The Fern Room at the Garfield Park Conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory functions on the whole as a quiet oasis of flora in the middle of the still-rough-and-tumble west side, but its glass walls can contain a surprising buzz of activity: Park District gardeners tending to sick trees, art students sketching aroids, dazed couples planning wedding receptions, heedless toddlers hurling themselves out of the children’s garden into the perversely adjacent cactus house. For getting away from it all once you’re already there, there’s the Fern Room.
Designed by Prairie School landscape architect Jens Jensen to evoke the prehistoric Illinois landscape, it’s lush and improbably steamy; in the winter it’ll do wonders for your skin. The central lagoon is ringed by limestone ledges, tall cycads, tons of pteridophytes, and a paved path. At the far end there’s a trickling waterfall feeding a little brook that in turn feeds the lagoon; Jensen, the story goes, had very particular ideas about how this waterfall should sound. The stonemason was made to redo his work three or four times because he kept creating “an abrupt mountain cascade” before the architect sent him home with instructions to listen to Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” to see what he was getting at. On the next try, the mason nailed it, the water tinkling “gently from ledge to ledge, as it should in a prairie country.” a 300 N. Central Park, 312-746-5100, garfield-conservatory.org. –Martha Bayne
Jollyball at the Museum of Science and Industry
My favorite exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry has nothing to do with science and precious little to do with industry. Jollyball, located just past the ticket collectors on the first floor, is a gigantic, self-starting pinball machine dedicated to promoting Swiss travel. After the ritual ka-chunk, a silver ball emerges from a hotel and starts to roll energetically about the tour-bus-sized contraption, doing things a silver ball might do if it were a tourist in Switzerland–riding ski lifts, passing an outsize fondue bowl, being magnetically integrated into a loudly ticking clock. When the hustle and bustle gets to be too much, it slips into a bar, sets off some whistles, and eventually pops out again, wobbling noticeably. The ball’s constant motion, not to mention its many modes of transportation, makes the exhibit fun for all ages–though now that I’ve seen it a few times, I usually take the opportunity to sit down for a few moments at a nearby table while my kid stares enraptured. Jollyball gets high marks for ingenuity and even higher ones for the surrogate parenting. a 57th and Lake Shore Drive, 773-684-1414, msichicago.org. –Noah Berlatsky
Matinees at the Music Box
A small popcorn, a cup of coffee smuggled in from a cafe on Southport, an artificial night sky illuminated by pinpoints of light, a movie by Altman, Resnais, or Rivette–if there’s a better place to spend a rainy weekend morning in Chicago than the Music Box, I haven’t found it. A budding cinephile once could cobble together a fine film appreciation class in more than half a dozen of the city’s early-20th-century movie palaces–there were double bills at the Parkway on Clark and the Varsity in Evanston, silent movies at the Gateway, and even occasional revivals at the Nortown and the Will Rogers. Most of those venues are gone now, and while there are still plenty of places to catch great movies, no working theater has the charm and history of the 1929 Music Box, which on Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 AM screens some of the greatest films in history. True, there are some predictable choices–too many Hitchcocks and John Waynes for my taste. Yes, sometimes the film you want to see is not in the palatial theater but in the shoebox down the hall. And, irritatingly, sometimes the movies last longer than the time limit on the parking meters outside. But I’d still chance a parking ticket any day to sit beneath the stars and whistle along with the tune that plays as that red curtain is raised. a 3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com. –Adam Langer
Before Marina City, skyscrapers were rectangular boxes made of steel. Nobody lived downtown and River North was a skid row dominated by huge, decaying warehouse lofts. Architect Bertrand Goldberg changed all that. When the twin “corn cobs” of Marina City opened in 1964, they were the tallest residential structures in the world, climbing 61 stories high. Goldberg made them out of not steel but concrete, with beams that stretched from central cores housing elevators and stairwells to rings of 16 perimeter columns. He envisioned them not just as buildings but as a city within a city: 600 apartments atop 15 floors of parking with an office building, a theater, shops, a skating rink, and of course a marina down below. The gamble paid off. It filled up instantly.
The first time I laid eyes on Marina City, at the age of eight, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I told myself, that is where I want to live when I grow up. Twenty-two years ago, I moved in. The apartments went condo in the 1980s and the complex went through rough times in the early 90s, but today it’s as vibrant as ever. The old theater now does brisk business as the House of Blues. Some of the upgrades have come at a cost, like the battleship gray paint that’s desecrated the base of the former office building, now the Hotel Sax Chicago (and formerly the House of Blues Hotel), or the kitschy steakhouse built over the former skating rink.
Amazingly, Marina City has no landmark protection. It remains, however, one of the most recognizable buildings not only in Chicago but in the world. River North is booming and newer buildings–as tall or taller–continue to rise around it, but the splendid “corn cobs” are still what turn passengers on the armada of tour boats passing by into wide-eyed eight year olds. a 300 N. State. –Lynn Becker
Bartender Ballet at the Violet Hour
Wicker Park’s hidden Violet Hour is a dark, sumptuously appointed retreat from the harsh world outside, attended by nattily dressed barkeeps who exhibit a balletic facility with jigger, shaker, and glass. “Head intoxicologist” Toby Maloney in particular is a blast to watch, building his complicated potions with an aggressive grace and dexterity, his showmanship tempered by a chef’s palate and a historian’s depth of knowledge. His seasonal cocktail menu employs his own bitters (seven at last count), fresh juices and garnishes, and seven types of ice in different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. The bartenders are warm, well-versed in cocktail culture, and happy to guide you through the menu of exotic tipples. Maloney, who hates vodka, has even included a “hamburger” on the menu, a vodka cobbler with Lillet and fresh fruit, for those vexed by the more challenging libations. a 1520 N. Damen, 773-252-1500. –Mike Sula
The Butcher Shop
By the beginning of the decade, the Lake Street art gallery/work space/crash pad the Butcher Shop was probably best known for its insanely, unsafely crowded Christmas balls, where wasted, uninvited guests blithely pissed in corners, in stairwells, and off the roof for want of sufficient toilets. Such youthful follies are now a thing of the past, but the Butcher Shop, in business since the mid-90s, remains a treasure. On the fourth floor, the print shop Crosshair soldiers on under Dan MacAdam, whose ravishing architectural designs grace some of the city’s best silk-screen posters. On the third, the gallery has undergone various curatorial changes–Lasso Gallery opened its first exhibit in the space this month–but longtime impresario Tom Colley is always somewhere in the background and the shows invariably kick ass–the swampy, drooling multimedia exhibit “Klustercrust” recently put together by local artist Paul Nudd being a case in point.
