Hidden Chicago
March 5, 2011 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Best of quirky/weird/arty/geeky Chicago

My boyfriend and I will be in Chicago the last week in March, from 3/28-4/2, and we're looking for dive bars and odd pubs, art galleries and happenings, creepy historical sites, quirky shops and restaurants, and things not easily found on Yelp or in guide books. This'll be my third trip to Chicago (love it!) and his first.

I know we'll be going to a few touristy sites (some I've seen before) -- like Millennium Park, the architecture boat tour, and the Shedd Aquarium -- but we want to mix in other stuff. Think Mummers Museum in Philadelphia, the 3D Center for Art in Portland, OR, abandoned rail stations, and New Orleans drag clubs. I'm also trying to organize a day of record shopping for him, so record shop recs would be much appreciated.

A bit about us...we're 30ish, from Austin, and (if I'm being honest with myself) a little hipster/geeky. We're both vegetarian but I will sometimes break the rules for something super special. He's into printmaking and illustration and would have things on his wish list like art and comic book stores, conceptual and performance art, experimental music, and good places for field recordings. I'm into architecture, psychogeography, and urban design and am looking for world's fair stuff, ephemera, pinball, dance clubs, and karaoke. We're staying in the Old Town/Lincoln Park area. Oh, and we're pizza fiends.
posted by lunalaguna to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (25 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
If you can make it up to the Northwest Side, I think American Science and Surplus may be totally up your alley. Ephemera aplenty!

I'm not into comic book stores, but my friends who are love love love Challengers Comics.

Dick Blick is a great art supply store with a few locations around the Chicago area.

And check out Reckless Records.

Have fun while here! Hopefully our weather will be beautiful and springy and not gray and wilted.
posted by princesspathos at 11:04 AM on March 5, 2011

Okay, so this is on Yelp, but it's not exactly a tourist attraction, and it's definitely quirky: Museum of Holography.

Also, seconding Reckless Records, I think the biggest store is in Wicker Park on Milwaukee ave. There's also a cluster of record stores/comic type places in Lincoln Square (which is different from Lincoln Park but not too far... I believe it's the Western stop on the Brown Line, but you should confirm that with someone.) I'm not really into either of those things, so I can't confirm their quality, only their existence.

There's also the Museum of Contemporary Photography, which is not exactly off the beaten track but I'm throwing it in because it sounds like it would be interesting to you and is free, quick, and not at all hard to get to (right downtown).

My favorite pizza in Chicago is Lou Malnatis, but that will probably be contested.
posted by geegollygosh at 11:28 AM on March 5, 2011

As long as you're staying in the area, grab a pint or three at Old Town Ale House

Dave's Down to Earth Rock Shop is slightly outside of Chicago (Evanston) but you can take the Purple Line there.. don't miss the basement museum

Don't skip Quimby's if you're interested in indie comics, zines, self-printed poetry, vanity-published books on UFOs, etc. Chicago Comics on Clark St. is also good but more superhero-comics focused

The ruins of the 1893 Columbian Exposition are in Jackson Park on the south side -- there's the behemoth Museum of Science & Industry in the old Palace of Fine Arts, of course, but behind it there's a few hundred acres of ghostly exposition remains, including a rather lovely little Japanese garden. If you head down there don't miss the (free!) Oriental Institute and the (also free!) Renaissance Society and Smart Museum at U Chicago for contemporary art

The International Museum of Surgical Science sounds up your alley as well

There's a lot of great used bookstores in Chicago -- Ravenswood Used Books in Lincoln Square near the Brown Line (there's a pretty good record shop across the street too), Bookworks on Clark near Wrigley Field, Bookleggers on Broadway

As for more urban-ruins sort of thing, there's pockets of desolate weirdness all over the city if you just look around -- a good place to start might be the industrial corridor surrounding the north branch of the Chicago River
posted by theodolite at 11:30 AM on March 5, 2011

Chicago Printmaker's Collaborative is very neat and browsable. I wandered in there a few months ago by mistake, without any pre-existing interest in printmaking, and thought it was super neat to look at all the machines and the little bits of artwork hung around and to talk to the people who were there. I think they do workshops sometimes, too, if your boyfriend is into that kind of thing. (I believe I ran into it on my way back home from another amazing place, but not so great for a couple as it's sex-segregated: Paradise Sauna).

