A June 2003 trip
to Chicago by smmmarti guide
Quote: If your notion of "the suburbs" conjures homogenous bedroom communities, unadventurous refugees from the city, Stepford wives in SUV’s, and briefcase toting commuters in Dockers, you’ll be inclined to reexamine your ideas once you visit the surprisingly urbane, diverse and culturally aware communities just north of Chicago’s borders.
To the north lies Wilmette. Although less culturally diverse than it’s border towns, this tidy village proudly manages the most beautiful public beach on the Northshore. Additionally, Gillson Park encompasses 60 acres of prime real estate packed with lakefront style recreation, including sailboat rental and lessons, a fitness course, lighted skating rink and the popular Starlight Theater, where summer performances take place at Wallace Bowl, across the street from the magnificent Bahai Temple.
Today, Skokie, also hosts many of the areas most interesting and authentic ethnic eateries and the truly impressive Festival of Cultures. There are regular special events and arts shows both in the parks and at the Old Orchard shopping complex, one of the loveliest outdoor shopping centers this side of Ala Moana. The North Shore Center for Performing Arts is Skokie’s triple venue of theaters, a star in the city‘s crown.
A fabulous new program in Chicago is the Bike and Ride, whereby you are allowed to board your bicycle on the train or busses with bike racks. Look for the Bike and Ride program brochure at the website. Once in the suburbs, wise visitors utilize the extensive bike paths through the forest preserves, along the lakefront and through the beautiful neighborhoods.
Also check out the Visitors Pass brochure, for information on unlimited rides on the system at greatly reduced fares.
Note to Drivers: Parking is more plentiful than in the city proper, but beach parking can be very restrictive requiring special decals (available for day visits at Park Offices).
For sure, Bill Murray ate here - often. Sarkis’ is an enduring hangout for the prep school set from Loyola Academy, as the "World’s Best Omelet's" and patio seating are the surefire antidotes for post-prom (or any other party) indulgences. Many a walk of shame has been made down Sarkis’ steep stairs to basement facilities.
Located on the borderline between Skokie, Wilmette and Evanston, all three suburbs claim Sarkis as their own. Every North Shore resident wanting a taste of the unique atmosphere of the city and longing for the flavor of Sarkis’ hashbrowns, omelettes and sides, all grilled together on a huge, greasy griddle, have made their way at one point to Sarkis.
I heard that Sarkis closed briefly (some minor issue of fire code violation or some such nonsense) but due to popular demand, reopened to fanfare. When I revisited the joint recently, it hadn’t missed a beat and one would never have guessed there had been a break in operations.
Walk up the stairs at Sarkis, shout that order when you catch someone‘s eye, and then face the issue of finding a free spot to actually eat your food. At Sarkis the question is whether to soak up sunshine (outdoors) or the clamoring cacophony of the constant repartee that Sarkis maintains with his clientele (indoors). As the later provides greater journalist value (and I get plenty of sunshine at home), I plunked myself down in a chrome and plastic chair and awaited my cheese omelet. When it was delivered, we again attempted to pay, but were waved off brusquely (later, later) as if the suggestion were a major irritation.
We’d have been disappointed if we hadn’t been greeted with the feigned annoyance that is Sarkis’ signature. We’d have been even more disappointed if the omelets had not been as greasy as ever, and equally delicious.
Tip: just toss your tab on the end of the counter before you leave, and tell Sarkis his omelet was dry and too expensive. He’ll love you for it.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 12, 2003
2632 Grosse Point Road
Gus knew how to tap into the weakness of so many Chicagoans by developing the best ice cream on the North Shore. Since the company's inception in1935, Homer’s has garnered numerous awards and extensive praise: Best in the North Shore; Best in Chicago; Top Ten in the Country; Finest in the Nation. The demand for Homer‘s ice cream has grown so high they now ship ice cream to devotees all over the world.
The unique flavor combinations really set Homer’s apart from the competition. Apple Cinnamon has chunks of graham cracker; Almond Joy has coconut, chocolates and almond; and Cappuccino Chip, made with Kona coffee and mocha flakes, is like a visit to the islands. During the holidays, Pumpkin Pie or Eggnog will put you in the caroling mood faster than a snowstorm off the lake. The calliope colors and chaotic scene after soccer games and movies at Homer’s may put you in a festive mood as well. Serving as the town meeting place, Homer’s has built generations of life-long fans by securing a homey, nostalgic place in the hearts of North Shore residents.
