Springtime (oh, really?) in Chicago

Even a sudden and unexpected return of Chicago's notorious winter weather couldn't dampen our spirits on a late-April family trip to Chicago.

The Hilton Garden Inn

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

Located just off the Magnificent Mile, the Hilton Garden Inn could rely on location alone to attract business, but it doesn’t. Instead, this hotel consistently receives accolades for its service and amenities.

The trick of this hotel, however, is in the booking. At peak times, a standard room might cost two or even three times what it does during low-demand times. For example, for the night of October 6th, 2006, I’m quoted $369 for a standard room. On October 11th, the rate soars to $439. But on November 10th, it’s only $98. Go figure. Obviously, you can get lucky with this hotel, or you can end up paying through nose. Happily, in mid April, it was the former.

I knew the hotel was close to the Grand Avenue Red Line stop, but I didn’t realize just how close until we exited the subway and nearly stumbled into the lobby of our hotel. It’s that close. Not only that, but walk right around the corner and you’re on the Magnificent Mile. Want to go to the Navy Pier? No problem – the free trolley is just around the corner. We ended up walking to Millennium Park and the Art Institute, but if we’d wanted, easily accessed public transportation could have taken us there. Ditto for just about any other place you’d want to go. No doubt about it – the hotel’s location is the biggest plus of staying here.

As it turned out, one day we wanted to pack in a lot of southside-to-northside activities, so we ended up renting a car. This was easily set up through the hotel’s concierge. There’s an Enterprise rental office right on site, so picking up the car and then returning it (in the wee hours) back to its designated space in the garage was an easy matter. A day’s rental was $42 – not a whole lot more than the daily parking fee at the hotel, really. This is the way to go if you think you might need a car but aren’t sure.

Other terrific conveniences include a Starbucks just off the lobby, a business center with computer access, and a small pool and fitness room. The on dit is that the corner rooms on the higher floors have the best views, though we were perfectly happy on a lower floor with a limited view. We shopped for a few essentials at the small grocery/convenience store across the street, making use of the refrigerator and microwave in the room.

Our room was standard issue Hilton Garden Inn – in other words, fairly spacious, well maintained, and comfortable. One minor quibble was that the doors tended to slam, echoing down the corridor, but this is basically a pet peeve and not a major issue. What I loved about staying here was the feeling of having Chicago right there on our doorstep, yet knowing we had everything we needed on hand, including the help of a well-trained and courteous staff.
Hilton Garden Inn Chicago Downtown/Magnificent Mile
10 E Grand Ave.
Chicago, Illinois, 60611
(312) 595-0000

My Thai Restaurant on Michigan

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

If enjoying a budget Thai meal right across from the Art Institute and Millennium Park sounds like an inviting dining option, then My Thai may be Your Thai. Pressed for time before taking an architectural tour leaving from Navy Pier, we mentioned to the hostess at My Thai that we didn’t have a lot of time. No problem. Accustomed to serving the rush of concert-goers at nearby Symphony Hall, the staff seems to rustle up decent-tasting food almost instantaneously.

We followed the hostess to the back of the quiet dining room, away from what I thought would be ideal seats looking out across at Millennium Park. However, the proximity to the kitchen was probably a plus given that we were in a hurry. We requested hot green tea and set about the serious business of perusing the menu. Everyone quickly settled on favorite tried-and-true Thai dishes – my son opting for chicken satay and egg rolls, my husband ordering Tom Yum soup and grilled eggplant, while I chose cashew chicken.

We had about ten minutes after ordering to sip our tea and contemplate the understated decor in muted tones of yellow and green. That combined with the subdued lighting and quiet efficiency of the staff make this something of an oasis just off bustling Michigan Avenue. This would be a good place for health-conscious patrons, too, as not only are there extensive tofu and vegetable-based options on the menu but the restaurant is smoke free as well.

Our food arrived long before I could begin to be anxious about finishing our lunch in time to catch our tour at Navy Pier. Portions were not huge, but certainly adequate for lunch, and were a relative bargain at $6-$7 per entrée. I wouldn’t say that this was the best Thai food I’ve had, or even close, but it was decent. Don’t expect a complex palette of flavors or meticulous presentation – you won’t get it. Sauces tend toward a limited range of standard seasonings, and (I suspect) some MSG to ramp up the flavor, but the ingredients are reasonably fresh. It reminded me a bit of the Thai food I make at home based on bottled sauces and condiments purchased from my local international grocer.