The venue’s also been associated with a number of bands, including MacAdam’s blasphemously tight metal outfit Arriver, whose Vanlandingham and Zone was one of the best albums nobody heard last year. But rock stars or not, these folks are in it for the long haul. a 1319 W. Lake, 773-517-9520, lassogallery.net. –Noah Berlatsky
Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of Chicago is the street grid: since it’s everywhere, it’s easy to take for granted. We owe the east-west/north-south plat to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the standardized street names and numbers to the Brennan Plan of 1908. Addresses are numbered from the intersection of State and Madison out; every 800 is a mile; every half-mile there’s a commercial street.
Some decry the grid as monotonous, but nothing could be further from the truth. The grid makes the dead ends and complications more interesting–railroads, expressways, rivers, canals, industrial sites, hospitals, schools, cemeteries, diagonal streets, alleys, gangways, and other unexpected twists and turns.
The system can seem like an affront to nature: Cartesian right angles imposed on swampy Chicago. Yet again the opposite is true. The grid gives us the wild: green corridors lead coyotes to Lincoln Park. Most of the angled streets were prehistoric beaches; they became Native American trade routes and the settlers’ first interstate highways. The grid dictates how sunlight falls on the city: it’s indirect in summer and winter, but in fall and spring the east-west streets are luminescent tunnels as sunlight barrels, unobstructed by buildings, westbound at dawn and eastbound at dusk.
Most of us have an incomplete picture of the grid, circumscribed by our homes, schools, and jobs. Beyond these familiar locations there be dragons, or slums, or just empty space. There, not here. But the grid opposes such divisions. The Halsted where Boys Town parades its pride is the same street where Bridgeport huddles on Election Day. Jackson is Jackson in the financial heart of downtown or the broken heart of Austin. The grid connects, proving that you can get there from here. So maybe here and there are false distinctions, and we’re all really just here. –Bill Savage
The Basement of After-Words
The main floor of this River North bookstore is misleading. The space is cool and comfy, but the selection of new books, while smart and idiosyncratic, isn’t much to write home about. The basement is where the action is–and also where it isn’t, and therein lies its bliss. Quiet and stocked floor-to-dangerously-low-ceiling with a rich hodgepodge of possibilities, it’s a well-laid trap for bookworms with an afternoon to kill. History, literary criticism, fiction, and mysteries are particularly well represented, but nature and science make a good showing, as do politics and biographies.
While it doesn’t have the sheer labyrinthine mass of Powell’s or Myopic, what After-Words does have is fantastic pricing, a generous exchange rate, and location, location, location. But even if it wasn’t right next door to the Reader offices I’d still come downtown to get lost in the stacks on a regular basis. In a River North that’s become congested and overpriced and riddled with chain-store tedium, After-Words and its neighbor to the east, Jazz Record Mart, are about the last places left in this area to shop for the life of the mind on a human scale. a 23 E. Illinois, 312-464-1110. –Monica Kendrick
The North Branch Trail
The unofficial trailhead for the North Branch Trail is marked by a giant hot dog dressed like Tarzan and his frankfurter sweetie. That’s because it’s in the parking lot of Superdawg, the landmark Chicago drive-in. In a way, the first 100 yards is the best part of this 17-mile bike route. A quick spin across the parking lot leads to a steep hill with a sign reading please walk bikes. You can obey, or you can half-ass it down, squeezing the brakes, or you can throw caution to the wind and let ‘er rip. If you let gravity take its course, you’ll fly down the hill and shoot around a blind bend that spits you out into a meadow with a huge, rusty toboggan slide abandoned by the Cook County Forest Preserve for lack of funds. Heading north through the forest preserve toward the Chicago Botanic Garden, you cross a little bridge over the Chicago River, then pass bucolic fields, picnic tables, pump wells, and porta-potties until the woods start to get a little denser and the city slips away. And when you return, famished, there’s no question about where you’re eating dinner. a Superdawg, 6363 N. Milwaukee, 773-763-0660. –Jennifer Sodini
Jazz Record Mart and Dusty Groove
The two best record stores in Chicago are cut from radically different cloth. Jazz Record Mart is an increasingly rare breed, an old-school shop specializing in deep-catalog jazz and blues. (Full disclosure: I worked there for about four years in the late 80s and early 90s.) Day-to-day responsibilities fall on longtime manager Ron Bierma, but in many ways the place is an extension of owner (and Delmark Records owner) Bob Koester, who broke into the biz when 78s were still the dominant format. The bins are a delightful, slightly chaotic mess, crammed with enough merchandise to keep you digging for hours. While big-box stores may stock a dozen or so Miles Davis titles, JRM probably has more than a hundred, and they’ll give just about any new release a shot, whether it’s an LP, an import, or a small indie title. Used records are a good chunk of the inventory as well, and while some are exorbitantly priced–sometimes by no apparent logic–it’s easy to stumble upon a gem. a 27 E. Illinois, 312-222-1467, jazzmart.com.
Dusty Groove, on the other hand, is a model of streamlined precision: if an item doesn’t sell quickly, it’ll probably be dropped from stock. Meticulously organized and tidy, the store has survived the downturn in music retail by specializing as much as possible. In addition to having a killer used-vinyl selection, it’s the best source in town–if not in the country–for Brazilian music, funk, and classic soul, with impressive amounts of jazz, Latin music, and French pop to boot. Owner Rick Wojcik restlessly eyes new music from all over the globe, routinely picking up titles that other shops will get only months or years later. a 1120 N. Ashland, 773-342-5800, dustygroove.com.
