"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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wicker Park

The Breakdown
Six Corners: The Heart of Wicker Park
An overview: Your opinion of Wicker Park likely hinges upon your opinion of hipsters.  Perhaps you think they’re great because they bring unique shops and eateries to the community, embrace ethnic diversity, and are extremely fun to look at.  Or, you might just think they’re just PBR-drinking, excessive hair gel-wearing, “hey look at me” kind of folk who don’t have real jobs.  You can debate the merit of hipsters all you want (although we happen to be in the former category), but you cannot debate the impact they’ve had on Wicker Park.

Wicker Park has gone in the past 25 years from being considered a relatively seedy (if not dangerous) ‘hood to one of Chicago’s premiere destinations for the arts, entertainment, and nightlife.  The beating heart is at the intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee.  The Flatiron building overlooks galleries, taverns, indie shops, and people on top of people.  The energy is 24/7.

Wicker Park continues to grow as a destination not only for hipsters, but the young professional community as a whole.  Its access to the Blue Line makes it very easy to get downtown and vice-versa.  This blog entry, to this point, may be our longest.  We haven’t even scratched the surface.  Wicker Park has just too many destinations, too much historic architecture, and too many eccentric individuals to be confined by one entry.  Unquestionably we’ll be back again at some point.

A Couple Notes: Wicker Park and Bucktown often get lumped together as one neighborhood.  They certainly have similarities and share a border at Bloomingdale Avenue.  However, they also have their own personalities and vibes as well.  We visited Bucktown back in March of 2011.  For that entry, please click here.  Also, this is the entry where we’re going to introduce a rotation of guest writers to give their take as well.  So thanks Tom and Dana for being our guinea pigs, if our page views drop dramatically we’ll know where to find you!

The boundaries: Wicker Park is one of eight neighborhoods that make up the West Town community area.  While the boundaries of Wicker Park are subject to debate, the typical consensus approximates them as Bloomingdale Avenue to the north, Division Street to the south, Ashland Avenue to the east, and Western Avenue to the west.

Believe it or not, this is the interior of a Walgreens.
Welcome to the future, McFly!
Population make-up: Wicker Park is bucking the trend of middle-ring neighborhoods losing population.  From 2000 to 2010, the neighborhood grew from 14,750 residents to just over 16,000, representing an increase of about 8%.  The racial breakdown as of 2010 is 71.9% white, 15.3% Hispanic, 5.3% Asian, and 5.1% black.  The trend is favoring white and Asians (whose numbers have more than doubled in the past 10-15 years), while the number of blacks and Hispanics is decreasing.

A brief history: Wicker Park’s history has been a roller coaster ride of change.  It initially benefited from the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.  Upper-class Germans and Scandinavians who were displaced by the fire built stately homes of brick and stone in the area surround the present-day triangle of Damen, Milwaukee, and North Avenue.  Eventually the neighborhood diversity grew, both ethnically and economically.  In the early 20th century, working class African Americans and Eastern European immigrants (particularly Poles) took up residence in the area, due in part to an abundance of local industry and easy access to downtown.

After World War II, Wicker Park went through another transition.  The displacement of many of the City’s poor along the lakefront, combined with Urban Renewal efforts, brought a large Spanish-speaking demographic to the neighborhood, particular Puerto Ricans.  Efforts to gentrify the neighborhood in the 1980s met with great controversy.  The blessing of a now-thriving arts district and increasing demand for housing and business spaces met with rising property values.  This once-again caused the displacement of many of the neighborhood’s poorer residents as the 1990s saw Wicker Park become one of the country’s entertainment, artistic, and nightlife hotspots.

Even classic architecture seems weird in Wicker Park
Today, Wicker Park is a neighborhood synonymous with vibrancy.  The main thoroughfares bustle with people at all hours of the day.  Independent storefronts line these streets and Wicker Park has become nationally renowned for its “hipsterdom”, notably being ranked #4 on Forbes magazine’s list of “America’s Best Hipster Neighborhoods”.  Despite still being relatively diverse in an ethnic sense, rents and condo prices are high in what has become one of Chicago’s most desirable areas to live, work, and play.

