one man’s map of the city of chicago
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[far north side]
[northwest side] :: [north side]
[west side] :: [central]
[southwest side] :: [south side]
[far southwest side] :: [far southeast side]
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INTRODUCTION: CITY OF “NEIGHBORHOODS”
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It was a simple goal: “Dine or drink in all 77 official Chicago neighborhoods.”
And that’s it. That’s all this is.
The acknowledged boundaries for entries in this project were those in this map on the City’s own website, which reveals some interesting things upon examination regarding those nebulous and ever-shifting neighborhood boundaries and definitions. Andersonville did not count, though Edgewater and Uptown both did; officially there is no such thing as Bronzeville, even though everyone knows there is absolutely such a thing as Bronzeville. And so on. My fellow Chicagoans know what I’m talking about here.
These are not presented in any specific order other than roughly geographical, although if you squint hard enough a story might start to assert itself. A story of exploration. Of curiosity. Of seeing what’s just down the street. The names of locales have been deliberately excluded, as this is neither a dining guide nor a neighborhood profile (though the discerning reader may recognize an establishment or two); likewise, the intention was never to specifically seek out a given area’s especially famous, renowned, exceptional, or even tolerable establishments, but rather one that simply existed between certain streets. Sometimes that’s all it takes, but sometimes that’s also all it’s got (and, in one case, there wasn’t even that). Beyond that, the rules were simple: “dine” meant a full meal, “drink” meant at least two alcoholic beverages, visited establishments had to be places to which I had never previously been, and chains were off-limits unless local in nature and I would otherwise never come across one of their outposts.
Eventually there would be more to it, of course, some of which is chronicled below and some of which is not. One does not traverse the modern metropolis without meeting some people, seeing some sights, learning some things. Consider this then a review of a city, and of what happens when you travel time and again to somewhere no further away than wherever it is you happen to live.
It’s a big place. Go see it already.
February 4, 2016 through December 2, 2016
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FAR NORTH SIDE
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The Place Where I Was Doing A Show (Rogers Park)
Ask any performer—actor, musician, storyteller, whatever—and they’ll tell you: new venues are always the best venues. Always. I told a room full of (mostly) ticket-buying strangers a story about getting it wrong and, also as always, was amazed and humbled that anyone listened, and so ten months later I went back and did it again.
The Irish Bar That Used To Be A Different Irish Bar (West Ridge)
“I used to teach people how to kill other people, but after a while I started to hate myself for what I was doing. So now I teach people how to surf.”
The Bar Attached To The Tattoo Parlor (Uptown)
I have no tattoos and do not anticipate that ever changing, but I can say with some authority that a place like this is so very, very perfect for a neighborhood like this because, having lived here for six years, believe me when I say: Uptown is a great place to do something stupid. Drink it down and ink it up, people. This part of town is open all night.
The Really Nice Coffee Shop (Lincoln Square)
It’s fun to make jokes about yuppies and coffee shops and yuppie neighborhoods and yuppie coffee shops but 1) I most likely fit the criteria and 2) I used to live in this neighborhood and really enjoyed it, so instead I’ll just say it’s weird to see a new building where you never remembered one being, let alone one as pleasant as this.
The Pizza Place That Turned Out To Be A Chain (Edison Park)
The monstro-slice was quite good, though it was kind of a bummer to find out the suburbs are populated with identical outposts of this restaurant. Then again, this being Edison Park, the neighborhood was already more or less the suburbs to begin with. Yeah, I said it.
The Sports Bar Still Selling Green Beer A Month After St. Patrick’s Day (Norwood Park)
“The neighborhood’s changing. Bunch of rich people figured out you could get a huge yard out this way, so you see some family sell their house to a guy who’s just gonna knock it down and build a new one that goes all the way to the property line. I mean, yeah, it’s their money, but still. Just looks ugly, you know? People live here because they like it how it is.”
The Tavern (Jefferson Park)
Just a decent bar with nice woodwork, good enough food, and a solid beer selection. No shame in any of that, though this place would be cooler if it didn’t allow dogs. Come to think of it, so would most places.
The Irish Bar (Forest Glen)
Another one? How many of these are there, anyway?
The Place That Is Both A Taqueria And A Pizzeria In Full (North Park)
More businesses should aspire to be this. Not to be like this, but to literally exist as this exact combination of restaurant.
