Things to Do in Chicago
One of the great things about living in a city like Chicago is the variety -- there is so much to do here, you'll never run out of options. If you're sitting around bored at home, it's your fault. Here are a few ideas I'd like to share, pulled together as my contribution to The MANual: An Experiential Toolbelt for the Everyday Guy. It's far from a complete guide, but hopefully gives you some ideas on how to go beyond the obvious.
Just because you live in Chicago doesn't mean you can't go on a tour every once in a while. You'll learn something new about the city, and it's a great date option because it gives you and your date something active to do and talk about. Here are a couple faves.
- Chicago Architecture Foundation - Architectural walking tours point out interesting bits of the Loop you might otherwise miss, and their river boat tour is the best.
- Chicago Detours - Fun, offbeat tours of places like the Pedway, historic bars and neighborhoods.
- Get a little exercise while trying new cuisines on Fork and the Road's bicycling food tours.
I love exploring new cuisines and trying new restaurants. My dad likes to say that you could eat at a different restaurant every night in Chicago and never run out, and he's right. Want to try something new? Pick a country and search for a local restaurant serving its cuisine. From Albanian to Uzbek, it's all here, either in the city or the suburbs. More specifically, here are some tips on where to go for a great meal.
- Big Jones. "Southern Reconstruction" cooking, which means classic dishes culled from antique cookbooks, seasonal ingredients and pure deliciousness. This is my current go-to place.
- Tanoshii. My favorite sushi place in the city. Make a reservation to sit at the bar close to owner "Sushi Mike," BYO, and tell Mike to make you whatever he wants. This is new-school sushi, with sauces you've never seen before, but he can do traditional, too.
- The Publican. Communal tables. "Pork, fish and beer" on the menu (it's more than that). Great brunch. It's a skip away from the Randolph Street corridor of restaurants, and usually packed on weekends.
- Lao Sze Chuan. The best of Chinatown. Get the Crispy Shrimp with Mayo (trust me) and Tony's Three-Chili Chicken, aka "chicken crack."
- Yusho. I have yet to have anything not delicious at this Japanese yakitori-inspired spot.
- Big Star. If it's busy, order at the window and take it to the park.
- Kuma's Corner. They opened a second location in Lincoln Park for the suburbanites and tourists, so it's a little easier to get into the original for massive burgers with incredible ingredients piled on top. Sit at the bar if you don't want to wait for a table.
- Hot Doug's. There's a reason Anthony Bourdain says it's one of the 13 places to eat before you die. The line gets long, but it also keeps moving. The duck fat fries (Fridays and Saturdays only) are pretty amazing, but only on the early end of the day when the oil is still nice and hot.
- If you've got guests from out of town, you'll probably have to get deep dish pizza. Everyone has their favorite, but I recommend Lou Malnati's. If you gotta be downtown, go to Pizzeria Due instead of Uno's or Gino's -- it's slightly less insane.
- Oh, and Italian beef, another partisan issue. I like both Al's No. 1 (the one on Taylor Street, not the crappy franchise) and Mr. Beef, but Al's has my heart...attack. And Mario's Italian Ice is across the street, which is a definite bonus.
It's easy to have a spirited evening here, and there are plenty of places to do it. These are my favorites.
- The Aviary. Yes, it's hard to get into on the weekends -- but you can make a reservation, and it's actually pretty easy to get into early in the evening and at the beginning of the week. And the drinks are phenomenal. Here's a tip for getting into The Office, the exclusive "speakeasy" in the basement: go to the Aviary early in the week, order drinks, and when your server comes back to ask if you want another, casually inquire whether there's room downstairs. I've gotten in a couple of times this way with no problem.
- Violet Hour. Another hard to get into place, but the wait is worth it.
- Ward Eight. Currently our "regular" place, up on the Evanston side of Howard Street. Unpretentious, with a classics-heavy menu and some of the nicest bartenders around. Say hi to Cody and Anders for us.
- Weegee's. Top-notch cocktails with no attitude and no wait. There's a little old man who comes in on Friday and Saturday nights with an old Polaroid Land camera, and for $5 he takes your picture in black and white and puts it into a handmade paper frame. Do this.
- Marty's. This Andersonville spot is tiny and almost always packed. Martinis are the house specialty, but they do other classic cocktails, too.
- Hopleaf. Specializing in Belgian beer as well as harder to find domestic stuff. They also serve excellent mussels.
- Map Room. Another temple of fine beer, in Bucktown.
- Fountainhead. Solid beer list, even more solid whiskey list. And tasty food by my friend Cleetus Friedman.
- Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar in Bridgeport has a great beer list, tasty cocktails and an artsy-yet-neighborhoody atmosphere.
You know there's at least one team for every major league sport in Chicago, but there are also lots of lesser-known teams and sports worth checking out.
...and so many more. If you can think of it, it's probably out there.
Readings & Shows
Maybe sports aren't your thing. How about storytelling and lit readings? Here's a very small sampling.
- The Paper Machete "weekly live magazine" runs every Saturday at 3pm at the Green Mill in Uptown, with stories ripped from the week's headlines, and it's free.
- The Moth holds "story slams," where real people tell true stories, once or twice a month.
- The excellent 2nd Story does its storytelling in winebars, mostly.
- The Interview Show, hosted by Mark Bazer, runs roughly monthly at the Hideout and often features high profile guests.
- I'm the co-host of Tuesday Funk, an eclectic reading series in the upstairs bar at Hopleaf on the first Tuesday of every month. It's free, and the beer is delicious. The reading's pretty good, too.
The local visual art community is vibrant and active. On the first Friday of the month, the River North gallery district holds open receptions for new exhibitions; on Second Fridays, the Chicago Arts District in east Pilsen holds theirs. These are great opportunities to see new art -- and maybe have a little free wine and cheese, too. ;)
If you're looking to do a movie date, forget the big cineplexes and head to the Music Box or Siskel Film Center. Both play indie films and revivals, Music Box in a beautiful old moviehouse, Siskel in a sleek modern space. Music Box has the best popcorn in the city, while Siskel serves beer and wine. And speaking of, the ShowPlace Icon in the South Loop has a bar and VIP seat-side service in a couple theaters, so you can see that blockbuster in comfort.
For theater, there are so many options. Steppenwolf, Goodman and Lookingglass get all the attention, and it's well deserved, but there are dozens of great theater companies scattered across the city. Some standouts: The Neo-Futurists with their frenetic Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, The House Theatre, Teatro Luna, and Redmoon's crazy "spectacles."
And of course, Chicago is synonymous with improv. Second City is nice, but a lot of it is aimed at the tourists. Hit iO or ComedySportz in Lakeview or the Annoyance in Uptown instead.
- The International Museum of Surgical Science is about as off-beat a destination as you can get. It's a fascinating place, in the Gold Coast facing Lake Shore Drive, and includes a small, well-curated art gallery in addition to the displays of historic surgical implements.
- It's a poorly kept secret, but the Signature Lounge at the top of the Hancock give you a great view of the skyline for the price of a cocktail, cheapter than either the Hancock or Sears Tower observatories.
- There are only a couple miniature golf spots within easy reach of the city. Novelty Golf, just over the border into Lincolnwood, provides the perfect level of cheese -- and it's just $8 a game.
This list will continue to expand as I have time. Got a suggestion for me? Email me at email@example.com.