Chicago, I love you. I really do. It’s been two weeks and I’m already nostalgic for your glistening skyline and buzzing energy. I know I willingly left you but that doesn’t mean I still can’t miss you once in a while.
Chicago feels like that really great first boyfriend who could be my soulmate but we were too young when we met and I wanted to have more experiences before settling down. This city is home to some of the brightest, kindest, wackiest and most durable people in the United States. There’s a quiet camaraderie between Chicagoans that surely comes from enduring the bone chilling lake winds that cut right through your triple thick goose down parka.
As I prepare for a transition to quieter spaces for (at least) the next year, I will undoubtedly reminisce about that urban tundra and my favorite Chicago places. If you’re visiting Chicago, stop by these local establishments and give them my best.
Best Indian Restaurant: Rangoli
I might get some flack for this since Chicago has an entire strip in Roger's Park brimming with delectable Indian food. Unfortunately, that's incredibly far from where I lived. Luckily, I never had to make the trip because Rangoli exists and is the only thing I need in the world.
This tiny BYOB restaurant is located on North Avenue, just west of Western. It's always crowded. You can make a reservation if you feel like it but be prepared for them to give away your reservation for no reason. Organization is not their strong suit but whatever, it's worth the wait.
Rangoli is not for the faint of heart. They bring the heat in the best way possible. For maximum spiciness, get the Lamb Vindaloo. Maybe bring a bottle of milk to cool off your tastebuds. You'll need it and despite your constant running nose, you won't be able to stop eating. Pro tip: wear stretchy pants.
Best Used Book Store: Open Books
I know we live in a world where robots are taking over everything and kindles are replacing physical books, but for any literature lover, Open Books is a must. Their collection of used books is unparalleled and their surplus of couches and chairs can make for a cozy afternoon. Bonus points, they are a mission driven nonprofit that provides literacy programs for more than 5,000 K-12 Chicagoland students every year, from reading help to novel-writing.
If you feel like putting down the kindle and smelling a dusty old paperback, this is your place. Even better: they just relocated to West Town/West Loop.
Best Neighborhood: West Town (River West?)
This is incredibly subjective, so take with a grain of salt: West Town is undoubtedly my favorite neighborhood to live in, specifically on Grand Avenue between Milwaukee and Ashland. This neighborhood is historically Sicilian Italian and home of the Outfit's Grand Avenue Crew (aka the mafia). The street corners are littered with vacant properties with boarded up windows. Despite it's industrial feel, the neighborhood boasts an inviting community with cheaper than dirt Italian Sub Shops and locally owned small businesses.
If you want to feel like you've time traveled back to the mafia's heyday, visit Richard's Bar on Grand and Milwaukee. You'll be greeted by old school Italian bartenders slinging cheap drinks. This might be the only place left in Chicago that lets you smoke indoors. Shady? Most definitely.
In addition to its unmistakable character, this neighborhood is suspiciously quiet and undiscovered despite being less than a mile from Downtown Chicago, a stone throw's away from trendy Randolph Street, and just a few El stops away from the nightlife in Wicker Park and Logan Square.
Side note: After all the years of living in this neighborhood, I'm still unsure of what it's actually called. West Town? River West? It's flies so under the radar no one knows its name.
Best All Around Sandwich: Cemitas Puebla
Get the Milanesa sandwich. Don't bother trying other sandwiches there. You're not fancy. Stick to the basics and you can thank me later. This food joint might be categorized as upscale, yet still very affordable, fast-food Mexican? Ingredients are fresh. Portions are more than generous. Homemade sauces are a must.
Cemitas is located on Fulton Market Street, conveniently next to Glazed and Infused. Treat yourself to a traditional Mexican dessert after your meal. No? Mexican and donuts are not a thing? It should be.
Best Yoga Studio: The Lab
Funny that I'm recommending a Yoga Studio since I can hardly touch my toes but that should make my recommendation even that more compelling. If you're considering starting yoga but you're apprehensive about how inflexible you are, do not look at The Lab's Instagram page. Had I looked at it, I surely never would have stepped foot inside the studio because I'm a coward.
The Lab is run by Carmen Aguilar, a Spanish yoga goddess who could probably fold herself up into a shoebox if she tried. It's very intimidating at first but trust me when I say it's for beginners too. All of the staff is incredibly welcoming and understanding of each person's limitations. The classes are tough but doable and before you know it, you'll be nailing forearm balances and handstands in no time.
They have created their own yoga called cYoga so you're unlikely to experience similar sequences anywhere else. Bonus, new students get an unlimited pass for $50. Trust me, if I can do yoga, anyone can do yoga.
Best Coffee: Intelligentsia
This one was tough because Chicago has some great coffee. Close runner ups were Dark Matter and Gaslight but Intelligentsia still edges them out with their complex espresso and rich pour overs. Plus, their baristas are dressed in adorable bow ties. What's not to love?
Their loop location is tucked away on Jackson street but it still manages to be crowded with coffee lovers day in and day out.
Best Free Entertainment: El Circo Cheapo
If you like the idea of a cheap, underground circus that lets you bring in your own beer, all for $10, you might like El Circo Cheapo. If you have your fancy pants on, upgrade to a folding chair for $15, otherwise, gather up your closest friends and find a spot on the floor mats.
