W. Randolph Street)
Don't worry, you'll know it's Avec when you get there
If you made a list of Chicago’s most well-known "fine dining" restaurants, Avec would be up there, maybe even numero uno.  The second of Chicago culinary pioneer Paul Kahan’s restaurants (following Blackbird and preceding The Publican and Big Star), Avec has created an indisputable niche in the Second City’s top-notch dining scene.  The wait can be long, but the plus side of the small plates endeavor is you can have a really expensive OR reasonably priced meal.

Laura’s Take: You feel like you’re somewhere special when you sit down at Avec. It is so unexpected and unlike another place I’ve been in Chicago with its completely streamlined wooden ambiance. Yes it is tiny, but the the walls make you feel like you’re in a vortex and somehow open up the environment. It kind of reminded me of a ship with the windows peering out to the street like port holes. Then the fact that the walls and seats are so minimalist makes you also think more about the menu the moment you walk in. You do have an open window into the kitchen if you are toward the back, again, making the food the complete center of the vibe. And there are so many wonderful things to choose from! To start, as you might expect from Paul Kahan, there is an exciting, new, off-beat assortment of imported beers. I love when I’ve never seen any of the beers on the list before. There is an intriguing list of French spirits on the list as well, including madeira, port, and sherry, in case that sounds good. I will leave most of the food review to Michael, since I basically agree; I only wish I could have tasted everything there. Which brings me to my only complaint about the small-plates style—it is easy to become a little frustrated at not being able to try the smallest fraction of what you’d like to.

Ahhh, natural light is so much better

Michael’s Take: Avec absolutely lives up to the hype.  Although Paul Kahan still typically presides over Blackbird, Avec was in good hands with Koren Grieveson.  Chef Grieveson has since left, but word on the street is that the restaurant hasn’t lost a step since Erling Wu-Bower took over the helm.  Although we haven’t experienced Avec since Chef Grieveson left, you can’t ignore the things that made Avec such a hotspot.  Notably, it's the food.  Chacuterie is so clutch, and a simple but flavorful way to start.  It gets better.  Sardine salad is just salty and briny enough to have that potency without overwhelming your tastebuds.  But my two favorites were, firstly, a perfectly tender squid topped with a red sauce.  Calamari is easy to screw up so that it’s tough and rubbery.  This is squid you can sink your teeth into.  Perfect amount of chew, and plenty of give.  A wonderful marinara-esque sauce gives it enough spice without drowning out the seafood.  And, still on the menu, is a magnificent brandade.  A mixture of cod and potato (don’t worry, it’s tastes more like mashed spuds than the former), it’s drizzled with olive oil and topped with crispy bits of garlic.  Scoop some up on crusty toast, and you’ve got a rich, savory bite of food.  Communal seating works great with the mostly upbeat crowd, and service is alert and well-informed.  The gorgeous wooden interior adds a bit of warmth and charm as well.  Overall, Avec is a must-experience in Chicago.

Anything Else We Missed: Do you love Avec so much that you want it ALL to yourself?  Well, you just might be in luck.  Avec recently just announced that they are offering private luncheons.  Call to book.  Also, that’ll be your only chance at an Avec lunch, as they only open at 3:30pm.  That’s a good time to go, as the restaurant fills up quickly around dinnertime.

Calamari in red sauce?  Awww yeah!

Chicago Union Station (500 W. Jackson Boulevard)
The legendary Chicago Union Station
Oh come on, you’re reviewing a train station?  Yes, it’s our blog, and we’re reviewing a train station.  But there’s good reason.  Probably the most iconic building in West Loop Gate (although Old St. Patrick’s Church makes a good argument), it’s still one of the definitive architectural triumphs in a city filled with them.  The Great Hall, and staircase leading to/from it, were immortalized in Brian DePalma’s noir masterpiece The Untouchables.  Even if you’re not travelling via Amtrak or Metra, Union Station is worth a quick stop for a piece of Chicago lore.

