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“I had two for dinner last night,” says the barista at Elaine’s Coffee Call (1816 N Clark St, 312-254-4700), nodding at a fetching display of pain au chocolat. Elaine’s is the coffee shop inside the new Hotel Lincoln, where I’ve just checked in for a one-night stay. Between the vintage bric-a-brac, the view of perky runners darting through the park and the perfectly foamed cappuccino I’m nursing, I could sit here forever. But I’m on a mission. As a longtime Lincoln Avenue resident, I’ve been arguing lately that the street’s undergoing a resurgence of cool. Today, I’m putting that theory to the test by cycling all 7.4 city miles of the avenue (and back), taking in the many newcomers and a few old favorites.
I’m mostly walking my borrowed bike (a vintage Schwinn Le Tour named Pongo). This is to avoid tricky maneuvers around morning delivery trucks, but also to admire the brick storefronts, dive bars and hot-dog joints lining Lincoln Park’s stretch of the avenue. I fuel up with cauliflower soup at Heritage Bicycles General Store (2959 N Lincoln Ave, 773-245-3005), the combination bike shop, café and general store that opened in January and oozes Brooklyn cool. The café calls its outdoor cluster of picnic tables Heritage Park; owner Michael Salvatore says he’s also working to debut a parklet (a small park created from parallel parking spaces) this summer.
In North Center, independent businesses thrive. I check out Transistor (3819 N Lincoln Ave, 773-880-7420), the record store, bookshop, art gallery and performance space that relocated to this ’hood from Andersonville last year and features free film screenings every Monday at 8pm. I covet an antique Pepsi sign and peruse designer threads at Isle of Man (3856 N Lincoln Ave, 773-697-8035). I notice a coming soon sign for a restaurant called Big Cheese (the next Cheesie’s?) at 4229 North Lincoln. Lastly, I roll my eyes at the sight of Rock Candy (4141 N Lincoln Ave, 773-883-3000), a children’s day salon and spa that opened in December.
Scheisse! The rooftop beer garden at wunderbar butcher and Euro market Gene’s Sausage Shop (4750 N Lincoln Ave, 773-728-7243) in Lincoln Square isn’t yet open for the season (but will be by the time you read this). I’m disappointed, but order a prosciutto and Brie sandwich and picnic near the fountain at Giddings Plaza instead.
At the intersection of Lincoln and Kedzie in Budlong Woods, I discover the North Shore Channel Trail, a bike and running path that follows the Chicago River and beautifies an otherwise bland tangle of cars, congestion and chain stores. Farther up the avenue, a welcome to lincolnwood monument on the front lawn of an MB Financial at Lincoln and Devon Avenues marks my turnaround point. I give my achy dogs a break at the pretty Legion Park at Peterson and Lincoln Avenues.
Shelly’s Freeze (5119 N Lincoln Ave, 773-271-2783) has the kind of charm that’s endangered on the gentrifying North Side; my dish of soft serve coated in candy crunch is just $2.15. I work off the calories at the rickety second-story Lincoln Square Lanes (4874 N Lincoln Ave, 773-561-8191), which I love for its old-time pencil-and-paper score-keeping system. I bowl a 155 and 152.
“We’ve all got prostate envy around here,” says the saleswoman sporting an i love fisting button at the Pleasure Chest (3436 N Lincoln Ave, 773-525-7151), a mainstay of Lincoln Avenue. She points me to the latest in men’s sex toys, including the Aneros Vice, a booty massager with a built-in bullet vibrator. The possibilities have me buzzing.
I’m seated in a semicircle with new pals Mike, Peggy, Sandy, Candy, Pip, Minty, Claudia and Colga, and we’re watching local magician P.T. Murphy pull a string of sewing needles out of his mouth. He and colleague David Parr deliver Chicago-style illusions, a form of trickery practiced at the turn of the century, at The Magic Cabaret at Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave, 773-404-7336; $20). The audience is small so we introduce ourselves and sit onstage for an intimate version of the five-year-old show. The tricks are simple yet confounding, but the real magic is the lively oral history of Chicago delivered by our entertainers.
I backtrack to find a dinner spot. I’m surprised Forza (2476 N Lincoln Ave, 773-248-7888) still serves food at this hour, but the owner of this new cocktail lounge and pizzeria is even kind enough to crack a second egg onto the campagna di campofelice pizza, a veggie pie with wild mushrooms, baby artichokes, black olives and shaved fontina cheese. I hit the buzzy Barrelhouse Flat (2624 N Lincoln Ave, 773-857-0421) afterward for a cup of Pisco Punch and—though I’m not sure when the 1890s came back in vogue (perhaps I might ask someone with a handlebar mustache)—I melt into the first floor’s saloon vibe.
I’m exhausted when I finally hit the sack at the Hotel Lincoln (1816 N Clark St, 312-254-4700; $215–$240 double bed with park view). With a rooftop bar scheduled to open by early July, this gem recalls the laid-back, hipster vibe of the Seattle-based Ace Hotel brand. I sleep very, very well.
End: 9:30am, next day
I’m back at Elaine’s, at the table I sat at exactly 24 hours ago, sipping another cappuccino. Staring out the window, my eyes lock onto Clark Street—another iconic stretch. It may be time to rev up Pongo and take her on another journey.