But, hey, that’s not really a complaint. I'm a pretty good cook. My sole complaint, really, was that I had more chunks of pineapple in my Cashew Chicken than I had any use for. But after sequestering the offending chunks off onto a cordon sanitaire at one end of my plate, the rest of the dish was quite tasty, with tender slices of chicken breast, crisp pea pods, and plenty of whole cashews (which was what I was after, basically).

Our plates disappeared in a flash the moment we’d finished and the bill was immediately presented. For a quick lunch on the run, this was definitely a good choice.
My Thai Restaurant on Michigan
30 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, Illinois, 60603
(312) 345-1234


Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

The more things change, the more they stay the same – thankfully, in the case of Edwardo’s. Back in the 80’s when we lived nearby, the original southside pizzeria had a loyal (and hungry) following among the University of Chicago students. The unpretentious eatery on 57th Street served arguably Chicago’s best stuffed pizza, and was famed for its stuffed spinach pizza in particular.

Now, some twenty years later, the original Edwardo’s has grown to a chain of nine pizzerias, mostly in the Chicago area but beginning to branch out into Wisconsin and Indiana as well. United Airlines serves their "personal pizzas" in its first-class Midwestern flights. And it’s no longer just "Edwardo’s." Now it’s "Edwardo’s Natural Pizza."

But don’t let that fool you. This is still Edwardo’s. We dropped by the original Hyde Park location for old time’s sake. Well, I should clarify that. My husband, a stuffed pizza fanatic, demanded that we eat here. Twenty years spent away from Hyde Park, and he was still dreaming of Edwardo’s pizza. It’s that good.

Now, I should probably confess upfront that I am not a big stuffed pizza fan. I will eat one piece, enjoy it, and, well, that’s enough for me. I’m full. I’m a thin crust fan (and I should mention that Edwardo’s does those, too, only we always order the stuffed crust spinach pizza. Always. Jack insists). And so on our "reunion" with Edwardo’s we ordered… well, you know.

So what’s the Edwardo’s experience like? Well, the restaurant itself is disarmingly unpretentious, like a lot of great Chicago eateries. Interior decorator? We don’t need no stinking interior decorator. This is Chicago. Love it or leave it.

And don’t be in any big hurry. You want fast pizza? Go get you one of those microwavable cardboard things. You deserve it. You want stuffed pizza, you’ve gotta wait for them to do it right.

That’s okay. Have a beer. Crack open whatever book you’re carrying. (That’s a given in Hyde Park.)

What, you’re not carrying a book? What’s wrong wid' you? Okay, then pick up a copy of the Reader from the stack near the door.

Some forty minutes later, your inches-high pizza arrives (with a thud). This is not light fare. This stuff will get you through a long, cold winter’s night. The beauty of Edwardo’s pizza is the ingredients are truly fresh, and the balance of cheese, spinach, sauce, spices, and crust is utter perfection. Any leftovers (a dubious prospect) are good for breakfast the next day.

What, you don’t eat pizza for breakfast?

What's wrong wid' you?

1321 East 57th Street
Chicago, Illinois
(773) 241-7960

Second City

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

Trying to describe comedy has to be one of the more frustrating writing tasks, so when it comes to Second City, the phrase "You had to have been there" is an overworked cliché. But, really, you had to have been there. Much of the sharpest comedy is visual, and the unexpected sight gag is something of a specialty of Second City, which is widely regarded as one of the best comedy troupes in North America. Everyone (or almost everyone) knows its alumni include the likes of Dan Akroyd, Alan Arkin, John Candy, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Mike Meyers, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert…the list goes on and on. The comedy bar is set as high as the audience’s expectations at Second City.

We took in the 11pm Saturday show of "Red Scare," foregoing the earlier 8pm seating, as we wanted to stick around for the after-the-show improv that follows the last show of the evening. We were glad we did, as while many of the comedy sketches for "Red Scare" were laugh-till-you cry funny, there was an engaging risk-taking edginess to the improv that followed.

