Essential Chicago

Get schooled on the people, places and experiences that make this city great.

All the marketing power in the world can’t make these true-blue city essentials—yet.

Look, we’ve lived here for a while, and we’ve got a good thing going. Now we want to convince you, too, that you’d rather live here than anywhere else. From bundling up on Opening Day to grimacing when “train juice” falls on your head when you walk under the El, here are the great (and not-so-great) things that make this city unique. We also call out the pretenders—wanna-be essentials that aren’t quite there yet (Trump Tower, we’re looking at you).

Wanna-be essentials
All the marketing power in the world can’t make these true-blue city essentials—yet.
Navy Pier
Segway tours
(The new) Soldier Field
Macy’s
Trump Tower
Import NYC restaurants (SushiSamba, China Grill, Il Mulino, Blue Water Grill)

Local lingo
Word on the street is, you’re not a real Chicagoan until you know your “deeze” from your “doze.”
The Cell (n.) U.S. Cellular Field, home of the World Champion Chicago White Sox; was once—and for many Chicagoans, forever will be—known as Comiskey Park.
Cooler by the lake (adj.) Stock line used to describe Lake Michigan’s cooling effect; it’s since been co-opted by marketing folk to peddle everything from real estate to lakefront concerts.
Da Mare, Hizzoner (n.) Mayor Richard M. Daley, a.k.a. “His Honor.”
Deeze, doze (pron., adj. or adv.) Variants of “these” and “those.”
Dusties (n.) Soulful oldies; coined by local radio DJ Herb Kent in 1953.
847 (n.) Suburbanite, specifically someone who lives in the tony North or Northwest suburbs (formerly known as a “708”).
Friendly Confines (n.) Wrigley Field, home of the perpetually defeated baseball team known as the Chicago Cubs.
Gapers block (n.) A traffic jam caused by the macabre practice of drivers slowing or stopping to get in a good look at the accident.
Gotah, Gweethee, Gothee (n.) A few of the many local pronunciations for Goethe, the east-west street named after the 18th-century German thinker. (Correct pronunciation: “Ger-tah”)
Jag-off, jag bag, jag (n.) An unsavory character; usually a hybrid of an assmunch and a-hole.
Pop (n.) A sweet carbonated beverage, also known as soda or soft drink.
Sassage (n.) Any encased meat.
Sammitch (n.) Bread cushioning lunch meats and, of course, fixings.
Trixie, LP trixie (n.) Female Lincoln Park resident, usually former sorority sister, popularized by the closed-for-repairs satirical site www.lptrixie.com; allegedly identifiable by a penchant for VW Jettas, Starbucks coffee and Kate Spade handbags; tends to work in marketing or PR. The Kens to these Barbies are known as Chads.—Martina Sheehan

Top five Chicago-style pizzas
We dish on the deepest, gooiest pies in the city.

Aurelio’s Pizza (506 W Harrison St, 312-994-2000; various city and suburban locations)
Pequod’s Pizza (2207 N Clybourn Ave, 773-327-1512

Pizzeria Uno/Pizzeria Due (29 E Ohio St, 312-321-1000; 619 N Wabash Ave, 312-943-2400)
Lou Malnati’s (958 W Wrightwood Ave, 773-832-4030; various city and suburban locations)
The Art of Pizza (3033 N Ashland Ave, 773-327-5600)

Hot dog hucksterism
We’re more than willing to travel several miles and wait in long lines for the perfect dog. “Why not just hit the stand at the corner?” an out-of-towner might ask. Please. We’ve gotta go where we know we’ll get our dog served with just the right balance of neon-green relish and a dash of attitude—being berated after-hours at Weiner’s Circle (2622 N Clark St, 773-477-7444) is a rite of passage— but void of frills and (for heaven’s sake) ketchup. Other faves: Gene & Jude’s (2720 N River Road, River Grove, 708-452-7634) and Superdawg (6363 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-763-0660).

