Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Chicago has long been considered second behind New York in the list of great American cities, a silver medal winner in the urban olympics. Is the runner up in the race for metropolitan mastery a worthy competitor or just another in a long line of loser towns dotting our nation? I recently traveled there myself to get a lay of the land and to investigate the bars and restaurants of the Windy City. Would I find a sizzling party town on par with any other, or is Chicago just a frozen icicle of boredom hanging from the sagging nipple of Lake Michigan? I brought my brother along for the ride, so that he could decipher my decision from amidst the incoherent rambling of my binge-induced blackouts (assuming he could avoid similar stumbling blocks).
Our arrival was timed carefully so that we would show up in the summer months, when the depression inducing frigidness of the Midwestern winter would not distract me from my appointed task. In addition, we slunk in under the cover of night in order to avoid the traffic that would have driven me into a panicked frenzy and left my weakened cranium unable to lucidly judge the quality of the town. When my friend Tim, with whom we were staying, returned from work early the next afternoon, we were ready to begin. Colin (my brother) thought we should check out the Navy Pier, but Tim thinks that place is an overrated in all facets except for sucktacularity (tourist trap). He suggested that we check out some of the Irish culture that is a feature of life in Chicago. The Irish had been integral in the construction of the city, and any visit would be incomplete without experiencing some of the landmarks of Irish culture that dot the area. Therefore, we headed straight to a bar.
The first destination, Corcoran's, was great, but it was merely a warm up bar, so I will move on to our second location, which was known as Fado. By the time we appeared there, our warm up beverages were starting to marinate nicely and we were ready to move on to the complete defilement stage of the binge. Several of Tim's Chicagoan friends joined us to provide local flavor and good conversation. All of the Chicagoans I talked to were lifetime natives, a fact that is definitely in the city's favor. On second thought, perhaps when winter comes around, and they want to leave, they find themselves frozen in place.
Fado was an authentic Irish bar, the Gaelic word for post office was written atop the bar to prove its inherent Irishness to any doubters. Since we were in an Irish bar the only beer for me to drink was Stella Artois (hey Belgium is in Europe which my geography teacher claimed is near Ireland). Actually I started with the aforementioned beverage and was planning to switch to something else later when a crazed female friend of Tim's informed me I would get too drunk if I persisted in imbibing Stella. Being stubborn, I decided then and there to drink nothing else that day. I possess a level of stubbornness that would make a mule jealous. I am so unyielding that once I have found my path I find running into walls preferable to going around them (actually that part may relate to my abject laziness).
Since this publication purports to be about restaurants I suppose I should speak for a moment about the food at Fado. Colin (my brother) and Tim enjoyed an Irish favorite known as the quesadilla (according to historians the Irish were the Mexicans of their day) while I actually did consume an Irish meal, something called steak boxty. This dish consists of something similar to Guinness stew (beef, potato, carrots, sauce) wrapped inside of a potato crepe. A mouth-watering meal it was too even if Tim's friend Steve, who told me seventy five separate times to get the Guinness wings instead, was a bit disappointed in my choice.
Shortly after supper we left for our final destination of the night, (bar wise at least, some claim that we had a midnight snack at a local diner later) a little place called Salukis. Salukis is owned and operated by graduates of Southern Illinois University, a school unfortunate enough to be burdened with the odd mascot that the bar is named after. According to my buddy, this bar happens to have the only pool table in downtown Chicago, so we took over the felt and reigned supreme there until the late hours, when we got kicked the hell out for some unspecified reason (I think it might have been because they were closing). After a delicious breakfast of omelet cheese runoff, we went to bed and prepared to face a day of debauchery at the epicenter for all that is liver-obliterating in Chicago - Wrigleyville.
Upon my birth, my father came up with an ingenious scheme to keep my humble and help me to understand suffering - he made me a Cubs fan. So I have remained to this day, over thirty years of pain later. Each season a new beginning, a hope for something great, ending in tragedy and failure, crashing upon the rocks of the National League. Not once have the Cubbies even seen what a World Series game would be like, but always we believe that next year is the time the drought will end.
