Chicago: City of Big Portions

Recently I spent a three-day weekend in Chicago to visit some old college friends, sample the local food and drink, and watch one of my favorite bands perform during their Winter 2004 tour.

Chicago: City of Big Portions

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 14, 2004

For anyone used to New York and San Francisco, Chicago is always surprisingly inexpensive, so be sure to seek out and take advantage of the cheap meals and one dollar beers. The major highlight of Chicago is the downtown architecture, easily the most impressive of any U.S. city outside of New York. Many visitors try to experience Chicago's architecture by way of an elevator ride to the top of the Sears Tower, but you're probably better off simply strolling downtown while looking up. If you must view the skyline from above, though, I would recommend a free trip the John Hancock Building bar where you can enjoy the view and a beer for less than the price of summiting the Sears Tower.

Depending on the weather, another highlight of Chicago is the Lincoln Park Zoo. Really, one of the best things you can say about the city is that it can support a free zoo open 365 days a year. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to visit during my most recent trip, but the Farm in the Zoo exhibit (and in particular the goats) shouldn't be missed.

Quick Tips:
Having lived in Chicago for four years, I would strongly suggest planning your visit for the summer. Chicago is at its best during the warm months when locals cut back on their work hours and spend more time relaxing in parks and along the lake. All summer long there are also plenty of neighborhood- and city-wide festivals, the biggest of which is Taste of Chicago. The crowds to this event can be a bit overwhelming, though.

Instead, perhaps think about simply catching either a Cubs or White Sox baseball game (one or both of the teams are usually in town) or just sit out on one of the city's many patio bars and enjoy a cheap beer.

Finally, if you want to get a sense of Chicago culture beforehand, I would suggest reading anything by Mike Royko (especially Boss), the poetically brutal Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren, and the comic work of Chris Ware which beautifully depicts Midwestern melancholy.

Not Recommended

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

During a previous visit to Chicago, I enjoyed a meal at a crowded north-side "pop-Italian" restaurant called the Pasta Bowl, so when my friend Ryan and I found ourselves in the same neighborhood during my recent visit, I suggested we dine there again. Ryan gamely agreed, but regrettably the subsequent meal was perhaps the worst of my trip. I left the restaurant wondering if I had enjoyed one too many cocktails during my previous visit, or if the restaurant had simply gone to seed. Having since sobered up from this dining experience as well, I'm pretty sure the latter was true.

What I had enjoyed most during my first visit was the young, lively crowd, but this time around the Pasta Bowl was fairly empty. Unfortunately, without the crowds to distract me, the restaurants' atmospheric shortcomings were thrown in sharp-relief, and my focus oscillated between the two televisions soundlessly broadcasting women's college basketball and the dingy, less-than-busy open kitchen.

It's always a bad sign when a restaurant named the Pasta Bowl gives up on pasta, so I was concerned to find that hamburgers and french fries had been added to the menu. Nonetheless, I ordered the linguine pesto ($5.85) and a glass of Buene Vista Merlot ($3.95), but both the entree and the wine struck me as oddly thin. While the portions were generous (the linguine filled an over-sized dish and the wine occupied the greater part of a fish-bowl-sized glass), I would have enjoyed less food and more taste. The pesto sauce suggested vegetable rather than olive oil, the pine nuts were served raw, not toasted, and the ample glass of wine was too weak to enjoy. To be fair, Ryan did enjoy his entree of chicken, cream sauce, and bow-tie pasta, but only after first scraping aside an obnoxiously large mound of Parmesan cheese.

The service at Pasta Bowl was friendly if a bit distracted, as much of the clientele seemed friends of the bartender and waitresses. The manger's apparent indifference to this situation gave the Pasta Bowl the feel of a restaurant whose time had already come and gone, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn during my next trip that the restaurant's decline had mercifully terminated in closure. That said, I also won't dedicate much time to finding out.
Pasta Bowl
2434 N. Clark St
Chicago, Illinois, 60614
(773) 525-2695

Good Southside Thai

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

After many years of suburban mono-cuisine, I first experienced and enjoyed Thai food as a college student in Chicago. Pad Siew (a dish of rice-noodles and broccoli fried in sweet gravy) quickly became one of my favorite meals, and though I’ve since ordered the dish in cities from San Francisco to New York, I’ve always enjoyed the fat, chewy noodles served in Chicago best.

Several Thai restaurants operate on a single stretch of 55th street near the University of Chicago, and when I was in college, most students favored Siam. Since I hadn’t visited the university in several years, I asked my old college friend Ryan to join me and he felt strongly that Siam would be the proper choice for this nostalgic meal as well. Ryan noted that the restaurant served the best chicken fried rice and yellow curry chicken he had ever tasted and added that they poured a better Coke than their competition as well.