I visit both of these stores every week, and even with all the promos I get as a music writer, I routinely find stuff I have to buy. –Peter Margasak
Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater
In 1969, the Community Arts Foundation purchased a dumpy Lincoln Avenue building, a former meatpacking plant with a bowling alley on the second floor, and turned it into the Body Politic, a hub of political and cultural activity with a decidedly countercultural bent. (Rumor has it director Mike Nichols anonymously donated the down payment out of proceeds from The Graduate.) This is where the professional off-Loop theater movement was born: soon the space was drawing crowds with productions by Second City cofounder Paul Sills (whose Story Theater put a hip twist on classic tales by Ovid), composer William Russo (whose Free Theater presented original “rock cantatas”), and Stuart Gordon’s freewheeling Organic Theater (whose science-fantasy trilogy Warp! anticipated the Star Wars phenom by several years). Later the Body Politic evolved into a resident ensemble specializing in classic and contemporary Anglo-Irish drama. They shared the building with Victory Gardens Theater, which took over the space following the Body Politic’s 1996 dissolution.
Today this historic venue–the oldest continually operating theater space in Chicago–boasts four auditoriums (two 199-seat main stages and two 60-seat studios) that host several Equity and non-Equity troupes, including Remy Bumppo, Eclipse, Shattered Globe, and the Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT), as well as shows by Victory Gardens. a 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000, victorygardens.org. –Albert Williams
In 1968, when he was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, Ken Dunn spotted a group of unemployed men throwing their empties into a vacant lot. Believing that both the men and glass were being wasted, he pulled up alongside them in his truck and made a proposal: if they helped him gather the bottles and sort them by color, he’d sell them to a glass company and they could split the proceeds. They went along with it, and after Dunn returned with their cut, one of them asked, “So where are we working tomorrow?” He couldn’t just walk away. By 1972, he’d made a decision to make garbage his life–a decision he didn’t see as necessarily incompatible with philosophy.
The Resource Center, the south side-based nonprofit he founded in 1974, now has 38 employees running recycling, composting, bike rebuilding, job training, and community gardening programs. Their City Farm is an organic garden cultivated on a vacant lot in the middle of the Cabrini-Green public housing development, employing several neighborhood residents and selling vegetables to local restaurants and walk-in customers. Like all of the center’s projects, Dunn says, the farm is meant to demonstrate that it’s viable and preferable to live in close proximity to nature: “We need to create an alternative on a scale that can’t be dismissed, and that showcases the pleasure and beauty of life values–of being in the right place with plants, animals, and people.”
Dunn, 65, says that in recent years Americans have become more aware of the need to make sustainable choices, “but I still don’t see people doing the right thing.” Too many are still buying SUVs, driving when they could bike, and assuming the solution to our energy problems is finding more places to drill for oil. But Dunn doesn’t sound angry or frustrated. “I’ve never felt repressed or denied–I’ve always thought, ‘The world is open.’ And when I encounter a problem, I try to solve it.” a Resource Center (222 E. 135th Pl.) and City Farm (1204 N. Clybourn), 773-821-1351, resourcecenterchicago.org. –Mick Dumke
A & T Grill
No matter where I’ve lived in the city, for almost 20 years my clean, well-lighted place–the place to which I can always return, to seek succor, feel human, see other people, and slurp savory, rejuvenating chicken soup–has been the A & T Grill in Rogers Park. What’s the appeal? The food–chicken Vesuvio and butt steak and other mainstays of the triptych Chicago diner menu–and the owners, and the waitresses, and the cops and families and loners, and the glassed-in corner view of buzzing Rogers Park life. But also the miraculous fact that I can keeping coming back to the A & T and find exactly what I need.
I’ve brought relatives and friends. I’ve met dates, successful and dismal. I’ve stared pointlessly out the window for hours, nursing a soda. I’ve dragged myself there hungover for the first late meal of the day; I’ve subsisted on BLTs and bowls of soup when $6 was a lot of money. I cried for hours in a booth when my cat died; I celebrated my first day of unemployment with chocolate chip pancakes and a friend at 2 in the afternoon. Where else would I go? None of this makes me a regular–the real regulars are those who eat there two, three times a day, and that they exist tells you something about the kind of place it is. In a city where neighborhood bars disappear and Macy’s takes over and diners keep dying, the A & T is sacred because it does not change. a 7036 N. Clark, 773-274-0036. –Elizabeth M. Tamny
The Murals at the 18th Street El Stop
To my eyes the el windows frame ever-changing portraits of Chicago. My favorite is at the 18th Street stop on the Blue and Pink lines, where bright murals–a red beast baring fangs, a man in a green vest smiling at his dance partner–line the platform. In 1993 the CTA, with the city-run youth art program Gallery 37 and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (now the National Museum of Mexican Art), commissioned art teacher Francisco Mendoza to beautify the station. Mendoza enlisted his students at Gallery 18, a satellite program of Gallery 37, along with anyone else in the neighborhood who could paint. “It was like having a jazz session,” he says. “Artists would come up and say, ‘I can paint, I have an idea,’ and I would give them the colors they needed.”
