So you say you know Chicago. Your kind of town, eh.
But do you know Real Chicago and all its tiny tucked away jewels that define our city more than a mirrored bean, glorious skyline or ancient ball park ever could?
I’m talking about places that simply feel like Chicago as soon as you encounter them — a stunning view, a friendly spot, a hidden piece of history or a joint with the best grub a neighborhood can offer.
If you’ve ever lived here, there’s probably a place that’s a must when you want to impress your out-of-town pals when they visit — and it’s probably not some tourist trap with a view like the bar on 95th Floor of the Hancock. Though, that’s nice, too.
More likely, you’ll find Real Chicago deep in the neighborhoods and off the main road — a canoe ride on an industrial leg of the river, a West Side music shop run or the mystical beauty of our city’s hidden lake.
That’s where folks who really know our kind of town — Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, architectural know-it-all Lee Bey, muralist Jose Guerrero and gallery owner Carrie Secrist — say you can find the soul of our city.
Just listening to them is like a guided tour of what it means to be a Chicagoan. So, let’s take a stroll.
“Chicago’s finest beach” with the best views of Hyde Park and downtown from the elegant 1920s concrete beach house. “This is a people’s beach,” Bey says. “You won’t find Playboy bunnies in waiting and frat boys here.”
Top Notch Beefburgers 2116 W. 95th
The Top Notch decor — wood paneling, vinyl booths and lunch counter stools — hasn’t changed since 1978. And they make tasty burgers so big “you eat it and want to black out,” Bey says.
Robie House 5757 S. Woodlawn
Several buildings in Hyde Park help cement Chicago’s place as a city of architectural interest. From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel to the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center and the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle.
Jackson Highlands neighborhood Bounded by 67th and 71st from Jeffrey to East End, this historic neighborhood of sprawling lawns, 1920s mansions and no alleys has been home to famous Chicagoans including Jesse Jackson and Ramsey Lewis.
At 78th and Eggleston, city streets deviate from the grid and tumbles into a lost 19th century neighborhood on a wandering street near bridges straddling a beautifully landscaped lake. Pay attention, you can see it from the Rock Island Metra train. Bey says: “Just when you think you know the city, wham. You find part of Chicago you’ve never seen before.”
Pullman Historic District
111th and Cottage Grove
The neighborhood is the crossroad of so much history — civil rights, labor, transportation, even landscape architecture. About 80 percent of George Pullman’s 1880 factory town remains in tact. Take a tour. Bey says: “It’s a rare place that only Chicago could give you.”
George’s Music Room 3915 W. Roosevelt
Owner George Daniels is a true Chicago character who sometimes pops up in music videos. Daniels’ place is definitely urban and hip — with a large selection of Chicago artists — but it still feels like an old-school record store.
MacArthur’s Soul Food 5412 W. Madison
Prepare to wait in line on Sundays when soul food is served with assembly line precision that would make Henry Ford proud. “You’ll see every strip of humanity there from a guy down on his luck to an alderman to a R&B singer. Bey says: “There are no VIPs at MacArthur's”
Myers Ace Hardware 315 E. 35th Street.
Before David Myers' grandfather bought the city landmark building at 35th and Calumet, the place was jazz joint named Sunset Cafe where Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Earl Hines played. Later, the building was ward headquarters for the late Chicago Ald. William Dawson. If you ask nicely, Myer will give you a tour that includes the 1920s mural in an office that once was the Sunset Cafe’s stage. Samuelson says: “Jazz, politics and a family store. How much more Real Chicago can you get?”
Ping Tom Memorial Park 300 W. 19th
This riverfront park offers views of the old riverfront buildings, mechanical bridges and barge traffic against the backdrop of new skyscrapers. Samuelson says: “There’s the old city and the new city. It’s one of the most incredible places to see both.”
Lawrence Fishery 2120 S. Canal
On warm days, buy yourself a bag of fresh fried shrimp and relax on the fishery’s dock. Samuelson says: “This is another wonderful vantage point of the city. It’s one of the best places I know to watch the city go dark.”
Bookman’s Corner 2959 N. Clark This book store gives you the same feeling you get from reading a Nelson Algren novel. You’re encountering real people in a real place. There’s no pretension about it whatsoever. You’ll probably find owner John Chandler at the front desk chatting up regulars.
St. Pius V Church 19th and Ashland
Inside the a 1972 mural by a former St. Pius priest that tells the story of Mexico and the people of Pilsen. Stroll around Pilsen to see murals that tell the neighborhood’s Real Chicago story. “There is no art for the sake of art. All art has political and social content ... In Pilsen, the murals you see here all talking about the people’s struggle ... All the murals talk about Chicago. Maybe different ethnic groups, but it’s still Chicago.”
Twin Anchors 1655 N. Sedgwick
This was Frank Sinatra’s kind of place when he visited his kind of town. All wood paneling, cozy booths and comfy stools, this Old Town open secret is best known for its delicious ribs, zesty barbeque sauce and “positively no dancing” decree. Located in a 1910 building that turned into a prohibition speakeasy called “Tante Lee Soft Drinks,” Twin Anchors is about as Real Chicago as you get. Seacrist says: “A Twin Anchors cheeseburger is the best in the world.”
Showtune night at Sidetracks 3340 N. Halsted
Sidetrack is vibrant part of gay nightlife in the heart of Boystown. And there’s nothing like signing along with vintage musicals on the big screen on Sunday nights. Seacrist says: “Chicago’s a friendly, playful city and we’re not that conservative, either.”
West Loop Gallery District There may be more art galleries in River North, but the growing cutting-edge contemporary art community is surging in the West Loop’s left behind lofts and industrial buildings. Rhona Hoffman, Donald Young and Thomas McCormick galleries get global attention. Seacrist says: “This is Chicago’s Chelsea District in New York.”
File under don’t try this at home:
Skyway bridge over the Calumet River
Jumping from the bridge (or the train bridge at 130th and the river near the Thomas J. O’Brien Dam) has been a foolhardy tradition for generations of adventurers from Southeast Side neighborhoods — Hegewisch, South Deering, the Bush and East Side.
Other Real Chicago spots:
Al’s Beef: 1079 W. Taylor St.
Green Mill: 4802 N. Broadway
Edgewater Beach Hotel: Sheridan near Foster