Charleston is a lovely place, with much to offer, but sometimes my wife and I need to get to the big city. Usually, that means a few days in New York, but recently she proposed a trip to a different big city, one she’s never seen, one I haven’t visited in decades, the capital of the great Midwest: Chicago.
In March it’s still chilly up there, but the threat of a polar vortex has subsided, so we slung our winter jackets over our arms, packed gloves, scarves and hats, and boarded a Southwest Airlines flight that took us directly to Midway Airport, a 30-minute metro train ride to the Loop.
It was easy and relatively inexpensive. Why hadn’t we thought of this before? The weather was brisk, to be sure, but it wasn’t particularly windy in the Windy City. We stayed in the historic Congress Plaza Hotel on Michigan Avenue, across from Grant Park. The entire expansive downtown area was walkable, though we did rely on Lyft to get to Santorini Greek restaurant on West Adams Street for a sensational seafood meal on our first night in town. And the metro trains were easy to use when we ventured north or southwest into three of the city’s many interesting neighborhoods.
We had but four days in a sprawling cityscape, which merely allowed us to make a few deep scratches in the surface of Chicago. But it was enough to appease our urban cravings. We gawked at the gorgeous skyscrapers, especially the Art Deco towers built in the 1920s and 1930s, but also some of the modern buildings whose architects played with shapes and lines to create an illusion of movement, who embraced the use of glass and steel and who strived for a kind of mathematical magnificence.
I’ve always loved the tapered John Hancock Center in River North, the Carbide and Carbon Building on Michigan Avenue, the Harold Washington Library Center and even the enormous, block-stacked Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).
But the devil’s in the details, as they say, and the awe inspired by the most beautiful tower is nothing compared to the wonder prompted by the exquisite ornamentation and decorative elements one finds on, say, the Jeweler’s Building or Tribune Tower, or in the vestibules of the old Art Deco structures, or all over the Chicago Theater.
This is a city whose inhabitants appreciate the historic significance of great buildings. No wonder Chicago is a sacred pilgrimage site for students of architecture and engineering and design.
It’s also a center of the theater arts, so we made it our business to attend a couple of shows. The first was late-night improv at the legendary The Second City, a sketch comedy show called “Algorithm Nation, Or the Static Quo.” Oh my. These comedians are brilliant. No wonder some of them springboard from here to a national stage such as “Saturday Night Live.” We couldn’t stop laughing at the clever, spontaneous fun.
I should probably name each cast member of this troupe of six — Ryan Asher, Tyler Davis, Jeffrey Murdoch, Emma Pope, Nate Varrone and Kimberly Michelle Vaughn — and suggest you keep an eye out for them.
Before the show, we enjoyed an irresistible meal at Tandoor Char House on North Halsted Street. Brothers Fahim and Faraz Sarharia decided to learn the recipes of their culinary parents, and add a bit of their own flair. The result is divine, and it satisfied our craving for good Indian food, hard to come by in Charleston.
At A Red Orchid Theatre, a tiny venue on North Wells Street in Old Town, we saw “Fulfillment Center” by Abe Koogler, an underdeveloped play about a few unhappy people stuck in the Southwest. Only one of the characters had a backstory and was therefore presented in a quasi-three-dimensional way, making her the most interesting of the quartet. The others were but character sketches, and the plot went nowhere.
You win some, you lose some.
Before the play, we had a terrific brunch at Two Lights Seafood and Oyster, a sleek, bright space that served the best waffles ever (encrusted with bacon and submerged in a not-too-sweet blueberry compote), some excellent raw oysters from Massachusetts and a tender, ultra-fresh broiled cod sandwich. We left happy.
One full afternoon was spent at the incomparable Art Institute of Chicago, a must-see for any visitor. I had not set foot in the place since the opening of its Modern Wing, designed by star architect Renzo Piano. The museum now is the second largest in the U.S., after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and its holdings include masterpieces of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, Modern and contemporary art, African and indigenous American objects, Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, European paintings and more.