Preachers and peddlers on the South Side Red Line
They disappear once the train heads north of Harrison, but for the entire ride up from 95th Street you can get some of the best almost-free entertainment the CTA can provide. The towels and homemade perfume will cost extra.

Something to crow about
Maybe your parents are Manhattanite food snobs who comes to town ready to dis before even picking up a fork. Talk them into footing the bill, and here’s one place where you can get ’em on all counts: Blackbird’s stark white setting is gallery-hip; servers are knowingly debonair; and eating chef Paul Kahan’s food is worth sitting ass-to-elbow for (619 W Randolph St, 312-715-0708).

Wallace’s Catfish Corner
It’s not just the cuisine, or the atmosphere, or the fact that it’s host to the only live band that plays in a parking lot every summer. It’s the whole experience. There’s nothing like standing on a sidewalk on the West Side a few blocks from the United Center, getting wasted on seafood and Cokes, and watching couples do the bump-and-grind while Cyrus Hayes plays the blues on a flatbed truck (2800 W Madison St, 773-638-3474).

A chair marks the spot
What’s all that furniture doing in the street in the middle of winter? Chicago works under an unofficial “you shoveled it, you earned it” system for street parking spaces when it snows. You’ll see lawn chairs, sawhorses and even less likely detritus being used to stake a claim. Mess with someone else’s carefully cultivated curbside spot at your own risk.

The Blues Brothers
Pick your quote (our favorite: “Orange whip?”) or song (Ray Charles’s “Shake a Tail Feather”), and 26 years on, that shit will still make you giggle or boogie. Simply put: Greatest. Chicago. Movie. Ever.

St. Patrick’s partying
Only in Chicago is this minor religious holiday elevated to such a vigorous communal bacchanal (we’re told it’s a nonevent in Ireland). Certain people we know request personal days off from work in anticipation of the debilitating effects of the celebrations after the parades and on the big night itself. (Downtown parade, March 10, 2007; South Side parade, March 11, 2007)

Daley’s planet
Whether it’s ripping up Meigs Field in the middle of the night, allegedly hiring his political cronies regardless of their actual qualifications, or putting wrought-iron fences around every tree, bush and flower in the city, our mayor has carte blanche to do as he pleases. We’ll probably punish him by giving him a mere 71 percent of our votes next election.

The lakefront path
Bundle up and ride your bike or run along the lake in February, and you’ll drift into a meditative state inspired by near solitude. Take that same route in July, and you’ll be dodging kids, dogs, stray volleyballs, wandering cell chatters, bare-bellied Rollerbladers and (shudder) tourists.

Getting lost on Wacker Drive
The mere mention of the words Wacker and Drive in the same breath sends us into a sweaty-browed rage. Upper, Lower, whatever: We once spent more than an hour trying to find the valet entrance to the Hyatt Regency (mysteriously situated on East Wacker Drive), nearly resolving to drive our vehicle into the river just to be free of the labyrinthine nightmare.

Bitching about the CTA
So you have to pat the furry seat before you sit down to make sure no one’s pissed it soggy. And here’s a tip: If there’s only one person sitting in a train car during rush hour, it means that person stinks like a Porta-John on the last day of Lollapalooza. And, granted, there’s some kind of law that if you’re running late, you’ll wait for the bus in the cold for at least 30 minutes, only to have four pull up at the same time. Even so, we love the CTA because it gets us where we need to go (eventually, most of the time). But we love kvetching about it even more.

Disco inferno
Nothing says summer like hot weather, the lakefront and Lisa “La Boriqua” barking “one-two-three, cha-cha-cha” to a crowd of hundreds of sweaty people at SummerDance. At these free dance lessons, sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs, you can salsa, swing, step, polka, waltz and—for those of us still developing our motor skills—freestyle with glow sticks at the multivenue Nomadic DJ Series nights. (June 15–Aug 27, 2006)

Lending a (jazz) hand
You haven’t truly experienced live jazz in Chicago until you know what “ankle percussion” is. A sprawling, 40-year-old Afrocentric collective (“Great Black Music” is its motto), the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians runs a music school, and you can always catch legendary members like Fred Anderson and Jeff Parker playing around town. Performances range from numerology-inspired meditations (with bells attached to performers’ ankles) to straight-ahead hard bop. No other collective demonstrates the inherent freedom of jazz music as well as this place does.