"Red Scare," like many Second City reviews, had an underlying theme: the fault lines in American society. Given that this is a time when the nation seems more polarized than ever, the ensemble had plenty of material to work with. The review opened with three couples flinging random (and opposite) clichés at each other, a sort of dueling "values" piece. The ensemble consistently tapped into that undercurrent of anger with "others" that has metastasized throughout American public life. Some of the best sketches deftly exposed how artificial and pointless these opposing cultural stances are.

Much of Second City’s comedy is politically inspired, and while both left and right wingers receive sharp jabs, the right consistently provides the richest material and thus received the lion’s share. One memorable sketch poked fun at the military’s "Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell" policy regarding enlisting homosexuals during these times of low recruitment ("Don’t Leave! Don’t Leave!"). Another riffed on the rather absurd concept of black Republicans. But it was most refreshing when the audience ended up laughing at its own (largely liberal) biases.

A sketch based on the premise, "What if Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Juliet had had a gay friend?" reduced me to a helpless puddle of laughter. While it admittedly played into some simplistic stereotypes, the gay character’s "reality check" deflated these characters’ histrionic suicides so neatly that the humor wasn’t so much at the gay character’s expense as it was at Shakespeare’s.

And as for those sight gags? Well, you had to have been there.

Note: There are three Second City stages: Chicago Mainstage, Chicago e.t.c., and Donny’s Skybox. The largest venue, and by default the one that most people are referring to when they say "Second City," is the Mainstage. This is not to disparage the two smaller stages, but just to clarify a potentially confusing booking situation.
The Second City
1616 North Wells Street
Chicago, Illinois, 60614
(312) 337-3992

House of Blues

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

"Well, this is a neat bit of packaging," I observed as we stepped into the House of Blues. Make no mistake: this concert venue/ restaurant/bar/hotel/ entertainment complex is definitely packaged, although I mean that in the nicest possible way. If you’re expecting the bare-bones aesthetic of a genuine blues joint, this isn’t it. Actually, if you’re after authentic Chicago-style blues, go elsewhere.

If, however, you’re looking for a dinner-and-music spot with a lighthearted (if admittedly "engineered") vibe, then this may just be the place for you. A lot will depend on which act you catch and what the audience is like that night. Rumor has it that House of Blues can be outrageously crowded at times, not to mention that drink prices are some of the highest in town. That’s probably to be expected in a place that brings in so many out-of-towners. But what House of Blues does best is showcase bands that can’t fill a major concert hall (yet) or performers who - how shall we say this? – once filled major halls but now play the House of Blues. Know what I mean?

You’ll either love or hate the faux folk art decor, all distressed wood, funky colors, and voodoo motifs on literally every surface. At least you won’t be bored by it. If it smacks a bit of the pre-packaged aesthetic of chains such as Hard Rock Café, well, House of Blues is a chain. No getting around that. And, yeah, you can buy T-shirts and other paraphernalia to prove you were there, if that makes you happy. At least this is the original HOB opened by Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi in 1996. The showbiz connection is apt, as there is a certain show-busy-ness to HOB.

My advice? Go with the flow. Let yourself be entertained. Resistance is futile.

We began our HOB experience on a Friday night by having dinner in the downstairs restaurant, which is dubbed "The Back Porch" for some obscure reason. Unfortunately, the main hall was booked with some act we had no interest in. However, a house band (or lesser band) plays on the small stage in the Back Porch starting around 9pm. If you’ve already had or are having dinner when the band starts, you won’t have to pay a cover charge. The Back Porch’s menu runs to southern fried/New Orleans specialties, such as jambalaya and catfish. My turkey sausage gumbo was decent but not spectacular, as was my husband’s "Elwood," a blackened chicken breast sandwich. We shared (actually, we fought over) a side order of amazing rosemary cornbread served with maple butter.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time – not in that slightly hysterical "thank god it’s Friday – I’m gonna to get lit" way, but in a more relaxed manner. Before the band came on, we moved to a table closer to the stage and struck up a conversation with the people next to us. And then, yes, we let ourselves be entertained.
House of Blues
329 North Dearborn St
Chicago, Illinois, 60610
(312) 923 2000

An Architectural Tour on the Chicago River

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

On a sunny day in Chicago,
the water of the Chicago river sparkles, details on beaux arts buildings are etched by shadows, and windows of skyscrapers reflect the clouds above them. On such a day, there are few better things to do than stroll or float along the river, appreciating some of the finest vistas the city has to offer.