Getting there: The Blue Line is definitely the way to go.  The stop in the heart of it all is Damen, but you can also start at the southeast corner of the neighborhood at the  Division stop as well.  There’s plenty to see and do northwest of this stop, along Milwaukee Avenue, as it leads toward the “Six Corners” of Milwaukee, Damen, and North.

If by bus, your north-south options are: Western (49), Damen (50), and Ashland (9).  Going east-west, your best bets are North Avenue (72) and Division (70).  Also, the Milwaukee bus (56) will get you there heading northwest-southeast.

Oh, and of course you can always drive.  However, Wicker Park is a very congested neighborhood and not always easy to find parking.  Do yourself a favor and take public transit or a cab.  You owe it yourself.

Big Star (1531 N. Damen Avenue)
The patio isn't just for show.  You can eat out here during the summer.
One Off Hospitality has become something of a juggernaut in the Chicago food scene.  Partially owned by Paul Kahan (unquestionably one of Chicago’s great gifts to the culinary world), its restaurants have been one tremendous success story after another: Blackbird, Avec, The Public, Publican Quality Meats, The Violet Hour, and Big Star.  Big Star is a hip take on tacos.  Sporting a short menu, long wait, and a killer whiskey selection, to say Big Star is out of place in Wicker Park is to say Richard M. Daley had a limited interest in downtown.

Laura’s Take: So, not always a fan of Mexican food just for the sake of Mexican food. I mean, it’s GOOD, but, ok whatever.  It is hard to impress with Mexican food IMO. And if I’m going to go out of my way and inconvenience myself and my schedule to get it… tall order. All of that said, my experience at Big Star was enjoyable.  The fish taco was probably my favorite thing I ate there. And yes these were the best tacos I’ve ever had. I can see why they’re popular. Everything actually has flavor, and there’s more than like 2 flavors going on here. It’s fun to keep ordering more, cause each one is only about $3-$6. The waitress said somebody hungry should order 2-3, whereas I would say at least 4. I think the best part, though, was that I was able to get myself a ONE DOLLAR BEER. It was from Wisconsin and was in a cute little 4 or 6 oz bottle.

Don't let the picture fool you.
You don't hafta be a hipster to eat here.
Michael’s Take: The wait is a total butt.  What’s appreciated though, is the ability to put your name on the wait list and leave, and they’ll give you a call when your seat is ready.  The dining area is LOUD, the tables cramped, the tacos…delicious.  Another nice feature is the ability to have a trendy, reasonably priced meal in the heart of one of Chicago’s great foodie neighborhoods.  The limited taco selection (five), is actually a benefit, as you can pretty much try all of them for about $15.  It’ll fill you up, and by adding a microbrew or two, with tip, you’ve only dropped $25-$30.  You’ll find more authentic tacos elsewhere, but as far as affordable-yet-hip dining goes, Big Star is a solid choice.

Dana’s Take: In my opinion, tacos are the perfect meal, guac is the perfect snack, and rum is the perfect drink. I had all three at Big Star (plus horchata - BONUS POINTS) and they did not disappoint. I sampled all but the taco de papas con rajas, and they were all as delicious as they looked. I can't wait to come back in the summer when the patio is open.

Sometimes you'll be serenaded by a Disc Jockey at Big Star
Tom’s Take: Wow, Big Star is such a great place to grab craft tacos and craft brews. The wait can be long (45-60 minutes), and no reservations, but definitely worth it. (Go hang out at the Blue Line while waiting!) I wasted no time in ordering, and devoured the Taco Al Pastor, Taco De Panza, Taco de Pollo, and last, but certainly not least Taco De Pescado. My favorite taco was the Taco De Pastor, but it almost tied with their Taco De Pescado. I was a fish taco virgin, but under peer pressure decided to go for it. Delicious. Loved the live DJ, and patio furniture for their tables. This place is my new favorite for tacos – order the guac too!

Anything Else We Missed: CASH ONLY.  Despite the copious crowds that come through the doors daily, you’re still gonna have to pay for those tacos the old fashioned way.