Step it up
The South Side tradition of steppin’ has appeared in movies (Love Jones), starred in its own local TV show in the ’90s (Steppin’ At Club Seven on WLS) and been immortalized in song by R. Kelly (“Step in the Name of Love”). And though there have been limited attempts to take it to the North Side, it never really caught on—as stepper DJ Herb Kent once frankly stated, “It’s just too black.” The subtle steppin’ rhythms (think slowed-down swing dancing) can be found in venues like the 50 Yard Line (69 E 75th St, 773-846-0005). Wear your finest clothing, because T-shirts and jeans are rare at these events.

Renegade bike culture
Chicago is crawling with renegade cyclists. Will you see them protesting outside the Auto Show? Taking the streets by storm in a Critical Mass (www.chicagocriticalmass.org) ride on the last Friday of every month? Installing a memorial to a fallen comrade? Throwing back brews at the Handlebar, tricked-out custom bikes parked nearby? Who knows. And that’s the beautiful thing.

Chicken wings
(“smothered, hot or mild”)The next time you need your grease fix, consider the South Side–based franchise Harold’s Chicken Shack. There’s plenty of hot sauce and ketchup to go around—the demure go for gentle application, but regulars know smothered is the only way to eat everything that comes out of a Harold’s kitchen. The citywide locations all feature signs with a cartoon of a dude in a chef’s hat chasing a chicken around with a big cleaver, but look closely—it’s never the same artist, just renderings of the same scene. Oddly, Harold’s Wicker Park location doesn’t have the cartoon at all.

Wilco worship
For years, the lackluster likes of Styx and Chicago were the only local bands who managed to attract national recognition. Then we gave refuge to flameouts like Liz Phair and Urge Overkill. Finally, Wilco gives us a group we can be proud of. You can see the band rock out on Letterman, then run into bassist John Stirratt buying tomatoes at Whole Foods a few days later.

Feigning interest in the art at art walks
Talk all you want about supporting starving artists by visiting their studios during the Around the Coyote fests (September and February) or Pilsen’s art walks (monthly, but the big ones happen in October), but we know why you’re really there: to gorge on free cheese cubes and wine, sneak peeks at the dirty dishes in the sink and steal funky apartment décor ideas.

Who gives a flying buttress?
While you’re sucking down Starbucks on a stroll through the Loop, look past your latte and remember you’re standing among some of the world’s greatest architecture: Mies’s Federal Center, Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott building, Holabird and Root’s Board of Trade, the Monadnock Building, Tribune Tower, Harold Washington Library—and the list goes on.

Playing 16-inch softball
Mitts? They’re for sissies. We prefer to catch our ridiculously huge softballs barehanded, thank you very much. It’s a source of pride among recreational ballers in Chicago (and probably a source of regret for finger splint manufacturers) that this softball variation never caught on anywhere but here.

Throwing one back at Wrigley
How did it start? Beats us. But the rule is simple: When an opposing player hits a homer at Wrigley, the ball goes back onto the field. And the closer you get your toss to the infield, the better.

Nice buns!
They have us at hello, those dreamy, gooey, ginormous cinnamon rolls at Ann Sather’s. One whiff and we’re powerless. (929 W Belmont Ave, 773-348-2378; 3416 N Southport Ave, 773-404-4475; 3411 N Broadway, 773-305-0024; 5207 N Clark St, 773-271-6677).

Getting lost on the way to Ikea
If you can snag a car, this Swedish furniture giant can help you deck out your dorm in style. But first, you’ve got to find it. It sounds easy enough: Take I-90 to Golf Road, head west and look for the big blue and yellow building. But somewhere between dodging absentminded Woodfield Mall–goers and circling the Schaumburg Olive Garden for the fourth time, it’s clear that getting to IKEA is about as simple as assembling a HENSVIK media system (1800 E McConnor Pkwy, Schaumburg, 847-969-9700).