At the dock near Navy Pier, we boarded an open boat for an architectural sightseeing tour of downtown Chicago. While there are several companies specializing in architectural tours, we booked with Shoreline Sightseeing, a long-established company with tours held multiple times daily. I’ve been on a number of boat tours in various cities, but I’ve rarely been on one that I found as enjoyable.

Our guide was a fast-talking Chicago native who obviously knew the city’s history and architecture extremely well. One central theme emerged in his narration, though, the can-do spirit of the city, best exemplified by its response to the great Chicago fire of 1871.
Pushing the charred remains of the fire into the lake (a feat which later provided room for Chicago’s lakefront greenbelt), the city literally rose from the ashes. Today, the city is celebrated for its rich mix of architectural styles, with such stately treasures as the Wrigley building alongside such recent treasures as 333 Wacker Drive.

In fact, many of Chicago’s most notable buildings present their best faces to the river. While I’d seen 333 Wacker Drive many times before, seeing the blue-green curve of it unfold as we rounded a bend in the river literally took my breath away. It seemed to be an impossibly thin wedge – an optical illusion best appreciated from the river - not to mention that its curved surface presents what is surely the most stunning reflective surface in Chicago.

Truth to tell, I was so busy gawking upward and taking photos that at times I lost track of what the guide was saying. However, I learned some interesting new facts about some of the buildings that I’d long assumed I "knew" and found my appreciation for the diversity of Chicago’s architecture greatly increased. My camera – and craning neck – got a workout as I did my best to take shots of each new vista that unfolded.

At the end of the hour-long tour, our guide unexpectedly broke out a harmonica and launched into a blues song about the Chicago fire. It was hokey, yes, but it was also rather fun. There are a number of things I’d like to do the next time I’m in Chicago, but taking this tour again is near the top of the list – there’s just more to appreciate than can possibly be taken in a single time.
Chicago Architectural Cruise

Chicago, Illinois
(888) 881-3284

Hyde Park, Revisted

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

"I miss everything about Chicago, except January and February." ~ Gary Cole

When we moved into a third-floor 51st St. Hyde Park apartment back in the winter of 1981, it was all of 26° Fahrenheit outside and a stiff wind was whipping off the lake at about twenty miles an hour.

Welcome to Chicago!

Over the next five years, we toughed out arctic winters and sweltering summers in a neighborhood that was an improbable blend of academic types and working class folks. Life in Hyde Park was the quintessential graduate student rite de passage, and intense as it was at times, when we left, we sorely missed it.

Here we were twenty years later, teenage son in tow, showing him "our" Hyde Park. We began with the Museum of Science and Industry. This vast museum houses a grab-bag of permanent and visiting exhibits. Surely some would appeal to him.

However, we made the mistake of visiting on a rainy, blustery Saturday, the sort of nasty day that makes parents of restless children confined indoors begin to tear out their hair; that is, until the parents all (more or less simultaneously) have a brainwave: "I know! Let’s take the kids to the Museum of Science and Industry!"

So there we were with the Teeming Millions, as Cecil Adams would say. The sea of humanity queuing for tickets should have been our cue that this wasn’t going to be the quiet, somewhat fusty place we remembered back in the 80’s. No indeedy. The big draw, it seems, was a exhibit called "Body Worlds," put together (or, should I say disassembled) by a German fellow named Gunther von Hagens.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the publicity – much of it negative – that’s since surrounded this traveling exhibit. The controversy stems from von Hagens’ use of actual human cadavers – or bits of them – preserved by a high-tech method that plasticizes the major organs, circulatory system, musculoskeletal system, and so on in an incredibly lifelike and graphic way. The brouhaha has largely centered on how von Hagens acquired the cadavers, although other critics simply question his motives: are they educational or is he merely capitalizing on the public’s fascination with the macabre?