The Persian Restaurant (Albany Park)
According to my friend who lives in the area, this is the finest of this type of restaurant in these parts, though the place up the block has better falafel, and the place around the corner keeps better hours, and the place a little further down has a lesser menu but a full bar.
“We should start calling this area something,” I suggest. “Little Tehran or something cool like that. Something no place else has.”
“We can’t do that,” she said. “This is already Koreatown.”
She just shakes her head in some combination of pity and dismay. “You really did grow up in the suburbs, didn’t you?”
The Pizza Place That Almost Killed Me (O’Hare)
They call themselves “the original,” which is really only true of places that didn’t want to change the signs brandishing some remarkably common name once either they or someone else caught wind they were both the so-called “original.” Still, a slice is a slice and a jumbo slice is perhaps the best kind, and out of habit I ordered two though it very quickly became very clear that the original here does not mess around, and while pride and the miles I had walked that day dictated I finish both I can report, without hyperbole or exaggeration, never once in the months since being hungry again.
The Vegan Restaurant (Edgewater)
“Hello sir. Welcome!”
“Happy Valentine’s Day!”
“Table for one?”
Yes. Please stop being so cheery.
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The Polish Bar Full Of Adults Of Polish Descent Celebrating A Polish Holiday (Portage Park)
My old roommate, who is a cherished and dear friend and also a terrible, terrible influence, lives in this neighborhood so yes, we absolutely went here, and not just on any Tuesday but on this particular Tuesday.
Me: “So do you guys celebrate on Poland time, or on American time?”
Two strangers seated nearby, without hesitation and raising their glasses in unison: “Both!”
Of course. Of course. Konstytucja szczęśliwy dzień!
The Neighborhood Bar That Used To Be Named After The Neighborhood (Irving Park)
By most accounts, the new owner had no plans to change much about the place: beers would stay cheap, the name would stay the name, the room would get nicer but not become unrecognizable. Most of this turned out otherwise, but it doesn’t matter. It never matters. Few things ever stay the way you want them to.
The Bar Whose Name Makes Sense Once You Step Inside (Dunning)
“We got married here. Invited everyone who hangs out here. Everyone. Some people didn’t want one of our friends invited because he’s gay. I said ‘fuck that, fuck you, he’s invited.’ I’m 57 years old, I’ve got real problems by now, you know? Who the hell cares who someone’s in love with? Who they’re sleeping with or going out with? We should all be so lucky.”
The Bar Undergoing Some Repairs (Montclare)
Over the course of an hour, the man in the light jeans disappears into and emerges from a back room time and again, his time back there marked by some heavy noise and the occasional sanitized version of most of the major profanities. (“Darnit, this flippin’ thing!”) The bartender, the owner, and I watch today’s episode of The People’s Court, in which a woman is suing for a refund on a bad tattoo given to her by an ex, though after they broke up, which leads the bartender, the owner, and myself to all wonder in unison who in their right mind goes to the tattoo parlor where their ex works. The man in the light jeans returns one last time from the back room and says to the owner, “Okay, that one’s done. So that knocks off fifty like we agreed, and you know I’m good to work off the rest.” Later on Maury, a lie detector test will reveal the shocking truth behind a breakup.
The Bar With Firsthand Knowledge Of The American Experience (Belmont Cragin)
The man: “They want to round up people without papers just for not having papers? You telling me they’re gonna send cops for my old man who’s been here 40 years from Mexico?”
The woman: “Or mine: fifty years from Poland.”
The Bar Named After A Guy (Hermosa)
“It’s a nice neighborhood,” she says. “Families live here. People look out for each other. A lot of places aren’t like that, and that’s why we like it here. That’s why people live here. You want to be safe, you know? Some other areas, you know . . . it’s what keeps us here.”
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The Sandwich Spot & Bakery (Lake View)
The food’s pretty good in its own right, but this place is especially great if you’re in a hurry and trying to visit every neighborhood in Chicago over the course of a year.
The Restaurant (Lincoln Park)
It was nice, though nothing special. Kind of on the expensive side for what you got.
The Cowboys Bar (North Center)
Not a cowboy bar or a bar owned by a cowboy but a bar dedicated in large part to adoration and worship of the Dallas Cowboys football team and look, I love the Lone Star state as much as any non-Texan can but man, seriously: no.
