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Exterior Shot of Hotel Cass, a Holiday Inn Express. Photo courtesy of Molly Lynch

I need to get something off my chest:  I had a brief affair over the holidays. It’s not the first time, either. My first urge to stray came after a ten and a half year relationship I had from 2000 through the middle of 2011.  I started to feel the strain near the end of 2010 and became disengaged. I actually searched for things about my lover that annoyed me—only to feel justified by next headstrong decision, which was to pack up and move. Within two months, I knew I had made a grave error. I missed the comforts and conveniences of the romance I’d cultivated.  I even missed the irritating factors. My new partner was a complete mismatch and after two months of cohabitation and unhappiness, it occurred to me that my old, seemingly stale relationship could be summarized by Carly Simon lyrics: “Just because you don’t see shooting stars/doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect.”  With humility, I left San Francisco after 11 months and returned to the “fits me like a glove” metropolis of New York in June 2012. Contentment followed.

Towards the end of last year (2015), I felt another itch. I wanted a dalliance with another major U.S. city.  Since it is usually within my nature to buck convention, I decided on Chicago. After all, doesn’t everyone flock to Cook County in December for the lake effect chill?  Actually, about 90,000 people did descend upon the Midwest over the holidays. (Much to the chagrin of this New Yorker, who was hoping to avoid as much human interaction as possible).

Chicago mounted  their first ever New Year’s eve event called “Chi-Town Rising”, http://chi-townrising.com , their own version of the Times Square ball drop. Set along the Chicago river between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive (which they dubbed “Broadcast Boulevard” for the night) It was nationally televised and hosted by Mario Lopez, featured live performances, and a 70 foot illuminated star plastered on the side Wacker Drive’s Hyatt Regency. As the countdown approached midnight, it  rose to the top of the hotel and triggered an impressive fireworks display.  To contrast the incandescence, Chicagoans are still saddled with Rahm Emanuel (though not be outdone by limp mayoral leadership, New Yorkers have the misfortune of another year with their own fallen star, Bill De Blasio.)

For years, a rivalry between New York and Chicago has existed, dating back to 1893 when the bid to host the World’s Columbian Exposition (or World’s Fair) went to Chicago.  Manhattanites were miffed. Much later, New Yorker magazine journalist A.J. Liebling-after living in Chicago for one year- slammed the Industrial town, dubbing it “the Second City’ in his 1952 book of the same name. Chicagoans didn’t take that sitting down.

There is little doubt that a rivalry exists today. We New Yorkers are always flexing our muscles, bragging about how great Gotham is and comparing our brawn against the perceived inferiorities of other places.  But let’s not be too shortsighted. This may come as a shock to many, but there is life outside of Jay Z’s Manhattan where the “streets will make you feel brand new”. I don’t disagree, but those same streets will also spin you into an unbridled Tourette’s patient, especially when you’re trying to travel quickly from point A to point B.

I’ve been here long enough to know that my relationship with New York is a one way street: I adore it, but it could care less about me. I also don’t take it personally, for that is the dynamic all transplants of New York have with this town. This is why we look around, cheat, and ultimately return to it with fresh eyes.

Chicago-at least for the four days of my New Year’s  holiday break  -was embracing, friendly, and bursting with opportunity. And like the rest of the country, it too was experiencing climate confusion with temps hovering around an unseasonably warm 34 degrees. The brisk but manageable weather provided the perfect chance to run along Lake Michigan, which I did on the early morning of January 2nd. It was a much needed workout from the decadent meals which had collected on my already voluptuous spare tire.

I’m not making a hasty decision to permanently move. I’ve learned my lesson once. But it is safe to assume that I’ll return often to explore other offerings that this spectacular town has to offer- especially since it is an affordable and quick two and one half hour flight from New York.

For those of you wishing to frolic there, you’ll find a list of lodging, restaurants, and entertainment that will make your stay as enjoyable as their famed deep dish pizza. I know, I know….you probably think New York slices are better, right?  I suppose it’s all a matter of preference, but I’m pretty certain that Chicago, much like New York, has something for everyone. So get over yourselves and get out more!  The Windy City is a great place to start.