Pilsen got its predominant cultural flavor in the 60s and 70s, as Mexicans, enticed by liberal immigration laws and displaced by the University of Illinois at Chicago, outnumbered the Slavs who’d preceded them. Chicano artists nationwide took to the streets to express themselves, in a nod to the artists of the mural movement that flourished in Mexico in the 20s, just after the revolution–a tradition that continues today. “We might not be here in a couple of years, so we try to leave a whole story of how things are going,” says Jose Guerrero, who’s been involved in the Pilsen art community since 1973. He conducts tours of the neighborhood’s many murals, including one of activists Rudy Lozano and Cesar Chavez and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata at Bishop and 18th that he and others painted in 1997 to protest gentrification. “I think people that just pass through Pilsen get a feeling of a lot of artwork,” Mendoza says. “It’s almost like a feeling of festivity–fiesta.” a 1710 W. 18th, Pilsen. –Brenna Ehrlich
The Ando Gallery at the Art Institute
In 1989 Tadao Ando, a self-taught architect known for marrying Western modernist materials with traditional Japanese aesthetics, was given his first U.S. commission: to design a gallery for the display of Japanese screens at the Art Institute of Chicago. The room, 1,689 square feet tucked into the corner of the Asian galleries, subverts many of the cues that would typically announce a space displaying priceless works of art. Instead of a heavily ornamented archway, there’s a standard set of two-way push doors, which open on to an array of 16 one-foot-square columns made of the same dark-stained oak as the floor. These take up half the gallery space, filtering out light and noise from outside and nudging visitors toward the other half, which Ando left empty but for a few low-slung benches against a wall. The solid/void dichotomy repeats in the space’s lighting: jars, screens, and other Japanese art pieces are housed in lighted floor-level glass cases arranged along two walls, illuminating the room as if by night-light. The acoustics encourage visitors to enjoy the art for as long as they’d like in silence–or to simply enjoy the sense of being off the clock and out of sight in an undemanding pocket of carefully designed space. a 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600. –Tamara Faulkner
Open Mike at Gallery Cabaret
Now approaching its second decade and currently superintended by the exuberant and engaging Garrett Lane, the Thursday night open mike at Bucktown’s Gallery Cabaret is saturated with eccentrics, both onstage and in the crowd. Many performers are regulars who’ve been around since the club’s early days in the late 80s–like singer and pianist CJ, a former lawyer and current promoter of pot legalization who claims to suffer from “CCM: constant cotton mouth.” Or Belinda, a Renaissance Faire costume enthusiast, who I’m told has been accompanying her father, former Thursday-night host Fred Simons, to family-oriented events at the bar since childhood. She now performs with her husband and guitarist Greg Nelson in what Garrett describes as “a mutant cover act redefining the tribute genre single-handedly.”
When asked to name his favorite performer, Garrett graciously declines: “I love them all like a mother loves her kids.” But my favorite is Wayne Kusy. This singer-guitarist’s comfortingly consistent repertoire includes the guttural classic “Pepsi Generation” as well as his masterpiece, the screechy and by turns frantic “Happy Merry Manic Letdown.” These songs may be less elegant than the massive model ocean liners Kusy constructs entirely from toothpicks–see for yourself at waynekusy.com–but they’re no less well crafted.
In recent years Gallery Cabaret owner Kenny Strandberg has invested in central air and some smoke eaters. But despite the improved air quality, the atmosphere hasn’t changed a bit–it’s dingy, dark, and completely lacking pretense, and on Thursday nights a pitcher of Leinenkugel is still $4. a 2020 N. Oakley, 773-489-5471, gallerycabaret.com. –Julia Rickert
Silent Summer Film Festival
Hep papers like the Reader covet that profitable 85-to-100 demographic, which is why I always try to plug the Silent Film Society of Chicago. Headed by Dennis Wolkowicz (aka theater organist Jay Warren), the SFSC presents a year-round calendar of silent movies with live musical accompaniment, but its centerpiece is the Silent Summer Film Festival, held Friday nights at the vintage Portage Theater from July through August. Screenings are always packed, the audience ranging from senior citizens to college students to young kids trying to wrap their heads around the concept of a movie with no sound or color. The lineup always features the usual suspects–Chaplin, Keaton, Pickford, Lloyd, Valentino, Fairbanks–but the longer the festival’s gone on, the more it’s plumbed the recesses of the silent canon, highlighting forgotten stars like Colleen Moore and Harry Langdon.
The musical programming is rigorously traditional: there’s no pandering to the younger crowd with pop bands or free-jazz outfits. Most screenings are accompanied by experienced organists like Warren, Dennis James, and Mark Noller of the Music Box. The festival’s Achilles’ heel has always been its ensembles, like the dowdy West End Jazz Band and the overtaxed Lincolnwood Chamber Orchestra, whose accompaniment of Potemkin last August was often excruciating. On those occasions you might wish for a little more silence. a Silent Film Society of Chicago, 4050 N. Milwaukee (at the Portage Theater), 773-205-7372, silentfilmchicago.org. –J.R. Jones
The Newberry Library
The Newberry’s imposingly Victorian building seems as eternal as the lake; it’s easy to forget just what a weird institution it is. An independent research library founded in 1887 by a $2.1 million bequest from developer Walter Loomis Newberry, it graduates no loyal alumni, yet it’s free to all comers. Along with the Chicago Historical Society, it’s parent to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, but the collection also encompasses Native American history, 600-year-old sermons, the Industrial Workers of the World, map puzzles, Renaissance bookmakers, and the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. It does early music and the Beatles. It welcomes thumb-fingered genealogists, independent scholars, and distinguished historians alike. It’s quiet (except during the air show). And while it may be refined, it’s not above throwing a used book sale every year. a 60 W. Walton, 312-943-9090, newberry.org. –Harold Henderson
Textile Discount Outlet
A bewildered-looking high school kid approached me and my roommate in the trims and lace section of Pilsen’s Textile Discount Outlet, where he’d been dispatched by his prom date to buy material for her dress. “Do you know where they keep all that kind of fabrics?” he asked.
We didn’t know how to begin to respond–Textile Discount Outlet is a mazelike warehouse with all manner of materials stacked ceiling high, no rhyme or reason to its organization. It’s a favorite among local designers, who I’m sure navigate the place better than I do; once I got overstimulated and had to rest my head on a pile of sequined mermaid patches till it was time to leave. And I can barely even look at the basement, a free-for-all of old brocades hidden under cotton Garfield prints and hot purple suede.
Prices are cheap, but you won’t know what they are till you hit the cutting table, where the employees conjure up a figure on the spot. When they can’t, they summon owner Sol Lieberman, who shuffles over, eyes your purchase over rimless glasses, and mumbles a number. The store’s been in his Orthodox Jewish family for 30 years–don’t go on Saturday, it’s closed for the Sabbath.
