What to see and do less touristy in Chicago?
June 25, 2012 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Chicago: Not The Band Or The Musical! What would you do on a long weekend there?

I'll be heading to Chicago for a long weekend in a few months (probably early October). I don't care about going to a baseball game or the typical tourist traps.

Things like foodie restaurants, mixologist bars, and microbreweries are good. Off-the-wall shops, architectural oddities, and artsy neighborhoods with random boutique-type shops are all preferable things, too.

What would you do? Everything I see travel-wise pretty much recommends all the same tourist stuff.
posted by chrisfromthelc to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
posted by cushie at 7:14 AM on June 25, 2012

Whatever you do, get a hot dog.

I am perfectly serious. And I am saying that as a resident of Brooklyn "Home of Nathan's Famous" New York. For whatever reason, the particular collection of condiments that traditionally comes on a hot dog in Chicago works to perform a feat of culinary alchemy that delighted me to the point that I went a whole 36-hour period where I ate nothing but hot dogs.

Also - the Oak Park neighborhood has a buttload of Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses, but you can't go into them because people live there. There's walking tours of the neighborhood, but if you don't necessarily need to know the guided-tour details, you can just get a map in a visitors center for a couple bucks and walk around yourself. (The map said that one of the houses was Wright's first solo design, and I thought that you could kind of tell - it had the most "decorative elements" on it by far, and it just sort of smacked of "nervous new guy intimidated by his big break and ultimately blowing his wad").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on June 25, 2012

If I was returning to the homeland for a long weekend.... I'd have to go to Berghoff for meats with grainy mustard, Margie's Candies in Bucktown for ice cream in a large clamshell (with amazing chocolate sauce), and trek out to the American Science & Surplus store to indulge my lab glass fetish. But I'm a dork...
posted by answergrape at 7:32 AM on June 25, 2012

Don't just get a hot dog, go to Hot Doug's and get a Foie Gras Dog.

Other foodie spots: The Publican, Girl & The Goat, Longman & Eagle, The Purple Pig, Avec,

Mixologist spots: The Violet Hour, The Whistler. The Aviary
posted by dnash at 7:34 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kuma's Corner
Purple Pig
(crazy expensive/make reservations now: Moto, Schwa, Tru)

Mixologist bars:
The Aviary


Good beer bars:
Map Room

Hot dogs:
Hot Dougs
Franks n Dawgs

Logan Square
Bucktown/Wicker Park
posted by misskaz at 7:37 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Green Mill is a funky bar that apparently once served Al Capone now and then, and nowadays is the site of an occasional poetry slam.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on June 25, 2012

Chicago has some of the best theatre in the country. There's a lot of really cool stuff going on that you can't see anywhere else mixed in with the more traditional fare.

I recommend the Neo-Furturists Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (the longest running show in Chicago) where the Neo's perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Audience members call out a number, and the Neos perform the corresponding play. If they don't get through all the plays in 60 minutes, they buy the audience a pizza. It's cheap (tickets are $9 plus what ever you roll on a die -- so $10 to $15) and crazy fun. Also, performances are in Andersonville, which has a lot of nifty places to explore. (Places may vary a bit... I haven't lived there in six years.)
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:43 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Things like foodie restaurants, mixologist bars, and microbreweries

Don't miss the Goose Island brewpub. Outstanding food and drink. They will do flights of beer though they're not on the menu.

Also, the riverboat architecture tour might be touristy but it's pretty great, I think.
posted by exogenous at 8:13 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are so many great restaurants in Chi-Town. First thing you do is eat like there is no tomorrow.

Next, the science and technology museum is cool. They have a U-boat that is pretty cool to check out.

I also liked doing one of those al capone / mobster tours.

and if art interests you at all, then the Art Institute is pretty cool
posted by Flood at 8:37 AM on June 25, 2012

The Museum of Surgical Science.

Go up north to Evanston and see the beautiful B'hai temple.

Gene's Sausage Shop rooftop beer garden is fantastic (and delicious food).

Pilsen is a great neighborhood to wander, as is Devon and Western, the Indian neighborhood (MMMM curry).
posted by bibliogrrl at 8:42 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah if you do like art, the Art Institute really is worth it. It is a top tier institution.
posted by mmascolino at 8:50 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Only in Chicago type foods: Garrett's Popcorn (though I think they have a few outposts outside Chicago), pizza, hot dogs, Italian beef.