What fascinated (and appalled) me most were the parents with very small children. Frankly, I’d think this stuff would give most small children nightmares, yet there these parents were, earnestly pointing at the fetus in the eight-months-pregnant woman who had been neatly severed lengthwise the better to display a cross-section of her womb: "Look, Tyler. There’s the umbilical cord!"

Honestly, what is WRONG with people?

After an hour or so with the Teeming Millions, we were ready for a quieter place to seek shelter from the elements. We had our own little parental brainwave, recalling that the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago had always been a favorite place years back to spend a peaceful hour or two in contemplation of the past. It contains some terrific artifacts from the ancient Near East acquired during the University’s many archeological digs in that region over the past century.

Although the Oriental Institute had obviously received some much-needed renovation since we’d last visited, the core collection was as we remembered it, with such highlights as an enormous Assyrian human-headed winged bull and a vibrantly colored tiled lion mosaic from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate.

Our faith in museums restored, we emerged to find that the rain had passed. There was even a hint of sun peaking through the clouds as we strolled through the main quadrangle of the University of Chicago, pausing at Cobb Gate to point out the famous gargoyles to Greg. He seemed totally unimpressed.

Then it was time to walk over to the James Franck Institute, where Jack had had his office back in grad school. The institute is just across from where the first sustained nuclear reaction took place back in 1942, a feat commemorated by a Henry Moore sculpture entitled "Nuclear Energy" on the original site. Again, Greg seemed underwhelmed. Perhaps it's only our generation that is obsessed with the Manhattan Project and the dawn of the nuclear age.

A better bet was to head for lunch at Edwardo’s pizzeria (see separate review), passing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in route. I lobbied futilely to stop at several of my favorite Hyde Park bookstores, specifically the Seminary Co-Op (I still have shares), and my very favorite used bookstore in all the world, 57th Street Books. But it was not to be. I was vociferously outvoted by Jack and Greg, who knew perfectly well what "just a few minutes" could mean. They were hungry and having none of it.

By mid afternoon, we’d visited two museum, taken a stroll around campus, seen a few notable landmarks, and had a nice lunch. Now what? Well, there were certain things Jack and I wanted to see just for old times’ sake. For starters, we needed to check up on the Hyde Park parrots.

Back in the late 1970’s, a couple of parrots of a species originally from Argentina either escaped from their owners or were set free. No one knows. Then, defying Chicago’s frigid winters and urban environment, the parrots managed to build a nest in a tree right across from the apartment building where former Mayor Harold Washington lived.

Soon the original pair had done far more than be fruitful and multiply -- there was a large colony of parrots housed in a substantial, sprawling nest in the upper limbs of the tall ash tree. The secret to their success, apparently, was this tightly-woven and wind-resistant structure, which provided shelter from the cold.

No other Chicago neighborhood could boast something quite so incongruous as the Hyde Park parrots.

And the parrots had a patron – Mayor Harold Washington himself. There was always a police car parked in front of the mayor’s apartment building, right across from the parrots’ nest. The joke was that the police weren’t there to protect the mayor, they were there to make sure the parrots didn’t come to any harm. Eventually, the original tree that housed the parrots came down in a winter storm, but the parrots had by then colonized several other trees in the area.

So there we were, out near the lakefront, looking for parrots. Suddenly, we heard an unmistakable SQUAWK as a large, bright green bird flashed by. A Hyde Park parrot!

Our son thought we were demented as we began hugging each other, exclaiming, "Look! Did you see it?" Not sure how to respond, he feigned interest – a mistake as it promptly goaded us into a quest to find one of the new parrot colonies. Luckily, the nests are easy to spot before the trees leaf out, and it took us only a few minutes to spot several twiggy masses in tall trees nearby.

We had one last pilgrimage to make before leaving Hyde Park. Years back, a friend and I shared a weekly ritual that sustained us through years of grad school. We’d buy fried chicken from Harold’s Chicken Shack (thighs for me, chicken livers for her), then enjoy our little feast while watching the Sunday evening episode of "Doctor Who" on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station.