That day last spring I did find a pretty cornflower blue silk that would’ve made a lovely prom dress, but then I couldn’t find that kid. I hope he made it out OK. a 2121 W. 21st, 773-847-0572. –Tasneem Paghdiwala
The Sweet Spot at the Empty Bottle
Typically speaking, there’s no fail-safe best place to watch a show; it depends entirely on what you want to get out of the night. If your favorite band is playing, you obviously want to be front and center. Same thing if it’s the band of a boy or girl you have a crush on–if they see you rocking out, you might have some spiritually intense eye contact. If it’s an opening band you hate, find the point furthest from the stage that still offers easy access to the bar. Any situation in between is a crapshoot–unless you’re at the Empty Bottle. In that case, head to the back of the room, up a few steps from the main floor, and go stand next to the soundboard. Not only can you hear and see everything better, it’s usually the last place to fill up during a busy show. Find a spot under an air vent and you’ve got your own personal comfort zone. a 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600, emptybottle.com. –Miles Raymer
If you’re going out on a Tuesday night, you’re either in the lucky minority that doesn’t have to get up early for school or work or you’re so into whatever’s going on you’d rather toil hungover than miss out. Outdanced! is for the latter. For a little over a year, every Tuesday night at the Funky Buddha, hosts Scott Cramer and Jillian Valentino have booked the kind of acts that show up on fash-iony New York party blogs–Dandi Wind, Uffie, Sophia Lamar, Crystal Castles, Peaches. On a Saturday, any one of them would make the club a goddamn nightmare, but Tuesday events weed out the weekend warriors–though Outdanced! still sells out occasionally. Even on a slow night, you’ll find a mixed, enthusiastic crowd with plenty of good-looking gays. The ratio is definitely skewed toward fashion whores, but who wants to talk about books at a nightclub anyway? a Tuesdays, 9 or 10 PM, Funky Buddha Lounge, 728 W. Grand, 312-666-1695, myspace.com/outdanced, $5-$10. –Liz Armstrong
Monday Night Farm Dinner at Lula Cafe
Back in the spring of 2004, Lula Cafe owners Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel were looking for a way to encourage customers to branch out from the regular menu and try some of their adventurous specials. Their solution: a standing Monday-night prix fixe menu highlighting seasonal ingredients from local farms. In the spirit of the restaurant’s more spontaneous early days, the couple concocts each week’s dinner on the fly, brainstorming recipes with whatever’s available by Thursday or Friday and refining the taste and presentation over the weekend. More than three years later the Monday Night Farm Dinner is clearly a hit–the last time I stopped in, around 9 PM, they were already sold out–and at $24 per person (which buys an appetizer, entree, and dessert), an absolute steal. a 2357 N. Kedzie, 773-489-9554, lulacafe.com. –Peter Margasak
The Mausoleum at Rosehill Cemetery
It doesn’t get as much love from the tourist guides as Graceland, but Rosehill Cemetery, which at 350 acres is the city’s largest boneyard, contains just as many prominent Chicagoans–including 14 mayors, 16 Civil War generals, philanthropist Charles Hull, and 14-year-old Bobby Franks, murdered for the intellectual challenge of it by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Not to mention what’s essentially a public museum for one of the world’s largest collections of Tiffany stained glass: its massive communal mausoleum.
The necropolis contains the crypts of retail pioneers Aaron Montgomery Ward, Richard Sears (whose ghost is rumored to roam the hallways), and John G. Shedd. The Shedd Chapel occupies a place of honor, front and center just behind the main entrance. Bathed in sun from a skylight bordered by an intricate vine pattern, its inviting white marble atrium is ringed with leather-cushioned benches and chairs whose bronze backs, carved with seahorses and other images of marine life, reflect the patriarch’s aquatic interests. (For the frosh: perhaps you’ve heard of the Shedd Aquarium by now.) Behind the heavy bronze doors of the crypt is an astonishing Tiffany window featuring a shrouded figure in white clutching a sword, a torch, and a key. According to local “ghostlorist” Ursula Bielski, Shedd made Tiffany sign a contract guaranteeing its uniqueness. Walk through the many corridors of the mausoleum just before dusk some quiet autumn day and watch the sun filter through irises, rivers, mountains, and trees, all illuminating a twilight world of titans and ordinary Chicagoans now lost to history. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers formal tours September 23 and October 14; for information visit architecture.org or call 312-922-3432. a 5800 N. Ravenswood, 773-561-5940, rosehillcemetery.com. –Kerry Reid
The Blue Crab Lounge at Shaw’s
I need to get more fish in my diet. I need my leafy greens. I need to watch my expenses. And once in a while I need a civilized dinner downtown even if I have no one to play with. Sometimes because I have no one to play with. When these needs intersect you’ll find me at the bar of the Blue Crab Lounge at Shaw’s.
At Shaw’s bar you dine by yourself without being alone. Almost everyone seated there eats something, at least a plate of raw oysters shucked before your eyes. It’s like a big, U-shaped table of strangers, presided over by a bartender-waiter who knows several of the customers or adeptly pretends to. There are other solo diners, amorous couples, teams of golf-shirted business boys with their Web phones lying on the bar, ready for action. They won’t bother you. They provide an amusing and harmless kind of society.
For starters I recommend the Shaw’s mixed green salad, a simple mound of high-quality greens expertly dressed in an oily vinaigrette ($4.95). Add a bowl of excellent seafood gumbo ($5.95) and, to make it a party, a glass of wine ($6.25 and up). With the fine, chewy sourdough bread and fresh butter, both generously supplied, these constitute a satisfying and relatively frugal dinner.