Note: Hot Doug's is excellent for specialty sausage but you're really wasting a visit if you get a Chicago dog. Go around 10:30am to avoid the worst of the lines. The lines are really bad on Fridays and Saturdays when they have duck fat fries (seemed over hyped to me, as I couldn't tell the difference). Closed for random days, holidays, and always closed for dinner. Check their web site before you plan a trip out; it'll save you some hassle if they happen to be closed. It's a hike on public transit if you are staying in/around the Loop.

Note also that Pizzeria Uno in Chicago is completely divorced from the horrible chain of a similar name, Uno Chicago Grill. Pizza fanatics in Chicago will argue over who has the best: Uno, Due, Malnati's, etc.

If you are foodie, I would highly recommend booking a table at one of Rick Bayless' restaurants (Frontera Grill is the more casual one and books via phone 10-12 weeks in advance, Topolobampo is the more formal one and on OpenTable). They also make excellent drinks with tequila and mezcal. Xoco is his quick service style restaurant, good for breakfast (churros and chilaquiles) or lunch (caldos and tortas). Note that his restaurants are closed Sundays and Mondays.

For authentic, less expensive Mexican, try Birrieria Zaragoza or Cemitas Puebla.

Additionally, Alinea is the destination restaurant in Chicago. Best meal I've had in the USA. A splurge but so worth it. I mean, just look at this dessert video on YouTube. They typically take reservations on the first of the month for the month following, but they've been making noises about going to a pre-paid ticket system lately. Still most definitely worth the hassle. Open Wednesday through Sunday. If you are a foodie and can afford it, do not miss Alinea.

Other high end options also include El Ideas and Goosefoot. Both are BYOB. I would not book Schwa on a short visit to Chicago given that they used to cancel on people frequently on the day of their reservation (they say they're getting better at that). It's also a crap shoot if you can get a table in the first place since they have no reservationist and their voicemail box is always full.

I also highly recommend Girl and the Goat. Stephanie Izard from Top Chef is amazing. Love anything she does with goat. Try the sugo, wood fired pig face, shishito peppers with Parmesan and miso, anything on the specials list with goat. Especially the goat and lobster dish. If you're interested, book now. It's delicious and a great value since the prices seem very, very fair for what you're getting. We usually get stuffed with only 4-5 dishes. They also have a good cocktail list, usually with some barrel-aged items. Book now. This restaurant books 6 months in advance on the phone, 3 on OpenTable. If you wait until it shows up on OpenTable, they'll only have 4:45pm and 11pm tables left.

Sunday or Saturday Brunch at the Publican. If that doesn't work, try dinner. The Publican is on OpenTable and is fairly easy to book. They do great things with shellfish, pork, local veggies, and have a huge beer list. Awesome charcuterie. They also now have a retail market next door with a soup/sandwich menu.

Same chef does Blackbird (fancier) and Avec (small plates, no reservations, long waits) and Big Star (whiskey bar with good tacos). If at Big Star, try the Sarsaparilla Springs: Buffalo Trace and Sprecher Root Beer, with the pork belly tacos. Many people eatat Big Star while waiting for a table at Violet Hour.

Also excellent at brunch: Jam (chef-driven twists like pink peppercorn french toast and eggs benedict with fennel hollandaise), Southport Grocery (try the sweet and savory French toast), Longman & Eagle (great bourbon list, duck hash), Bleeding Heart Bakery (doughnut breakfast sandwich). I've haven't tried m. henry yet but it's next on my list; wasn't a big fan of the too-sweet Bongo Room pancakes.

There is currently a doughnut revolution happening in Chicago. I prefer Do-Rite Donuts over Doughnut Vault but have not yet tried Glazed and Infused. For all of them, the idea is to make really great and fresh doughnuts with creative toppings. To guarantee freshness, they are only open until they sell out. If you plan to visit, check their sites accordingly. Do-Rite and Doughnut Vault are open Mondays through Saturdays. Doughnut Vault will post to Twitter what doughnuts they have left, and how many.