We arrived at Siam shortly after 2pm and found the approximately 50-seat restaurant nearly empty. A single diner sat in the front and quietly talked on a cell phone while a restaurant employee sat at a back table peeling vegetables. After a quick look around, we choose seats near the window to better watch the foot traffic on 55th Street. Like many Thai restaurants, Siam is decorated with framed posters depicting the impressive array of tropical fruits grown on the mainland.

Of course, I ordered Pad Siew ($6.95), and Ryan asked for the yellow chicken curry ($5.95 lunch special) and a Coke. The waitress was very accommodating and allowed me to order tofu Pad Siew, even though it wasn’t listed on the menu. Compared to the Manhattan prices I’ve recently become accustomed to paying, I found the entree priced fairly inexpensively, so I ordered an appetizer of spring rolls ($3.50) as well. The best thing that can be said about the three spring rolls was that they were so large I couldn’t finish them, but they were also a bit mushy and covered in syrup that was both too heavy and too sweet. The Pad Siew, however, was just as I had remembered, with fat, sweet noodles and ample amounts of broccoli. Given the enormous size of the plate, though, I struggled to finish this dish as well. Ryan had similar troubles with the size of his meal, but he assured me that his opinion of the Siam yellow chicken curry and Coke remained unchanged.

The service at Siam was fast and friendly, and if you have a large appetite, I can definitely recommend the restaurant for a quiet, inexpensive meal.
Siam Restaurant
1639 East 55th Street
Chicago, Illinois, 60615

Decent Food for Families

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

Each time I visit Chicago I seem to notice a new outpost of Leona's Pizzeria, a self-described "family" restaurant established in the city during the 1950s. In the past I've enjoyed decent meals at two of their locations, so when a friend and I were struggling to find a quick dinner near the Red Line Belmont stop and walked past a Leona's on North Sheffield, I had no problem giving this location a try as well.

We arrived just after 8:30pm on a Saturday night and found the restaurant fairly packed with extended families, large groups of friends, and several packs of suburban high school students enjoying group dates. (I was nosy enough to check out what the students were eating, and true to my memories of high school, the guys ordered burgers and pizzas while most of their dates contented themselves by sharing mozzarella sticks.) We waited roughly fifteen minutes for a table, and as we passed the time, a young female employee wordlessly offered us complimentary slices of cheese pizza. To be honest, I found both the manner and substance of her offer disconcerting and declined to accept.

Like many chain restaurants, Leona's tries to conceal its impersonal size by painting itself with a thick layer of "atmosphere." As someone who doesn't eat meat, I was slightly charmed by their slogan "Old School Italian, Abundant American, Closet Vegetarian," but the "brain food" trivia cards scattered on the table were unpleasantly greasy, and I found the large, glossy, spiral-bound menus featuring illustrations of key employees difficult to navigate. Squeezed in-between the illustrations were literally hundreds of dining options, and I struggled for some time before finally deciding upon the Portabella Mushroom Wrap ($8.95) and a glass of the Redwood Creek Merlot ($5.00). As with many of my recent Chicago meals I found the portions overwhelming and the food somewhat bland. The wrap was served on a heavy, platter-sized white plate that also held a large bowl of fruit "garnish," and while my first hungry bites were satisfying, I quickly grew bored of the entree and didn't finish half of it. That said, I had no complaints about the size and quality of the wine.

The service at Leona's was friendly and efficient. The two large tumblers of water on our table were refilled often, and the waiter was very accommodating of my request for a quick meal and check because we had a 10pm show to catch. The restaurant's interior didn't go much beyond wooden booths and checkered table clothes, so I can't recommend the restaurant for dates if you're older than eighteen, but if you're trying to satisfy a large group of diners that includes both grandparents and grandchildren, Leona's might be a good choice for you.

Leona's - Lakeview
3215 North Sheffield Ave
Chicago, Illinois, 60657
(773) 327-8861

Whoa! Big Pancakes!"

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

I had an afternoon flight back to New York on my last day in Chicago, so two old friends and I decided to share Sunday breakfast together before I left. My friend Ryan suggested the Original Pancake House, and the three of us agreed to meet at the restaurant at 1pm. I was surprised to find that The Original Pancake House was located in the basement of what appeared to be an office park, but no one else seemed to mind the location as we found the restaurant completely full. The hostess politely took our name and correctly predicted a 30-minute wait.