The Neighbors’ Bar (Avondale)
I used to live a short walk from here, though for whatever reason my then-roommate and I never made it here. Laziness, probably. Maybe just inertia. At some point a couple from the neighborhood bought the place. I wish I would have thought of that.
This night in particular was an open mic night, aspiring stand-ups arriving two, three hours early to sign up for those precious, precious minutes, and the most honest thing I know how to say here is that I admire that kind of commitment.
The Mediterranean Diner (Logan Square)
If you ask anyone, especially the people who live here, this block of Damen is Bucktown. People move here to live in Bucktown. Any resident, any business, any bar or festival on this block will tell you it’s going down in Bucktown. By the city’s own map, however, this is Logan Square. Years ago this probably mattered, before the million-dollar condos in one gave birth to the million-dollar condos in the other, flea markets and liquor stores surrendering to brunch and gastropubs and farm-to-wherever. In geography, as in so much else, what Chicago is and what Chicagoans say it is are not at all the same thing.
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The Bar With The Nice View (Humboldt Park)
The front windows all look out at that beautiful greenery of the park across the street, which at least gives you something to look at besides the TVs showing your choice of the local baseball team you dislike and the TVs showing the local baseball team you love but are just so very, very embarrassed by these days.
The Perfectly Inoffensive, Totally Harmless Bar (West Town)
“Are you here for the Meetup?”
No. God no.
The Combination Mexican Restaurant And Greasy Spoon Diner (Austin)
Like any part of this or most other cities, Austin never makes the news for a good reason, which is a shame but also makes sense, because what most people don’t know is that Austin is in fact a huge neighborhood. The hugest, as it were. More residents and a larger footprint than any other section of Chicago. But what most people also don’t know is that if you cross North Avenue or Austin Boulevard you’re in Oak Park; cross Harlem and you’re in Elmwood Park. I can guarantee no one would ever equate either of those with Austin in their minds, and yet there they all are, staring right at each other, indistinguishable at these points in their mirrored sets of bungalows and strip malls, differing only in the fact that one of those places is big enough to have a very small part that makes some very loud noise. But the important part is this: most of the neighborhood, like most of the city and most of the world in which we live, is boring, and don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.
The Hot Dog Place Named For Its Owner And Proximity To Public Transportation (East Garfield Park)
Who owns this place? And where is it located? Not every restaurant is considerate enough to answer such questions.
The Fast Food Place Which, At Least According To The Internet, Is Somehow Also A Vegan Restaurant, Though Based On The Menu This Seems Impossible (West Garfield Park)
My grandfather spent his youth not far from this intersection, back when the main cross street had an entirely different name, and perhaps more than anyone loved talking about the city with me once I’d moved down to it. Restaurants I ought to check out, how certain areas were doing these days, how nothing ever changes but really just moves, places he and his brother used to visit and, wouldn’t you know it, how some of those were inadvertently places I had ended up haunting as well. Talk would turn to the Sox, the team our family had the misfortune of pinning its hopes to, and what the team’s real problems were, and how easy it would be to fix them, and how maybe the future wasn’t such an ugly prospect after all. Time and again I would ask him about his particular neighborhood and specifically the location of his boyhood home, and for several years entertained the notion of one morning getting him down here for a drive past or even a stroll through, no matter how brief or fleeting, but those plans have all been relegated to the past tense by now. I thought of him often over the course of this project.
The Soup & Sandwich Place (North Lawndale)
Shiny new hospital, car wash, bustling church, gorgeous house, shiny new pizza place, creepy looking alley, laundromat, board-up, beautiful L stop, taco place, liquor store, old-school tavern, park, abandoned three-flat, repair shop, community center: the Loop may be the heart of the city but this stretch of Ogden Avenue is at least a magnificent vein.
The Place With The Aquarium (South Lawndale)
Lunch, mole, smoldering dipping sauces, neighborhood icon, yeah, fine whatever, let’s talk about this aquarium for a minute.
The Turkish Place (Near West Side)
The guy at the register sported a Turkish Airlines baseball cap, which I guess makes sense as there are few (if any) other Turkish institutions your average West Loop lunch yuppie might recognize, unless a bust of Ataturk is what the Che Guevara t-shirt crowd has all graduated into. The chicken lunch plate was alright, and the tea was a nice touch as outside it was February and 15 below. This restaurant has since closed.
