Saturday, February 19, 2011

For ACDA adventurers- Uncle Paul's Guide to Chicago

If you are cool at all, you WILL be coming here to Chicago for the ACDA national conference in a few weeks click here to register. As you will see from the ACDA website, there will be so much amazing music and fabulous interest sessions, and if you have never attended a national conference, believe me, it is something you will remember forever. I would also like you to know that the Chicago Symphony instrumentalists and chorus, who will be performing Mendelssohn's Elijah for you, are deliriously happy these days now that the boorish Daniel Barenboim is gone and Ricardo Muti has taken his place. This Elijah is going to be spectacular- don't miss being here for it--there is still time for you to register and make plans to attend. There will be so many musical experiences for you here, and also some pure Chicago delights waiting for you. So now that I have talked you into coming, who better to tell you what the heck to do with yourself when your ears need a short break from all that crazy ACDA singin' stuff than a loopy guy who has lived here for too long? With that said, I hereby give you:

Uncle Paul's ACDA Mini- Guide to Chicago (with mucho hyperlinks included, and many of my hyperlinks have hyperlinks of their own leading to good info):

Here I will give you some ideas of what to do, assuming you are based downtown in the conference area and you left your Maserati in Cleveland with the detailers-- I'm sorry that darned grease stain on the backseat from your kid's Happy Meal just isn't coming out with any chemicals you know how to use. So we'll talk about things within walking distance or a reasonable cab ride, bus ride, or excursion on the “el” (short for elevated- it's those trains up on stilts like you saw Popeye Doyle driving under in the French Connection). I won't send you to the 'burbs, even though Evanston to the north and my town of Oak Park to the west (birthplace of Hemingway, location of the Frank Lloyd Wright Studios as well as the birthplace of the Hostess Twinkie) offer a lot. And of course we are only touching the tip of the iceberg as far as things to do or see. But first let's get through a few damned important issues:

It's just Chicago. Reporters or folks from elsewhere might call it the Windy City but no matter what, that tag has little or nothing to do with weather type wind, but more to do with windbag politicians of yore (and maybe even currently, Chicago /Cook county politics are crazy). And please note: we never call ourselves “Chi-town”, that is just so stupid and all you will get are weird looks if you refer to Chicago that way. The actual native American word for the area was shikadwa, translated as “wild onion” or “wild garlic” and probably hinting at the somewhat low lying swampiness of the area. You might get an olfactory hint of swampiness if you were to drive out by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation Project, but thankfully for you, my friend, that's a hike from where you will be!

As far as weather is concerned, I am sure there will be weather in Chicago from March 9th through 12th.

Chicagoans are pretty okay. They're not rude but they're not ultra smiley either. Just kind of in between. They want to do their work and then go home and be with their fams- it's pretty simple. Don't overwhelm them with your encyclopedic knowledge of the complete Janequin chansons or your collection of framed musica ficta and you will get along fine with the locals. Also, we don't talk like the Super Fans from the old Saturday Night Live skits,
except for some pockets of population on the SW side (near where “Mare” Daley lives). And the downtown area where the conference is being held will be safe, don't worry about crime in this area.

