Inspired by Pedro's account of his trip to Toronto (check it out here), I'd like to write of my first trip to Chicago.

I have long wanted to visit the city, so when M was going there on business and suggested I meet him for the weekend, I readily agreed. In spite of the hot and humid weather, we managed to pack in many interesting activities.

We stayed at the Essex Inn on South Michigan Ave., across from Grant Park. It was remarkably cheap for such a plum location; we discovered when we arrived that renovations were underway, and the pool featured on the website was sadly closed. Glaring signs of a needed magic make-over included the leopard skin carpet in the hallways and the no-style/no-theme lobby. Still, it was cheap and central.

I love a great restaurant, and did not want to eat in hyped McJoints with hundreds of other tourists, so I was happy to find a "Chicago Reader" on my initial exploratory foray. The newsprint weekly, obviously meant for locals, had several intriguing restaurant reviews, and we decided to begin culinary adventures at Zinfandel, which features American cuisine of the ethnic, not the hamburger, variety. We set off in our second-bests for West Grand, foolishly walking (it was much too hot for it). We strolled to N Michigan, thinking to turn west along Grand; luckily, a local heard us discussing this, and warned us that Grand passes under, not across, Michigan. (Living in Toronto, we had assumed that the stairways descending into the sidewalks led down to a subway.) Chef Susan Goss supplements a small a la carte menu with selections based on changing regional themes; when we were there it was Mission California. We had a lovely dinner in the romantic restaurant and staggered home replete.

The next morning we went for breakfast at the Artist's Cafe down the street, as we would every day; the menu was creative and cheap, and the huge plates of food we consumed obviated the need for serious lunches. Then we toddled off to take a boat ride, for I always take a boat ride if I can. The tours range from 1 to 1-1/2 to 2 hours; we were on a mid-length one, which took us along the river, back down to the lake, then north, then south, for varied views of the city. Chicago is famous for its architecture, showcased beautifully from the boat; we saw huge modern buildings like the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center as well as enormous older ones (the Merchandise Mart in particular amazed me, covering something like two city blocks). We quickly cottoned on to the peculiarly American predilection for expressing everything in superlatives, many of them now, sadly for Chicago, requiring the past tense: the Merchandise Mart was the largest office building in the world until the Pentagon was built; the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world before the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed; and so on. In spite of these pathetic grabs for greatness, the tour was educational and interesting, and we were glad we went.

Chicago is often praised over Toronto, where I now live, for the way they have handled their waterways. It's only been in the last decade or so that TO has begun to dismantle the industrial blight that lined the waterfront and construct lakefront parks with bike and pedestrian paths. However, the bike route in Chicago is sandwiched between the lake and a huge lakeshore drive, while the lovely Grant Park has three very busy roads roaring by, one in the middle and one on each side. Chicago makes much more of its river - visitors to Toronto might not even know we have any - but our topography is quite different, as the rivers run in ravines, hiding them from easy view of the city built on the bluffs. So overall I didn't think Chicago was so much better than TO on this account.

Disembarking from the boat, we proceeded, with thousands of eager consumers, along the Magnificent Mile. It was not so magnificent to my eyes, being a congested street lined by the same stores you can find in any cosmopolitan city. We did not partake in the orgy of consumption, though we did admire the gardens that lined the sidewalks, as well as the painted art seating that graced them. The bench in front of the Wrigley Building, on which was seated a plastic Abraham Lincoln, seemed particularly popular with the black tourists: they patted him on the head or posed for photos sitting at his side. In general we were impressed with the many people of colour, and particularly mixed race couples, that we saw; as M is Asian and I'm white, we generally notice such things. We also noted Chicago's cleanliness, which was its main contrast to New York in our eyes; in other ways, the two are quite similar in feel, though we did think Chicago friendlier and cheaper.

We went up the John Hancock Center for a lofty look at the city. I was trepidatious, as the line-up to Empire State Building in New York has always been prohibitively long when I've been there. Not here. After a short wait (during which a video proclaimed John Hancock the most recognized building in the world, which struck me as both unlikely and unprovable) we piled into the elevator, which ascends to the 94th floor observatory in a dizzying 40 seconds. The view was, of course, spectacular, and I remarked, not for the first time, that one of the coolest things about Chicago is the music. Elsewhere you'd be hearing muzak, but in Chicago it's blues or jazz, even in touristic surroundings.

After libations we continued our way through the throng of shoppers and onto the Gold Coast, the inner Lake Shore Drive lined with expensive high-rise condos and the occasional historic relic of fancy homes of yore. We lay for a while on the grass at the edge of Lincoln Park, but didn't venture as far as the zoo (the last free one in the United States, as well as the most visited, we had learned on the boat tour), then headed back through tree-lined streets towards the centre of the city. I proved my acuity by spotting Churley House as a Frank Lloyd Wright building, but it was closed for viewing, unfortunately. Finally, drenched with sweat and tired, we hailed a cab and whizzed back to the hotel for a shower and a nap.

This was the big dinner, so we donned our best clothes and wisely took a cab to MK on N. Franklin. The Chicago Reader had informed us that this was American contemporary/regional French, run by chef-owner Michael Kornick, who also owns Marche, Vivo, and Red Light. It was a beautiful open dining room with attentive service, fantastic food, and a good sommelier, and we stuffed ourselves (and emptied our wallets) before cabbing it back to the hotel.

You might think we'd be going out dancing, and I had certainly planned to visit the House of Blues, but we had been disillusioned to see that it was a highrise hotel instead of the rickety crab shack we had imagined. Besides, we were exhausted. So we watched the Tour de France on TV.

My father and stepmother, who probably haven't used public transit for decades, had warned me that we'd need a car to get to Oak Park and Frank Lloyd Wright's first house and studio, but that was not the case. Armed with the excellent transit map we'd pick up at the visitor information centre at Water Tower, it was clear that the green line on the elevated train ("el") would take us right there. The el runs through The Loop, downtown, on rickety-looking rusty trestles above the street. The stations themselves have recently been renovated, though I was surprised to see that they have no walls; Chicago has severe winters, and the stations must get pretty uncomfortable in blowing snow. In any case, the trains - brought to us, signs claimed, like so much else in the city, by "Richard M Daly, Mayor" - were clean, air-conditioned, and cheap. We traveled over Harlem-like old apartment complexes and abandoned city blocks to Oak Park. I've noded much of what I learned and did there under the great man himself and Unity Temple, if you're interested.

Dinner that night was a case of "from the sublime to the ridiculous", as we walked past Buckingham Fountain (featured in the noxious Married with Children) and on to the Navy Pier, a tacky shopping area with a food court where we had cheese fries and Chicago style hot dogs. Delicious. A huge thunderstorm had rolled in, so we were trapped there for a while; we looked despairingly at all the stalls filled with gee gaws, then were delighted to discover Barbara's Bookstore, a well-stocked shop with knowledgeable blurbs attached to many of the books. We browsed till the rain slowed down, then had a pleasant, cool, and wet stroll home.

The next day, Monday, we had an afternoon flight, so we spent what time we had at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I found very impressive. They had a good exhibit of Edward Weston's late photographs, plus more Great Masters than you could shake a stick at - and major pieces at that. I wished I had a camera to capture the sight of a Japanese multi-generational family sitting contentedly on a bench in the middle of the Monet room.

And then we left. I want to go again; there's so much I didn't get to see. Next time, Robie House, and...any suggestions?

Kit Lo reports that Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret has great music; jinmyo advises me to save up for Charlie Trotter's.

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