LODGING 

Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel  1 West Wacker Drive  

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/chisr-renaissance-chicago-downtown-hotel/

This chain, owned by the Marriott Corporation, has a global presence with 160 locations around the world.  Their stylish complimentary magazine, The Navigator, provides more insight about the specific regions they service, as well as the cultural offerings and dining options for each locale.  From the moment you enter the massive lobby in this Chicago location (conveniently located in the Loop), you’ll feel chic and trendy by default, even if you’re dressed in an ancient schmata. Pony up to their Staytion Market and bar and take in the fun, urban themed art displayed on the walls while you grab a drink or a casual bite to eat. Once you arrive to your room, you’ll be impressed with the spaciousness. My executive suite was 800 square feet and included a firm King sized bed and glorious view. I was also greeted by a room service plate of fresh cut potato chips and two cans of local Chicago beer. Nice touch!  Other room options are available, as the property boasts an impressive 520 plus occupany. Feel like freshening up? They have a walk in shower (big enough to fit my full frame).  If you’re in the mood to unwind, they also have separate bathtub, both of which are furnished with Aveda products. While local coffee haunts are a stone’s throw away, you needn’t walk outside your room, as a mini Keurig machine on the counter will “perk” you up.  For business travelers, a Main level business center offers generous hours with FedEx services. Fitness fiends can skip to the 4th floor in their workout room, located directly near their pool.  In addition, Renaissance offers the complimentary service of “Navigators” who are knowledgeable about the city and can direct you to the “hot spots”. There are plenty of them around, including their on premise restaurant, Great Street, as well as Emerald Loop and Wow Bao (reviewed).  The hotel is currently undergoing a renovation with a brand new indoor/outdoor terrace bar that will overlook the Chicago river. The new space will also feature an upgraded ballroom.  Fear not, travelers. The sounds of improvement will not disrupt your sleep. After all, Renaissance means “rebirth” and this hotel honors your temporary sanctuary with silence, allowing you to refuel and experience the town. Renaissance is among the finer options for lodging, but they still offer competitive pricing.

Rendering of Renaissance Hotel Terrace Bar. Anticipated opening Spring 2016. Photo courtesy of Renaissance Hotels.
Rendering of Renaissance Hotel Terrace Bar. Anticipated opening Spring 2016. Photo courtesy of Renaissance Hotels.
Rendering of Renaissance Hotel's Looking Glass Ballroom. Anticipated opening Spring 2016.
Rendering of Renaissance Hotel’s Looking Glass Ballroom. Anticipated opening Spring 2016.
View from Renaissance Hotel's Executive Suite overlooking Chicago river and Downtown. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds.
View from Renaissance Hotel’s Executive Suite overlooking Chicago river and Downtown. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds.

 

Renaissance Hotel's Executive Suite with a comfy King sized bed (which was made by the author of this article and is not nearly as neat as what housekeeping would do. Don't judge me! ) Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds.
Renaissance Hotel’s Executive Suite with a comfy King sized bed (which was made by the author of this article and is not nearly as neat as what housekeeping would do. Don’t judge me! ) Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Central Loop Hotel –111 West Adams Street 312-601-3525

http://www.centralloophotel.com/

Central Loop might look like it has some age on it, but it is still well maintained with clean accommodations and a gregarious staff. Located in the middle of the loop, it offers multiple options for transportation. While it lacks a trendy feel, it is perfect for the “no-frills” traveler who seeks simplicity. Complimentary Wi-Fi is also included and a British-American Pub and Restaurant called Elephant & Castle resides on the ground floor.  Room service is also offered. They also have self-serve chilled water bottle service, perfect for on the go guests who want to work out in the hotel’s fitness center. On the night of my stay, I returned to my room, only to hear a rowdy party in the room beside me. I promptly called the front desk and within moments, the party was silenced. The remainder of my stay was quite enjoyable and the front desk graciously held my luggage until I picked it up later in the day. Coffee and tea seekers can rest in the fact that both are available in the room via Keurig cups, but for those who worship at the shrine of Starbucks, one exists next door to the hotel. There is also a 7-11 across the street in case you wake up at 3 AM craving bad coffee and frosted cherry Pop-tarts.  Room rates are extremely affordable and although it lacks the bells and whistles of other high roller properties, Central Loop is a terrific value with an equally valuable location.