Oh did you want to see a picture of the tacos?  Sorry, here's the pic.

The Violet Hour (1520 N. Damen Avenue)
Unmarked tavern in a hipster neighborhood?  Sooo ironic...
Get in line.  Yes, you’re noticing a trend here in Wicker Park.  But usually lines form for a reason, and the Violet Hour is no exception to that rule.  The Violet Hour is both home to some of Chicago’s best cocktail crafters, and the training ground for several who’ve gone off to start their own taverns.  Now in its seventh year, Violet Hour may not be new, but it’s still definitely one of the spots to be at on a weekend evening.  Get there early (doors open at 6pm), they’ll show you to a seat, and get ready to relax and enjoy a masterfully conducted beverage.  Note: they highly discourage use of cell phones at The Velvet Hour (good thing), and considering the darkened room, we didn’t want to use flash to get a mediocre-at-best picture anyway.  So just go to the place and see it for yourself, you won’t regret it.

Laura’s Take: The Violet Hour would be an absolutely ideal place for a hot first date. But actually, it works just as well if you want to give yourself a great night out as a treat… come to think of it, it’s such an easy yet special an atmosphere it could work for any occasion. We arrived about 6:10 pm, approximately ten minutes after the bar opens for the night. We waited about 5 minutes and were seated with a party of four at the bar. It was already exciting with the ‘hidden’ door and the obvious professionalism from the moment we were addressed by the host in line. It turns out, we were in the perfect spot in line, because bar space is SUCH a cool place to be in here. If you like to watch real professionals craft individual cocktails, measuring, tasting, shaking, and chatting a bit with customers, you’ll be entranced. The whole ambiance of the Violet Hour adds to the experience, too. The lighting, the heavy drapery, the way they don’t let it get crowded inside. You feel like you’re in a club, and time has gone out the window. Needless to say based on its reputation, Violet Hour will supply you with some stellar drink options.  Not your everyday experience, at least if you are me. It was such a treat to get the bartender to make me a customized cocktail, just suggesting to him a few flavors or the preferred liquor. I don’t trust myself to come back again unless I am prepared to stay for a similarly long night of great ambiance and amazing vibe.

The Thigh High.  WOW.
Michael’s Take: There’s plenty of room in the world for sports bars, neighborhood dives, and places like this.  The Violet Hour is so carefully constructed, it’s almost perfect.  Yes, I’m dead serious.  Some may find it pretentious, but spotless, low-light ambiance isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  What was supposed to be a cocktail or two ended up being four.  I opened up with the Thigh High, a rich concoction of Leatherbee Gin, egg white, orange flower water, and house-made Malört (you know you WANT it).  The egg gives it a pleasant creaminess.  The bitterness of the Malört is lightened, while still there, and its citrus notes are complemented by the lime and flower water.  An absolutely remarkable cocktail.  I also went the Violet Hour Old Fashioned which had hints of sweetness but didn’t fall back into dessert-cocktail territory, embracing the smooth yet dry bitterness of its primary ingredient: whiskey.  If you’re going to the Violet Hour, do this: make sure you order something from the menu.  The drinks are listed by their primary liquor (gin, whiskey, rum, etc.).  Then, ask the bartender to make you something from off the menu.  If you can handle it, ask them to include the house-made Malört.  Your bartender will appreciate it, and you’ll get something that you wish you had written down the name of.  Oh, and it’ll cost you the same as the menu cocktails too.  Our service was spot-on and very accommodating.  We were lucky enough to get to sit up at the bar and interact with our bartenders, which enhanced the experience that much more.

Dana’s Take: As someone with a "selective palate" (which I would describe as about 4 steps above picky), craft cocktails are generally a wasted artform on me, so I was very surprised with how much I enjoyed my choices - a Crusader (sweet but not too sweet), a Dark and Stormy (nice and spicy), and the Let Go Lightly (never did I think I could enjoy brandy so much). Try to sit at the bar if you can - you don't want to miss the show. Our bartender Damien was very knowledgeable and it's always fun to see a master at work. I really enjoyed the lounge atmosphere as well, and even with the four of us sitting in a row at the bar, we were able to hold a conversation above the music without screaming or being nudged by people fighting over who gets the next green beer (a much-welcome change to the normal St. Patricks Day in Wrigleyville routine).