Speaking of area, let's get a lay of the land. Downtown where you will be based is the "Loop" business district with some arts and museums thrown in. There is really no hip or wild nightlife in the central downtown area (sorry, it's not my fault). If you want to get a little crazy you need to head north. In fact, for the best restaurants, either fancy or cheap yet interesting, for clubs and shopping, etc. you want to head north. The first north location would be the Magnificent Mile or Mag Mile, a stretch of fancy hotels, restaurants and shops on (and radiating out from) North Michigan Avenue beginning from just over the crossing of the Chicago River (the Wrigley Building and the new Trump Tower) up to 1000 N. Michigan (Michigan at Oak). It's okay to just window shop in this area, that's what most non-rich people do, and it's a fun area to stroll when the weather is nice. From Symphony Center you could walk this with good shoes, or get up past the river via public transportation. You'll also see the historic old stone water tower and pumping station, one of the few buildings to survive the great fire of 1871. Anyway, the other area somewhat close is River North, full of high end art galleries but also some touristy stuff too- this is the area a bit west of Navy Pier (which juts out into the lake and is hard to miss as it has a ginormous Ferris wheel on it- more about Navy Pier later). If you really want to get to the cool and funky areas you need to get up a little further north to the neighborhoods called Lincoln Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park where you will find all manner of cool shops, funky little restaurants at all price levels serving all imaginable world cuisines, etc. If you are cool you will wind up there. If you are not cool, you will just sit in your hotel room watching Golden Girls re-runs or maybe Ice Road Tuckers, but who am I to judge?! A cab ride will get you up to these neighborhoods (which are also generally safe day and night) though you should try the “el”, the red line and brown line are the ones which will get you up that way.

So to recap, all the cool stuff, both very expensive and also cheap and trendy/funky is up north. If you were to go west you are going to sort of wind up in factory areas and weird parking lots-- it will remind you of New Jersey. If you are from New Jersey you may feel very at home here, and I am happy for you. If you head south, there won't be much going on, as sadly, efforts to rehab the South loop area were building steam until 2008 hit and all the banks stopped lending to rehabbers. If you go east, I would suggest swim trunks and a snorkel. However, if you stop short of falling into the chilly waters of Lake Michigan, you will find a great running and bike trail right near the lake which stretches many miles- also safe day and night. Just be careful crossing Lake Shore Drive to get there. By the way, if you head east straight over from Symphony Center, before you hit LSD (that's Lake Shore Drive, not a drug) you will come across Buckingham Fountain, a really cool large fountain which will probably not be turned on yet (sorry, come back in May or June!). It was a gift to the city from Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks back when they were flush with large amounts of Franklins.

Here is a great map of the Chicago neighborhoods

Regarding fancy restaurants, especially in the near north area, your best bet is to get a copy of Chicago Magazine and thumb through for ideas, or read what food critic Pat Bruno has to say recently. Just keep in mind that these fancy places will be booked heavily, so don't expect to just walk in and get a table in the evening.

Your fearless ACDA executive director, president, and other officers who have worked hard to make this conference happen seem quite smitten with the eats at Gioco (Italian), at 1312 S. Wabash, just a few blocks south of the Hilton. This would be considered “South Loop”, by the way. Actually inside the Hilton is Kitty O'Shea's casual Irish pub which serves a good fish and chips. Chicago composer/conductor Wayland Rogers recommends Russian Tea Time (often called the Russian Tea Room), which is super close to Symphony Center and the Art Institute. They serve delicious Russian, Slavic, and Jewish food, including vegetarian fare. Afternoon tea there is delightful and you may be treated to Balalaika music. Wayland also says to not forget to sample all the many vodka drinks (oh, those composers!).

So now let's talk about all the signature (cheap) Chicago food you have drooled over while perusing your Chicago guide book. But just remember, you shouldn't expect to fit in your skinny jeans if you eat this stuff every day:

Chicago deep dish pizza, also sometimes called stuffed pizza:
Well there are some pizza wars in Chicago. Lately they have been accusing each other of sneaking in cheaper ingredients. Maybe we need to give them all a time out. The usual heavy hitters are Lou Malnati's and Gino's East, but you also can't really go wrong with Pizzera Uno, Giordano's, Edwardos, or Nancy's. Most of these joints have near north locations (remember,“Go North”), and some just a bit south of downtown, and they all are going to deliver. For any of youse from the east coast, please don't order a Chicago pizza, deep dish or thin, and try to fold it in half and cram it down your throat, that's just disgusting.

