Saturday, August 17, 2013

Chi-town!

Up until recently, I'd never been to Chicago, though I'd heard people rave about it for years. Well, in late July, I finally go the opportunity to GO for a whole week! And it is just as awesome as you've heard. Here's my trip report:
Chicago Water Tower

Day 1
I caught a cab in from Midway, and, because I'm chatty, I discussed all kinds of things with my cabbie on the way in. As we zipped towards the Magnificent Mile, he said, "It's so hot here right now," in an apologetic tone. I almost laughed out loud. "I'm from the Deep South, sugar," I said. "This feels like spring!"

About a half hour (and $40 or so) later, he pulled up at the entrance to my hotel - the Hotel Intercontinental Magnificent Mile. What a place! Originally built in 1929 as a men's athletic club, the hotel is ideally located - to the north is Lincoln Park, the Willis Tower, and the Chicago History Museum, and to the south is Millennium Park, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Field Museum. Plus, you're situated in the midst of Chicago's main shopping corridor, convenient to the river. Check in was swift, and though my room on the 8th floor had no view to speak of, it was clean and comfortable. (And $200 per night. FYI.)

After freshening up a bit, I did some exploring in my immediate surroundings, buying a few souvenirs (There's an Accent Chicago store, which sells all types of mementos, in the Water Tower Place shopping complex, along with a Macy's and tons of other stores.) and a cute pair of sandals.

Wildberry Cafe crepes
Then, I explored the Water Tower itself. The stone structure was built in 1869, and it's famous today for being one of the only structures to survive the Great Fire of 1871. Legend has it that families used it as an orienting landmark to help them find the ruins of their homes in the aftermath of the fire. Today, the structure (and part of the pumping station across the street) serves as a visitor's center, with free literature available about local tourist attractions. The Water Tower also offers small, local exhibits from area artists. (The week I was there, it was a series of closeup photographs of some truly WILD manicures.)

By this  time, I was getting hungry. I stepped into Bar Toma, right near the Water Tower, for a bite. The restaurant is lauded for its pizza, but not being quite hungry enough to polish one off by myself, I chose two small plates: the fried calamari and the treviso and goat cheese crostini. (Treviso is some kind of cooked cabbage. In Bar Toma's preparation, this really reminded me of balsamic roasted onions. It had a sweet, caramelized flavor to it.) Both appetizers were really delicious, and I didn't come close to finishing the crostini. I washed everything down with a glass of pinot noir for good measure, shopped a bit more, and turned in for the evening.

Day 2
I had set up a free Chicago Greeter tour for 10 a.m. on day 2, but I awoke early with a rumbling stomach. I headed for Wildberry Cafe, tucked into the first floor of what appears to be an office building
Cloud Gate (AKA The Bean)
bordering Millennium Park. Word had it on the intranets that it was a great place for a filling meal to start the day. The waitress recommended the fresh berry crepes or pancakes, and I was happy to oblige. The crepes were delicious - creamy, beautiful to look at, studded with fresh berries and a bright coulis. I wolfed them down with a frothy latte, and I was on my way.

Still early for my tour, I decided to explore Millennium Park a bit. Wow. I LOVED it. The music pavilion, designed by Gehry, is a wonder and one of the most amazing permanent public performance spaces I've ever seen. It's a marvel of ribboned steel, and the capacity is impressive. Cloud Gate (AKA The Bean) was interactive and so fun! I loved walking underneath it and seeing it reflect the city skyline on its curved surface. I also enjoyed some great people watching at the Crown Fountain, where faces of real Chicagoans spout water while the young (and the young at heart) play in the water. Kids and marathoners joined together to cool their heels. (I may have slipped off my shoes for a little bit. Maybe.)

Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center
By this time, my tour guide was waiting. I met up with Kara at the Chicago Cultural Center, itself an architectural and historical wonder. After discussing my interests a bit, we toured the building. The center was originally built as Chicago's first public library and features intricate craftsmanship. There's a large dome of Tiffany glass, marble walls, and painstaking mosaic tile work throughout. Afterwards, we legged it through the theatre district for a bit (I wanted to find out where the Chicago Theatre was, for a tour I'd scheduled later in the week.), and then we headed to Marshall Field's (now a Macy's). We admired Field's business know-how (He's famous for declaring, "Give the lady what she wants!") and poked our noses into The Walnut Room before heading next door to The Palmer House Hotel. The famous Peacock Doors here were designed by Tiffany himself, weigh more than a half ton, and are worth a million dollars. Wow. We finished up by making our way to some of Chicago's most notable public art installations: the Picasso, Chagall's Four Seasons, and Calder's Flamingo.

By this time, I needed to cool off. I decided to take a dip in my hotel's retro pool. The pool is original to the building, and I totally felt like Esther Williams swimming in it. After lots of laps, I ran through the shower and got a quick snack, then took a well-deserved nap.

Calder's Flamingo
I woke ready for more fun. I had tickets to an early showing of Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo Theatre, and I was anxious to get there. I took a cab (because the Apollo is a loooong way from the Intercontinental), and readied myself for an evening of music.

The Apollo is a small thrust theatre, and I daresay there isn't a bad seat in the house. I happened to be on the very first row, and I could've reached out and touched the performers many times throughout the production.  The show is about the afternoon that four music greats - Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis - spent an afternoon making music together at Sun Studios. (If you've ever toured Sun Studios, in Memphis, you'll learn more about it. The reality is that it was largely a publicity stunt, and that once the still photo was snapped, the men most likely went on their way. But the show is a hugely entertaining idea of what might have happened.)

The cast was energetic and extremely talented. All the performers played instruments (guitar, piano, etc.), sang, and acted. (I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to cast this show.) The end vignettes (especially one where Shaun Whitley, the actor playing Carl Perkins, literally jumped, with his guitar, and STOOD in the curve of the upright bass, playing and singing his heart out) were AMAZING. Jerry Lee Lewis, played by Lance Lipinsky, was astonishing. The whole thing was just wonderful. (And, near the end, Elvis - played by Robby M. Kipferl - shimmied my way and draped his scarf around my neck! What an absolute HOOT!) I had a magical time. Honestly, if your toes don't tap during this show, I can only assume you have no feet.
Crispy braised goat at Perennial Virant

After the show, it was a quick, breezy walk to Perennial Virant, a locavore restaurant about a mile from the theatre. I chose the crispy braised goat, washed down with some rose. It was smoky and delicious, served on a bed of creamy grits. Service was lightning-fast and incredibly cheerful. A cab back to the hotel, and to bed!

More to come . . .

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