The Blog: News, Works in Progress, Reflections
I love the NYTimes feature, "36 Hours in..." The articles boil down a place, usually a city, to the absolute must-visits and must-sees. As a reader, you know that there's lots more, but the recommendations are well curated and generally not directed at the casual tourist. I remember seeing "36 Hours in Chicago" and expecting to see Navy Pier and Weber Grill but finding some great choices, from a meal at Ruxbin to a beer at Revolution.
I'm inspired to do to the same for Lincoln Square/Ravenswood for a few reasons.
- I love this neighborhood.
- I've lived here since 2009 and tried most things.
- I love giving unsolicited advice to visitors.
As locals know, Chicago is two cities: A Winter City in which you bundle up and get from one place to another in as little time as possible; and a Summer City in which you wear shorts at the first blush of sun and spend as much time outside as possible.
This short guide is for the Chicago summer season, since we're right now, as of May 1, at the cusp of enduring warm weather. Another motivation to do this is to warm up my own memory muscle and recall what makes the neighborhood great.
BREAKFAST: Morning (early side) Head up to Overeasy on Damen Avenue for a fantastic breakfast. I say early side because it gets crowded by 9:30-10. This cozy, tucked-away has always seemed like a small miracle to me, and I've been going there for years. Always smoothly run despite the crowds, always delightful service, and always phenomenal meals. The consistency blows me away. You can tell that that owner-chef wants things done just right, every time, and at a high standard. The breakfast menu has an array of standards, but a page of enticing new meals that keep every experience fresh. You usually have a choice between a sweet stack of amazement or a savory serving of bountiful satisfaction.
After breakfast, saunter south (take a left out of Overeasy) down Damen Avenue and find some great retail gems:
Alapash, which has a beautiful and light-filled store chock full of delicate and natural objects and elements of wood, succulents and ceramics. Marco, the owner, is so personable and has been a neighborhood fixture for years.
Cross Lawrence Avenue and you'll find a few other great stores:
Amy's Candy Bar--just go and stock up for later--and Orange Beautiful, which has some of the best, most imaginative retail displays you'll ever see.
Turn right and head down Leland Avenue, a street with some spectacular examples of Chicago residential architecture. You'll see classic greystone and other varieties of two-flats, Victorian cottages, neo-classical, and more. Most date to around the 1910s and 1920s, but you'll find a few examples of new million-dollar homes that sprung up from tear-downs. (Here is an illustrated "taxonomy" of local homes I did a few years ago).
Keep going on Leland and you'll find yourself just about at the center of Lincoln Square, right where Leland and Lincoln Avenue join up at the Lincoln Square Athletic Club.
Turn right on Lincoln Avenue and you'll find yourself on a welcoming commercial and pedestrian friendly street, at the heart of which is Giddings Plaza.
Spend your time here checking out some of the great shops. Merz Apothecary's selection of herbal supplements and old-timey and European remedies, all in a setting that keeps its vintage apothecary feel, will blow you away. It's claustrophobic and enticing at the same time. Further down, Fleet Feet is a chain of Chicago running shops that is legendary for its customer service and evangelical flair for running. Their selection of running apparel and equipment is top-notch. Book Cellar, Chopping Block, Savory Spice Shop are all great and will probably feature more prominently in the 36 Hours Winter Edition.
LUNCH: Go into Gene's Sausage shop, stand in awe of the two-story spectacle of imported European quality food, and then make your way to the back of the store. There are a few elevators to the back right, almost hidden. Those will take you up to the roof, where there is a great beer garden and grill with bratwurst, huge German pretzels, and more. It's decadent, fresh, and all to be consumed in the open air surrounded by fresh flowers. It's paradise on a beautiful summer day.
After your meal at Gene's rooftop, head back down to ground level. You might need a minute to slow down and catch your breath but hopefully you're still hungry...
Head to Paciugo, a gelato place right in Giddings Plaza, the public square with the fountain and (on nice days) dozens of kids, the occasional street musician, and lots of strollers. Get a gelato at Paciugo and sit outside on one of the benches by the square and just people watch. It'll pay off.
Stroll south down Lincoln Avenue and check out some of the others spots along the way. Check out the record shop, Laurie's Planet of Sound. Stop in Sacred Art, a fantastic shop with a great selection of Chicago-themed gifts (full disclosure: They sell some of my prints, but I loved them before that).
Keep heading down Lincoln Ave and, continuing the chill, sit in Welles Park or maybe even stop in nearby Sulzer Library if you want a dose of the written word.
DINNER: For dinner, there are too many great options to count, but one little-known gem of that area is Royal Thai on Montrose and Lincoln (by Welles Park), which has one particular, fantastic spin on a popular dish: The Crispy Pad Thai. The restaurant itself is unassuming, very quiet, but the servers are always great and you might get a cozy seat right by the window to get a view of passersby. Your bill will be very reasonable.
Following dinner--and I hope you've done this in advance--take out your tickets to the Old Town School of Folk Music's Saturday night show (< link is to schedule of upcoming concerts). The Sat shows almost always sell out, as they often feature well-known musicians, from Patti Smith to Arlo Guthrie to the Steep Canyon Rangers. This school is an institution dating back to the folk music boom in America, and dedicated to promoting folk music of all kinds through concerts, classes, and the annual Square Roots festival. The school is just a gorgeous venue, too, now in two locations: the original on Lincoln and the new one right across the street. Be sure to check out the WPA murals in the original building. Concerts are held in both locations.
