Chicago’s neighbourhoods are part of its charm – and while you’re there, you might as well eat
Downtown Chicago’s shopping, architecture and museums are a huge draw, and some of the big-name restaurants are here too. Getting out of the Loop reaps its own rewards, however. A short hop on the bus or train and you could be eating haute cuisine, fried chicken or chips dipped in garlic mayo, and walking it off in the neighbourhood.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: LINCOLN PARK
On the north side of the city, overlooking Lake Michigan, Lincoln Park is respectable but laidback.
The restaurant: Charlie Trotter’s
The crown prince of Chicago fine dining is universally acknowledged as a bit of a talent, and his eponymous restaurant has been on Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list since it began in 2002. Dinner in this elegant double-fronted restaurant is not to be rushed; it runs at around eight courses from a beautifully-balanced tasting menu. There aren’t any smoke and mirror gastro-tricks, but Chef Trotter’s fondness for the unusual means there’ll be at least one element – an underused grain or crazy Japanese mushroom, perhaps - you’ve never tried before. Trotter’s tops the budget, but it’s a classic fine dining experience and service is silky-smooth.
What else can we do?
Ten minutes’ walk from Trotter’s, Lincoln Park Zoo is extensive, popular and free. They’ve got the lot, from big cats to tiny monkeys, and research programmes based here include a world-class ape science centre. For kids who want to meet the animals, there’s a small, very sweet farm, and the park itself allows plenty of space for lakeside wanderings.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: ANDERSONVILLE
Once a cherry orchard, this northern suburb retains the Swedish character brought with its first residents.
The restaurant: The Hopleaf
It doesn’t matter how old you look, the Hopleaf will ask for ID. This is first and foremost a ‘tavern’ and they take their beers seriously, though customers are encouraged to enjoy trying the extensive draught and bottle selection rather than analysing them to death. Goose Island is the Chicago brewhouse of choice, though since their ales are available elsewhere in the city, you might prefer to go for something obscure. Food is far from playing second fiddle. The mussels, steamed with alcoholic aromatics and served with crunchy fries and plenty of aioli, are an attraction in themselves.
What else can we do?
Enjoy the bizarre Swedishness of the place. Andersonville boasts that it feels like a ‘quaint village in the middle of a world-class city’, and it’s a fair self-assessment, especially during Midsommarfest, the street party that will be 44 this year. It’s an inclusive, offbeat neighbourhood, with gay, middle eastern and Hispanic communities having added to the mix, and there are plenty of alternative bookshops, Swedish cake-masters and knick-knack emporia to browse. The Swedish American Museum is here, too.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: EAST GARFIELD PARK
Part of Chicago’s west side, Garfield Park is a tough working-class neighbourhood that houses a sparkling botanist’s dream
The restaurant: Edna’s
A few dollars buys one of the most satisfying food experiences in the city, courtesy of Edna Stewart’s fried chicken and buttered biscuits. The restaurant has been here for more than 30 years and the soul food is prepared, to order, with practised ease. You’ll wait around half an hour for fried white or dark chicken that knocks most pretenders into a cocked hat. Sides like collard greens, okra and coleslaw sound like a great idea at the time, but try to leave room for peach cobbler, or one of the layer cakes on the counter. Fans of retro Americana will enjoy the decor.
What else can we do?
Not far from Edna’s, Garfield Park Conservatory is a series of huge, steamy glasshouses, offering a diversion from the gritty surrounds. The exhibits cover 3.5 acres, and while summer brings extraordinarily colourful displays, the plain greenery is pretty impressive too. The fern room and palm house boast huge, sculptural planting, and the desert house focuses the mind on climate change with a fascinating array of spiky cacti. For the food-minded, though, the sweet house is the treat. Given the tempting array of cacao beans, sugar canes, figs, pineapples, coconuts, vanilla and cinnamon, it’s best to keep your hands in your pockets so you don’t pick something.
Where to stay
Chi-town's two W hotels have a trademark air of contemporary luxe. The city centre property is handy for must-do Sears Tower and the grand, extensive Art Institute, and the Lakeshore hotel has a pool with a view and an outpost of the famous Bliss spa.
The James, slap-bang handy for the shopping district, is sleekly styled and proud of it. Downstairs, David Burke's Primehouse continues in the great Chicago tradition of steakhouse grills'n'thrills.