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Chicago in Eight Meals

1. Lime Marinated Pork Torta (with tomatoes from the garden rooftop, lettuce, onions, and avocado) and a Sofia beer, XOCO

We begin with comparisons. Chicago is just as tall as New York. Chicago is just as noisy. Chicago is just as fast. Chicago is just as warm.


Chicago is cleaner. Chicago has more independent establishments, often with giant objects protruding from their signs (giant grill, giant cup, giant hand holding fork knife and spoon). In Chicago, the river is blue, not brown. In Chicago, even the indie kids seem preppy. In Chicago, even Mexican food comes in a sandwich.

2. Hot Dog (with sweet relish, mustard, fresh tomatoes, hot pepper, onion), Millenium Park

"Look, I have no reflection!"

It takes us a while to get close enough to notice. By the time we're close enough, there are other people leaping in front of us, children smacking their heads on metal trying to get closer to themselves. People like self-reflective art. People like art that spits at them too, apparently.

I try to get pictures from all angles. I think of Greta Gerwig's character in Nights and Weekends, of that moment she has in Millenium Park with her long distance man, how awful it is to be long distanced. How they shielded themselves from the rain underneath that great reflector. And how lucky we are to have sun, to have each other: so much sun, so much of each other.

3. Pan Pizza (with sausage, black olives, pepperoncini) and a Half Acre beer, Pequod's

"What's that?"

"That's a hockey jersey."

"Which team?"

"The Chicago Blackhawks."

"I guess hockey would be big here, considering how cold it gets in the winter."

A breeze comes through the door, bringing my napkin to life.

4. Duck Confit Bruschetta, Bacon Fat Popcorn, and two hoppy ales, Revolution Brewing

We are headed down Milwaukee, hoping to walk off the bacon fat from our veins. There are young people milling on a corner next to an old theater, some with cigarettes dangling from tattoed arms. We look up at the marquee. Ulafest.

"What's Ulafest?" we ask a guy with a half-exposed chest tattoo. I think these are the indie kids of which you speak. He tells us that the "S" fell off, that it should be "Sulafest," and that Sula is his roommate. Sulafest, apparently, is a block party that has grown too big for the block.

It's always wise to say 'yes' to an adventure that you happen to trip over. Explore the holes you fall down, see what's on the other side of the looking glass. With most adventures, as soon as you enter, you can just as easily leave if what you find isn't interesting. And what you find is almost always interesting.

He hands us a complimentary ticket and we head inside.

The Congress Theater was designed in 1925 for Lubliner & Trinz, who operated one of Chicago's largest movie theater chains during the 1920's. The architect was Fridstein & Co., an architectual-engineering company whose other designs include the Belden-Stratford and Shoreland hotels and two other movie theaters, the Harding and Tower (both demolished).The theater opened on September 5, 1926. Besides showing movies, the theater also was a vaudeville house on the prestigious Orpheum Circuit, compromised of theaters throughout the country. Lubliner & Trinz sold their theaters to Balaban & Katz, a rival theater company, in 1929. (source)

Sometimes your breath is taken away by a song, a painting, the sun setting over the water. In this moment, my breath is taken away by the ceiling of the Congress Theater, domed like a cathedral, a great lit looming circle glowing like the Eye of Art herself. There's a band on stage, a girl in heavy eyeliner screaming into a microphone. Later a DJ mounts a set of risers beneath the center of the dome and starts spinning records from under floppy bangs and facial hair. Our adventure feels increasingly directed by Joel Schumacher.

We buy two beers in cans, like the first ones I ever drank when I turned 21 back in this city, back when I could consider it mine. We watch kids half our age dance under the great cathedral ceiling. We watch youth explode on the dancefloor, trickling in from the ladies' room, from the mostly empty red-carpeted lobby and the mostly empty holy theater. Ulafest.

And then, because we're on vacation, and because this is our adventure, not Joel Schumacher's, we start dancing in the spinning lights. We are dancing the bacon fat from our veins. And we are half our age.

5. Oatmeal w/ Berries and coffee, hotel room breakfast nook

"This is the best idea we've had all weekend."

6. BBQ Ribs, Fireside Inn

For the most part we watch the beachgoers from a bench in the shade. Groups of topless male college students tossing a football, bikers slicing through joggers, children pounding flattened palms into mounds of sand, teenagers shrieking as the waves crash against their backs. A kite. A cluster of boys on a pier telling secrets.

We dare an hour in the sun; I dip my legs in the great lake, cold and filled with sea plants. The rounded bulges of our shoulders begin to brown. We head back inland, the sun's warmth still in my cheeks. At the bar of the Fireside Inn, its roof thrown open to the day, I move my toes in the ends of my shoes and feel grains of sand still there, hanging on, a stubborn souvenir.

7. Belgian-Style Mussels and various hoppy beers, Hopleaf Bar

We meet up with old friends and talk about how our lives are different, how they're the same. Compare and contrast.

"It really would be a plan C, Chicago. It's too much of a big city for what we might want in the future."

But on our way there we'd passed honest-to-goodness houses. Beautiful houses with turrets and stained-glass windows, sculptures in the gardens. Gardens. Dogs being walked, wooden fire escapes and alleys filled with telephone poles and abandoned trolly tracks. We'd forced ourselves to walk slower. We'd made conversation with shopkeepers. We'd stayed up just past the point of tired listening to a blind man playing the Hammond organ. We were whizzed home along Lakeshore Drive in a taxi whose radio screamed the blues. We loved Chicago.

And yet.

8. Italian Beef (Sweet) and a root beer, Mr. Beef

Eaten standing up.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Reader Comments (6)

You've made me miss Chicago, terribly. Having lived in both Chicago and NYC I've always felt Chicago was much more livable for the long term than NYC.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlatenac


August 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjessica maria

I grew up with the firm belief there is no better American city than Chicago in the summer.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjdg

Hopleaf! My favorite!

I just moved to Chicago. This was a wonderful post -- it put the feeling back in me of wanting to jump on the L and go see ALL OF IT, ALL AT ONCE, RIGHT NOW like I did on my first day in the city.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Thanks for reminding me so eloquently why I came here from NYC in the first place, and why I stayed. I rent a little coach house not too far from the Hopleaf and grow my own food in my garden. And the hipsters here aren't really cool enough to make me feel like a true loser.

August 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersarah

All true! Chicago is really special. PLUS IT HAS ME IN IT

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermimi smartypants

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