Shows start the first Saturday of every month at 7pm and 10pm. Get there early to secure your spot. Space is limited and it gets crowded. If you arrive at a rundown warehouse and are instructed to walk down a series of industrial hallways, you're in the right place.
Best Pizza: Pizzeria Serio
Listen up Chicago: There's better pizza in the city than Piece Pizzeria and Brewery. Piece is fine, I don't hate it, but it's completely underwhelming to me considering all the hype it gets.
Pizzeria Serio is my pizza of choice in Chicago. Brick oven style with fresh ingredients and an adorable staff (disclaimer: I used to work there so yeah, I'm biased). But seriously, eat this pizza then try talking to me about how great Piece is. In addition, the craft beer selection at Pizzeria Serio is very respectable.
Runner Up: Coal Fire Pizza. The sauce isn't as tasty in my opinion but the location is right (West Town) and you can top your pizza with some delicious ingredients, such as prosciutto.
Best Beer: Revolution
I'm not very qualified to judge this category. I love beer but have not been to many of the Chicago breweries. I can vouch for Half Acre and Revolution and that's about it. Revolution gets my vote because not only do they pour great beers but their brewery is a fun place to hang out. If you haven't been to the brewery on Kedzie yet, make the trip, enjoy a hoppy IPA, stare at the giant American flag, and feel patriotic as hell.
Best Chicago Character: Worlds’ Finest Chocolate Woman
If you frequent the loop on a regular basis, chances you've heard a glorious voice belting out a catchy jingle about the world's finest chocolate. "Get your world's finest chocolate, how ya doin' today?" repeated four times, with a key change. This woman might be the most dedicated Chicagoan I've seen. She's on the corner of Clark and Madison everyday, flexing those vocal chords and hustling that chocolate, rain, snow or shine. Buy the chocolate because she's awesome and it's actually pretty fine.
CLOSE RUNNER UP: These guys
I would pay good money to have this trio sing me lullabies as I drift off to sleep every night. Their voices are buttery goodness and the rest of Chicago agrees with me. Seriously. All I had to do was search "three subway singers Chicago" on YouTube and they were one of the first to pop up. Listening to them is the easiest way to make your commuter blues disappear.
Best Way To Make A Local Angry: Six person bikes on the Lake Front Path
This is not a rant on tourists. I've been a tourist, I will be a tourist in the future, I certainly don't hate tourists. What I can't tolerate is a group of tourists on a giant quadricycle. These bikes are unfortunately a staple on Chicago's Lake Front Path in the summer. They take up the entire lane, making it impossible to pass or maneuver around. Chicago is relatively flat but there is one tiny little hill south of Navy Pier. Without fail, the six person bike will attempt to pedal their asses up the hill and will get stuck 100% of the time, causing them to slowly roll backwards down the hill into annoyed passersby. It's hilarious, but also infuriating.
Where do we start a petition to outlaw these monsters? Rent a regular bike if you insist on biking the path. Or maybe walk instead. So many better options.
Runner Up: Divvy biking on roads not meant for bikes.
Best Free Thing: Garfield Park Conservatory
It took me a long time to finally get to the Garfield Park Conservatory, which is ridiculous because it's free and 100 feet from a green line stop. Since it's basically a giant greenhouse, the inside temp is hot and humid which could be perfect for the chilly Chicago weather. You can easily spend a few hours exploring the different rooms, each with it's own unique ecosystem.
It's hard to find quiet time in Chicago but the Garfield Park Conservatory is a little haven of silence and you can enjoy the peace for as long as you an stand the mugginess. For me and my head of hair, it was about an hour. You might fare better.
Best Donut: Glazed and Infused
Donuts are very important. Chicago has a lot of great donut places and I'll admit I did not get to try them all. From what I did try, I can say with certainty Glazed and Infused has the best old Fashion in town. Donut Vault gets a lot of hype but the lines are long and the donuts are second rate to Glazed and Infused. G&I has multiple locations you hardly have a wait time and they almost never run out of donuts. Plus they make giant birthday donuts which make a fun gift for the donut lover in your life.
Best Hole In The Wall Dining: Oasis Cafe
Working in the Loop can be a dangerous thing. Every type of lunch cuisine can be found with in a 10 minute walk. Vietnamese? Indian? Greek? American? Thai? How does one choose? How does one not go broke? The answer is Oasis Cafe.
The worst part of Oasis Cafe is getting there. It's not far from anything in the loop but it's definitely a hidden gem. Located on Jeweler's Row, Oasis Cafe is tucked away in the very back of a jewelry store. There is one tiny little sign outside but it's easy to miss. If you're searching for it, don't give up! It's worth the weirdness.
You arrive at the jewelry store, walk past the jewelers fixing watches and the half asleep security guard and you arrive at a weird, bustling, cafeteria-esque lunch spot. It's always busy but you can usually find a seat. It looks like a place that would serve greasy and terrible food but the exact opposite is true.
Order the combo plate from the stone faced cashiers and prepare yourself for a food coma. The food is relatively cheap and the quality is out of this world. You're welcome.