For my money the main attraction is the gumbo, a dark, nicely seasoned roux-based soup that features sizable chunks of fresh fish, whatever’s left after the day’s supply has been trimmed and portioned. I’m told that the same two cooks have been making it for more than 20 years. Enrique Perez and Florentino Lopez, take a bow. The lonesome guy on the corner stool is lifting his glass to you. a 21 E. Hubbard, 312-527-2722. –Michael Lenehan
Moo & Oink
In his 1996 barbecue travelogue Smokestack Lightning, Lolis Eric Lolie makes a pilgrimage to the flagship store of the local Moo & Oink supermarket chain, noting with delicious irony its location on South Stony Island just across from Nation of Islam HQ. “Islam, of course, is hell on swine eaters,” he writes. “And the Nation of Islam is especially so.”
But if you do partake, Moo & Oink is hog heaven. Not only is it “barbecue headquarters,” as the marquee on the Madison location (also home to the chain’s smokehouse and chitterling-cleaning operation) declares, but the three stores in the city, with their smiling bovine and porcine mascots, are vital oases in neighborhoods that were once food deserts, offering a kind of salvation that’s no less important than the sort Reverend Farrakhan pushes. (There’s a fourth store in south-suburban Hazel Crest.)
Moo & Oink packages much of its stock for partying: seven-pound, five-ounce cans of Bush’s Best Baked Beans, five-gallon buckets of Open Pit barbecue sauce, gallon jugs of vividly colored Sno-Bal snow-cone syrup. But its greatest strength is its array of pork offerings: giant plastic tubs laden with slabs of baby back and spare ribs, huge shoulders and picnic hams, bulk packages of rib tips, tails, hocks, jowls, and neck bones, and family-size boxes of house-brand sausage patties and hot links. Snout, tail, and everything in between–if it’s pig parts you want, you’ll find them at Moo & Oink. a 7158 S. Stony Island, 773-493-7100; 4848 W. Madison, 773-473-4800; 8201 S. Racine, 773-962-8200. You can also shop online at moo-oink.com. –Mike Sula
Sunday Transmission at the Hungry Brain
Since early 2001, drummer Mike Reed–best known as the organizer of the Pitchfork Music Festival–and cornetist Josh Berman have booked an adventurous program of jazz and improvised music concerts every Sunday night at the charmingly shabby Hungry Brain bar. It’s become one of the most reliable series in town, a showcase for up-and-comers and seasoned vets alike, but ultimately it’s the vibe that sets it apart. For one thing, there’s no cover: the promoters walk around the bar with a wicker bicycle basket soliciting donations. Even more amazing, the crowds–of improv enthusiasts in their 20s, by and large–actually keep quiet and pay attention to the music, a luxury you’ll rarely enjoy at a place like the Empty Bottle. Everyone tends to be friendly–the cheap drinks help, no doubt–and the presentation is so informal it dispels the notion that serious music has to be precious and inaccessible. a 2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118, emergingimprovisers.com. –Peter Margasak
The Window Seat at Letizia’s
On weekday mornings Letizia’s Natural Bakery is a stop-and-go place, where coffee travels in paper cups. It draws a mix of frazzled Bluetooth yuppies, methodical dog walkers, cops, and a short-haired young lady with a broad smile and a limitless cache of pink jogging shorts. Most of the people who spend more than a few minutes here are banking some heavy billable hours on their laptops. But on the ledge that runs along the front window, there’s a sign reading one chair only. It doesn’t specify how many people may place their muffins on the ledge, or how many may occupy that acceptably comfortable wooden chair–according to one employee, five kids once sat in it together, late in the day. And in the morning it’s usually empty.
To get to it you must ascend two tall steps and navigate a tight gauntlet of plant life while carrying a hot beverage. Once seated you look directly into the doorway. You see all arrivals and departures. You can watch most everyone inside. A minor acquaintance stands in line, and you give him a quick high school nod. No one will approach you. You are the observer. Cast your psychological projections as you will. a 2144 W. Division, 773-342-1011, superyummy.com. –Emerson Dameron
The Lobby Bar at Second City
Chicago doesn’t have a full-fledged theater museum–though it should–but the lobby bar at Second City comes close. For nearly 50 years the theater has served as a training ground and launching pad for actors and comics, and the cabaret’s wall-to-wall array of archival photographs chronicle some essential Chicago history. The youthful images of familiar faces are fascinating. Was John Candy ever that thin? Did Bill Murray really have such long hair? Is that what Joan Rivers looked like before all her face-lifts? Other notables whose pictures adorn this rogues’ gallery: Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, Alan Arkin, Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, John and Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, George Wendt, Horatio Sanz, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Dan Castellaneta, and many more. Also on view are caricatures of cast members by local artist Bill Utterback, Second City’s own Hirschfeld since 1976. The lobby and box office open daily at 9 AM (Sundays at 11 AM); the bar starts serving at 6:30 PM. a 1616 N. Wells, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com. –Albert Williams
The Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute
The Art Institute is renowned for masterpieces by Picasso, Seurat, Van Gogh, and Monet. But my favorite exhibit has always been the Thorne Rooms. Created by Chicago socialite Narcissa Niblack Thorne between 1932 and 1940, this suite of 68 dollhouse-size interiors chronicles the history of design over seven centuries. Famed for the craftsmanship with which Mrs. Thorne’s workmen executed her vision, the impeccably detailed rooms re-create archetypal styles of European and American residential design on a scale of one inch to one foot. Situated behind a series of windows in a dim gallery, they range from the great hall of a castle in Henry VIII’s England to a French boudoir in the time of Louis XV; from a colonial New England inn to the entryway of a Tennessee home that might have welcomed Andrew Jackson; from an adobe Santa Fe dining room to an art deco penthouse straight out of a Noel Coward comedy. There are also representations of traditional Chinese and Japanese homes, as well as a majestic 13th-century Gothic cathedral.
