I really wanted to love Chicago- I visited when applying to college many moons ago, drawn to the arts scene and midwestern potential. I decided against it when I saw the actual student art being produced at the school I applied to. Now, fifteen years later, I wonder if I would have enjoyed my time in the Windy city as a wet-behind-the-ears 17 year old, and how my life would have been different had I spent those formative years in Chicago.
We took an early evening flight from LaGuardia, landing in O’Hare around 7pm. We decided to rough it to the hotel, opting for public transport as a taxi to the Conrad would have been $60+ for the 45 minute ride, and there was much to be eaten with that money. Upon buying our train ticket, we were informed that our line was being re-routed and we would have to switch to a bus mid-trip. I am used to this after living on Brooklyn’s worst train line (New Yorkers, I’ll give you one guess), so we pushed on. First problem- at the tail end of the worst winter in recent history, the end of April in Chicago was still exceedingly nippy and waiting outside for the various forms of transportation seemed more insufferable because of it. Second problem- upon exiting the first train for the bus, it seemed that every college kid in the city was also trying to board- drunk. One young lady was too busy yelling back and forth with her friend to take note of the step up, and instead fell backwards onto me, whacking me smack in my very pregnant belly. Hard. She didn’t even turn around to acknowledge me, much less to apologize, but all of her friends seemed to think that this mishap was simply hilarious. Third problem- upon exiting our bus then the second train, the wind cutting through the streets was so bracing and the street signs so poor that we ended up taking a taxi the final .5 mile to the hotel. Grumpy and hungry, we dropped our things in the room and made a quick U-turn back out in search of a remedy- pizza.
Our research dictated that the finest example of Chicago-style deep dish would be found at Lou Malnati’s , which had an outpost about a 15 minute walk from the Conrad where we were staying.We found it without difficulty, but the line out the door would give us at least a 45 minute wait. Have I mentioned I was already grumpy? And that it was COLD? Unable to summon up that much patience, we settled for Gino’s East a few blocks away. The beer flight was the highlight of the meal with solid pulls from the craft taps showing off a variety of local suds. The pizza? Ehhhh, just ok…. and this is not some New York vs Chicago style vendetta. The crust was too bready and the ingredients seemed to remain separate entities from each other, floating in a sea of cheese. A quick yelp search in attempts to salvage my culinary quota touted Firecakes Donuts as the second-best in the nearby area, the first being already closed. The Chocolate Hazelnut Long John for me and a Triple Valhala Chocolate Cake for Matt were again, just OK. “How is this possible?”, I thought. Though I may get in moods from time to time, there is very little that a good cake can’t fix, and this was not that cake.
The most confusing thing about the evening was the people in the streets. Granted I am not as young or spry as I used to be (especially at almost 8 months pregnant) but everyone seemed extremely young. Girls in skimpy skirts drunk danced outside their parked party buses, apparently immune to the freezing cold after large quantities of Coors Light. Lines snaked out the doors of most establishments, everyone waiting ridiculous amounts of time for something or other. An wouldn’t you know it, but every single Chicagoan’s friend was getting married tomorrow! We carefully wove our way home between rowdy revelers, hoping to not get puked on. The highlight of the evening turned out to be the bathtub back at the hotel. With some fancy bath salts and some crap TV, the night ended up as not a total loss.
We took a long wander the next morning, starting at the Magnificent Mile (but not shopping) towards the Navy Pier (and turning right back around), to Millennium Park to see Cloud Gate (which was quite impressive, and perhaps my favorite thing about our visit), then back in to town to rest up with a second try at donuts.
This time Do-Rite was the destination, and though we circled the block a few times trying to find the promised land, we could not. Feeling slightly dejected, we settled for a quick pop into Eataly (packed to the brim with more people waiting), then returned back to the hotel for a rest-up.
The Lincoln Park Zoo filled the rest of our afternoon, and I appreciate having such a valuable commodity accessible to the public free of charge. The collection (especially the primates) was varied, and the location provided a pleasant venue to spend a day outside. From here, we had an enjoyable early dinner at Rustic House, offering a 3 course farm-to-table menu for $35.
This left us just enough time to cab it to Second City for a 7:00 show. I was warned by an improv-savvy friend that the Second City “crap” I saw on cruise ships would pale in comparison to the “real deal” I would get in Chicago. I actually think that the improv we had seen on various Norwegian Cruise Ships was on par, if not better than the show we saw here. Granted, this was a scripted show which takes some of the mystery out of improv, but I like a bit more snark in my comedy, and the shows I see at the PIT or Upright Citizen’s Brigade tend to cut much deeper. My normal tendency would be to explore the neighborhood after the show, but the freezing rain and general air of disappointment instead led us to the 7-11 for some drinks to bring back to the hotel room for another early night.
Even breakfasts were weird. On the first morning, the waitress wouldn’t let us get our own tea, though there was a serve-yourself station offering many more options than the one she offered me when I asked for decaf. Our egg whites were clear and underdone, and the whole vibe felt like the staff were waiting to get in trouble.
One final hurrah on our last rainy morning in Chicago was a trip to the Shedd Aquarium– a very pleasant surprise complete with feeding demonstrations, interactive exhibits for the kids, and knowledgeable interpreters throughout the facility. This serves as a great example of the many museums available in the city- should we have gone to more during our quick trip? Maybe. Did the weather affect our perception of this place? Probably. But I also feel that Chicago’s personality and mine do not mix at this point in my life. We grabbed a final Frontera Grill torta before flying back to NYC. Chicago, I wish I loved you more- but I don’t.