Upon sitting down I observed that the dining room was mostly composed of portly, older folks who genuinely seemed to appreciate the restaurant's enormous portions and inexpensive prices, so we were all a bit surprised to notice an attractive young girl sitting alone. Of course, she was waiting for a date and he finally arrived several minutes later, talking on a cell phone and wearing a stupid blue blazer. Blue Blazer continued his conversation on the cell phone after sitting down, a move that I figure he must have picked up from a men's magazine. Whatever the origins of his rudeness, the behavior only seemed to impress his date more and this made us mad.

We decided not to let Blue Blazer ruin our meal however, and so perhaps in an attempt to boost our self-esteem, both Ryan and I splurged and selected Original Pancake House Signature Items from the menu. I chose the mushroom omelet ($7.85) and Ryan the apple pancake, but in retrospect Joe made the wisest choice by simply ordering a side of silver-dollar pancakes. The food arrived shortly thereafter and the monstrosity that was delivered on Ryan's plate nearly caused us to fall from the table. If ever a pancake resembled a living, breathing, flipping-flopping creature, Ryan's breakfast was it. The enormous size of the meal made Joe's silver dollar pancakes look petite in comparison, and the waiter, noticing the difference, laughed and said that Joe had ordered the "Little Brother" special.

Ryan gamely cut into the beast and began piling forkful after forkful of apple dough into his mouth, but he had barely finished half the pancake before calling it quits. My omelet came with a small side of pancakes, and these were very good, but the omelet itself was difficult to eat. Like Ryan's meal, it was enormous, and the egg mixture was infused with so much light, fluffy air that it no longer tasted of anything but the sherry-based mushroom gravy spread across the top.

Towards the end of our breakfast, Blue Blazer walked past with a napkin stuck to his shoe, and while it was not toilet paper, this did make him look foolish enough to increase our enjoyment of the meal. Energized by this event, Ryan attacked his apple pancake once again and managed two further bites.

The Original Pancake House
2020 N. Lincoln Park West
Chicago, Illinois, 60614

Great Bar in a Great Location

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

A few friends belong to a Brooklyn-based band called Bishop Allen, and I planned my most recent trip to Chicago to coincide with their spring tour and a Saturday night performance at Schuba's Tavern. My last visit to Schuba's had occurred during college, and I recall spending the evening playing pinball and watching a friend practice jazz-hand on their large dance-floor. (This was during the Gap-inspired swing dance craze of 1997.) That said, I harbored no hard feelings toward the club itself, and was simply happy that Schuba's Tavern was now providing a venue for Bishop Allen to rock out.

I arrived at Schuba's shortly before show time and gathered together several of my old Chicago friends to distribute tickets. Earlier in the day I had bought the tickets on the club's website for $8.50 apiece, and my online purchase entitled me to a free appetizer at the Schuba's attached restaurant The Harmony Grill. I briefly poked my head into the Grill but decided I wasn't in the mood for anything fried and served on decorative iceberg lettuce so declined to redeem the offer.

Since I had several friends to buy drinks for, I was happy to find that most beer at Schuba's was affordably priced at $3 a pint. A popular drink in Chicago is a Blue Moon (Hefeweissen beer garnished with a slice of orange), and several of us made like Romans and enjoyed several of the fruity beer concoctions.

While not extremely large, the performance space itself was impressive and distinguished by an intricately-tiled black-and-white floor. The lighting was very good and enhanced by a particularly high stage, and the sound also seemed to be in capable, experienced hands. Most importantly, Bishop Allen rocked Chicago and, as usual, finished the show with many new fans.

As exciting as it was to watch my friends play Schuba's, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the consensus highlight of everyone's evening (band included) was the discovery of a two-dollar photo booth. Two dollars for a four-photo strip of memories seemed exceptionally reasonably priced by any standard, and as a result I'm afraid we may have overused the booth. The next morning we noticed that the photos had developed a little dark, but for the price, no one was complaining.

Schubas Tavern
3159 North Southport Ave
Chicago, Illinois, 60657
+1 773 525 2508

Did Not Disappoint

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

I spent four years in Chicago without seeing a performance by The Second City, the famed comedic ensemble that launched the careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray, and others, an oversight that I decided to remedy during my recent visit. While in Chicago I did attend and enjoy a comedy revue, but I just now realized when sitting down to write this journal that I still haven't seen an official The Second City performance. According to the souvenir program, what I did see was "Pants on Fire," a revue by e.t.c., a sort-of junior varsity The Second City that boasts such alumni as Horatio Sanz, and, um, Nia Vardalos, the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.