Along with its deliciously sweet, creamy signature pieces, Homer's also serves food--in case you need something to pair with dessert. Hotdogs, burgers and fries, and tuna salad sandwiches are simple bows to nutritional obligations. However, the food doesn’t hold a pistol to the store’s the main event--ice cream and its various guises: sundaes, malts, shakes, or floats.
If you would like to try Homer’s but can‘t make it to Chicago anytime soon, simply point and click to choose your personal favorite from the online store. For $100, twelve pints of Homer's original recipe will be delivered to your doorstep packed in dry ice. A C-note may seem a bit steep for ice cream, but go ahead, take one bite. You’ll never forget the taste. As to the cost, I suspect you’ll soon fuggetabotit.
Homer's Homemade Ice Cream
1237 Greenbay Road
These days, since Pita Inn has garnered rave reviews from the local food critics and won awards from major restaurant organizations, it has gone a bit upscale. The location hasn’t changed (it’s still in an unfortunate suburban strip mall) but the little trees, now twice as tall, twinkle with white lights. The dining room has been revitalized with mirrors and appropriate art works, and the lines are even longer. Thankfully, the prices are still ridiculously low. (Please don’t tell them I said that.)
Turnover is likely the key to Pita Inn’s frugality. The pace is feverish behind the cook’s counter. The night I returned recently to indulge my long-denied passion at 9:30 p.m., throngs of people crowded around the order takers and waited expectantly as scores of platters filled by at least a dozen cooks crammed in the tiny kitchen area were delivered in rapid fire succession. Falafil (ground chick pea patties seasoned and fried - $1.95), tabouley (parsley and tomato salad - $1.25) and baba ghannoug (eggplant and tahini dip - $1.35) were set before them hot off the griddle, gleaming with the colors and aromas that only the freshest ingredients conjure. Things sell too fast here to ever get stale.
My favorite menu item is the Jerusalem salad, something I’ve never found this tasty elsewhere. It is so good, in fact, that I often snap up a jumbo size ($2.25) mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers and mint swimming in a tahini based cream sauce. This provides the perfect accompaniment to the signature item - the thing that really put Pita Inn on the culinary map - homemade Pita bread. Sweet, tender, warm and fragrant, it is the proverbial manna in the desert.
Did someone say dessert? Typically after clients return their trays, they come back to the counter and order another round, this time for sweet tea and baklawa. The honey-laced layers of phyllo dough and ground nuts, priced at $.85, has been the culprit for many a case of overindulgence.
It’s unusual for a suburban eatery to stay open past 10pm, but Pita Inn caters to a crowd that seems to make its own hours. After eavesdropping on the various languages spoken throughout the rowdy dining room, (heavy in Arabic) one gets the impression that many are still on Middle Eastern time zones. Or perhaps they, like me, had recently awoken from a late day nap. To accommodate the loyal clientele, Pita Inn remains open until 11pm weekdays and midnight on weekends. It’s a good bet that if they decided to go 24/7, there would still be a queue.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 12, 2003
3910 Dempster Street
Chicago, Illinois 60076
Attraction | "Holocaust Museum"
Her fervor claimed my attention as she recounted the story of the Museum’s origin and goals. Back in the 70‘s a neo-nazi young man had petitioned the courts to exercise his constitutional right to hold a rally in Skokie, home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. Despite vehement protests, his right was upheld. Realizing he’d awakened a sleeping giant, he decided ultimately against holding the rally. But the local citizens didn’t stop at that, believing that counter measures were in order.
They built the Holocaust Museum to ensure that future generations would never forget what had happened and worked toward passing a bill in the State Senate that requires the history of the Holocaust be taught to every student in Illinois.
Within 24 hours of hearing the story I jiggled the lock on the museum doors.
Having twice mistaken the dated building for a dentist or insurance office, I wondered suddenly if should have called ahead or made an appointment. Ringing the bell to the upstairs offices, I was relieved to find a remarkably fresh-faced young woman with the unmistakable look of dedication in her eyes.