The rooms are outfitted in remarkable detail, with tiny upholstered furniture, staircases, chandeliers, mirrors, patterned wallpaper and carpets, stained glass windows, framed artwork, and ornate ceilings. They’re tiny sets, and as such they’ve influenced theater and film artists over the decades–including the young Orson Welles, who studied at the School of the Art Institute. Walking through the long, darkened hall is like taking a tour back in time. a 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600, artic.edu. –Albert Williams
Lost & Found
It wasn’t long after Shirley Christensen opened Lost & Found on a desolate strip of Irving Park Road in Albany Park that the vice squad began turning up. Cross-dressing was illegal in pre-Stonewall 1965, and the bar, which catered to women who liked women, was required by law to check that the pants of female patrons zippered in the back rather than in the front, the way men’s pants did. Ava Allen, who partnered with Christensen in 1973 and operates the bar today, says butch gals would have to go into the alley to turn their pants around and wear them backward all night in order to comply.
A lot has changed since then, but the wood-paneled Lost & Found, the oldest lesbian bar in the city, feels like a throwback in a good way. Patrons have to knock on the door to be buzzed in, and regulars still cluster around the smoky bar–a beautiful mahogany-and-leaded-glass number–and entertain themselves with a dusty jukebox and a pool table. a 3058 W. Irving Park, 773-463-7599 –Kathie Bergquist
Deborah Butterfield’s “Ben”
Chicago has at least two great public horse sculptures but only one of them is famous. Picasso’s 50-foot-high steel horse at Daley Plaza is magnificent, but to me Deborah Butterfield’s Ben, a bronze beauty in Seneca Park, has more emotional resonance. Roughly life-size and cast from found wood–every time I visit I have to touch it to be sure it’s not actually made of sticks–it stands in the shade of trees lining a walkway through the park, near where real horses trot by pulling carriages. The thick, intertwined pieces of the horse’s haunches suggest flexing equine muscles, and the turn of its head suggests the leisurely motion of grazing. Though it lacks facial features, the horse seems strong and gentle–even melancholy–and when I trace the line of the long piece that outlines the horse’s belly, I can’t help but think of Hirschfeld’s drawings, in which just a few clean strokes express a person’s form and personality.
The Zolla/Lieberman Gallery (325 W. Huron) will be exhibiting ten of Butterfield’s horse sculptures October 19 through November 28. a Seneca Park, 228 E. Chicago, 312-742-7891. –Ryan Hubbard
Fine Wine Brokers
“Girls, I have something I’ve been saving for you!” Gary Rohr exclaims as the girlfriend and I step into Fine Wine Brokers, the shop he manages in Lincoln Square. He disappears into the back and returns a minute later with a near-empty bottle of Marie-Framboise, a limited-production cognac-framboise blend. Pouring the last drops into a glass, he says, “You’ll have to share.” We end up buying a bottle–as well as several other of his selections.
This always happens. We run in to pick up something for dinner and 45 minutes later we’re hauling a mixed half case–at least–back to the car. Small productions and limited distribution are the raisons d’etre of Fine Wine Brokers and its sister store, the Artisan Cellar, in the Merchandise Mart. You won’t find everyday budget buys like La Vieille Ferme or Parallel 45 here, but there are plenty of options for $15 or less–we practically live off of the Domaine du Tariquet Ugni-blanc Colombard that Rohr keeps by the counter. At $7.75 a bottle, we can afford to. a 4621 N. Lincoln, 773-989-8166, fwbchicago.com. –Kathie Bergquist
Manhattans at the Matchbox
With cocktails, appearances count. At the Matchbox, Manhattans are served straight up, shaken right before your eyes. The action of ice banging around, slightly “bruising” the beverage and softening the edges, can’t help but pique the interest of the imbiber. When the liquid is poured into the glass, the result is a gorgeous composition of cold reds and browns. The drink is sweet without being girly and strong without being stupid.
Although Maker’s Mark is the bar’s default bourbon, rye, the original dark liquor in this drink, and the less-favored brandy are both traditional options. The cocktails are made with both dry and sweet vermouth (many places use only the latter), but the key ingredient in the Matchbox rendition, “what really sets us apart,” according to bartender Tony Mata, are the signature brandied cherries–no tawdry red Maraschinos here. Magenta pearls often swashbuckled onto a tiny cocktail sword, they add a bit of boozy sweetness to balance the requisite Angostura bitters. a 770 N. Milwaukee, 312-666-9292. –David Hammond
The Diary of Virginia May Garcia
In 1929 a 17-year-old Hyde Parker named Virginia May Garcia had her diary privately printed, titling it A Journal of a Young Girl. She then completely disappeared and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, never published another word. Which is a shame, because the journal’s a great read. Garcia had a gift for whimsical nonsense, whether she was writing poetry, chronicling her travels in Europe, or merely goofing around. In the very first passage she titles the work her “Funny Bunny Diary” because, as she says, “I am going to try to make it funny, and I called it the Bunny Diary because it rhymed so nicely with Funny, and gave the title a quaint sound, don’t you think? Maybe you don’t, but I don’t care. It’s my diary, and I ought to have the right to name it any name I wanted, even if it was the Turkey Waddle Diary, or the Speckled Rooster Chronicle. So there!” The niche where I found the book, deep in the bowels of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library (call number PS3513.A228J8 1929), remains one of my favorite spots, or slots, in the city. a Joseph Regenstein Library, 1100 E. 57th, 773-702-8740, lib.uchicago.edu/e/reg. –Noah Berlatsky
Monday Night at Sidetrack
Considering how much musicals have given gay men over the years–escape, employment, Barbra–any gay man with a sense of cultural responsibility should at the very least be able to tell you where the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye, who Sally Bowles is, and why Jennifer Hudson’s version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” will never, ever supplant Jennifer Holliday’s. Gay or straight, you can initiate, continue, or flaunt your musical-theater education at Sidetrack on Monday nights. The 25-year-old Boys Town bar plays video clips from Broadway and Hollywood musicals on Fridays and Sundays as well, but Mondays are best for a thorough survey of American razzle-dazzle. Even if you think you don’t like musicals, when things get cracking at Sidetrack–when the entire room knows the lyrics and a fair bit of the choreography too–resistance is futile. As Irving Berlin once advised, “Let yourself go.” a 3349 N. Halsted, 773-477-9189, sidetrackchicago.com. –Zac Thompson
Hideout Dance Parties
Co-owner Katie Tuten says the idea came from Katie McCombs, an intern at the time, but no matter how many people you talk to the origins of the Hideout’s Saturday-night dance parties remain murky. Was it four years ago? Five? In any case, McCombs says, “there was some amazing private party one night” with a DJ and a lot of sweaty, dirty, sloppy dancing. Afterward, “we just said to each other, ‘How can we make that happen here every week?'”