Like we said, get there early.
Tom’s Take: “Is it worth the wait guy?” That was the first question I was asked upon leaving for the night. My response: Oh yeah, amazing man! The Violet Hour takes going out for drinks to a new level. My recommendation is to try to get a seat at the bar. Their mixologists are superb, and blur the lines between art, science, and entertainment while making drinks. Hunter Gatherer and Old Fashioned are great drinks. The Dark and Stormy was my favorite drink, followed close to a drink that’s not on the menu. Yes, you can ask the bartenders to make you their signature drinks. My eyes had to adjust to the dimly lit atmosphere, but once they do, your eyes will be opened by the magic behind the bar. Brilliant in design, mixology, and staff.

Anything Else We Missed: Every cocktail is $12 even.  Considering the quality of liquor, the personal space, and the craftsmanship of each cocktail, this is a pretty fair deal.  There was one exception the night we went: the Violet Hour Old Fashioned was listed at $13, with the extra dollar going to a charity to help the fight against MS.  This place is classy in more ways than one.

Piece Brewery and Pizzeria (1927 W. North Avenue)
See, you better hurry before the logo loses more slices.
So you’ve done Chicago-style deep dish and thin crust, you’ve gotten the big floppy NYC-style, maybe you’ve been crazy and gotten Quad City style at Roots in East Village.  But a “slice” of New Haven (home of Yale and crime) is here in Chi-town, and it’s right in Wicker Park.  Piece gives you more options than New Haven style, but you’re gonna want to try that, right?  You like stuff that’s different, that’s why you’re so interested in Wicker Park.  Oh yeah, and they brew their own beer.  Fully established, Piece has become one of several Wicker Park institutions.

Laura’s Take: I would have to rate the pizza at Piece as above average. I do have some issues finding the perfect slice in Chicago, but this is worth a trip. The dining room has a feel that kind of reminds me of my college cafeteria with various height tables and different sized groups of youngish people hanging around. Maybe it is because of the bare bones flooring and furniture that you get kind of a loud, echo-ey feel in here, like you’re kind of enveloped in a big space without much privacy. On the other hand, it’s always fun when a place makes its own beer. Overall, Piece seems to fill a needed niche in Wicker Park, but if it’s the best pizza place or beer place in town, I might have missed something.

Come on in and grab yo self a piece
Michael’s Take: Piece can get kinda loud (another hot trend in Wicker Park), but there’s no question it’s beaming with life at all hours.  The New Haven style is good, although I wouldn’t take it over deep dish if my life depended on it (sorry a little hometown pride there).  But for something different, the thin, slightly crispy crust is a neat variant on something of a Neapolitan style.  It’s definitely sauce-focused with less cheese, but spinach, pepperoni, and feta adds some texture and flavor.  Also they have a nice set of housemade beers, with Surrender (a Bíere de Garde) being a standout.

Anything Else We Missed: It wouldn’t be a party without karaoke, right?  Classic karaoke is every Thursday night at 9pm.  However, they also offer LIVE BAND karaoke on Saturday nights at 11pm as well.  This gives one-half of your favorite blogging duo not one, but TWO chances to spit some “Locomotive Breath” at you.

Ohhhhhhh, it's NEW Haven style.  Now I get it!

Double Door (1572 N. Milwaukee Avenue)
It's not exactly a liquor store...but it kind of is...
Double Door opened in 1994, just as Wicker Park was coming into its own.  And while Wicker Park has tidied itself up a little in the past 20 years, the Double Door keeps a bit of grunge and grime at Six Corners.  An institution for Chicago’s indie rock scene, Double Door still hosts a wide variety of acts to varying degrees of fame and trying-to-make-it stylings.  The perfect spot for some late night spontaneity, the Double Door one of those great establishments that’s synonymous with the neighborhood it calls home.