Michael’s Take: Like Laura, I’ve traversed Union Station dozens, if not hundreds of times.  Sure, like with anywhere you go, it becomes old hat and just another stop between points A and B.  But take a step back for a minute and you’ll realize the importance of Union Station.  Chicago, more than any other city, is tied to the railways.  And while flight and autocar has essentially replaced travel by train (especially from city-to-city), this place harkens back to a time when a train depot was THE central meeting point of a city.  Like Chicago itself, Union Station (built in 1925) does it bigger and better than most.  The Great Hall is splendid in detail and bustles with activity every day of the year.  The pillars outside are a striking carryover from the neo-classical “City Beautiful” movement popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair (World’s Columbian Exposition) in 1893.  So next time you’re headed to the suburbs, or Milwaukee, or your public in-state alma mater, take the train.  And before you do, get there a couple minutes early, go up to the second floor, and look out over the Great Hall yourself.  Take yourself back to a time when Union Station was the center of Chicago’s world, new residents and workers pouring in at every hour, and savor one of Chicago’s true architectural masterpieces.

Laura’s Take: I think of Union as the retro, grizzly, polluted-air version of Ogilvie. Well, now that I have gained some distance from daily bouts with Union Station, I can appreciate its good sides. However, it does have a magnificence and an authenticity that are not found in its newer, brighter, sexier sister to the north. Here you will encounter more of that traditional urban train experience that you think of in the movies, and in fact, have probably seen in the movies that have been shot at Chicago Union Station. You know, obligatory bare bones, light beer dive bar lodged between the Amtrak and the Metra terminals. Long, inefficient lines in front of the ticket booths that always still move just fast enough for you to catch your train. Girl selling lagers from an emergency booth in case you’re in a rush, and bathrooms that usually have the plastic stand out front cause they’re being serviced... either that or there’s a long line snaking out the door of the women’s side. If you are really lucky you may catch a police officer with drug-sniffing dogs. Either way train stations like this tend to bring out the best and worst in humanity as all types are clashed together at all hours of the day and night.

Anything Else We Missed: Book your wedding reception here.  No, seriously.  You can reserve the Great Hall and have a spectacular Beaux Arts open space for your special day.  The space can also be reserved for a variety of events, like oh say, the annual Chicago Beer Festival (March 30th).  So, before you look at Chicago Union Station as just a transportation hub, realize that this piece of Chicago history is really so much more than that.

A relatively quiet afternoon in the Great Hall

Paola's Vinum (328 S. Jefferson Street)
A taste of Portugal in the Near West Side
A taste of the lakefront neighborhoods in West Loop Gate.  Really, this is the kind of place you’d expect to find on Armitage, or Roscoe, or even in the Gold Coast.  This Portuguese wine and small plates bar may have a short drink menu, but it’s big on ambiance.  Also, it’s an example of quality over quantity.  With the ever-growing density of West Loop Gate, there’s finally a classy establishment to savor some great vino and eat some wonderfully pungent cheese.

Laura’s Take: I really love that a place like this exists so close to home, in a neighborhood that otherwise has very few establishments of this sort. For me it’s a true throwback to Europe, but done in an updated, chic, downtown kind of way. Not to mention that they really know their wines – we were there on the patio during warmer weather, and our waitress did a great job turning my like/dislike descriptions into the perfect glass. It was such a treat to hang out in a part of downtown that felt so spacious and off the beaten path yet hummed with energy at the same time. The menu contains salads and sandwiches that are influenced with a Spanish theme, as is the wine list. If you are there at dinner, you’ll be ordering off a tapas menu that sports all the usual suspects made to pair with great wine. There are also some crazy cocktails, like wine and coke together, which sound awesome. I don’t know that I’ve run across a wine bar that closes for the weekend before, but here’s hoping that Paola’s does so well that they stay open all week long.

Michael’s Take: Paola’s is a great addition to the neighborhood.  While West Loop Gate won’t be mistaken anytime soon for Lake View or Lincoln Park, here’s a place that helps get it one small step closer to being a drinking/dining destination.  Food is definitely on the list to try, but we like Paola’s as a place to relax and have a nice glass of wine (or a cool microbrew).  If you work near the river, here’s my suggestion: head over after work on a late spring evening.  Sit out in the outdoor patio and watch the sun come down over downtown with the skyscrapers hovering over you. Paola’s Vinum is a terrific local business, and an outstanding pioneer in the West Loop Gate social scene.

Anything Else We Missed: Here’s the knock on West Loop Gate: Paola’s is closed on the weekend.  So if you miss the 10pm closing time on Friday night, you’re SOL until Monday.  Fortunately, if you work west of the river, you can stop in for a sandwich or salad during lunchtime (or possible a liquid lunch?).  Either way, for an after-work happy hour (or two or five), you should definitely make your way over to Paola’s.