If you find yourself on Magnificent Mile & hungry, try Purple Pig (no reservations, lunch easier than dinner, big wine selection). Great pork dishes. Bone marrow. Seasonal vegetables. Cured meats/salumi.

River North actually has a decent amount of good eats nearby nowadays, including the Purple Pig, Sable, Xoco, Frontera/Topolo, the pizza joints.

If you find yourself down by the Art Institute and hungry, try Mercat a la Planxa or its takeout window next door, No. 5. The Gage is also a good gastropub near Millenium Park/Art Institute.

Best cocktails I've had in Chicago are at The Aviary. Experimental, modern cuisine techniques applied to cocktails. They don't have a bar, they have a cocktail kitchen. There is also a speakeasy downstairs called the Office that you can get into if you ask nicely. A must visit. You can make a reservation at the Aviary but only via email. Also you can't go off the menu or get a bespoke drink, but the menu is long and varied. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Other cocktail bars:
Sable - Let Freddy make you a drink, bartender's choice, the small plates are only OK though
The Whistler - has live music
Scofflaw - gin focused, also known for their food menu
The Drawing Room
Bar Deville - this is where a lot of Violet Hour folks work on other nights
Maude's - French brasserie with cocktails
Barrel-house Flats
the bar at Acadia
the bar at iNG - molecular cocktails (Homaro Cantu's place)

Also keep an eye out for Paul McGee's as yet unnamed tiki bar, next door essentially to the Rick Bayless restaurants in River North. It is supposed to open by the end of the summer. He used to be at The Whistler and was the reason a lot of people went there.

For a cool neighborhood to bum around in, Wicker Park is really fun. Have an espresso at the video-game-themed Wormhole. Buy some stuff at Store B Vintage, Rudy's Roundup, Lenny and Me, Una Mae's, or 826's Boring Store.

The interesting thing about Longman and Eagle, too, is that you can get a room there and stay in Logan Square overnight, so you can hit up L&E for dinner, Lula Cafe for brunch, maybe The Whistler late at night, or walk over to Yusho for dinner (yakitori inspired food, chef-driven, mixology). I didn't find that much great shopping while I was in Logan Square though.

If you do end up at Hopleaf, check out Big Jones nearby, if you want Southern food.

See also: LTHForums' Great Neighborhood Restaurants List. Someone's also hacked together a mobile site for this that can hook into your smartphone's GPS to find great restaurants nearby.

I find that Google Maps also consistently underestimates walking times in Chicago.
posted by kathryn at 8:57 AM on June 25, 2012 [19 favorites]

The North Shore is lovely in the fall. If you have a car you can reproduce this architecture tour on your own. Also agree with the boat tour and the Art Institute.
posted by BibiRose at 10:12 AM on June 25, 2012

Seconding the American Science and Surplus Store. Now you too can own a pair of forceps!
posted by mostly vowels at 6:07 PM on June 25, 2012

How long is this long weekend? If you could stretch it to the middle of the week, the first Wednesday of every month is the Chicago meetup at the world-infamous Billy Goat Tavern.
posted by Evilspork at 8:27 PM on June 25, 2012

I haven't lived in the Midwest since '99, but Chicago has always had a soft spot in my heart. If this thread is about avoiding tourist destinations because you've already heard of them, I have little to offer, though I will say my parents (who met in Chicago in the '70's) always mentioned the Berghoff fondly and took us there (before I was old enough to judge the quality of anything, but it is obviously a classic). Of course, the Aviary, and other Grant Achutz places are the creme-de-la creme of the Chicago food/drink scene, but I can't vouch for them personally. The hot dogs and Italian beef are both Chicago-specific entities that are delicious, but aren't that difficult to imitate on the homefront.
I actually came here to say, don't dismiss some of the Chicago attractions because they are popular. In general, the Musuems in Chicago are a much better value for your money than the rest of the world (assuming all musuem prices have risen similarly since ~2005). The Musuem of Science and Industry, Field Museum, Planetarium, Aquarium, and even the Art Institute beat out any singe version of the above on a pricewise, and probably absolute basis to those versions in New York at the time. The Art Institute also holds its own against any similar world institution, if you have any interest in that.
posted by ...tm... at 11:53 PM on July 1, 2012

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