The Home-Style Taco Place (Lower West Side)
The area was once Irish, and then German, then Czech; these days you’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of that, those groups having long since fled or died and leaving the place to the next wave of immigrants coming up largely from Mexico. Some day soon, once my yuppie friends are done buying up the place and making it some combination of boring and inoffensive, there probably won’t be a whole lot of those folks hanging around here either but until then, there is still a place on 18th that both fries and grills the chicken before making tacos out of them. Definitely worth visiting, at least until my friends find out about it.
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The BBQ Place (Loop)
There is something interesting happening down here these days, a kind of low-intensity Manhattanization fueled by new bars, hotels, and would you believe they’re starting to convince people to socialize and even live down here, although the unspoken part is that Chicago, try as it might, is not New York City, and its heart beats as steadily though never as loudly, and so leave it to the new breed of capital adventurers to open a promising place like this in a supposedly vital center of a supposedly world-class city only to end up with food and décor so remarkably, achingly average. But here we are.
The Steakhouse (Near North Side)
Outside of the restaurant, a group of young (white) men makes little secret of what’s really in that pipe they’re passing around. Security asks could they be a bit more discrete, as it seems security here is also an off-duty police officer who’d rather not make an arrest over this, and while one can commend the officer for being forward-minded enough to prioritize real societal ills over something so petty as people getting high outside of a steakhouse, one must also wonder if a similar request would be asked were the young men not who and where they were.
The Brewery (Near South Side)
It’s nice that this is here.
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The Sports Restaurant (Armour Square)
You know, a sports restaurant. It’s like a regular restaurant but with, like, sports.
The Sports Bar With A Cover Charge In Effect At All Times To Keep Out The “Undesirable Element” (Douglas)
Their words, not mine.
The Beach (Oakland)
The rest of the area having been set aside for other such niceties as homes and green space and churches and schools then sure, why the hell not: snack shack nachos for lunch it is.
The Place With No Seating (Fuller Park)
You take it to go or you stand at the rail outside and eat it, and either option is fine though four related and far more important truths must be spoken: 1) gyro cheese fries are exactly what they sound like, 2) they are delicious, 3) this place is disgusting for selling such a thing, and 4) I am equally disgusting for eating it.
The Health-ish Place (Grand Boulevard)
I want to say more, something about the noble efforts in place to restore the theater down the street or the commendable community-minded events (poetry readings, book releases) and specials (teachers, firefighters, CTA workers) on offer at this restaurant in particular, maybe a word or two about the value of positive thinking and how much one hopes noble intentions translate to civic betterment, but for whatever reason I feel more compelled to stress that the jerk chicken bowl eaten here was quite possibly the best meal consumed over the course of this entire project. Sometimes a man just doesn’t know how to talk about the right things.
The Wine Bar (Kenwood)
There was a presidential debate that night, and had we not already rescheduled our trip here twice, my friend and I likely would have both wanted to do so again—she so she could watch someplace more studious, me so I could skip the spectacle altogether—but here we were, and as it turned out the bar was hosting a party of its own, to which we suddenly found ourselves invited.
My friend tentatively accepted on our behalf, but not before leaning over to a woman seated near us: “I hate to ask this,” she asked, “but who do most of the people here support?”
“I’ll put it like this,” the woman explained. “You find a woman of color who supports that man? You get her in touch with me. Because I would have some questions for her.”
My friend would later describe the roasted catfish as (and I quote) “amazing,” and had I known this place had recently been featured on one of the more prominent local Best Of roundups I probably would have suggested we go somewhere else instead, but all told there are worse things than ending up in a nice bar having the best of something for dinner, all the while surrounded by a community of relentlessly positive thinkers on what should have been an otherwise unremarkable weeknight.
The Café That Puts The “Purpose” Back In “Repurposed” (Washington Park)
“You dining by yourself today?”
Yes. Why does everyone keep asking me that?
Anyway, in the discourse of city living, there are fewer more loaded or obscene expressions than “urban renewal”, which to the optimistic sounds like a second lease on life for neighborhoods that so badly need it but to the realist sounds like a reason to kick the less-than-ideal resident down the road, those planners and investors doing all their planning and investing not in terms of who is there, but who they want to be there. And yet every now and then someone does it right, staying true to the spirit of the area without condescending to it, leaving the markers of the past intact not as irony but as testaments to character. Sincerity, in its own quiet way, wins.