Chicago style hot dogs: these are kosher all beef dogs steamed but not made into blecky mush and served on a poppy seed bun, The standard toppings are mustard, raw chopped onions, pickle relish with plenty of neon green dye (the rest of the planet's supply of neon green dye will go into the Chicago River for St. Paddy's Day), tomatoes, a dill spear, sport peppers, and celery salt. What you will pledge as a respectful visitor to Chicago is to NOT put ketchup on that dog. Step away from the ketchup and the catsup too. Put chocolate sauce and sprinkles on it if you want, but no ketchup. The best dogs will not be soggy, they'll have some plump to them. And you won't usually go wrong with joints like Hot Doug's, Portillo's and even the street vendors. If your dog is soggy and tasteless, ask for a replacement, as no self-respecting hot dog vendor here will want you to be unhappy with their product. There is a newcomer I haven't tried yet- Franks 'n' Dawgs, making upscale haute dogs from scratch.

Italian Beef: This is a bit tricky to advise on since Italian Beef sandwiches vary in quality a lot even from the same joint. Best places to try: Mr. Beef on Orleans (666 N Orleans- there's a devil of an address), Portillo's at 100 W. Ontario and the #1 Al's Beef at 16 W. Ontario. Some people love Al's, some think it's overrated - you decide. Oh, and if you order “juicy” or “dipped” you will need napkins, a whole bunch of them.

Btw, here in Chicago soda can be called pop, and pop can be called soda. You can even call it both at the same time. But if you want something stronger you wouldn't do too badly than to try some locally made suds from Goose Island Brewery. I am assured that no geese are harmed in the production of these ales, which I am sure will make you very hoppy. There are two brewpub locations, and the one on Clybourn is on the same block as Franks N' Dawg's, by the way.

If you haven't gotten your fill of music and you love jazz, you deviate, go to the Jazz Showcase which features national acts (real jazz, not dumbed down stuff) in its new location a bit west of the Hilton or the Green Mill up north which features strong progressive local talent,and also a no cover jam session from 1:30 to 4 AM Friday night (hmmm, you better be a real night owl for this one!). These are both great places to hear real jazz and where people actually shut the heck up and listen. As far as other arts events, you could check out what's going at the Harris Theater which is right downtown (actually underground at Millenium Park, cool huh?), plus all the usual theater joints like Steppenwolf, Goodman Theater, etc. If you want to check out a Chicago institution, head to the Old Town neighborhood (basically about North Ave. and Wells St) to visit The Second City, where a ton of folks like John Belushi, Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, Tina Fey and many others got their start in comedy. There's also a great flower shop in Old Town and a cool grocery store called Treasure Island. As a kid I had the good fortune to hear John Coltrane play a gig in Old Town shortly before his death.

Broadway in Chicago is thriving if you want to see a Broadway show and you might also want to visit the Biograph Theater in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, 2433 N. Lincoln, which is being redeveloped for live theater. Its claim to fame is for being the site where John Dillinger met his end, just after exiting the theater in 1934. The facade of the theater and adjoining business were redressed to appear as they did in 1934 when the Dillinger film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp, was shot there in 2009. A movie theater still showing great art films and documentaries is the Music Box Theater at 3733 N. Southport . You could also check things out downtown at the Siskel Film Center for more interesting films and documentaries.

Not afraid of heights? Then the two places to see the city from up in the sky are the Skydeck Chicago at Willis- Sears Tower and The John Hancock Observatory. The Sears is usually preferred, I suppose because it is 353 higher, but check the websites out and decide yourself which one interests you. It's best to get tickets in advance via the internet to avoid standing in ticket lines. You can stretch your legs a bit and walk to the Sears from where our main venues are- head west on Adams, or head north on Michigan Ave to the Hancock.

Chicago is known for architecture- Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Helmut Jahn, et all-- a whole bunch of important movements. You can learn about these via Chicago architecture bus and walking tours (the boat tours won't be running yet). What I would hope you don't do is ever get a true glimpse without sunglasses on of what Soldier Field has been turned into. It was a big old lakefront stadium with Roman columns and has hosted the Rolling Stones, popes, and is where the Chicago Bears play defense and pretend to play offense. When the city and the Bears wanted to modernize or should I say monetize (think fancy skyboxes for rich fans) the tired old place no politician or city mover and shaker would go on record as wanting to tear this historic place down. Yet they still wanted to create something glitzy and modern. Their regrettable solution was to build an alien space ship looking steel and glass thing and land it on top of the old stadium (Mars Attacks II- akk, akk). It's easily the ugliest thing in the whole city, the renovation caused it to lose its national landmark status, and I gag every time I see it- an example for us all of how compromise can often result in an enormous disaster.