Five of us showed up at the intimate "studio" theater for the 11 PM Saturday performance of "Pants on Fire," and a hostess seated us close to the stage, behind a row of high school students who had already begun arguing about their curfews. To get us into the right mood, a waitress brought a drink menu with a selection of shooters that included Lemon Drop, Oatmeal Cookie, and Buttery Nipple ($4 each or $6 when served in a souvenir shot glass), but I decided to forgo the comically named drinks and ordered a Sam Adams ($4.50) instead.

The show opened with a sketch involving a presidential press secretary announcing that he would only tell the truth. Most of the bits that followed derived their humor from current events, but I laughed hardest at the few that involved physical comedy. In particular, the ensemble did a manic, very funny take on the good cop/bad cop routine, and cast member Frank Caeti did a remarkable impression of a giant, moon-walking baby.

While the sketches were a little hit or miss, the improv pieces were consistently uproarious. Audience members would call out random words, and the ensemble would do their best to perform comedy around these choices. Watching the performers walk a comedic tightrope without a net created a real tension in the audience, and when the performer invariably succeeded in making a joke, that tension easily exploded into laughter. A particularly good improv bit involved an audience member being interviewed and surreptitiously recorded, after which his voice was deftly mixed it into a rap song about the upcoming presidential election.

The e.t.c. ensemble performed for about 45 minutes, took a quick intermission, and the performed for another 45. After the show ended the performers announced that they'd like to try out some new material and welcomed the audience to stay. We had enjoyed the evening enough to want more, so we stayed an additional 45 minutes. True to their word, some of the comedy was still in development, but plenty of laughs were enjoyed during this unofficial third act.
The Second City
1616 North Wells Street
Chicago, Illinois, 60614
(312) 337-3992

The Michigan Avenue Bridge

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by oldscratch on March 29, 2004

Chicago's famed "Magnificent Mile" begins just above the Art Institute on Randolph Street and follows Michigan Avenue north across the Chicago River and past the John Hancock building before finally terminating at North Avenue. World-class shopping can be enjoyed along the entire route, and I suppose one can truthfully claim that the avenue's sights and attractions are as magnificent as, say, the Grand Canyon is grand. That said, I've always enjoyed one small stretch of the Mile to the exclusion of all others. Framed by Lake Michigan to the east and city-stretching-into-prairie on the west, the roughly 200 feet of the Michigan Avenue Bridge is perhaps the single most impressive urban landscape I've ever seen.

I should qualify that last statement by noting that the view from the Michigan Avenue Bridge is also one of the first urban landscapes I ever witnessed, and for that matter, one of the first truly modern landscapes the world had ever seen. Skyscrapers came of age in the twenties, and bracketing the north side of the bridge are two gleaming-white examples of the craft, the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. These two Jazz Age cathedrals serve not only as exclusive guard towers to the booming economic clout of North Chicago, but as a gateway to American Modernism itself. While straining your neck at these buildings and standing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge with cars rumbling both past and beneath, you feel not only physically within the city but that you are experiencing the City as a capital-letter concept as well.

On your next trip to Chicago, I suggest you take the time to walk north across this double-deck drawbridge. U.S. and State of Illinois Flags will flutter violently on either side, and after you cross the bridge, the Wrigley Building will be on your left. Thirty-stories tall and distinguished by a two-story clock, the Wrigley Building's exterior features six shades of tiles that ensure the structure appears brighter as it rises. On your right will be the gothic Tribune Tower. At the tower's bottom is a WGN studio with a large plate glass window and weather and time displays, but I've never seen anything terribly exciting happening in the broadcast booth. As a college student, I used to enjoy walking around the Tribune Tower and looking at their stone collection, but to be honest, the practice of collecting famous stones from places like the Great Wall of China, the Parthenon, and the Alamo and then cementing them to the facade of a building now strikes me as a bit kitsch.

Finally, since I am actually writing this journal entry on St. Patrick's Day, it occurs to me that earlier today city employees must have partaken in the bizarre annual ritual of turning the Chicago River green. I once actually watched the transformation take place from the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Chemicals were dumped in the river and a motorboat speed around in circles to stir them up. Turning a river bright green always strikes me as a strangely 1970s custom and smacks of a time when people were enthralled by the power of chemistry to change the world, yet innocent of its long-term environmental impact. I assume, of course, that the chemicals are non-toxic or the practice would have been stopped long ago, but the gaudiness of the green river does not mesh very well with the glamour of the bridge. I suppose this sort of contrast is distinctly Chicagoan, but I would recommend avoiding the bridge on St. Patrick's Day all the same.

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