The Really, Really Nice Place (Hyde Park)
Or, as a friend and colleague would put it, “Gentrifying the gentrification.”
The Diner That’s Been There In Some Form Forever (Woodlawn)
They kept the original 1890s name, and as far as anyone knows it’s still owned by the same family it has been for near a hundred years, but like a lot of neighborhoods the demographics and socioeconomic prospects of this one have changed substantially since the end of the 19th century. And so given a choice between death and evolution, they opted for the latter: same name, same interior, same philosophy, just with a different menu. There ought to be more places like that.
The Family Restaurant (South Shore)
The Metra Electric branch between 55th and 93rd is by far the coolest segment of any of the city’s commuter lines, each stop a postcard from some not-all-that-distant past, the train itself operating like a veritable streetcar, its life coursing through it from above as the storefronts roll past along the avenues outside. Where it really “goes” is maybe open to some interpretation, but along the way there you end up here, right here in this restaurant, where it occurs to me one rainy Saturday morning that I really don’t eat breakfast all that often, which in turn probably explains why the only thing I know how to order anywhere is pancakes.
The Tremendous Italian Place (Bridgeport)
That week’s special was the Italian combo stuffed pizza, which is exactly what it sounds like. No reason for that or anything like it to exist. None at all. And yet.
The Old-Timers’ Old-Time Restaurant (Greater Grand Crossing)
I was not necessarily a young man anymore until I set foot in here that Saturday afternoon: diners and staff with, at minimum, two decades on me; autographed pictures on the wall of politicians who left office in the 80s, actors made famous in the 70s, musicians hitting it big in the 60s; flyers promoting events which took place before I was even born.
At the table next to mine, a man talking with his gathered friends about elections past:
“Everyone loved him at the time, but not me. I didn’t vote for the man, and I wouldn’t today even if I had to do it all over again.”
“Sure the war ended but they’re always starting another one. Always. And that’s exactly what they did.”
“Talking about what he’s going to do for the country. I knew he wasn’t talking to me.”
“People with buttons saying ‘I like Ike.’ Not me. Not me. And why would I?”
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The Most Poorly-lit Bar In Chicago And Perhaps The World (Garfield Ridge)
As is to be expected, I am the only person in here at two in the afternoon on a weekday save for the bartender (old, out of shape) and, presumably, one of the regulars (young, less out of shape, or at least wearing a tracksuit belonging to a healthier man than he). The two are conversing intently in Polish—I say Polish here based solely on the flags behind the bar, selection of beers on tap, and Polska crest on the younger man’s tracksuit—and while I know they are likely talking about something banal along the lines of a parking ticket or how no one’s hiring, it’s fun to imagine there is more to this. A deal, perhaps. A misunderstanding. One of the former that became one of the latter. As long as you don’t know the language, people can say whatever you want them to. The windows somehow only bring in more darkness; the young man in the tracksuit eventually leaves, and the bartender and I drink for a while in silence.
The Place That Makes Some Pretty Bold Claims (Archer Heights)
Written across the top of the sign outside the bar: “The Best Burger In Illinois.” This is false.
Written across the bottom of the same sign: “BEST BURGER IN THE USA.” This, by extension, is also false.
The Bar I Swear I Went To In A Suburb When I Was 21 (Brighton Park)
One look inside (or even just outside) and you would agree: there is no way this place does not run spots on the radio advertising “The Southwest Side’s HOTTEST Thursday night!!!” coupled with some special on, I don’t know, O-bombs and Miller Lite drafts, and then Dan will get all wasted and throw up all over the men’s room, and we end up getting kicked out even though there are still like two hours left until the all-you-can-drink special is over. Nice one, Dan. Jackass.
The Diner (McKinley Park)
Later, I would tell a friend who lives in the area that I’d gone here.
“Grilled cheese dinner,” I added. “Fantastic.”
“Oh no,” he said, “patty melt all the way. Fries on the side. Great when you’re drunk.”
“What do you mean ‘when you’re drunk’?” I asked. “That place closes at like 7pm.”
He paused. “What does that have to do with it?”
The Cuban Restaurant (New City)
There is no way, without acting like a total idiot anyway, to tell how authentic any restaurant is just by either looking or comparing to other versions you’ve had of the same thing in a place that is not the place this food is from, and so sometimes you just have to hope or assume that “authentic” for this cuisine is synonymous with “delicious” and that a stylish retro-yet-modern interior is par for the course. It may be inaccurate, but it will do.