Reassuring me I was in the right place at the right time, she walked me to the adjacent doorway and turned the key.
"All yours," she announced, "ring if you need anything."
I stood alone staring at overblown black and white photos showing endless rows of humans marching headlong to nowhere; families, eyes sunken, blank, wondering. A looping video in the next room offered relief, a living voice. Ordinary people-next-door recounted stories of survival and loss, their murmurs providing a leitmotif for the tales and supporting accounts posted on the walls. Poignant memorabilia, items gathered from the thousands of survivors who had come to Skokie following the war, are on display; a doll smuggled out from under the Third Reich’s grasp, a locket holding a precious, weary photo of parents who had disappeared..
We know what happened then; millions endured or succumbed to unthinkable horrors and treachery during that reign of terror. At the Holocaust Museum, neighbors have deposited their treasures so that others may come face-to-face with the lives that had been systematically altered in ways we dare not even imagine for ourselves. Reading the tales of profound courage and strength, suddenly realizing the lady who sold you dresses had spent her childhood in ways you never dreamed, clearly demonstrates the message of the museum.
Healing and forgiveness is tantamount for survivors overcoming gruesome pain and suffering. Yet, remembering, paying tribute to victims, recognizing the survivors and educating ourselves and subsequent generations is equally important. This is the dual goal of the Holocaust Museum and what makes it particularly unique. These are the stories of our Chicagoland neighbors and friends.
Harold Washington Library
400 South State St.
Chicago, Illinois 60605
Chicago has always had a fabulous theater scene and even more notorious comedy theater scene. I blame it on the hard winters, since hardship both inspires art, and requires good humor. On thing's certain; Chicagoans are funny and they love good theater.
The city's theaters are famous for producing a slew of actors who went on to grace the world’s stages and radiate from the silver screens. Downtowners have Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare Company, The Goodman, Second City, Victory Garden, Royal George, Briar Street, Live Bait, Athenaeum, and more. Names of the famous actors trained in Chicago would fill a separate journal.
Many of those celebrity names and faces got their start on suburban stages.
As such, it’s unnecessary to fight traffic or pay outrageous parking fees to enjoy great theater, Chicago style. Here are three theater companies that cater to the suburban clientele with eclectic, sophisticated, and classic theater offerings; places where the famous love returning to their roots and up-and-coming thespians earn their wings.
EXTRA! Before you decide on a production, visit Hottix , which sells half-price tickets available the day of performance. Purchase your tickets at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Tues-Fri 10am-6pm,
Sun. 12 Noon-5pm. Although you likely won’t score Lion King tickets or other sold out new openings, on the day I checked, tickets were available to at least a dozen critically acclaimed productions.
The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts was built in 1996 and is also home to three Resident Companies. Center East, , is the large state-of-the-art venue and host to headliners and international entertainers. Recently, Bill Maher, Capitol Steps, Corky Siegel, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band filled the bill. The Skokie Valley Symphony,
in its 44th year, has a new home at NSCPA as fabulous as its the performances it presents.
Northlight Theater, with a series of comedy, drama and musicals on an intimate stage, strives to offer meaningful, entertaining and eclectic theater to audiences.
Another note-worthy theater is Piven located at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston. For 30 years Byrne and Joyce Piven have lead workshops that have inspired many a tall talent, including all the Cusack’s, Rosanna Arquette, Aiden Quinn, and so many others that they were recently honored at an Oscar-like star-studded fete. Who knows which current cast member will walk the red carpet in the future?
When the weather warms and the real stars appear, head to Starlight Theater in the Wallace Bowl in beautiful Gillson Park along Lake Michigan in Wilmette. Performances are free, but be sure to get a visitor’s parking pass ($5) in advance.
After visiting these suburban theaters you may find a visit to the downtown theater district unnecessary.
North Shore Center of Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Blvd
Chicago, Illinois 60077
Attraction | "Trio of Top Attractions in Evanston"
In spite of working in Evanston for years and living here briefly, until recently I had completely overlooked the lighthouse that towers 117 ft. above Lake Michigan’s sandy shoreline in northern Evanston. The towering trees surrounding the Evanston Arts Center, the beautiful, historical structure that fronts the lighthouse, afforded even more distraction, never mind the beach, the dunes, the people watching . . .