Exterior of Central Loop Hotel. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Piccirillo
Exterior of Central Loop Hotel. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Piccirillo
Fitness Center at Central Loop Hotel. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Piccirillo
Fitness Center at Central Loop Hotel. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Piccirillo
Lobby of Central Loop Hotel. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Piccirillo
Lobby of Central Loop Hotel. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Piccirillo

Hotel Cass, A Holiday Inn Express 640 North Wabash Avenue 312-787-4030

http://www.casshotel.com/

Complimentary breakfast bar at Hotel Cass, a Holiday Inn Express. Photo courtesy of Molly Lynch
Complimentary breakfast bar at Hotel Cass, a Holiday Inn Express. Photo courtesy of Molly Lynch

One normally wouldn’t associate Holiday Inn with “boutique hotel”, but here, a boudoir for the budget minded awaits.  Modest size rooms with comfortable surroundings welcome you, even if the lime colored headboards reek of garishness. This won’t deter you from a good night’s rest. The hotel was one of the last to be redeveloped along this stretch of North Wabash Avenue and they’ve kept the integrity of the building, originally built in 1927.  This new property was renovated in 2006. Adding to the ambience are vintage photographs of both pre-renovated hotel pictures and photos from sixties fashion magazines. Cleanliness abounds in this building that houses 170 plus guests rooms. Other perks include complimentary Wi-Fi, hot breakfast, 24 hour coffee service in the lobby, a fitness center, and a daily newspaper. The location is in the heart of shopper’s paradise, as it is steps away from the well-known “Magnificent Mile.” With 460 stores to choose from and over 275 restaurants across a 13 block stretch, it’s safe to say that if you don’t find something of interest, nothing probably pleases you.  It’s also a short walk to the Navy Pier where you can stroll along Lake Michigan and take in the glorious views. Did I mention that Trader Joe’s is across the street?  Public Transit is also readily available. For the price, location, and quality, Hotel Cass is a steal.

FOOD

Emerald Loop- 216 North Wabash Avenue 312-263-0200

http://www.emeraldloop.com/emerald_Loop

With general manager Conor O’Keefe at the helm, you can rest assured that a superior experience will unfold at this Irish Pub and Restaurant. Housed in a former Jeweler’s building, this sprawling space, once a Chinese restaurant, is perfect for intimate parties of two or for an entire crowd. The carrot-ginger soup was a pleasing start to my exceptional lunch which consisted of Shepherd’s Pie (ground beef, vegetables, and mashed potatoes) and Buffalo Bird Mac and Cheese (buffalo chicken with creamy baked mac and white cheddar cheese with bleu cheese crumbled atop). Both were served piping hot and the portions were generous. For more traditional UK fare, corned beef, smoked brisket, bangers and mash and more are included on the menu. Calorie counters can enjoy a variety of wraps and salads.  Emerald Loop also offers an an extensive beer and wine list. O’Keefe and his staff were as warm as the restaurants’ interior which is decked with beautiful oak and stained glass. Plus, they won’t rush you so you’ll have plenty of time to savor your meal and catch a ball game on one of their many screens. It’s also in close proximity to numerous hotels, including the Renaissance.

Emerald Loop Restaurant.Shepherd's Pie (Left) and Buffalo Bird Macaroni and Cheese. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
Emerald Loop Restaurant.Shepherd’s Pie (Left) and Buffalo Bird Macaroni and Cheese. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds

Wow Bao

Numerous Locations  

http://wowbao.com/

Wow Bao was quite a find during my trip to Chicago. This mini, local chain has 6 locations, including one at O’Hare International and at baseball stadiums and Universities around the country. The popular spots, owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises defy the notion that chain restaurants serve mediocre, cookie-cutter food.  Their primary items are—no shocker- Bao, which are steamed, slightly sweet, bread-like buns of Chinese origin.  They may be stuffed with meat, vegetables, or sugary delights (like Wow Bao’s heavenly coconut custard!). Savory buns are also available on their innovative, made to order touch screen menus, so even during a busy lunch rush, they will keep your wait at a minimum. (New Yorkers and Chicagoans both agree that standing in line for anything is a drag!)   The hoisin glazed pork belly was stuffed with generous cuts of meat and topped with their own sriracha mayonnaise.  Chicken summer rolls were loaded with fresh ingredients and accompanied by a tasty peanut sauce. Chicken potstickers were cooked to absolute perfection;a crispy coating on the bottom and a chewy, but not mushy top. They also didn’t skimp on the filling. The only minor disappointment was their homemade ginger ale. Made with fresh cut ginger, it had plenty of zing but the sugar overwhelmed the fragrant spice.  Prices are incredibly reasonable and with the option of choosing individual items, you can eat as much or as little as you’d like and not have to worry about keeping the rent paid. More substantial dishes, like rice and noodle bowls will satisfy those with a heartier appetite.  Seating options are simple and trendy, and they also offer take-out and delivery,  If you stop by their location on State and Lake, located in the theater district, be sure to say hello to Brandon, one of the branch supervisors.  Between his friendly, native Michigan hospitality and the quality of the food, you’ll be a Wow Bao Believer! “Lettuce” hope they consider opening some branches throughout New York City. This way, we won’t have to schlep to Lower Manhattan or Flushing for well made, inexpensive, on-the go Chinese delicacies.

Pork Belly Bao at WowBao. Photo by Anjali Pinto.
Pork Belly Bao at WowBao. Photo by Anjali Pinto.
Rice Bowl at WowBao. Photo by Anjali Pinto.
Rice Bowl at WowBao. Photo by Anjali Pinto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Potstickers at WowBao. Photo by Anjali Pinto.
Potstickers at WowBao. Photo by Anjali Pinto.
Bao @ WowBao, Photo by Anjali Pinto.
Bao @ WowBao, Photo by Anjali Pinto.

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
(L-R) Pork belly bao (top), sweet coconut custard bao (bootom) Chicken summer rolls w/ Spicy Peanut dipping sauce. Chicken potstickers w/ scallions. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
(L-R) Pork belly bao (top), sweet coconut custard bao (bootom) Chicken summer rolls w/ Spicy Peanut dipping sauce. Chicken potstickers w/ scallions. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds

Lou Malnati’s Pizza Various Locations

http://www.loumalnatis.com/

Some foods just lend themselves to reckless abandon. Practically everything on the menu in this old school, local pizza chain supports my last proclamation.  Framed sports jerseys are staggered on the walls of their North Wells Street location (where I dined) and while it enhanced an already classic dining environment, the pizza here could be just as satisfying in an interrogation room with a spotlight pointed on your face. (If they ask you what you’d like as your last meal, tell ‘em to call Lou!)  Dinner began with the calamari fritti, which was lightly battered, well-seasoned and served with warm marinara sauce. With such a large amount, I could have made a meal on that alone. Next came the main event:  The Malnati Chicago classic, a deep dish paradise consisting of an obscene amount of cheese in a butter crust, topped with lean sausage and red sauce. Knives and forks accompany the pies and trust me—you’ll need them. It’s no small wonder why Malnati’s has become a Chicago institution.  They’ve been around since 1971, but by no means are they riding the coattails of their reputation.  While  they are best known for their pizza (which come in sizes ranging from Personal to large), you can stuff your gullet with other gut-busting items including pasta, soups, and tiramisu   They even cater to thin crust devotees  and offer gluten free options. Dieting? As we say in NYC, “Fuggetaboutit”—at least for this meal. Your only regret will be to have missed dining here.

Malnati Chicago classic Deep-dish pizza. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
Malnati Chicago classic Deep-dish pizza. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds

 

Pho 888 1137 W. Argyle St. Chicago, IL

http://www.yelp.com/biz/pho-888-chicago

CNN Travel listed Pho (pronounced “fuh”) as one of the World’s Top 50 foods.  While I’ve not yet scoured the entire globe, I have enjoyed my share of Asian cuisine and would assert that this stop was definitely a culinary highlight of Chicago.  Pho, a spice laden, brothy, noodle soup originally from Vietnam, can easily serve as a breakfast, lunch, or dinner entrée. Whatever time of day you saunter into this no frills bare bones joint, you can prepare your taste buds for incredible joy.