Jazz Record Mart shouldn't be missed if he's at all into jazz or blues (or music pre-1950s at all; last time I walked out with some Judy Garland 78s).

Quimby's is one of the best known hipster comics-n-zines stores in the city, but it is also very good (at least by my not-that-informed standards) and in a nice neighborhood for wandering in.

You can look at Cine-File to see if there are any interesting underground film screenings coming up. I recommend the ones at Cinema Borealis, if there are any, and I've heard good things about the Nightingale. The Music Box is also nice, if well-known. The Film Studies Center is cozy and in Hyde Park, which also has a couple of great bookstores and the former site of the Columbian Exhibition and Barack Obama. (I help run the Northwest Chicago Film Society, but I'm fairly sure it's objectively a neat place to see movies as well!)
posted by bubukaba at 11:37 AM on March 5, 2011

Not really ruins, but you could always explore the Chicago Pedway I used to love wandering around down there.
posted by Max Power at 11:39 AM on March 5, 2011

Don't know much about karaoke outside of Cafe Bong way up in Edgewater

As for record stores, I like Dave's for normal stuff and Dusty Groove for obscurities

Okay, so this is on Yelp, but it's not exactly a tourist attraction, and it's definitely quirky: Museum of Holography.

Now closed forever, I believe.
posted by theodolite at 11:40 AM on March 5, 2011

Oh, and for urban ruins - consider checking out the weird abandoned area between Roosevelt Road and 18th St. (to the north and south), and Lumber (and the river) and Clark to the east and west. It's right next to Chinatown (and one of my favorite parks in Chinatown - Ping Tom Park), which is fun to explore anyway, and it's one of the biggest areas of urban barrens I've ever seen (seriously, look at it on Google Maps). Definitely some weirdness in there sometimes though, so be careful if you do it.
posted by bubukaba at 11:40 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might also want to stroll around the Near West Side for its heady mix of old meat-industry relics, hip loft galleries, and Oprah -- basically just go anywhere in this area
posted by theodolite at 11:47 AM on March 5, 2011

Okay, so this is on Yelp, but it's not exactly a tourist attraction, and it's definitely quirky: Museum of Holography.

Now closed forever, I believe

Oh, too bad. It was pretty great.
posted by geegollygosh at 12:10 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Hello similarly aged person interested in doing things I'm interested in who's also from my hometown and now visiting where I live now!

Permanent Records is my favorite record store in town. You could easily hit Dusty Groove, Permanent, and Reckless on Milwaukee in an afternoon. And, as everyone else has noted, I also would suggest hitting Quimby's that afternoon--it's like Domi in Austin (Domy?) but larger and less designey. You might also be interested in Kokorokoko. It's right next to Dusty Groove and has vintage 80s and 90s clothes. Nice people.

I think Intuit is a pretty neat museum that's not quite a gallery, not quite a large museum. They're all outsider art and they have a bunch of Henry Darger and a replica of his room.

The Hideout and The Whistler are both good bars. The Green Zebra is a good upscale/fancy veggie place if you want a nice dinner. The Flying Saucer has an amazing veggie brunch. People also love Handlebar.

Probably a lot of other stuff I'm forgetting. If you DM me I can tell you some loft type spaces for experimental music and performance art and also tell you some awesome dive bars to go to.