On this visit to Hyde Park, since we’d just had lunch and weren’t hungry, I just wanted to drive by Harold’s, just to reassure myself that it was still there. Alas, the original Harold’s had closed some years back and moved several blocks away to a location in a small shopping mall. Like Edwardo’s pizza, Harold’s Chicken Shack was a southside original that spread far and wide. (In fact, now there are something like sixty chicken shacks in the chain.)

The Hyde Park Harold’s was memorably housed in a decrepit corner building on a run-down block and was a mom-and-pop joint in its purest form. There was a hand-lettered sign on the door that laid down the law on the premises:


My friend and I found this injunction to be so Hyde Park in its essence that to this day all either of us has to do is intone, "No dogs eating bicycles" to reduce the other to helpless laughter.

The new Harold’s in Hyde Park may lack true southside ambience, but it still features a wacky neon sign. The original sign was surely worthy of a spot in some neon hall of fame. A portly chef (presumably Harold) wields an axe, which rises and falls as the chef "chases" a giant flapping chicken.

Even though the old Harold’s Chicken Shack is gone, and Harold himself has repaired to that great chicken shack in the sky, it’s good to know that certain traditions live on.

Stormy Weather

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on September 20, 2006

"Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it."
~ Charles Dudley Warner

Checking the Chicago weather before leaving for a four days in the Windy City, I was heartened to see sunshine and mild temperatures forecast. No sooner had our plane landed, however, than I knew Chicago was up to its old tricks. The sunny skies had turned cloudy, the mercury in the thermometer had plummeted, and wave after wave of white-caps were lashing the lakefront as a steady wind roared across Lake Michigan from the north.

Our first stop after dropping off our luggage at hotel was a Walgreen’s on Michigan Avenue, where we bought cheap umbrellas, gloves, and warm knit hats. We had an ambitious agenda for the next few days and were determined that the weather wouldn’t deter us. Jack and I regarded ourselves as "veterans," having spent five years in the city back in the 80’s. Nevertheless, we were grateful our teenage son declared his first priority was to visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

Several hours later, having seen more masterpieces than we could possibly mentally process, we emerged back onto Michigan Avenue. Nearby, Millennium Park beckoned, the beds of bright tulips making a brave show in the freezing rain. If we’d brought winter coats, no doubt, we could have taken a long, contemplative stroll in the drizzle, but in thin windbreakers the best we could manage was to hustle by some notable landmarks, such as Crown Fountain, which was displaying the face of one of a thousand Chicago citizens.

Our next stop was the Chicago Cultural Center, ostensibly to get some information, but we were easily sidetracked by the warm café inside. Perusing the Reader and sipping lattes seemed infinitely more appealing than continuing our trek along rain-slick streets, but after a while we felt a pang: we weren’t showing Greg very much of Chicago. Mind you, he would probably have been perfectly happy curled up in the hotel room watching HBO, but we pressed onward.

Our objective was Daley Plaza, home to some great outdoor art, most notably the enormous Picasso sculpture that I’ve always assumed represented a horse. Just across the street, Miró’s sculpture "Chicago" stands in another prominent spot. Chicago’s outstanding collection of outdoor sculpture has an almost totemic quality, I think, but especially these two pieces.

Although we were fairly soaked and thoroughly chilled by that point, we weren’t calling it quits until taking in Marc Chagall’s kaleidoscopic mural, "Four Seasons," Alexander Calder’s monolithic "Flamingo, " and Jean Dubbufet’s "Monument with Standing Beast," all within a few blocks of each other. It’s one thing to contemplate art in the confines of a museum and quite another to see it out in a public space. These sculptures occupy strategic spots downtown, breaking up the linearity of streets flanked by vertical buildings.

Retreating to our hotel for a change of dry clothes, we didn’t venture out again until evening, when we drove by another Chicago icon, Wrigley Field, on our way to dinner. We’d spent several summer afternoons there years back, seated among the "bleacher bums" and other colorful characters that were, to me, more interesting than the baseball game on the field. Although neither of us was a sports fans, we still felt compelled to root for the Cubs; that is, whenever it occurred to us to root for anyone.

Half the reason we drove north, however, was so we could indulge in our favorite drive south, along Lakeshore Drive. This is a glorious stretch of road, even in nasty weather in heavy traffic. In fact, I think I prefer it in heavy traffic, at least when I’m a passenger, as the slow bumper-to-bumper gridlock gives me more time to watch the skyline unfold around each bend.

