We arrived at Chicago’s Union Station after an overnight journey on board the ‘58 City of New Orleans’ train from Memphis. The grand station was a sight for sore eyes. Situated right at the heart of the city, Union Station is a beautiful, old train station, completed in 1925 and regarded as one of the Great American stations,architecturally speaking .
Home to Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West (rap singer, better known as Kim Kardashian’s other half) and the town that fostered Barack Obama, Chicago is just as famous for its urban landscape, glorious food, superb gourmet dining, the NFL Chicago bears, Chicago Cubs and its home( Wrigley Field baseball park). Chicago has many things to entice the visitors despite its notoriety as a lawless city in the 1920’s (thanks to Al Capone’s reign during the prohibition era) .
Chicago reigns as the ‘architectural king’ in America, and known to be a veritable melting pot of so many ethnic groups, predominantly African American,Mexican, German, Irish and the Poles. Other groups like the Italians, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Bulgarian, Czech, Greek, Chinese, Asian-Indian, Filipino Lithuanian, Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Ukrainian and Dutch are widely represented and have made Chicago their home. While they are now well and truly Americans, their cultural heritage and values are still reflected in food that grace various eateries and influenced the cuisine of Chicago. We highly anticipated the stop in Chicago as we knew there would be so much to see and experience but unfortunately, again, so little time.. so we didn’t waste it. We braved the chilly temperature and braced for the gusty winds which Chicago is known for. The moniker ‘windy city’, – which, incidentally Chicagoans object to – (We were advised to never refer to Chicago as the windy city, gusty as it may be at times) was thankfully not in evidence when we arrived.
It didn’t take long get to our place of lodging, The James Hotel on 55 East Ontario St, conveniently situated near the famous Magnificent Mile-the 13-block stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs from the banks of the Chicago River to the south, to Oak Street to the north- and a stone’s throw from the legendary restaurant- Lawry’s, the Prime Rib. The James boutique hotel is also home to American celebrity chef and restaurateur David Burke’s Primehouse restaurant. Named the best steakhouse in Chicago by Chicago Magazine and highly recommended for its dry aged beef, it featured highly on our list to experience.
But first the sights…In our view, if one has limited time, the most efficient way to explore any big city’s attractions is to take the ‘hop on- hop off’ tour buses. These double deckers, which travel in a loop, allow visitors time to stop and explore. It’s now common to find these touristy buses in major cities all over the world. In our case, we opted for the 3-day pass and chose to discover Chicago and get a feel for the lay of the land at our own leisure guided by a list of priorities. Chicago downtown didn’t disappoint with its interesting buildings designed by some of America’s great architects and the many notable landscapes, pretty little gardens and parks. For instance, The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, is a Gothic Revival style Presbyterian Church built in 1912,designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram who was inspired by similar buildings in France and England. It has a beautiful courtyard designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, an oasis in a city of concrete and a good place to stop when in need of rest from walking the Magnificent Mile or Michigan Avenue. This building was added to the National Historic Register in 1975.
We next decided to hop off and see the view from the observation deck of the 110 story Sears Tower, (renamed Willis Tower) and was once the tallest office block in the world. It stands 1,453 feet tall with an observation area, called the SkyDeck on the 103rd floor, and one can really get a bird’s eye view of the city’s architectural marvels. For those who don’t suffer from vertigo, there is also the ‘Ledge’ , a glass box with a floor also made of glass, that juts out from the SkyDeck where visitors can stand and look directly down at the city below. Certainly wasn’t for us, as we do have an aversion to heights!
By the time we walked a few more miles, we thought it was time to sample the infamous Chicago-style hot dog, (aka Chicago Dog, or Chicago Red Hot )and also nicknamed the ‘dragged through the garden’ dog because of its abundant variety of toppings such as yellow mustard, chopped white onions, green sweet pickle relish, a large( can’t be missed) dill spear, tomato slices and peppers. No tomato sauce though (ketchup in American parlance). Surely, this beef frankfurter on a puppy seed hotdog roll with all the toppings can’t need another condiment? My husband disagrees. He thinks a hotdog must have the ketchup too! We found Portillo’s at 100 W Ontario St near North Side, River North and had our fill of “the hotdog”. This lunch was huge and we needed to walk it off, so we next strolled down to The Art Institute of Chicago and spent the entire afternoon to view a few of its hundreds of thousands of diverse collection of artworks. The Art Institute in fact has the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside the Louvre in Paris. But we were not really there for the Impressionist paintings (that’s for a visit to the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, both in Paris) .We were in fact in search of the iconic painting of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
Contentious when first bought by the Art Institute, this painting nevertheless represents American art and deserves its place in The Art Institute and pop culture. Needing more time to digest our hotdog, we then strolled down to nearby Millennium Park. There was so much to see here and the adjacent Grant Park that we decided to do the Grant Park walking tour the next day.
That evening however was earmarked for what we came to Chicago for ……Food! For our first dinner in Chicago, what better way to experience fine dining than at Lawry’s The Prime Rib, located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile and very close to our hotel? Since 1974, this establishment, famous for its Roasted Prime Ribs of Beef is in fact housed in the 1890’s McCormick Mansion and is regarded as one of Chicago’s pride and finest dining establishments. The ambience was reminiscent of traditional old English clubs with wood panels and elegant décor, discreet but warm hospitality.