The Bar Named For The Street It’s On (West Elsdon)
Two seats down, the drunkest man on planet Earth yells at the Bulls game. “GO! GO! THASSSS…hey, where’d—THASSSATECHNICAL, GO! SHOO—YEAHHHHHH THERE WE GO!” He and the bartender have clearly been through this before; she fumbles for something, anything that will let her change the channel. “Where’s the remote, or the keyboard or whatever it is anymore? I just want to control the damn TVs!” I should leave, but it’s hard to walk out on $1.50 drafts.
The Texas Bar (Gage Park)
Not a Cowboys bar, because there is no reason to ever support the Cowboys, but a straight-up Texas bar. Texas beer. Texas wall décor. Texas neon. Two-dollar beers and the five o’clock news? Texas forever, man. Texas forever.
The Bar Where The Flight Crews All Hang Out (Clearing)
The pilot, when asked what it’s like being a pilot: “It’s a good job, but never being home gets old even if you don’t.”
The Margarita Bar (West Lawn)
Some places win on cuisine, and if that doesn’t always come through then others can instead opt to win on decor. This one, for example.
The Mexican Cafeteria (Chicago Lawn)
According to the internet, this restaurant either went out of business or else never existed in the first place, so who the hell knows how I ended up eating those excellent quesadillas. Also according to the internet, the menswear shop next door is a “standby for home goods, hardware, & more,” the tire shop across the street is just some house, and any reference to this restaurant will lead you to talk of an (apparently) inferior operation of the same name six miles and two bus transfers away. The internet, it seems, can often get things so very, very wrong.
The Place Around The Corner (West Englewood)
The jerk place looked promising, at least (again) according to the internet, but as it happened they received a monster of a catering order that morning and as such were closed for lunch that day. Understandable.
From there it was a short walk and a brief bus ride to the burger place, the meal and trip largely uneventful save for the perpetual comings and goings of local law enforcement: sometimes in cars, sometimes in SUVs, usually in unmarked versions of either and always moving, sometimes just to this particular lunch spot but just as often needed somewhere nearby or in a hurry to get to somewhere this street was merely on the way to.
On one side of a nearby building you can see a faded mural advertising furniture, and plastered over that a visibly newer sign screaming the usual stuff about a beating heart. It is both easy and lazy to see some places only for what they are, but sometimes that’s only because it’s hard not to wonder what those places were when they were the places they used to be.
The New Café (Englewood)
There are few words more elegant in form yet more hideous in practice than “gentrification,” and as someone at least complicit in one, possibly two instances of this in Chicago I cannot help but notice the telltale signs and subtle differences between it and a more universally beneficial episode of a neighborhood simply cleaning up: the one-off shop, rather than the franchise; the old building made new, rather than simply making way; the rehab versus the wrecking ball. So what to make of this place, this otherwise lovely coffee/breakfast/lunch spot in a neighborhood not known for such things, all track lighting and local art this, all free-trade and ethical that, the tenets and selling points of places far from here typically applied to people who neither would nor will ever set foot in this part of town? Perhaps a forward army or perhaps, as a friend would later put it, “Sure, but give us a little credit here. I mean, black people, you know, we like cafés and good coffee, too.”
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FAR SOUTHEAST SIDE
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The Cafeteria (Chatham)
They’ve got whatever you’re looking for and a nice room in which to enjoy it. The best restaurants need little else in the way of explanation.
The Chicken & Waffles Place With The Best Waffle In Chicago (Avalon Park)
Yes I am serious and yes, by now I do think I’m qualified to make such claims: cinnamon apples, whipped cream, get a side of grits and thank me by telling everyone you know.
The Place That Found The Winning Formula For Bar Nomenclature (South Chicago)
[Owner]’s [Geographical Area Of Interest] [Bar Style]. The end. This is perfect. All other bar names are incorrect.
The Liquor Store (Burnside)
The bar down the block closed some time ago and the nearby fast food spots are beyond the cartographic boundaries of the neighborhood. So you make do with what’s there.
The Soul Food Restaurant That Didn’t Offer Lunch Service This Early, Unfortunately (Calumet Heights)
Okay, then how big is the Big Pancake?
“It’s, like, really big.”
Yeah okay, give me one of those then.
