Ryan and I had planned a long weekend trip to the “Windy City” for Labor Day 2017, but Hurricane Harvey swept through our hometown forcing us to cancel. With pretty much everything already planned, we decided to rebook the same itinerary for a summertime trip. We weren’t anticipating the heatwave that hit the weekend that we chose, but we still had a wonderful time exploring the city of Chicago!
We opted to leave Houston after work on Friday evening, around 5 PM so that we would get in around 7:30 PM; but with flight delays, we didn’t end up getting to our hotel until after 9 PM. We checked into Kinzie Hotel which is centrally located in the River North neighborhood; our room was spacious with tons of windows. The hotel has a nightly social hour/happy hour with beer, wine and snacks, though we were never around during those hours; they also have a complimentary breakfast buffet with coffee, juice, pastries, yogurt, cereal and fruit which is unexpected for a boutique hotel. We had intended to scope out some deep dish pizza for dinner, but being limited on time after our late arrival, we opted for Theory bar and lounge around the corner from Kinzie Hotel. We met up with a couple of friends and were trying to catch an 11 PM improv show, so we really chose Theory out of convenience, but found the food to be quite good with a fun, eclectic crowd.
After dinner we rushed over to The Second City for their Late Night Improv Show. This show is 60 minutes of interactive improvised comedy with 5 cast members. We purchased the “Premium Rail Seats” but decided that there was no reason for this over the general admission, it’s a small theatre and all the seats have an unobstructed view and opportunity to participate in the show. The show had a couple of stand out cast members and many good laughs, but I think next time we would opt to attend one of the longer shows on one of the larger stages. After Second City, we decided to go for a drink at a hidden tiki bar called Three Dots and a Dash; the entrance is in an alley between two streets so we walked by it a few times before realizing we’d arrived. This bar is so fun and really commits to their theme! Each cocktail is served in its own stylized tiki cup with plenty of beautiful garnishes, we would definitely recommend Three Dots and a Dash for the vibe and unique drinks.
On Saturday morning, we made a reservation for brunch with friends at Fisk & Co. which specializes in mussels and beer. The food was good, about what you’d expect for typical brunch fare. We said goodbye to our friends then Ryan and I headed down the street where we boarded the Architecture Foundation River Cruise, it’s a 1.5-hour boat ride along the Chicago River with an architecture foundation tour guide who educates on the buildings and history of the city throughout the duration of the trip. The boat is general admission, open seating, so being first in line does have advantages if you prefer the railing or front of the boat, though there is plenty of seating for all ticket holders on the upper deck and a full bar with snacks and air-conditioned seating on the lower deck. This tour was exceptional, a “do not miss!”
Next up, Millennium Park where we admired Cloud Gate (the bean) and the mass amounts of playground, amphitheatre, and green space that sit right here in the middle of the city! We made our way across the park to the shore of Lake Michigan where we found some shade and busted out the Matador pocket blanket to enjoy the breeze off the water. There were plenty of people out and about, walking or biking along the water this afternoon despite the sunny, 90-degree temps. We considered walking or biking down the coast to Northerly Island and 12th Street Beach, but we were already so hot and sunburned, we called it an afternoon. We passed by Buckingham Fountain on our stroll back through the park in order to get some cooling mist from the giant fountain. Then returned to our hotel to freshen up for dinner.
We first heard of Alinea through the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, and knew that we wanted to try to get a booking when we visited Chicago. The reservations open at a very specific time, so we set phone alarms and booked the minute they became available for the date we wanted; which is entirely necessary as they sell out in minutes. Luckily, we secured reservations for the Saturday evening of our trip, which happened to be my birthday! It was the craziest, fanciest, most elaborate birthday meal ever! The whole seating is like being at a show, every dish is a surprise. The chef sets a scene for each course, with the presentation being thoughtful and artistic, sometimes including ways to shroud the table in a particular scent to compliment the food. There are foods made to look like other foods (similar idea to the “meat fruit” we experienced at Dinner London), a lot of play with texture, perfectly complimentary drink pairings and a phenomenal waitstaff. I’m trying to be very vague here so as not to spoil the surprises of dinner at Alinea. One suggestion that we read was to book the earliest seating and arrive a few minutes early so that you might be the first table to experience each course, we did not do this but can understand where the tip comes from; the waitstaff is discreet in delivering the dishes but some of the reveals are impossible not to see, hear, feel, smell as they enter the room. While we wouldn’t say that it was the most delicious meal we’ve ever had (though the taste was incredible! It’s just hard to top the flavors of NARISAWA ), it was definitely the most interesting and experiential meal we will likely ever have. I can’t think of a better way to have celebrated my birthday in Chicago.