My husband and I both had the Lawry Cut, the original and their most popular cut, carved tableside from silver carts. Prime rib dinners include sides of : the original Lawry’s salad, Yorkshire pudding , mashed potatoes and Lawry’s Whipped Cream Horseradish. The meat was tender, juicy and succulent. My husband, a true carnivore was in his element. It was a night to remember and Lawry’s claim to have Lawry’s garnered awards was justified. Unfortunately, we were so full; we didn’t have room for desserts.
Together with what have been delectable food experiences in Chicago so far, we couldn’t get enough of the magnificent architecture this great city had on showcase. So on our second day, after a walking tour of the two lakefront parks (Millennium and Grant) we continued to meander along Michigan Avenue to have a closer look at the John Hancock Center, the Wrigley Building, and the Tribune Tower. Along the way, at Pioneer Court, we encountered Forever Marilyn, a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe designed by Seward Johnson. A representation of one of the most famous images of Monroe taken from the 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch, this work of art made of stainless steel and aluminium stands26-foot-tall (7.9m) and weighs 34,000-pound (15,000 kg). It has polarised views among the locals; with some not too impressed with what many say has encouraged outlandish and scandalous behaviours of tourists perving and looking up her skirt, admiring or making fun of her giant derrière and knickers. It certainly was a novelty and I for one was not daunted and had my photo taken underneath Marilyn, hanging on to her long legs. My husband was too proper and decided he wouldn’t be labelled as one of the leering tourists. The sculpture is a depiction of a scene from the movie, when Marilyn gleefully tried to hold on to her skirt the moment her white dress was blasted by hot air from a vent. Once again, our timing was perfect. It would seem that we got to Chicago just in time to see this attention-grabbing modern sculpture as it was soon to be packed and moved to Palm Springs, California. It remained there from June 2012 and in 2014 was once again transported to an exhibition in New Jersey, to honour Seward Johnson.
Capping a most interesting day filled with art and culture, we didn’t have far to go for dinner to sample David Burke’s aged beef with his restaurant situated right at our hotel. Food always has a story to tell about a place and Chicago has one long interesting history of food. Many say that this town’s very existence is in fact founded on food. Although its migrants heavily influence what we now know as Chicago cuisine, beef remains its most important staple and this is due to its historic stockyards that emerged in the 1800’s. Can you imagine the number of meatpackers and livestock that influxed to Chicago? Always known for its great meat, Chicago was called the “Hog Butcher to the World” by poet Carl Sandburg. For over a hundred years Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and Packingtown provided thousands of jobs and economic prosperity to this town. The Mississippi River blockade during the civil war and westward expansion of the railway between 1850 and 1870 also contributed to Chicago’s wealth and made it the Midwest’s food collection and shipment centre. With technology and refrigerated railcars and the knowledge brought by immigrants, Chicago was soon the meat-processing centre of America.
David Burke’s Primehouse restaurant, considered the best modern steakhouse in Chicago was buzzing when we got there. We swear all of Chicago’s beautiful people, yuppies et al populated the restaurant that evening. Just as well we made reservations or we would have missed out on what has been touted as the best restaurant for dry aged beef. Unfortunately we were seated next to a table of exuberant foodies whose conversation was a bit too loud. This was soon remedied by the maître d’ who obligingly and discreetly transferred us to a quieter section of the restaurant. The quality and taste of our 55 day dry aged rib eye accompanied by roast potatoes and vegetables compensated for the noise. We had to agree that the meal was exceptionally good, creative in its presentation and worth another try in any of David Burke’s restaurants throughout the USA.
Cramming is the word that comes to mind on our last day, which turned out to be windy with intermittent rain. It was early spring after all and should have been expected. Nevertheless, it wasn’t welcome as we were on our way to view the Lakeside along the shores of Lake Michigan and the attractions nearby . Despite the weather, we nevertheless walked along the Lakefront trail, had a glimpse of Navy Pier amusement park and an hour at the Field Museum of Natural History. We even had time to wander through Hershey’s chocolate world on our way back to the hotel and would have wanted a bucket of Chicago’s celebrated Garrett mix pop corn from their city store but anticipating another big meal, our last dinner in Chicago, we refrained.
We braved the blustery weather that evening and went to Pizzeria Uno on 29 E Ohio St. where the original deep-dish style pizza was invented. Come rain or come shine, we were not going to leave Chicago without tasting the celebrated Chicago style pizza, the extreme opposite of the thin crusted version of pizzas in New York. It is made with a thicker crust baked in an iron skillet with cheese sprinkled directly over the crust, followed by fillings of meats, like pepperoni and sausage, vegetables, such as onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Unlike other styles of pizza, the sauce is poured over the top and liberally topped with cheese. We ordered one with the famous Italian sausage, which was hearty and filling. We had the foresight to order just one to share or it would have been really too much.
Well, there you have it. Chicago is a fascinating city and a food lover’s delight, carnivore or not. I would go back to Chicago in a heartbeat.