The Old West Steak Place (Roseland)
Food named for the likes of John Wayne, walls adorned with autographed pictures of Gary Cooper and James Arness, a television showing part four in the classic series The Gambler: The Luck Of The Draw. What is it with this town and cowboy hangouts, anyway?
The Restaurant That Closes A Little Too Late Attached To The Bar That Opens A Little Too Early (Pullman)
Breathtakingly beautiful old buildings, crumbling megastructures, streets lined with rowhouses that might as well have been transplanted from a history book, shuttered factories near a century past their heyday, all of these things standing as monuments to some Gilded Age millionaire industrialist’s maniacal vision of a capitalist utopia: Pullman is by far the most interesting neighborhood in Chicago.
The No-Frills Mexican Restaurant (South Deering)
This means no salsa for your chips, but this also means prices are, to hear the regulars picking up orders, largely negotiable. Whether these are good or bad things is entirely up to you.
The Hot Dog Place Named For The Local Road (East Side)
The place down the street advertising three gyros for $9.99 was closed while its owners enjoyed a (presumably) deserved vacation, so this would have to suffice.
The Mexican & American Place (West Pullman)
Not to be confused with the similarly-named American/Mexican place two doors down.
The Fast Food Spot With No Sign And Barely A Door (Riverdale)
This being Chicago, he doesn’t look like anyone you’d usually otherwise find in this part of town and, outside of a cop car or construction crew, neither do I. He puts down his crossword (half-finished) and eyes me through the glass (bulletproof): “What do you want?”
“I just want to get some lunch.”
“No, come on, really what are you doing here? Who sent you?”
“No one. Seriously, just some lunch.”
His eyes narrow, as though a burger and fries were the last things anyone should be asking him about.
“Two minutes,” he says. “Fine,” I say, taking out my phone to capture the place. From behind the glass, I hear him yelling: “Hey! Hey! What are you doing? No pictures!”
And again, I say “Fine.”
The Banquet Hall & Tavern (Hegewisch)
To borrow from Jimmy Carr, Chicago was a very different place in the 1970s; if you want to know what that was like, go to Hegewisch now. So yes: the Friday Fish Fry. Of course people still do that, and of course they still do that here, and you know what? Good for them. This place rules.
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FAR SOUTHWEST SIDE
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The Honest-To-God Drive-In (Ashburn)
On one hand, I really do want to know how a place can sell me two jumbo hot dogs and a large order of fries for six bucks and still turn a profit. On the other hand, I really do not want to know how a place can sell me two jumbo hot dogs and a large order of fries for six bucks and still turn a profit.
The Best Bar In Chicago (Auburn Gresham)
The jukebox played a lot of golden oldies but to most, maybe all of the crowd there these weren’t “oldies” but just the perfect sound from the perfect time, these folks talking about Miles and Al the way my friends and I talk about Kirk and Eddie. I forgot to ask but if someone told me the interior had been unchanged since sometime around 1962 I would not have doubted it for a moment. I was going to have two drinks, which then became more than two, and if the trains hadn’t stopped running I might never have left. On my way out I was handed flyers for a birthday party the following weekend, which I will forever regret not attending.
The Supposed Best Philly Cheesesteak On The South Side (Washington Heights)
First of all, cheesesteaks are nasty and no one should brag about serving them, let alone serving the “best” version of them. Second of all, and more importantly, this is not in fact the best Philly cheesesteak on the South Side. Not even close.
The Cop Bar (Mount Greenwood)
It was early in the year, and the world and the neighborhood were both admittedly different places then, but to anyone hanging out here, in their den, on their turf, I was just someone who wandered in and happened to catch a bunch of guys (and in a bar a like this, they’re all guys) doing what guys do in every bar: complain about their boss, their bills, their taxes, their aching backs, which politicians are crooks (all of them) and which they could trust (none), no different than what people do all over the world no matter what line of work they are (or are not) in, and all I can do is listen and try to follow along with terminology, filing away words I don’t know let alone understand but don’t want to look stupid for asking about. At some point someone fires up “So Cruel” on the jukebox and a moment of silence falls over all of us, because of course this crowd thinks fondly of early-90s U2, and because I do too, and because I love that song, and so does everyone else in here, and viewed solely through the prism of all of that there was, for the moment anyway, so very little to get upset about.