Chicago French Market (131 N. Clinton Street)
In the bowels of Ogilvie, the beautiful French Market
So this is one area that Chicago had been trailing in for years.  The Midwest actually boasts some of the best public markets in the nation.  Detroit’s Eastern Market is the largest and most spectacular, while St. Louis’s Soulard Market and Cleveland’s West Side Market are no small shakes either.  In recent years, city officials sought to bring to Chicago the one thing that it’s been lacking, a public market with fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and eateries.  While Chicago’s French Market focuses more on dining (like the Milwaukee Public Market), that’s all the more reason to go.  You can get your groceries and stay for sushi, vegan, Belgian beer and fries, crepes, kosher fare, and the list goes on and on.

A lovely selection of fruits and veggies awaits
Laura’s Take: I’ve utilized the French market for several purposes. I’ve gone for lunch multiple times (which is great because there are a lot of options, so you don’t get bored). I’ve gone for groceries (especially for produce, since there is a lack of the fresh stuff in this neighborhood elsewhere). And I’ve gone for specialty gifts (namely the handmade olive oil soap kiosk, because that soap is THAT good that I’ve had repeat requests for it). When you remember that it’s actually part of/in a train station, the market has an impressively inviting quality. It really would be fun to stop off at one of the new bars for coffee or a beverage before or after a train. Be prepared to spend a few extra dollars compared to what you might at your local grocery store; the products stocked tend to be higher-end and you pay a premium for grabbing that milk jug on your way home. But, several of the ethnic eating options are fairly inexpensive. And if you like browsing for foodie stuff and kitchen gear, you will surely enjoy an hour or two here.

A nice, light lunch from FliP Crêpes
Michael’s Take: I stop in the French Market at least once a week.  It’s a great convenience getting off the Metra at Ogilvie and just walking downstairs.  While my purpose during the week is getting fruit, fresh fish, or Ritter Sport chocolate for the lady, that’s not my favorite reason to go to the French Market (although it’s a good reason nonetheless).  All the boutique eateries are the REAL reason to visit the French Market.  While Saigon Sisters for Vietnamese (see more below) is a personal favorite, I have yet to have a bad eating experience.  Service is always quick and pleasant.  My recommendation is to get there and just walk around for 10 minutes and see what each kiosk has to offer.  You and your friend/relative/significant other should each get something from a different place and share.  Oh, and stick around for dessert.  There are two or three places that offer French macarons, which are just delicious and come in about seven million different flavors.  It’s less than a block from the Clinton Green/Pink Line station, but it’s also only a half-mile west of the Clark/Lake L station in the Loop, so unless you’re entirely reliant on the Red Line (and even that’s not an excuse, you can always transfer!), it’s well-worth a visit.  So make some easy, laid-back Saturday lunch plans and head over to the French Market for some great ethnic eats.

Anything Else We Missed: Sadly, the market is closed on Sundays.  So if you’re making weekend plans, make sure it’s on Saturday.  However, during the week and on Saturdays too, the French Market often offers live music in the public dining area.  Admission is almost always free.

Saigon Sisters (567 W. Lake Street)
It's a perfect night for Vietnamese
Another new entry in West Loop Gate’s growing culinary scene, Saigon Sisters brings a delightful ethnic flavor beneath the roar of the Lake Street L tracks.  If you’ve never had Vietnamese before, don’t be skeptical.  Saigon Sisters offers enough options for even the pickiest consumer.  Although the price point and restaurant design implies fine dining, there are enough options to get a great meal at a fair price, and the patrons wear everything from suit and tie to jeans and a polo.  If you’re not willing to commit to dinner, lunch is always an option.  There are lots of reasonably priced banh mi, bao, and spring rolls to choose from.  Whether for lunch or dinner, Saigon Sisters is a can’t-miss for ethnic food lovers in West Loop Gate.