We parked near the Navy Pier, chancing upon a free space on the lower level. When we left Chicago in 1986, this area had not yet been developed into the showcase that it is today, complete with giant Ferris wheel and gleaming glass entertainment complex. Throngs of people bundled up in scarves and heavy jackets were strolling along the pier. It was a young crowd, drawn to the bright lights and festive atmosphere, but our light windbreakers were no match for the chill, so we soon scurried back to our car.

The following day, we headed south once again on Lakeshore Drive, to Hyde Park (see separate entry) and then Chinatown, stopping en route to walk along the lakefront south of McCormick Place. If we thought it had been windy down in the Loop, we found on the lake front, without benefit of windbreaks, it wasn't merely windy, it was a howling gale.

There are good reasons for such an apparently masochistic excursion, however. First, it brings you uncompromisingly face-to-face with the defining factor in Chicago weather: Lake Michigan. It’s hundreds of miles to Canada, but when the wind blows from the north, Canada seems right on Chicago’s doorstep. Secondly, the lakefront just south of McCormick Place provides a striking vista of Chicago’s skyline. It has always fascinated me how different buildings seem to predominate when strolling in the Loop, depending on vantage point, but from the southside, everything falls more or less into proper perspective.

The area south of McCormick Place, in comparison to the Loop, seems comprised of squat, sprawling buildings. No doubt the concentration of skyscrapers a just short distance away creates this impression. When we stopped in Chinatown, I once again noted how stunted the area seemed in comparison to downtown, even though were evident signs of urban renewal. It was reassuring to find all our favorite dim sum places were still there, though, not to mention my favorite bakery. The coconut buns – well, they were still as good as the memory I’d been carrying all those years.

Chinatown is a wonderful place to shop, or window shop, as the case may be. Colorful knick-knacks crowd the windows of inexpensive emporiums. I bought a sushi mat and a few other items at a grocer’s, while Greg latched onto Chinese "worry" balls in a souvenir shop. Jack gravitated to an herbalist specializing in ginseng. I stood outside, munching coconut buns, contemplating the window display of "Healthy Brain Pills" (surely we all could use those) and herbal teas for all manner of ailments.

The weather had gradually been clearing throughout the day, so that by the time we’d polished off most of the coconut buns and Jack had decided which ginseng tea he wanted, a decidedly benign cast had crept over the sky. After two days of perfectly miserable weather, we were almost afraid to hope our luck would change.

But change it did, and more dramatically than we could have dreamed. The next day was picture perfect, with deep blue skies and temperatures in the sixties. We made a beeline for the lakefront, delighted with our good fortune. This time we took our time strolling through Millennium Park, then meandered over to the Navy Pier, where we unanimously decided to take a ride on the Ferris wheel.

The view of downtown Chicago from the top of the wheel was stunning, but even more glorious vistas awaited when we hopped aboard a boat docked near the pier for an architectural tour along the Chicago River (see separate review). Afterward, as Jack had an appointment with a colleague, Greg and I trekked once more up Michigan Avenue, but now, rather than rain-lashed streets, the Magnificent Mile seemed to sparkle. Islands of massed tulips brightened the sidewalks, vying with the stylish window displays of designer clothing. Springtime had really come to Chicago.

Conditions were perfect for views from up high, so we went into the Hancock Building, where we ascended to the observatory on the 100th floor. I’ve always preferred the view from the Hancock to the view from the taller Sears Tower, and that day it was particularly fine. Looking left as we faced the lake, Lake Shore Drive curved sinuously northward, flanked by a series of decreasingly tall buildings. Straight ahead lay the Navy Pier, its immense Ferris wheel looking like a mere tinker toy from the Hancock building's heights. And there near the base of the pier was the distinctive black silhouette of Lake Point Tower, a building I'd always inhabited in my fantasies.

But at that moment, I wouldn’t have traded places with those ultra-wealthy tower residents as I stood watching my son take in the panoply of Chicago spread before him. It was clear that what I’d hope for above all things on this trip had taken place. That abstract place, "Chicago," that he'd heard us talk about all those years had finally become real for him.


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