Sunday morning, we set out to see Chicago’s infamous “Magnificent Mile.” There are tons of shops, and we did need to pick up some new items since we were quickly sweating through all the outfits we’d packed. But shops don’t open until 11 AM on Sundays, so we spontaneously opted to ride the elevator up to the 94th floor of the Hancock Building, which is home of the 360 Chicago Observation Deck and the TILT thrill ride. We were not interested in the ride, but the views from the observation deck were excellent and there was no wait time at all. The Hancock building would be a good alternative to the Willis Tower Skydeck for those wanting sky-high, 360-degree city views with no line (again, this was 10 AM on Sunday, so can’t say what the line might be like on other days).
We knew we wanted a Chicago deep dish pizza experience and had narrowed it down to a few options per Eater Chicago. After an exchange with the bartender at the observation deck, we decided on Giordano’s. We settled on a “small” sausage, mushroom, spinach and onion pie; and now understand why this type of pizza would be called “pie.” The crust was very buttery and reminiscent of a true pie crust, while it was good, we both admitted that we prefer The Wrigley deep dish on 5-grain crust at Candelari’s in Houston. Maybe one of the other iconic Chicago deep dish joints would’ve been more to our liking? During lunch, we realized that the Cubs were playing at home this afternoon, so Ryan performed some quick Google-Fu to snag shaded seats behind third base. We hopped on the “L” Red Line and went to the stadium. Wrigley Field is old, and it feels old, but it sort of feels the way you would think a baseball stadium should feel. It was SO HOT, we only stayed through 4 innings, after the Cubs pitcher hit a home run (!) and the Cubs were up 9-1 verse the Twins we left.
Back at the Kinzie Hotel, we got cleaned up and had our sights set on exploring a few hip neighborhoods we’d read about – Wicker Park/Bucktown and Logan Square. We chose a bar in Wicker Park called The Violet Hour which we had trouble finding after the Uber dropped us at the listed address. Their website says “the façade features an every-changing mural with a singular light bulb designating its entrance”; we identified the mural, were in the bar for an hour and a half and came out to see the mural had already been painted over, so indeed, “ever changing.” The cocktails were great, and the decor in the bar is very cool; this seems (at least this night) like a date spot as most patrons were couples and there didn’t appear to be much conversation outside of those pairs. We intended to stroll through the neighborhood and make our way to Logan Square where we had a dinner reservation, but rain showers relegated us to Uber once again.
We chose Lula Café based on Eater, Yelp and Google reviews; it’s a farm-to-table, veggie-centric restaurant and we absolutely loved it. The restaurant itself is so cute, and everything on the menu sounds so fresh and delicious. They offer a six-course vegetarian tasting menu which I was pretty eager to try while Ryan was eyeing the venison carpaccio and slow roasted lamb; we weren’t sure how the restaurant would feel about coursing out 6 dishes for one of us verse 2 for the other, but the waitress said “no problem” to this request. Every bite of every plate was incredible, with the stand out dish being (surprisingly) a chilled asparagus soup. Lula Café is fantastic, fresh food in an adorable space at an affordable price and we can’t recommend it enough.
On our last day in Chicago, we slept in a little before grabbing coffee and bagels and meandering up the Magnificent Mile to Oak Street Beach. We walked along the “concrete beach” which is exactly that – a large concrete area with periodic ladders to dip down into the water, people lay out towels and blankets to treat this slab like it is a sandy beach. Today was significantly cooler, less humid and more breezy, so we were happy to enjoy a walk along the coast. After concrete beach, there is sand once again upon entering North Avenue Beach, this large beach area has sand volleyball, a bar and beach club, kayak rentals and tons of swimmers. We crossed over into Lincoln park which has so much to offer – beautiful gardens, a free zoo, a greenhouse conservatory and a couple of museums; this is truly a perfect area to spend a sunny summer day. After we had our fill of Lincoln Park, we rented some Divvy Bikes which have convenient kiosks all around town so you can easily pick up and return the bikes wherever you need to go. We rode back down along the lake shore to Grand Avenue where we dropped the bikes and found Sushi-san for lunch. We tried their D-Luxe Nigiri and it was just okay, they have some good looking lunch sets so we probably should’ve stuck to that.
We still had a few hours to kill before our flight, so we walked down to the river to have a drink at City Winery. It was pretty crowded, and the sun was moving to reduce the available shaded seats, so we opted to try Terrace 16 which our friends had suggested for excellent river views. The drinks aren’t cheap, the waiters aren’t overly friendly, but let’s be honest, the sole reason to come here is the view. After some rosé overlooking the river as it empties into Lake Michigan, we grabbed our luggage from Kinzie Hotel and hopped on the “L” Blue Line to O’Hare Airport. We can’t believe how much fun and activity we packed into our three day visit, but Chicago really has a lot to offer!