After dinner, if you're up for more stuff, head South on Lincoln Ave for one of the great beer bars of the neighborhood: Bad Apple. Yes, technically you're heading out of LSq and into North Center, but just make an exception for this place. The beer list is stunning, the decor has sharp edges and interesting and they're always friendly despite the crowds.
One other nearby option (across the street) is the Half Acre taproom. Half Acre is one of the best respected breweries in Chicago, known for a few beers that have become standbys (Daisy Cutter, for example), and their taproom is just well-done, well-ornamented, and a neighborhood favorite.
Hope that was enough for Day 1.
The Lincoln Square-Ravenswood neighborhood definition has blurry borders. To me, the backbone of Lincoln Square is Lincoln Avenue, and the backbone of Ravenswood is Ravenswood Avenue/Metra tracks, and that's enough for me. I'm sure many maps dispute that. When it comes to Chicago's neighborhoods, though, there's not much political weight--it's defined by how the residents choose to define it. Here's a link to my illustration of Ravenswood's industrial history.
My recommendations for Day 2 focus on the Ravenswood things.
BREAKFAST: Go to River Valley Ranch & Kitchens on Wilson Avenue (near Wolcott). This place is, so far, not packed with crowds to befit the level of its food. I knew River Valley from their presence at the LSq farmer's market--they sell mushrooms and other fresh goods from their Wisconsin farm--and this fixed location has all of that plus a restaurant. Their breakfast is hearty, rich, the place is vibrant and friendly. One pro tip: Get their beignets. They will melt in your mouth and melt your heart.
After breakfast, head across the street in a south-bound direction and meander past the new Lycee Francais school, a tin metal postmodern fortress, and see if you can get away with ambling through its pristine schoolyard out back. I think it's open to the public in the afternoon on weekends, technically. They have a genuine French security guard on watch.
Keep heading south on residential streets and you'll find yourself in the pleasant shopping corridor of Montrose Avenue. Montrose and the surrounding area has a great range of offerings, but here are some of the highlights, in my eyes.
Hazel: Great gift shop and, further West on Montrose, a sister store for apparel. Small enough to browse in a short session but a great enough selection that you'll probably end up buying a bag of gifts. Their selection of greeting cards is uniquely good.
Neighborly is another great gift shop, right near Montrose and Damen, with a variety of well-designed prints, keepsakes, and gifts with Chicago and neighborhood themes.
Slightly south of Montrose, on Ravenswood Avenue, is Architectural Artifacts. This is a stunning place that combines high-end with epic with architecture with vintage. Imagine a massive brick warehouse with huge windows filled by someone with a big budget and high class. Between entire vintage cars, to large iron, heavily ornamented gates, this place will blow your mind. You could spend some time in here.
Then check out another one of the neighborhood gems: Lillstreet Art Center. Housed in a 3 (or so) story building that was once a factory from the area's early 1900s industrial boom, Lillstreet offers arts classes, studio space, a gift shop, and special exhibits that burst with life and activity. You'll find people of all ages milling around the spaces, covered in clay and paint, and you'll find phenomenal artistry in the works from the established artists making Lillstreet their professional home. Explore the space and talk to the people there.
LUNCH: There are some great options in this area. These places have always served me well:
After lunch, I'd just recommend a walk up and down Ravenswood Avenue and the parallel Avenues, Hermitage, Paulina, to admire some of the architectural beauty of the neighborhood. This is a great walking tour guide from the local historical association. There is the Abbott mansion, the stunning Queen Anne-style, late 1880s home of the founder of Abbott Labs--that's on Wilson and Hermitage. There's the Carl Sandberg home on Leland and Hermitage. All along Ravenswood you'll find vestiges of the area's former industrial glory, now web and design glory, including the Deagan clock tower, new breweries like Begyle. Much further north you'll find Koval Distillery, which offers tours. [And check out the look/design of their labeling, below. Really amazing.]
Once you're finished exploring...
DINNER: I strongly recommend Spacca Napoli, a neopolitan pizzeria on Sunnyside and Ravenswood, for a few reasons: 1) Amazing, coal-fire baked pizzas with flavors that will make you dance; 2) Just a striking, well-designed space with a great balance of elegant and casual; 3) A great, happy vibe. It's crowded, never overly so. I think that's one of the great things about my favorite places in the area. They're great, but never so overwhelmed with crowds that they become insufferable. They stay friendly and appreciative of their patrons. Anyway--Spacca Napoli will not disappoint you.
After dinner--head West down Montrose Avenue until you get to Damen Avenue, where you'll find Fountainhead, a place with a staggeringly good beer list (and whiskey, I am told) and a great rooftop bar. The rooftop is very tastefully done, highlighting the wood construction and and punctuated by planters. The rooftop gives you the great openness that a rooftop should have, with the feeling of a little privacy from the streets, an elevated speakeasy. Enjoy a great beer on a summer night here.
End 36 hours.
So that's all I've got. There are many other things I'd recommend that I didn't get to here--Selmarie in Lincoln Square, Julius Meinl--but some of them will have to wait until 36 Hours: Winter Edition. Take care and happy touring.
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