One of its many famous pictures is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” but we became enchanted with the work of a living artist exploring the night. Dawoud Bey’s exhibition of 25 large-scale gelatin silver prints capture atmospheric landscapes the artist associates with the Underground Railroad. The photographs — of a house, a yard, a stand of trees, the lake — give us a view of what slaves, arriving at the final stops of the abolitionists’ covert escape route before proceeding to Canada, might have beheld under cover of darkness.
The series, called “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations” provided Bey with his title. The stillness of these images, the fine detail that refuses to be obscured by the dark tones, the in-betweenness these pictures convey heighten the effect on the viewer. Is this peace or threat? Is this safety or menace? Freedom’s scent is in the air here, but one still hears the rattle of the chains.
Chicago itself was a major destination for African-Americans fleeing Jim Crow during the first part of the 20th century. The Great Migration saw about 6 million blacks move from the rural South to the industrial North, settling in New York, Detroit, Chicago and other cities to start a new life.
The melding (or perhaps clash) of cultures that resulted from this migration helped foster a new kind of music: an urban, electric version of the Blues, and one evening we stopped in Buddy Guy’s Legends, a club of some repute, to hear a little live music. Guy himself was in the house and briefly took the stage to riff and encourage tipping. An accomplished local trio, SonicSoul, held forth.
One of the first things we noticed on the morning of our arrival in Chicago was an awning on South Wabash Avenue that read, in an old script, “Iwan Ries & Co.” A small sign indicated that the cigar shop could be found on the second floor. Fans of a good cigar, and curious about what we might find in this otherwise nondescript old building near an elevated metro station, we ascended.
We found heaven.
An attendant pointed us to a portion of the walk-in humidor that contained only Padron cigars. We bought three. Then we met the owner, Kevin Levi, who explained that the shop, the oldest in the U.S., was founded in 1857 by his great-great-uncle Edward Hoffmann, a German-Jewish immigrant. The business was inherited by Hoffmann’s nephew Iwan Ries, whose daughter married Stanley Levi, Kevin’s grandfather.
Today, the shop, which has moved locations several times over the decades, is in the hands of the family’s fifth generation. The selection of cigars, humidors, ashtrays and various tobacco paraphernalia is wide-ranging, but our favorite part of the operation was the adjacent BYOB lounge, which required a $15 cover to get in. There, we chatted with other smokers, watched the L trains pass by outside the large windows, sipped beers and considered the working-class origins of Chicago, as well as its current politics.
Politics and pizza
We visited between the Feb. 26 mayoral election and the April 2 runoff. Two candidates, both African-American women, now are vying to lead this large, diverse, cumbersome city. I noticed many more “Lori Lightfoot” signs than “Toni Preckwinkle” signs, but that might be attributed to the neighborhoods we frequented. Both candidates have loads of experience and impressive resumes.
Their progressive bona fides go deep, and it will be interesting to note which one prevails. Those familiar with Chicago politics know about the Daley family dynasty, the history of corruption and the unwieldy, antiquated nature of governance.
The new mayor will shift from the dissident left to a position in which she will wield tremendous power. But presumably she will strive to fulfill her promises to a wide-ranging constituency.
Part of that constituency lives in the Pilsen neighborhood southwest of downtown, an area populated mostly by Mexicans and other Latinos, where colorful murals decorate the streets and metro station, and where one can appreciate some of the city’s special treats.
We strolled down West 18th Street, from the National Museum of Mexican Art (closed on a Monday) to Carnitas Don Pedro, a well-known restaurant where Spanish is the primary language used and the meat, cooked slow in its own fat, arrives tender and ready for the onion-and-cilantro pile-on. Cheap and good.
Downtown on our last day we visited the Chicago Cultural Center, an 1897 Beaux-Arts building replete with gorgeous mosaics and other decorative features. It houses two spectacular stained-glass domes, one designed by Healy & Millet in a Renaissance style, the other a masterwork by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The building houses the offices of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and it includes plenty of exhibition space.
As our weekend getaway wound down, we stopped at Lou Malnati’s Pizza for a traditional deep-dish pie and a local brew. That did the trick. We left Chicago satisfied.