The lighthouse is only open for tours ($5 - first come, first served) on Saturday and Sunday afternoons between May and September between 1-4 p.m., obviously the best time to plan your visit. Because the waters of Lake Michigan remain ridiculously cold until about late August (only after six weeks of 90 degree heat manages to warm it up to 65 degrees) the window of opportunity is somewhat small. But hit it right, and you have scored a bonanza of a summer day.
Arrive really early and park before the crowds gather to watch the sunrise over Lake Michigan. The beach will be all yours except for the romantics, the dog walkers and joggers. While you are waiting for the morning sun to warm the sand, have breakfast at Cafe Sarkis, famous for the world’s best omelette’s and favorite of North Shore celebrities and preppies who are slumming. Belly full, return to the beach, and when you need a break from the heat, meander through the little gardens surrounding the lighthouse, and watch the congregation of seagulls that gather just past the breakfront over the dunes.
At 1.p.m., be the first in line to take the historical tour of the lighthouse. If you are willing to climb the 160 steps to the top, you will have a generous view of downtown Chicago and all points in between. Afterward, be sure to browse the North Shore Arts Center, where special exhibits of local emerging artists are the highlights. The current exhibit, "Alterations: The Body/Identity Revealed" was created by artists,
Jan Estep, Julie Laffin, Nina Levy, Joan Silver, Natasha Spencer and explores the dynamic relationship between women’s psychology as represented by the skin females are in and the costumes they choose to present an image. It is very thought-provoking and highly recommended. Coming next is a unique public art experience called Gardenfresh which will surely prove to be interesting and innovative.
Illinois’ current marketing campaign suggests that "You don’t need to go away, to get away." The day I propose, all within a few blocks square of downtown Evanston, offers proof to the claim.
Grosse Point Lighthouse
2601 Sheridan Road
Chicago, Illinois 60201
An aerial view of the building reveals its meaningful intention; it is a lotus flower peaking over the greenery of the North Shore garden. From a distance, we see not a concrete jungle, not a throbbing, bustling hub of suburbia, but a single flower blooming along the shoreline of Lake Michigan.
At closer range, the building is no less marvelous. Conceived in the early 1900’s by a group of 2,000 Chicago Bahai’s, the plans alone took eight years to complete. Because Bahai’s do not accept donations from anyone outside the faith, it took over 40 years for the congregation to fund the finished work. While the amazingly beautiful dome was being built, cast of a unique mixture of quartz and white concrete, followers met in the lower meeting hall beneath its bare skeleton. Once completed, the building was nothing short of brilliant.
The Bahai religion believes uniquely that all the major prophets profess the same essential truth. Bahai is a message of total peace and unity and this belief is expressed in the very structure. Is it Temple? Cathedral? Synagogue? Mosque? It is a nine-sided structure with nine gardens, nine being the highest single digit and therefore the symbol of completeness. It is also the number of major religions represented in the symbolism depicted in the lacy scroll panels and towers. On the columns you will note the cross, the star of David, the hooked star (an early religious symbol, not the Third Reich), the Anhk and others. It is not mere lip service that all are welcomed here, it is inscribed in the very mortar of the congregation hall. Over each of the nine doorways are the basic tenets of the religion, including, "The earth is but one country, and all mankind its citizens."
The Bahai church does not have services, as it has no priests or hierarchy, but has many educational opportunities and panel discussions. The temple also hosts gatherings where readings and meditation and a cappella music encourages quiet reflection. Visitors here are invited into the main hall to read the inscriptions and ponder their meaning. The sight of the interior dome is awe-inspiring.
A stroll around the gardens, as essential an element of the temple as the structure itself, represents an example of another basic Bahai tenet; that we are all flowers in the same garden. As you see the poppies, irises, lilies and pansies, and people of all races and creeds strolling among them, it couldn’t be more evident. The fountains provide an intentionally meditative contrast to the traffic noises nearby.
There is no entrance fee, no donation basket, so one can visit frequently. You will quickly feel at home and at peace here since, regardless of which religion you identify with, all people are welcome by the Bahai‘s into their sumptuous place of worship.
536 Sheridan Rd
Chicago, Illinois 60091