Needless to say, the Northside Nine drive many thousands of their fans to drink, and nowhere is that fact more evident than in the bars and restaurants surrounding the field. We arrived in this area, known simply as Wrigleyville, early in the afternoon during the middle of the Cubs/Pirates game. We sat down in an establishment called The Houndstooth Saloon and settled in to watch the ballgame and have a few Old Styles, the semi-drinkable official beer of Wrigleyville. The Cubbies pulled out a 5-1 victory and the celebration was on, the whole area turning into one big party for the team and their legion of cursed fans.
The Houndstooth itself was a curious amalgamation of Alabama Crimson Tide (safe to assume the owner was a graduate) and Chicago Cubs regalia mixed with chandeliers constructed from antlers that would have seemed more at home in a hunting lodge. The signature beverage there was a forty oz. wrapped in a paper bag, the homeless guy special, I suppose. The crowd was equally odd and even more entertaining than the drinks and decor. After a couple hours of imbibing Old Styles and singing "Go Cubs Go" (I promise a future blog entry dealing with this awful and yet infernally catchy ditty) a game of speed quarters broke out at the table next to us. These fools had brought their own shot glasses into the bar in order to play that most magical of drinking games. Our kindred spirits found, we immediately jumped into the fray.
After one of the shot glasses was fatally wounded, we decided to move on towards the heart of our journey, Wrigley Field itself. Wrigley is more than just a baseball field, more than just another patch of grass surrounded by seats and screaming fans. Wrigley is a shrine to everything that is great about baseball - warm summer days, cold beer, beautiful women (so I'm told), hot dogs, lush ivy, cracker jacks, and an exciting win or devastating loss for the hometown Chicago Cubs. Blasphemous though it may be to some (and not just to rival Cardinals fans), stepping onto that field would be like a religious experience for me. Although some claim there are two teams in Chicago, only one of them can turn me into a twelve year old boy again, ready to scream in exultation or to bury my head in the ground in a fit of overwhelming sadness (unfortunately the latter has been the norm over the years). I grabbed my brother's shoulder tightly as we walked down Sheffield Avenue and gazed upon the white W hanging over the old hand-operated scoreboard, indicating the Cubs' victory that day. Who knows, I thought, as I wiped a single tear streaming down my face, perhaps this just might be the year we win it all. No more chants of wait til next year for the lovable losers. I would shed a lot more than one tear were that day ever to come.
After our haj to the corner of Waveland and Addison, we had one more important task to take care of before our departure the next day. Although Chicago cuisine boasts many world class chefs and myriad fine dining establishments, the real judge of a town is the kind of food the working classes eat. For the masses in the Windy City there is nothing more delightfully delicious than a deep dish pizza. Eating one of these pies is more like a mining operation than a meal. The crust is like the side walls of an edible quarry and inside lies the loot, a layered bottomless pit of cheese, meat, and sauce. The sauce lies on top, a thick layer of soil over top of the diamonds and emeralds that are the cheeses and meats beneath. When your excavation is complete, your stomach will be filled with a treasure trove of pizza goodness that would make King Solomon go green with envy.
Sunday morning came all too early, the time of our journey home at hand. The three of us headed upstairs to take one last look at what two of us would be leaving behind. Atop the forty-four story building in which Tim resides lies a breathtaking view - and not just of the glistening, oiled, half-naked bodies absorbing the sun aside the swimming pool that sits on the roof. The entire city of Chicago opened up before us, expansive Lake Michigan reflecting the sunshine as ant-like splotches of humanity crawled across the shore. Giant skyscrapers reached to grace the heights previously inhabited only by God before the coming of steel monstrosities like the Hancock Building and the Sears Tower, the occasional crane indicating that the skyline is not yet complete. A hugely impressive city indeed, but the equal of the city that never sleeps? Perhaps not, but one can hardly blame the residents of Chitown for taking a nap every once in a while. Even the hardiest bear would be smart enough to hibernate through the arctic blasts of the Windy City winter. As my brother and I found, waking up during the summer in Chicago is certainly worth the wait.