The Harold Washington…Library?
Its imposing stone entranceway (400 S State St) makes us think bank (except there aren’t any tellers) or a mausoleum (except there aren’t any stiffs). After going up not one, not two, but three escalators, we finally make it to the circulation desk. So, uh, where are the books?

Futbolistas by the lake
You don’t need to play—hell, you don’t even need to watch—to enjoy the soccer games on the well-kept fields near Montrose Harbor. Groove to the norteño music, cool off with a paleta from a jingling cart, or just kick it on the grass, soaking up the sun and pleasant din.

Priming the Pump
Long before the Sox won the Series and fair-weather Cubs yuppies made an appearance south of the Gold Coast, Schaller’s Pump (3714 S Halsted St, 773-376-6332) was the quintessential spot to watch the ol’ Pale Hose go at it. Still is, and if the daily special is smothered pork tenderloin, don’t you dare leave without taking on at least two. Under 21? You’re allowed in the doors whenever the restaurant part of this establishment is open.

O, say can you see?
Yeah, Oprah is great. But, no, friends and relatives, we can’t hook you up with tickets. Especially not for her “Favorite Things” show. So please stop asking. (If you’re feeling lucky—and can ditch school on short notice—go to www.oprah.com, click on Today’s Show, then Audience Reservations to fill out a form for last-minute seats.)

Showing our pride
We go to the annual pride parade every June to see cross-dressers in feather boas. But then a 17-year-old from Kansas walks by with his mom and dad, and all three are wearing my first pride parade shirts, and we just hope nobody notices us getting all misty eyed.

Seeing 30 plays in 60 minutes
Like proud parents, we drag out-of-towners to see the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (5153 N Ashland Ave, 773-275-5255). Maybe it’s our ongoing love affair with local storefront theater, or maybe it’s the prospect of free pizza if the show sells out that keeps us coming back to the longest-running play in Chicago history. Either way, we’re happy to pay $7 plus the roll of a six-sided die to get in.

Shopping for mangos and socks at the Maxwell Street Market
There are few events more quintessentially Chicago than the Maxwell Street Market (Canal St and Roosevelt Rd, 7am–3pm, Sundays year round). It’s big, it’s diverse, and it’s the source of some incredible tacos. You can buy a crate of mangoes for surprisingly little or look for used bikes and guitars in among the car parts, socks and cheap rugs.

Partying in the streets
From 57th Street Art Fair to Andersonville Midsommarfest, summer can become one long blur of street fairs. How many times did we witness a rib or chili cook-off, grab free candy from the WONKAmobile, pose for a photo “surfing” on the giant fake wave or listen to Mr. Blotto and Fountains of Wayne belt out alt-rock tunes? As many times as we’ve chowed down while sitting on a dirty sidewalk curb next to a garbage can and the electrical cords powering some loud-ass generator. (Early May through September; for schedule, see TOC’s Summer Festival Guide at www.timeout.com/chicago)

Quiet on the set!
A bullhorn-toting production assistant may not let you get onto the sidewalk or go to the gym, but the good news is a gossipworthy celeb is shooting a film nearby. Like, oh my God, when A-listers Jen and Vince went on a date to chic sushi spot Japonais, we were so excited that those who ate next to them (Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker, the cast of Wicked, your friend’s mom’s cousin) became B-listers by association.

Zoning out Ferris Bueller–style in front of La Grande Jatte
It’s a mind trip that this big beauty at the Art Institute of Chicago is just a bunch of dots. Just like Ferris and friends, almost every Chicagoan has spent part of an afternoon edging ever closer to the canvas until the little girl, the monkey on a leash and all the rest of it dissolves into splotches of color, no drugs necessary.

What’s your curry?
On Devon Avenue, home to the best Indian and Pakistani restaurants in Chicago, a lot of people drive a lot of the time. But we forget about the hour-long stop-and-go once we’re elbow-deep in unforgettable eats on Devon Avenue (6400 N), between California Avenue and Clark Street.