The Comfort Food Spot (Morgan Park)
If you don’t live in one, it’s easy to never learn that there are pockets like this, where the city doesn’t look like the city at all but some bygone, almost quaint depiction of someone’s nebulous idea of “community.” Front yards; a straight-up main street to which all connects and around which all else revolves; bars and restaurants named for some person rather than some object. That this and so many other such disparate corners could all be the same city—this, I so often try to explain, is why I live in the city in the first place.
The Irish Bar (Beverly)
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* On several occasions, in the interest of time and making the most of cooperative weather conditions, multiple neighborhoods were visited in a single trip. The largest of these encompassed five such destinations (two restaurants, three bars, twelve hours).
* All photos by (and copyright of) the author except header image from the public domain and “West Garfield Park” taken from The Man On Five.
* Modes of transportation included walking, at least twelve different bus routes, all but one line of the L (you know which), one cab, one Uber, and (depending how you count) three to five Metra lines.
* The finally tally: 28 bars, 42 restaurants, five “both”, two “other.”
* Something like this doesn’t happen without help: Christopher and Orion provided expert feedback on the visuals; Luis, Sarah, Liz, CP, Jason, Brandon, Joel, Jack, Chris, Stephanie, and Lewis graciously came along for a few of these; Bill read through an early version; and Greg helped shape the idea to do this in the first place.
* Recommended. Would visit again.
This is insane. I love it and I haven’t even finished reading it yet.
lol @ “irish bar in beverly.” ’cause those are so hard to find. especially in that neighborhood.
I’ll give you $20 for the name of the chicken-and-waffles place. No, wait, $10. No, wait, (looks again at picture of waffle) $20.
That downtown bbq spot – that’s gotta be Porkchop. I work right by there and average is right.
Amazing. Love the Cop Bar. I’ve read it three times. Love so many of these and the variation in emotion that your writing captures. I laughed out loud…..became depressed about humanity…..and overall felt a sense of courage, optimism, loyalty and acceptance. You have a gift (and that is an understatement).
Wow. I’ve lived here for 20+ years and I’ve never even _heard of_ some of these neighborhoods.
Happy to have been a part of a great adventure!
That hot dog from Ashburn really putting ketchup on itself? I thought that was a no-no around here.
i wish i would have thought to do this while i lived there. god i miss chicago.
That pitch-black basement/cave bar with the lights off looks/sounds glorious.
You can NOT just say you found this magic waffle and hold out on where it is!!
this is wild, man. feelin some real chi-town love reading this. damn.
This is pretty amazing and a beautiful tribute to the city. From a south-side girl who moved north and now lives west.
I read and enjoyed your comments until the steakhouse with the (white) guys smoking reefer. I have grown tired of the negativity towards police officers. In your case negativity towards a police officer in a hypothetical scenario.
My son is a Chicago police officer. He is in no way prejudiced or racist. His close group of friends include black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Muslim. Two are police officers, two others are applying.
Chicago police officers are people too. They have families that love them and are greatly concerned for their safety. I think your comment about what a police officer might do if the people were not white is reckless and unnecessary.
Very cool idea. But what is the logic behind keeping the bars a secret? Weird.
Glorious and sad you didn’t mention this earlier… I would have met you at that Cop Bar for a drink.
@Tony 2:30pm: Thirteen-year CPD here. I for one did not read any negativity into it. Different people get away with different things, and some people treat certain others differently whether we like that fact or not. That’s life. Good work by the writer here, and I’ll buy you a beer at the cop bar sometime. This is a great city and it’s nice to see someone write about it in a good light for a change.
The Cop Bar (Mount Greenwood)– I think I have an idea which one– but why no names? Maybe it explained somewhere- forgive its Friday and I am tired and lazy;however, that is a fine piece of writing, and I think you captured that world just perfect.
Love love LOVE this. Raised southwest side, moved south side, then north side, now back on the south side. I see my old neighborhoods on here and even if I don’t know what places you’re talking about, I know exactly what you mean. Think I’m gonna have to take a field trip or two this weekend…
So much joy from seeing the chi get love like this! So much variety, so much diversity — yet some of us (including myself!) go our entire life without seeing even a fraction of what’s right around the corner or down the street from us. Beautiful work Mr Reilly.
born NW side, raised SW side, now living N side. gotta say my city looks pretty good through your eyes. would be cool to see more pics from the less “famous” hoods if you’ve got them.