Oh, and Pequod's for deep dish. Local sports bar atmosphere. No huge crowds. They caramelize cheese on the crust of the deep dish. When I moved to Chicago, this is where my friend who's lived his entire life there took me for pizza. I haven't needed to go anywhere else.
posted by dvrnvn at 1:04 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Walk around the Clark/Belmont area. Lots of cool, quirky shops and things.
posted by SisterHavana at 2:27 PM on March 5, 2011

Go to Quimby's for sure. And if you go to American Science and Surplus, which I highly recommend, go for some great Korean vegetarian food at Amitabul about ten blocks north of there on Milwaukee Avenue.
posted by smich at 4:02 PM on March 5, 2011

Oh, if you're into cool toys, we have one of the best toy stores—Rotofugi, which is right down the street from a bar called Delilah's.
posted by smich at 4:07 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Architectural Artifacts - one part grossly overpriced but amazingly curated antiquities, one part museum quality displays.

Many of these pictures show the awesomeness!
posted by santojulieta at 8:55 PM on March 5, 2011

Also, my vegan besties LOVE LOVE LOVE The Chicago Diner
posted by santojulieta at 8:57 PM on March 5, 2011

Another fantastic alt-museum is the Leather Archives and Museum, but it's pretty far north.
posted by hwyengr at 10:10 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:12 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

For quirky shopping, check out Uncle Fun. For vegetarian food, check out Earwax Cafe.

Bonus tip: a great used bookstore is right by Earwax Cafe: Myopic Books.
posted by achmorrison at 5:55 AM on March 6, 2011

Earwax Cafe is now closed.

I'll recommend the Wormhole. It's an 80's scifi-back-to-the-future themed cafe with awesome coffee
posted by frnzks.a at 9:03 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Skip the big name Deep Dish spots and try the pot pie Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder. No reservations. Show up and wait in line with the locals. You will not regret it.
posted by dzot at 9:22 AM on March 6, 2011

If you're going to the Museum of Contemporary Photography, go around the block to Shop Columbia for deals on student prints and other art.

Eureka! Antiques and Collectibles in Evanston specializes in paper goods and anything Worlds Fair related. You can take the el.

Chicago Comics is my favorite comic book store. Lots of indies, self-published comics, and a great selection of books. They bought out Quimby's and kept its vibe pretty true to its original owners.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:26 PM on March 6, 2011

For some Neapolitan-style pizza -- pretty much the opposite of deep dish -- head up to Spacca Napoli. It's two blocks north of Architectural Artifacts, which santojulieta mentioned, and is some of the best pizza in the city.

If you're into t-shirts, you could visit Threadless, either in their Boystown store or their headquarters. If you go with the former (and I'm not necessarily saying you should) you can also stop by Reckless Records and the many great boutiques, resale shops, etc. in Boystown/Lakeview. It's walking distance from Chicago Diner, easily the best vegan/vegetarian food in Chicago.

Further west on Belmont is Uncle Fun, which is, um, a fun place to shop for quirky little things.

Downtown, go visit the Museum of Surgical Science!
posted by me3dia at 11:25 AM on March 7, 2011

Some great recommendations in here. It just so happens I'll be at the Bong on April 1st, so look for the loud bearded guy hogging the remote.
posted by eamondaly at 5:22 PM on March 7, 2011

If you have a rental car, here's some northside attractions:

Leather Archives and Museum is a really unique institution in Chicago. It has vivid exhibits about gay leather subculture, with a dungeon room.

King Spa in Niles (northern suburb) is an oriental spa/bath house open 24 hrs. They have themed rooms for healing, like the fire room, salt room, gold room, pyramid room, etc.

Amitabul is Korean vegan food. byob.

Leaning Tower of Niles.

in or near the Loop:
Thorne miniature rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago (in the basement).

Graham Foundation.

Hyde Park Art Center for contemporary Chicago art exhibitions.

(Earwax in Wicker Park is not closed, they decided to stay open. But the Museum of Holograms is closed.)
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 6:35 PM on March 15, 2011

Thanks for the update on Earwax. I thought I was crazy there for a second, but it's been awhile since I've been to WP.
posted by achmorrison at 9:00 PM on March 15, 2011

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