There are plenty, but the one you really need to see is right across the street from Orchestra Hall/Symphony Center. It's the Art Institute, which houses, among other major holdings, an incredible collection of French impressionist art. In fact, many famous paintings you perhaps may have assumed to be in in the Louvre, are actually here in Chicago- the Seurat La Grande Jatte (dang, it's way bigger than you expect), six of the Monet haystacks, a whole slew of van Gogh's and so on.

There is also a wonderful display of Chinese ceramic art to die for, and also a great bookshop/gift shop and a pleasant cafeteria on the lowest level. If you only go one special place while in Chicago, this should be it! And, by the way, if you have already been to the Art Institute in the past, please know that in 2009 an entire new architecturally gorgeous addition was created to hold more modern art.

As far as the major museums I would rate them in this order:

1) Art Institute 2) Field Museum of Natural History (walk or short cab ride 3) Shedd Aquarium (moray eels are so cute, ya know) 4) Museum of Science and Industry (some great new interactive exhibits, but a bit of a haul from downtown) 5) Adler Planetarium.

Numbers 2, 3, and 5 are near each other in what is called the museum campus, near the dreaded Soldier Field.

Other very interesting museums but not big 'uns: Spertus Museum of Judaica, (right on Michigan Avenue near our venues), Museum of Contemporary Art (not too far away) and The Oriental Institute (down south near Rockefeller Chapel and the Museum of Science and Industry, it holds some amazing ancient Middle East artifacts, truly large sculptures, etc)

What else to do?

Walk north from the Art Institute just a bit (you will be on Michigan Ave on the east side of the street) and you will run into Millenium Park, with the new band shell (or shall we say orchestra shell, as its main summer group in residence is the Grant Park Symphony) designed by Frank Geary, the dude who designed Disney Hall in LA. You will also want to get up close and personal to admire Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, but call it by its nickname “The Bean”.
Go ahead and touch it, walk through it, take pictures, it's an amazingly fun piece of shiny public art and it's impossible to go see the Bean and not smile (and have someone take your picture). Millenium Park is a very cool place to go wander through-- it's all free and will especially be fun for you if the weather is nice during the conference.

Well there you have it, my ACDA friend- please come to Chicago for some great music, eat some pizza, visit The Bean, visit the Art Institute, get out there and head north to the nightlife and whatever else you want to do. You can experience Chicago on the cheap or spend a ton of money at some very fancy restaurants or art galleries- it's up to you.

Final piece of advice: If you want to avoid icky touristy stiff- stay away from Navy Pier. I will bet that most of the kids singing at the conference will wind up there, but it's nothing special. We also have dopey stuff like a Rock n' Roll McDonald's and so on that kids seem to go crazy over, but I think you can do far better than that!Also, we have a Chinatown but it's kind of dying out- not much to see or do there. And Rush Street has lots of cheap bars, but they generally attract heavy partying young folk. Go if you like, but it will be a bit like a typical Florida spring break bar crawl atmosphere on Friday and Saturday night.

If you are truly adventurous here's the weird side of Chicago and the forgotten side of Chicago

Other random tidbits- did you know you can walk parts of the Loop underground? Click here for the Pedway

Also, you can get to and from downtown O'Hare or Midway airports via the blue line for O'Hare and the orange line for Midway. It's not glamorous, but it's way cheaper than a cab!

Hope to see you here soon,

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  1. Wow! Thank you Paul for posting this...... Terrific ..


  2. Wow! Youse did a real good job, der, Paul.