Picks and Pans – Chicago, IL

PICKS:

Cafe Bernard

We rolled into Chicago in the early evening and pulled up to the family home of our friend, Brian. Not long after walking in the door, I realized that this family had created the type of home in which anyone and everyone is made to feel welcome. Even though it was the week before Christmas, a time when many families barely have room for their own, Brian’s parents, Mickey and Colleen, offered us a warm bed, continually open and interesting discussion and a comfortable Chicago home away from home. On our first night, we all walked over to dinner at Cafe Bernard, a local French bistro, where the atmosphere is cozy, the owner is friendly and the food is delicious. What better on a cold December night than a savory pot of cassoulet and some hearty red wine?

B.L.U.E.S.

With bellies full of French food and cheeks rosy from the wine and cold winter air, Brian took Sean and me to B.L.U.E.S., a nearby Lincoln Park blues bar. Perched on stools at the side of the small stage, we listened to a veritable parade of local blues talent. After a couple of beers, Sean’s enthusiasm for the blues earned him an all expenses paid trip to the stage, where Big Time Sarah treated him to a surefire cure for the blues, a cure whose adequate description is elusive. Suffice it to say, that Big Time Sarah’s ample backside was an integral part of the process.

Billy Goat Tavern

Billy Goat Tavern is best known for the personality of its late owner, Billy “Goat” Sianis, who put the infamous billy goat curse on the Cubs in 1945 and had the habit of greeting all customers by shouting: “Cheezborgor, cheezborgor, cheezborgor. No fries, cheeps. No Pepsi, Coke.” (a tradition honored in the classic Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd SNL cheesburger skit). But even the most garrulous of proprietors couldn’t keep a restaurant open for 70 years without some solidly good food. The cheeseburger and chips at the Billy Goat will satisfy your deepest, darkest burger cravings and do so in a below ground haunt that has been a Chicago favorite for three-quarters of a century.

Millennium Park

Not since Louisiana or Mississippi had I felt such a strong sense of place from the people around me. Blues in Chicago are Chicago Blues. Pizza in Chicago is Chicago Deep Dish. And the people in Chicago are distinctly Chicagoan (albeit just as distinctly from the North Side, South Side or West Side). And while it may be impossible to put your finger on the just where the cultural center of Chicago lies, Millennium Park would definitely be up for consideration. Filled with incredible art and architecture (e.g. Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by Frank Gehry), Millennium Park is a monument to Chicago’s love for and dedication to the arts.

Art Institute of Chicago

I love going to museums. They give me a feeling something like what I imagine observant Catholics feel when entering a great cathedral: a sense of awe, a sense of being part of something greater than myself, a renewing of my own beliefs. You see, I think being human is a pretty great thing. We have these huge brains that help us figure out how to survive efficiently and, as a result, we have all this time to do other stuff. Now some people, unaware of how precious this time is (not to mention the evolutionary heartache we had to go through to get it), piddle it away. Other people use this time to have great ideas and make cool stuff. I see museums as the place to go to honor these people and to be inspired to take advantage of my big human brain. The Art Institute – by both honoring artists and inspiring others – is one great cathedral of humanism.

Russian Tea Time

A block from the Art Institute, Russian Tea Time is a formal Russian eatery, overseen by a large, black-haired Russian woman who is continually pouring vodka or tea while answering phones, directing the waitstaff and greeting the regulars. Sitting hunched over the small bar, we sampled two of the vodka tasting flights; the first: coriander, black currant tea and lime; the second: horseradish, pepper and pepper-honey. I especially recommend the black currant tea, coriander and horseradish vodka, but really any of them will sufficiently warm you for the short walk back to the Art Institute. Na Zdorovie!

Harold’s Chicken Shack Fish and Pizza

There are only a few words you need to know when you go to Harold’s: half dark, salt and pepper, spicy. When these magic words are said to the people behind the bullet proof turnstile at the counter at Harold’s, you will soon be treated to some of the best fried chicken you’ve ever had.

Seminary Co-op Bookstore

After walking through the Gothic-style stone hallways past the stained glass windows and opening the creaky, old wooden door to the narrow stairs leading to the bookstore in the basement, I was seriously tempted to find a hiding spot and fulfill my childhood fantasies of spending the night in a bookstore. With low ceilings, shelves crammed with books, and a quiet violated only by the sounds of page turning, the Co-op Bookstore is officially one of my favorite spots we’ve visited on the road trip.

Frank Night at the Colleen and Mickey’s house

While it may seem odd to review a dinner party, Frank Night is no ordinary dinner party. You see, at Frank Night, anyone is welcome as long as they are ready to contribute to the discussion of the topic chosen for the night. Given that guests are self-selected by their desire to participate in lively conversation, the salon-style proceedings work incredibly well. In honor of Sean, the topic of discussion during our first Frank Night was robots. The debate about our future with respect to AI became so heated, that everyone had a hard time sticking to the rule that only one person may speak at a time. Luckily, our experience hosts guided us with such aplomb that everyone got their say before we moved to the living room for some singing of Christmas carols and gospel music before ending the night. A huge thank you to all those we met at Frank Night, and especially to Colleen and Mickey for redefining just how great a dinner party can be.

Sean says:

North and Clark

In addition to being a physical location in Chicago, northandclark.net is an awesome blog with engaging interviews conducted by Brian’s brother Casey. His cast of characters range from artists to businessmen and even includes a guy who makes biofeedback fashion accessories!
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