Off the Beaten Holiday Path in Chicago
by BRIAN JUSTICE
Christmas in Kansas City. A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, the Plaza Lights and endless shopping in Johnson County. Ahh… happy holiday hours spent driving down busy roads and nowhere to turn left until you are several miles past your destination, then desperately searching for the entrances to parking lots crowded with SUVs the size of Rhode Island.
Local holiday pleasures are many, and done. And done, and done, and done some more.
Escape north. A short plane ride to Chicago offers holiday alternatives in every sense of the word. Let’s start with the basics. Mainstream must-sees that must-be seen.
Any first time visitor to Chicago is drawn to the Willis Tower, though virtually no Chicagoan refers to it as anything other than the Sears Tower. Super tall, can see for miles, blah, blah, blah…
Instead, go to the 95th floor observatory at the Hancock Building. It’s ten floors lower – but who’s counting? – than the Willis Tower but it’s not a tourist trap. It’s on Michigan Avenue and the views are better. Go at night, and the fine dining in the Signature Room is, perhaps surprisingly, really quite fine.
The Art Institute of Chicago is never a bad idea. Too highbrow? Go anyway, even if it’s only to watch the annual wreathing of the bronze lions that have guarded the steps on Michigan Avenue since the Institute’s opening in 1893.
The 10:30 a.m. ceremony on Nov. 25 includes complimentary hot chocolate, and since you’re there, why not go inside the second largest art museum in the United States? Seven of the 68 famous Thorne Rooms, the miniature rooms meticulously created by hand from 1932 to 1940 by evidently super-bored rich lady Mrs. James Ward Thorne, are decorated for Christmas, and they are just so damn cute you can hardly stand it.
Since you’re downtown, have a holiday lunch in the famous Walnut Room in what we still call Marshall Fields and Company, but is actually Macy’s. It is one of the few remaining grand dining rooms in one of the few remaining grand downtown department stores. You’ll see that the goings-on you see in old movies do indeed still go on in a few rare places.
Try to have drinks at London House or the Chicago Athletic Association hotels. Genuinely swank and painfully chic, you will have to battle for uncomfortably close standing room with excruciatingly stylish under 30-somethings. The 1920s-era buildings, one the neo-Gothic former headquarters of the Chicago Athletic Association (that would explain the name) on Michigan Avenue and the other a towering, beaux arts confection at the intersection of Michigan and Wacker, are spectacular.
But hey, gang, let’s go to a show!
The hot theater ticket is, of course, “Hamilton.” Go see it. Oh, wait, you can’t. Tickets are sold out through the end of its run in late March and reportedly scalpers are getting many hundreds of dollars for a premium seat.
Alternatives abound, though. “I Am My Own Wife,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play originally workshopped in Chicago by the KC Rep’s Eric Rosen, has been reimagined. Formerly a one-man show, this production features a transgendered actress and two actors. It runs at the Theater Wit from Nov. 4 through Dec. 10. Fresh from its Broadway run is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” from Dec. 6 to Dec. 24 at the Oriental Theater.
Let’s head north. The Uptown and Andersonville neighborhoods are slowly gentrifying but they’re battling against being turned into Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville North.
Uptown is rough around the edges and kind of determined to stay that way. The Millennial guys with cough drop-box beards and girls with unfortunately visible tattoos are the real deal. Few graduate degrees or posers with rich dads; the artists, servers, barbers and bartenders in the area are genuinely and visibly annoyed to be called hipsters. Ironically, that’s part of what makes them hipsters.
In Uptown, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge at the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway has been in operation since the early 1940s, and the ambience has been meticulously retained. It also features some of the most highly noted jazz acts in the country, and the only other tourists you’ll see there are those who want a real Chicago experience.
Next to the Green Mill is Crew, the gay sports bar with real, live gay athletes. Really! The beers and TV screens are numerous, the space is great and the food is terrible. For that go next door to Fiesta Mexicana. Harshly lit and cleanliness questionable, to call the food merely delicious insults the word itself.
If you are too mature for Boys Town, and I am not referring to age, head a few blocks west of Uptown to Andersonville, the old Swedish neighborhood that was, for many years, notably lesbian-ish. But the boys – scratch that, men – have been moving in.
Unfortunately, those with money to spend and an ache to show it (off) have been, too. The number of six-bedroom, four-bath and two-car garage houses for families of two to four, in a city with one of the best public transportation systems in the country, is rising.
While Farraguts, across the street from Women and Children First bookstore – are you smiling, Portlandia watchers? – is not officially a lesbian bar, that demographic is heavily represented. For that matter anyone of either sex, or any form of gender identification, or predilection is welcome.
And a few short blocks north, at the intersection of Clark Street and Balmoral Street, are Replay, Elixir, Marty’s, Hamburger Mary’s, Mary’s Attic, and @mosphere. All, except @mosphere, are hot spots and all are gay, though Replay is very family friendly. In 20-plus years of living in Chicago I’ve never seen more than a dozen people in @mosphere. The interior is skeezy 1970s gay, and unintentionally so. Almost certainly a money-laundering operation for the mob, you may have a few dollar bills on hand for the teenage runaway strippers gyrating sadly on weekends.
Marty’s and Elixir, though, are high-end martini bars. Marty’s came first and is friendly, dark, clubby and down-to-earth. Elixir next door is slick and shiny, a glittering object for bright young things. Replay is beer, beer and more beer and decent burgers. It’s large and family friendly, with ‘80s-era video games.
A little south is Simon’s, a down and dirty bar open since 1932 and untouched since, and just south of Foster is Hopleaf. The burgers and sandwiches, offered with beer pairings, are superb. The staff is super snotty, so don’t tip them. A few blocks south of Foster is SOFO, which caters to men of a certain age. The first Saturday of every month is DILF night, which should tell you something.
This space is inadequate for every option in Chicago over any given weekend, much less the holidays. Every neighborhood has great eats from cheap n’ greasy to high dolla’, divey bars and hot spots, storefront theaters and those with actual stages. If you know a local, ask him or her what’s in the neighborhood and within any given few square block. Enjoy a high/low local holiday weekend.
But be careful who you call a hipster.