The Shrimp vegetable rolls were bursting at the seams with quality ingredients and an abundance of crustaceans. The deep fried shrimp cake was served steaming hot with just the right amount of oil, presented on a colorful plate of lettuce and mint. The chicken pho, which arrived to the table in a bowl big enough to bathe in, was stuffed with noodles and tender sliced chicken accompanied with beautiful thai basil, crisp bean sprouts, raw jalapeno, and juicy limes. The small restaurant, located in the Asian Uptown district, also makes Vietnamese Sandwiches (Banh Mi) and has a wealth of vegetarian options.  Prices are extremely  affordable, allowing you to eat like a Royal on a peasant’s salary.

Pho Ga (Chicken Pho) at Pho 888. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
Pho Ga (Chicken Pho) at Pho 888. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds

 

Banh Cong Tom, a Vietnamese deep fried shrimp cake @ Pho 888. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
Banh Cong Tom, a Vietnamese deep fried shrimp cake @ Pho 888. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds

 

 

 

Goi Cuon Tom (Shrimp Vegetable Rolls) / dipping sauce @ Pho 888. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds
Goi Cuon Tom (Shrimp Vegetable Rolls) / dipping sauce @ Pho 888. Photo courtesy of Ryan Leeds

 

BottleFork Bar and Kitchen 441 N. Clark St

bottlefork.com

This River North haunt, part of the RockitRanch family of restaurants, is a wonderfully romantic date spot. This casual, contemporary American restaurant serves small to large plates ranging from Grilled Venison to Braised Beef Cheek Poutine.  Feeling less hungry? Check out their list of snacks including Korean BBQ chicken wings and Napoleon Dynamite’s favorite bites, “tots”.  Their broad list of well-crafted cocktails, wine, and beer are the perfect antidote to the bracing Chicago air.  Be sure to say hello to self-titled, “Veronica the Redhead”.  The spunky and talented hostess recently moved to Chicago from NYC and will appreciate a friendly face from one of the five boroughs.

THEATER

Steppenwolf Theater 1650 N. Halsted Street

https://www.steppenwolf.org/

Steppenwolf Theater emerged in the 1970s and has nurtured countless actors including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Tracy Letts, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf and Amy Ryan. The theater’s reach has extended beyond Chicago, however, and many of the shows that originated here have transferred successfully to Broadway. August, Osage County, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and True West  all made their way to New York  and left with Tony Awards. In addition, they do a great deal of community outreach and education and have numerous stages where exciting new and reimagined works are performed. This season’s highlights include  Annie Baker’s hit play The Flick (Feb 4- May 8)  Letts’ new work, Mary Page Marlowe (March 31 May 29) and Between Riverside and Crazy, the much lauded play by Stephen Adly Guirgis (June 23-Aug 21).  While I was there, I caught Domesticated, a deliciously scathing play by Bruce Norris about an oblivious politician caught in a sex scandal. It runs through Feb 7th.  Chicago is chockablock with theater but Steppenwolf is so good, it could be a destination spot unto itself.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Production of DOMESTICATED. Playing now through February 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of Saverio Truglia
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Production of DOMESTICATED. Playing now through February 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of Saverio Truglia

Bank of America Theatre  18 W. Monore Street

Broadway in Chicago

This glorious theater opened in 1906 and showcased talents like Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, and Fanny Brice.  In recent years, it has been home to National Tours and new works that aspired (and in some cases, transferred) to Broadway. Kinky Boots found its’ footing here, as did Movin’ Out and Monty Python’s Spamalot. Earlier this month, Tony winner Jerry Mitchell directed his new Broadway Bound  show here.  Gotta Dance, starring Georgia Engel, Stephanie Powers, Andre DeShields, and Lillias White is slated to hit Broadway Fall 2016.  I had the great pleasure of catching this wonderful show about a senior citizen hip hop team. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Engel throwin’ down Tupac Shakur lyrics. Get ready, New York!  The sizzlin’ seniors have a brand new bag and this true to life story -based on the documentary of the same name-  is guaranteed to win your hearts. Next, the Nederlander owned theatre will host the National Tours of Cabaret, Bullets Over Broadway, and The Book of Mormon. 

Cast of GOTTA DANCE. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Cast of GOTTA DANCE. Photo by Matthew Murphy