In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I wrote one story for VICE in 2013.
VICE—you know, that Brooklyn-based publication founded by Canadians—published its most recent “Guide to Chicago” yesterday. The rundown of local restaurants, bars, and shops is markedly different in tone from the more crass early-2000s version, in which the author wondered why the city’s streets seemed vacant. (Um, maybe because Chicago is not Manhattan.) But even as it gave Chicago backhanded compliments, the old guide was at least an entertaining read, even though it was basically useless. The latest one comes across as just plain basic. And in the irreverent-to-a-fault world of VICE, basic is not a DO. It’s a distinct DON’T. Long ago VICE positioned itself as the docent to the seedier side of life; in the words of onetime editor Gavin McInnes, the publication did “stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way.” This new “Guide to Chicago” is merely the kind of pamphlet tourists pick up at a downtown Hilton, but shrouded in a fake patois of youthful profanity—and a poor imitation of VICE-ese at that. Though credited to VICE Travel Staff, the piece was written by an actual Chicagoan, Caroline Thompson, a Medill grad who has lived in the city a few years.
“Chicago is second to no city,” goes the guide’s inauspicious lead, flogging this town’s most fetid of dead-horse cliches. This appears under a page-width photo of the Bean, which is ID’d as “the best place in the city for a skinny selfie. Hello big head and seemingly-emaciated body, you’re looking good.”
Things don’t get any less trite as the recommendations begin. Here in Chicago, VICE says, “Our food is fried and greasy and cheesy and horrible for you and that’s the way we like it.” Hey, did you know Chicagoans love pizza, Italian beef, and burgers? Those are three of the four categories under “Where to Eat,” which begins with a disclaimer: “We have a predictable number of uber-fancy, molecular gastronomy monstrosities that consistently top every ‘Best Restaurant in Chicago’ list month after month. This is not one of those lists. This is a list of the fried and greasy and cheesy and horrible for you shit.” And yet there’s no significant follow-through, especially in the fourth and final food category, “Everything Else,” in which VICE narrows down the rest of Chicago’s dining scene to 11 restaurants, including such golden oldies as Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! and Tango Sur. Given the chance to endorse any of the many great local southeast-Asian restaurants, VICE went with Andersonville’s Yes Thai. Which is fine as a neighborhood standby, but it would be a shame if a Chicago visitor was steered toward serviceable pad thai when this city has at least a dozen more distinctive, surprising spots.
In Chicago “day drinking isn’t just tolerated, it’s downright encouraged,” VICE says. “One thing we’ve always appreciated about the city of Chicago is how acceptable it is to be drunk in public at all hours of the day. . . . This is Chicago and we have a God-given right to drink wherever and whenever we please.” The bars list that follows is passable but could’ve come out in 2008: AliveOne, Matilda, and Big Chicks, among others.
“Chicago is bursting at the seams with music,” VICE informs us, “and it’s hard to walk a mile without being subjected to an impromptu concert.” Among local “space[s] to ‘dance like nobody is watching,'” VICE tops the list with Kingston Mines before going on to redeem itself somewhat with the inclusion of Empty Bottle and Lincoln Hall. Still, where are the more offbeat or subterranean venues that are the playgrounds of VICE‘s target audience? Or has its target audience become the Internet’s lowest-common-denominator everyman?
Kudos to VICE for including in its shopping roundup the uncommon vintage store Kokorokoko (even if it misspelled the shop’s name). The great Knee Deep also made the list, but VICE‘s reason to head to the Pilsen boutique is again something corny out of the recent past: “If you’ve ever watched Mad Men and thought, ‘Damn, I wish I could be Christina Hendricks,’ you can. All you need is a red wig, two water balloons, and a half-hour at Knee Deep.”
While savvy Chicagoans will certainly know better than to take this kind of birdbath-deep advice, it’s a little scary to think that this could be the go-to guide for tourists seeking genuine information about the city, since VICE‘s broad reach will likely land the feature near the top of Google search results. Those visitors can have total confidence in at least one of VICE‘s words of wisdom: “You’re gonna love it here, because everyone does.”
In an apparent act of redemption, VICE also posted yesterday a worthwhile piece on Chicago: a video about Halsted Street that is quite good.