Laura’s Take: I’ve been to Double Door a couple of nights for some random shows. It’s kind of perfect for the neighborhood. They are definitely not trying hard to be anything they are not. You can get well drinks and beers, you can make a new friend, you can chill while listening to your choice of music. And you will definitely leave with your ears feeling like they’re full of cotton!

Sooooooo indie
Michael’s Take: It’s places like this that give Wicker Park its reputation.  It’s a dank, grungy, intimate, unique, independent music venue.  You may catch a great cover band, an act with some reputation (often in the past), or see a bunch of local acts trying to make a name for themselves.  We saw the latter, which was worth it.  It’s one of those nights where you’re just like “hey, let’s go see some live music.”  The Double Door opened in 1994, just as Wicker Park was morphing into how we know it today.  Today, it’s an anchor for the neighborhood, a spot that brings people to Wicker Park, dispersing patrons throughout the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants both before and after the shows.  Whether in advance, or on the fly, the Double Door is one of the top spots to catch Chicago’s indie rock scene.

Anything Else We Missed: You can’t beat the atmosphere or energy of a live performance.  However, you CAN watch it from you living room (bedroom, bathroom, closet, etc.) right on your computer.  “Double Door Live!” is featured on gigity.tv with broadcasts past, present, and future.  Still, definitely head out to Wicker Park and catch a show in-person at the Double Door, but it’s always nice to have a fallback option.

Between Peruvian Cafe & Lounge (1324 N. Milwaukee Avenue)
A taste of Cuzco in Chicago
“Best Ceviche in Chicago.  Ever.” –Between Peruvian Café & Lounge website.  That’s a pretty bold boast.  Now granted, Chicago’s not exactly nationally renowned for its ceviche scene, but if we told you that we made the best crawfish etoufee in Chicago, you’d want us to put our mouth where our money is, right?  More on the ceviche later.  Between hangs out in a modest storefront on Milwaukee Avenue, just southeast of all the action at Six Corners.  Also, if you’re feeling spicy late at night, Between is open til 2am on Friday and 3am on Saturday.

Laura’s Take: One thing I came away from Between really loving was the sangria that they concocted. This stuff was great.  It had cinnamon in it… beyond that it is their secret. The next best thing about it was the atmosphere. The tables are small and inviting and the color palette is deep and romantic. Our service was knowledgeable, attentive, and professional.

Michael’s Take: I thought Between was a great little find.  The interior is suave and moody, with neon and backless seats.  Although we went on a quiet night, this allowed us to get enough attention without feeling pressured or rushed in any way.  As for the food, the ceviche definitely lives up to the hype.  Tangy, citrusy scallops are paired with Peruvian corn and red onion.  It’s a flavor explosion that may be too intense for sensitive palates, but if you’re not feeling adventurous…then you’re probably not at this restaurant.  Veal heart is also a solid appetizer.  Rich and tender, but with that beautiful chalky aftertaste you can only get from offal.  My chicken entrée was good, served with rice, onions, and peppers.  But the killer 1-2 punch of appetizers were definitely a tough act to follow.  For something a little trendy AND ethnic, Between is absolutely worth a stop.

Anything Else We Missed: Between does not take reservations and is only open after 5pm, so lunch isn’t an option.  Also, it’s closed on Mondays.  However, they have great specials the rest of the week including half-priced beer on Sundays and half-off bottles of wine on Tuesdays.

Sweet mother of ceviche!

Blue Line Lounge & Grill (1548 N. Damen Avenue)
The best way to get to Blue Line
is to take the...Blue Line...
A jump from the Damen L station…literally.  All you have to do is walk downstairs and beneath the tracks is your first of many beverage-related encounters in Wicker Park.  This bar has elements of diner mixed in with lounge and topped with “dive”.  Basically it’s everything you’ve come to expect from Wicker Park rolled into one place.  So before grabbing some trendy tacos across the street, or afterward, or even while you wait for your table, Blue Line is a nice place to drop in for a drink.