Laura’s Take: I would chart Saigon Sisters as a great gem in our little neighborhood. It is so cute. I felt a lot like I was in a Parisian bistro with the tiny wood tables and inviting, beautifully decorated interior. But again, the ambiance inside is more "urban-chic" (or something) than that. This is what is so refreshing about the West Loop area – it seems like you are off the beaten path under a weird and random part of the El tracks yet once you step inside, you realize you’re in a great spot that has its own energy. I was celebrating sort of a victory for the day, so I ordered the flank steak with Vietnamese coffee pureed potatoes, cocoa nibs, beets, and arugala salad. What a surprise. Everything went so well together and was flavored impeccably. It’s hard to describe how much I enjoyed this meal, and with a hearty glass of red, it was that much better. Service was attentive and professional, from the greetings and seating to food and beverage choices. It’s a little more than I’d do for everyday, but I can’t wait to find an excuse to go back for an occasion.

Flank steak accompanied by lots of "flavor"
Michael’s Take: Oh Vietnamese food, what took me so long to discover you?  Like Korean food, many Vietnamese options are soup-based.  I had the bun rieu, which had a coconut curry broth with cubed chunks of crab frittata.  The broth was light with a slight creaminess from the coconut milk.  There was just enough spice for flavor without the heat overwhelming the dish.  Crab frittata was curious to me and turned out to be quite enjoyable.  The cubes are soft yet firm.  Definitely enough crab to get the flavor as well.  Of course there’s a plentiful helping of bean sprouts to give it crunch.  What’s nice is that it comes on the side, so you can be as judicious as you feel appropriate in its use.  At $18, it’s not cheap.  But for a quality bowl of hot, flavorful, filling soup on a cold January evening, if it’s Saigon Sisters, it’s worth the splurge.

Sorry, this was the best interior shot we could get

Anything Else We Missed: Saigon Sisters is a banner West Loop Gate eatery.  Not only can the sit-down restaurant be found here, but the original location, a banh mi (sandwich) and pho (soup) kiosk can be found in the French Market.  The banh mi is absolutely sensational with delicious pork, chicken, or veggies topped with things like jalapeño.  The flavors are incredible, and it’s one of, if not THE best place to grab a bite of prepared food in the French Market.  Also, a third location is coming soon to Streetville (Huron & St. Clair).  So if you’re downtown and need your Vietnamese fix, you’ll have several options to choose from, whether north or west of the Loop.

West Loop Gate: The Final Tally
Old St. Pat's stands tall as the oldest building
in a neighborhood of vintage architecture
West Loop Gate’s geography says a lot about its personality.  It’s not yet thriving the way the West Loop west of I-90/94 is, but it’s a step ahead of the Loop in terms of residential development, and therefore nighttime traffic.  Admittedly with the density of the neighborhood, you’d expect more dining and drinking options, as with the renaissance the South Loop is having.  Still, this “neighborhood reinvented”, the West Loop Gate is on its way.  And while there may not be a great shop or trendy restaurant on every corner, if you know where to look you’ll strike gold.

Another hopeful sign for West Loop Gate is proximity.  There is a wealth of great neighborhoods within a 5-minute drive or bus ride.  From the Fulton River District and River West to the north, to Greektown and the West Loop to the west, and University Village and the South Loop to the south, West Loop Gate is in the heart of Chicago’s reinvigorated warehouse neighborhoods.  Still, just because it’s near to some of the City’s great new offerings, doesn’t mean West Loop Gate should be seen as just a pass-through.  Rather, it’s home to some true Chicago: historic architecture, ethnic food, and the epicenter of the steadily growing Paul Kahan empire.

As two people who call the West Loop Gate home, we know it doesn’t have the activity of Lake View, the charm of Hyde Park, or the quirkiness of West Town.  But we love what our neighborhood has to offer.  The views of downtown, access to the ever-improving Riverwalk, and just being in the heart of it all more than compensates for the lack of the aforementioned.  So come on out, visit West Loop Gate, and let us know what you think!

Here's West Loop Gate, and here's where we went!

The West Loop Gate skyline, flanked to the left by all four Presidential Towers buildings

Lou Mitchell's: arguably Chicago's
most famous breakfast establishment
Coconut curry broth and crab frittata
at Saigon Sisters

Avec's creamy, luscious brandade
Four times the meat!  Delicious charcuterie at Avec

We didn't eat at Sepia, so instead we gave you this picture with sepia tones

West Loop Gate (yellow) snuggled among The Loop (blue),
the West Loop (orange), and the Near West Side community area (red)

1 comment:

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