Just because I love to compile a list of My Favorite Things, I’m rarely mistaken for Oprah. Be forewarned, I am not going to give the readers of this blog anything free, except for my advice, which is priceless. After years of painstaking research I have assembled this list–granted, it’s not ALL of my favorite things since that would preclude any future updates. Also, I reserve the right to change the list at any time as my opinions tend to vacillate. I should point out that if you are hoping to get your business on my list, I am easily influenced by freebies, gift cards, 2-for-1 specials, and wanton flattery.
BEST PIZZA: RENALDI’S With little fanfare, this neighborhood pizzeria on Broadway near Diversey produces a divine thin crust pizza with the creamiest mozzarella this side of Napoli. There are many other worthy contenders, but until I taste them all, I’m sticking with Renaldi’s.
BEST COFFEE: PEET’S From a simple coffee house in Berkeley, CA (my alma mater) about 40 years ago, this small chain has spread its flavorful beans across the country. I love a coffee bean that has been roasted within a few seconds of its life and nobody does it better than Peet’s. I admit some cafes (Intelligentsia) have better ambience, but screw ambience, I am there to drink strong coffee not have a Zen moment. Peet’s is on North Ave & Sheffield.
BEST CORNED BEEF SANDWICH: MANNY’S COFFEE SHOP You probably ask yourself, “who would go to a coffee shop for corned beef?” and that is a valid question. But Manny’s is a coffee shop in name only, it is really an emporium of delicious food like Grandma used to make, depending of course on whom your Grandma was. As long as you are tasting their corned beef, get a potato pancake and a dish of kishke and gravy–if you don’t know what that is, better not to ask.
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT: LAO SZE CHUAN This place is always busy. Located in that Chinatown mall on Archer Ave, the atmosphere is extremely friendly, and the menu is longer than George Bush’s list of blunders. The food is first rate. I should point out that my favorite Chinese dish is actually the Walnut Shrimp from another Chinatown restaurant, Evergreen. It’s not on the menu, so you need to request it–they will immediately think you are a regular or have a cousin in Hong Kong.
BEST HOTEL BAR: BERNARD’S BAR AT THE ELYSIAN HOTEL I am far from an expert on this subject, but I was there recently and it’s dark, quiet, romantic, and they serve liquor–everything a bar should be. This elegant hotel is on Walton near State, and this bar is a great place to chill if you’re in the Gold Coast / N. Michigan Ave area and want to get away from the pickpockets and cell phone snatchers for a little while.
BEST COMEDY GROUP: IMPROV SHAKESPEARE & COOK COUNTY SOCIAL CLUB Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie. Both these groups are borderline comic geniuses and their shows are different but equally funny. They perform at iO Theater on Clark by Wrigley Field. If I told you how and why they are so funny, it would spoil the joke–just go see them.
BEST PLACE TO SEE A MOVIE: GRANT PARK Okay, it’s not even a movie theater, but during the summer they show old films outdoors for 20,000 people picnic-style, and it’s an incredible scene surrounded by the flickering lights of the Chicago skyline. It’s one of the joys of summer in Chicago, and I hope recent budget cuts don’t slash this unique activity–do you hear that, Rahm?
BEST SECRET PASSAGEWAY: THE CHICAGO PEDWAY Underneath the bustling streets of Chicago’s Loop is a little-known network of tunnels connecting dozens of commercial and government buildings, and various subway stations. In the winter it’s a warm haven from the inclement weather, and in the hotter months, it’s a cool respite from the sweltering streets. In the Pedway, one finds shops, cafes, public art, live music, but rarely a crowd. Pedway maps are available and advisable, as some people have been known to wander beneath the city streets for weeks in search of a way out.
FAVORITE OLD BUILDING: THE ROOKERY Burnham, Root, and Frank Lloyd Wright collaborated on a building that after 120 years still has that WOW factor every time you walk in the skylit lobby with the floating staircase. At the corner of LaSalle and Adams, this office building is an homage to transcendent architecture, something sorely lacking in so much modern design.
FAVORITE NEW BUILDING: 333 WACKER An elegantly curved building perfectly suited to its location at the bend of the Chicago River. This building gives me hope for modern architecture, something I never feel when looking at one of Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” minimalist structures. Check it out at sunset from the Franklin St Bridge or the Merchandise Mart.
BEST DIVE UNDER MICHIGAN AVENUE: BILLY GOAT TAVERN I suspect this is the ONLY bar/restaurant under Michigan Avenue, so there isn’t a lot of competition in this category. The legendary hamburgers are only so-so, but this place is truly a Chicago legend. Made famous in an old John Belushi sketch on Saturday Night Live, it has been a favorite watering hole for Chicago journalists for decades, and now a Mecca for people seeking a one-of-a-kind Chicago experience.
All photos by Alan Klehr