Laura’s Take: We were in Blue Line Lounge on St. Patrick’s day.  Clearly the crowd was vibrant, let’s just say. There were a lot of stiff green drinks being shuttled about; at one point the entire bar erupted in applause when a group of guys entered.  I don’t know what they had done, but I guess it was pretty awesome. Blue Line is extremely conveniently located under the blue line tracks at the center of Wicker Park. Also conveniently about a 30 second walk across the street back over to Big Star if you’re waiting for your table.

Michael’s Take: Blue Line has a decent selection of craft beers and a knockout list of martinis.  What stood out to me, of all things, was the art deco interior.  Metallic counters and tables with smooth curves round the U-shaped interior.  While a cold microbrew gets the job done, definitely get a cocktail here.  The classic Manhattan is stiff and flavorful, and that’s all you need to know, right?  Booths are worn and dated, but you’ve got to appeal to the grunge crowd too.  See above (The Violet Hour) for something just a little more polished.

St. Patrick's Day, St. Joseph's Day, Feast of Maximum Occupancy,
they're all good reasons to have a bev at Blue Line
Dana’s Take: Blue Line was conveniently located to Big Star and I would probably guess it frequently serves as their waiting room (which may seem like an unfair assessment, but this is exactly why we stopped in). They had decent drink specials and the food smelled good too, so I would definitely give it a chance to stand on its own. I also enjoyed the fact that there were board games, which reminded me of one of my other favorite places, Guthries.

Tom’s Take: My grandfather used to call it, “attitude adjustment hour,” I call it happy hour. Either way, the Blue Line should be your first and possibly last stop of the night. I love the atmosphere, mixed drink selection, and old school charm. The wait staff is friendly, drinks are generously poured, and the dark wood and spacious booths take you back to a time more simple than today. I enjoyed a couple of their St. Patrick’s day special mixed drinks, name escapes me, but they were delicious!

Anything Else We Missed: Usually we wouldn’t recommend watching a TV show at a bar.  I mean, unless it’s a sporting event, you’re gonna miss something right?  Well the Blue Line encourages watching your favorite dramas with them.  They offer $6 cocktails every Sunday night for The Walking Dead and Mad Men.  Not gonna lie, Sunday nights just got a lot more interesting.

Wicker Park: The Final Tally
Damen.  Chicago speak for "The Men".
So what took us so long to get here?  The neighborhood made famous to non-Chicagoas via High Fidelity, has been one of Chicagoans top food and culture destinations for nearly 20 years.  First of all, there’s SO much to do here, this one entry (our longest) can’t even begin to grasp everything this medium-sized section of the Windy City offers.  Secondly, in trying to find a balance between visiting the neighborhoods you know against trying to introduce you to new ones, many will just have to wait.

Undoubtedly we’ll be back.  Bucktown’s noisier, more eccentric sibling has more to offer than just the Six Corners too.  There are bars, shops, and restaurants on Milwaukee Avenue beyond Between Peruvian Café.  Also, Wicker Park has a thriving business district on Division Avenue that it shares with East Village and the Ukrainian Village.  No amount of blog entries could encompass everything to see/do/eat/drink/experience in one of Chicago’s great (counter) culture capitals.

So you’re not a big fan of hipsters.  Well, your loss.  Save the eccentricities, the in-your-face stylings for those who enjoy what they’ve brought to the City.  Many others lament the migration of the hipster culture to other ‘hoods (most notably neighboring Logan Square), as the true “artists” have been priced out of Wicker Park and its growing demand.  Hey, there’s still plenty of avant garde still on display at every street corner, independent shop, or in-line tavern.  And no economic fluctuation, however drastic in the positive or negative sense, is going to kick the weirdness out of Wicker Park for a long, long time.

Yeah, we spent a lot of time in that clump in the middle, but there's definitely more to see in Wicker Park.

Remember the sangria we were talking about at Between?  Awwww yeah.

Six Corners overhead from the
Damen Blue Line station
Lush interior at Between

Neither fog, nor wind, nor rain could keep us from Wicker Park on this fine day.

Blue Line is the way to go from the Loop.  Only a few stops and you're there.