Nowadays there are lo-fi dance parties all over town, but the Hideout’s weekly late-night hootenanny remains one of the best places around to get your freak on in the company of other weirdos terrified by the prospect of setting foot in Excalibur or Sound-Bar. Some DJs have monthly gigs, including Bald Eagle and Mother Hubbard, who run the traveling Life During Wartime dance party. But just as often the wheels of steel are spun by regulars or off-duty bartenders or friends of the band that played earlier that night. The music’s a grab bag of old-school funk and soul, hip-hop, dusties, and power ballads; Mike “DJ Treetop Lover” Bulington likes to end the night with an a cappella choral rendition of Toto’s “Africa.”
The dancing usually starts around 11:30, and there’s a $5 cover if you didn’t already pay to see the bands. This Saturday, September 22, Naomi Walker DJs after Mucca Pazza’s “The People in Our Neighborhood” show, featuring special guest Exene Cervenka. a 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433, hideoutchicago.com. –Martha Bayne
RUI: Reading Under the Influence
Amanda Snyder puts down her book, knocks back a shot, and addresses the crowded bar: “If I were a lesbian,” she says, “would I rather sleep with Reese Witherspoon or Kate Winslet?” The room erupts in shouting. Whoever’s credited for calling out the right answer–and they’re all shouting at once–could win a free drink. Oh, and a free book.
Snyder is a regular at RUI: Reading Under the Influence, a monthly night of reading, drinking, and trivia she helped start at Sheffield’s in Lakeview. RUI has got to be the city’s most fun reading series. First of all, it’s not an open mike. Readers–there are usually six to eight of them, all prescreened– must read a piece of original writing and an excerpt from someone else’s published work. All the material is loosely related to a theme–risk, say, or virgins–and is usually raunchy and/or somehow otherwise twisted. The excerpt is book-ended by shots (mandatory for the reader, voluntary for the audience). And the trivia that follows is supposed to relate to the published work, but sometimes the connections are more abstract, or perhaps the booze obscures them. The “correct” answer to Snyder’s question, for example, was Witherspoon, even though everyone knows a real lesbian would pick Winslet, hands down. And none of us can remember now what book she was even reading from. a First Wednesday of every month, 7 PM, Sheffield’s, 3258 N. Sheffield, 773-281-4989, readingundertheinfluence.com, $3 cover. –Kathie Bergquist
All Rise Gallery
When Lisa Flores and a handful of friends moved into this Wicker Park space in 2003, next door to Heaven and right above the now defunct live/work/freak-out space Buddy, they initially envisioned an art co-op. High School, as they called it, unfortunately lived up to its name–there was lots of experimentation but little progress. Fifteen roommates later, Flores gave up on the idea of any sort of collaborative effort and took over, opening All Rise Gallery in March 2006. It’s now half gallery, half hostel, offering “alternative travel accommodations” for out-of-state and overseas travelers (reservations required). Shows lean toward dreamy, portentous, and occasionally twee art exploring ideas of space and idealism. Opening this Friday is “Montreal Tout Garni,” a group show of contemporary visual artists from Montreal; there’s a reception from 7 to 10 PM. a 1542 N. Milwaukee, third floor, 773-292-9255, allrisegallery.com. –Liz Armstrong
Music Box Massacre
Horror movies are never in short supply as Halloween nears, but nothing really compares to the Music Box Massacre, a 24-hour marathon held from noon Saturday to noon Sunday in October (this year the 13th-14th). Organized by local filmmaker and cinema buff Rusty Nails, it usually begins with an austere German silent (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and continues in chronological order, wrapping up the next day with some 80s splatterfest. Vintage trailers punctuate the features and a circus atmosphere prevails: some patrons wear costumes, and vendors hawk horror memorabilia in the lobby.
Nails always rounds up some celeb for the evening program, but the biggest fun comes later, when the fire’s burned down to glowing coals. One year I got up early Sunday morning to see the last two movies, crossing over from the deserted yuppie playground of Southport into a darkened theater populated by twentysomething ghouls who’d been up all night watching horror movies. Whenever an unlikable character came on-screen, a hiss spread across the theater like thick fog, and whenever some unlucky soul got his throat ripped out, the carnage elicited a chorus of approving finger pops. After the marathon was over, Nails dragged all the survivors outside for a group photo, though I’m sure when he developed it there was no one in the frame. a 3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com. –J.R. Jones
Somewhere in Chicago there’s someone who knows more than you can imagine on any given topic and can tell you all about it in spellbinding conversation. On the topic of the Chicago school of architecture, that someone is preservationist and architect Wilbert Hasbrouck. (His wife, Marilyn, has run the Prairie Avenue Bookshop since 1974.)
Hasbrouck’s 639-page The Chicago Architectural Club: Prelude to the Modern is a monumental attempt to track the untrackable: the explosion of architectural creativity in Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Hasbrouck’s halfway through a follow-up centered on Dwight Perkins, who pretty much ran Burnham & Root (the Monadnock Building, the Rookery, the Masonic Temple, etc) in the early 1890s. As chief architect at the Chicago Public Schools from 1905 to 1910, he oversaw the construction of 42 school buildings, including Carl Schurz High School at Addison and Milwaukee, a rare example of the Prairie School style applied on an institutional scale. But, says Hasbrouck, “Perkins never claimed to be a designer. He called himself a planner.” The designers were people who worked under him. “We always hear about Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. The whole point of both books is that there were a lot of younger guys, maybe 50 people, who did the work. But their names are gone.” Or maybe not, if Hasbrouck has anything to say about it. a Prairie Avenue Bookshop, 418 S. Wabash, 800-474-2724, pabook.com. –Harold Henderson¯