Waiting for Garrett Popcorn
Though a friend once fainted during an hour-long wait at the Michigan Avenue location (store employees didn’t notice, and those behind us happily advanced in line), it’s hard to resist CaramelCrisp. Just remember: Eat and pee first, and bring friends who’ll prevent you from getting stepped on, should you pass out (670 N Michigan Ave, 2 W Jackson Blvd and other downtown locations).

Picnicking at Ravinia
Some people go all-out at this concert venue/lawn party: comfy chairs, catered food, fancy wine (no shit). We’d rather throw down a tattered blanket, sip pop from paper cups, chow on taquitos and loudly whisper, “Now, who is this we’re listening to again?” (www.ravinia.org)

Worshipping the ’85 Bears
Jim McMahon could throw a thousand puppies off the Hancock Center. Mike Singletary could release a rap album with Paris Hilton. We’d still adore them with every fiber of our souls for being key members of the biggest, baddest, most ass-kickingest football team in NFL history. And it doesn’t matter that it happened 21 years ago. True Chicagoans remember exactly where they were when the Fridge scored that touchdown against Green Bay.

Chocolate city
Few factories produce mouth-watering smells, even those that make delicious products (ever walked past a brewery or a slaughterhouse? Pee-yew!). So it’s a joy to catch a whiff of the cocoa-scented “pollution” that wafts from Blommer Chocolate Co. in the West Loop. Hmm, could that siren smell have anything to do with Men’s Fitness magazine declaring our city the nation’s fattest?

Movie magic
How many times have we slumped down in a creaky seat at the Music Box Theatre (3733 N Southport Ave), gazed up at the twinkling lights in the ceiling and wondered what the organist does when he’s not on duty? We’ll never get tired of wondering, nor of catching independent and foreign films (or belting through the annual holiday sing-along) at this gently worn gem.

The laugh factory
You’re practically onstage with the improvisers when you see a show at I.O. Even Second City is relatively intimate. Part of the thrill of watching comedy in Chicago is knowing you could be spitting distance from the next Arkin, Belushi, Murray, Wendt, Myers, Farley or Carell.

Envelope-pushing indie record labels
Sure, New York and L.A. have the marquee-name market cornered. But thanks to grassroots labels like Bloodshot, Drag City, Touch and Go, Alligator, Thrill Jockey and dozens of others, Chicago has fostered a whole family of indie greats. Where would we be without our Tortoises, Edith Frosts and Sam Prekops? We’ll take Schubas over some over-priced, over-hyped Knitting Factory show any day.

Wind-chill factor/heat index
This is a city of extremes, especially when it comes to weather. Just when you think you couldn’t be any colder, the wind kicks in and suddenly it’s ski-mask time. Then summer comes, and you’ll be paying $10 to see Big Momma’s House 3 just for the air-conditioning.

Don’t rain on our desfile
You’ll know it’s Mexican Independence Day or the day of the Puerto Rican Parade (June) by the slowed-down traffic—a gleeful crawl on all the streets around the city, especially in Pilsen, Little Village, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. But you’ll get to where you were going eventually. In the meantime, just don’t get impaled by the gigantic flagpoles jutting out car windows or burst an eardrum from all the honking.

Baseball battles
Sox fans, repeat after me: “Cubs fans are drunken frat boys who don’t know baseball, just beer.” Cubs fans, let me hear you: “Sox fans are first-base-coach–attacking trailer trash who don’t support their team by filling the seats.” We all know the insults—now let’s admit that, deep down, you really love and respect each other. On second thought, nahhh.

Defending your decision to go to school here instead of Florida
It’s right around “springtime” that it starts to get to us—the bitter cold, the endless gray, losing another glove when the stores are stocking nothing but swimsuits. But all it takes is one of those unseasonably warm greenhouse-effect days mixed into the forecast to remind us why we stick it out here every year: There’s no place on earth that compares to Chicago in the summertime. Summer school, anyone?

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