Off to the airport with our new ultra-light Bric luggage, my girlfriend and I were excited to travel to Chicago, a place 40 million people visit each year, and a city I once called home. Whenever we travel, I always seem to run into someone I know. Standing at Quik Park LAX, I heard a familiar voice, turning to see one of my oldest friends and former neighbor, musician, producer and author Nile Rodgers. He recently published his autobiography, Le Freak, which I highly recommend. The last time we saw each other in person was over a decade ago when he invited me to join him on part of his tour in Japan. He writes about his experience kicking cancer, in addition to his interesting life of music and philanthropy on his popular blog Walking On Planet C on NileRodgers.com. Nile looked better than ever. A couple of long overdue hugs were exchanged and promises to keep in touch. I now had the vibe this was going to be a good trip.
Sir Richard Branson is one of the world’s most successful businessmen because he does things right. Flying to Chicago on my favorite airline, Virgin America, is second to none. Our flight was comfortable and pleasant with leather seats, plenty of legroom, in-flight Wi-Fi, power outlets and an interactive touch-screen entertainment system featuring satellite TV, movies and a great menu. We had a very smooth landing at O’Hare, the airport with the code ORD named after an apple orchard. We inspected our luggage to see how it fared on its maiden voyage. A logo had broken and the bags now appeared no longer new. Simple “wear and tear” or perhaps a bit too delicate a design?
O’Hare – Midway car service swiftly transported us to the North Side and the Hotel Lincoln, our home for the next few days, where we were greeted by a young man named Edgar neatly dressed in hip Ted Baker, my son’s favorite clothing designer. This immediately made us feel welcome, and provided the first hint this hotel was going to be a bit different. Joie de Vivre hotels are “unique boutiques for the traveler with soul.” I have stayed at several of their other properties recently, and they do try to set themselves apart.
Our room was both funky and comfortable, with nods to the history of the locale and the needs of the traveler like Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs and very comfortable beds. We took a few minutes to unpack, then rushed out the door to see another Connecticut friend, P.J. Pacifico. The American folk singer is in town to perform songs from his new album “Surface” over at the Uncommon Ground. We arrived a few minutes late, but our table for two was waiting, right in front of the microphone. A recent iTunes editorial reads “P.J. Pacifico writes bright folk and pop songs that explode with hooks in all the right places.” True, as we really enjoyed his music live.
The next morning we headed down to the lobby in search of decent coffee. There we found Elaine’s Coffee Call, an eclectic place named for an evening hotel switchboard operator. Each evening before leaving her shift, Elaine would ring the room of a hotel resident who kept “strange hours” writing late into the night, offering to send up something to eat and a cup of coffee or tea.
The hotel resident was David Mamet, who would become a Pulitzer Prize winning author, playwright, screenwriter and film director. Speaking of Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Ernest Hemingway also used to live in the neighborhood. He and his first wife, the redheaded Hadley, lived at 1239 Dearborn St. after returning from their Michigan honeymoon and before moving to Paris, where Hemingway became the foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star.
Elaine’s was so relaxing, and the coffee and breakfast so good, that we completely forgot about my first meeting. All was forgiven when we met the general manager of the Hotel Lincoln, who graciously gave us a tour. He had wonderful stories of this historic property which boasts over 180 rooms and was extensively remodeled in 2012. Many guestrooms and suites offer beautiful views of Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan.
The Hotel Lincoln offers space for meetings and appealing spaces for special events that I would personally consider, as its offerings seem more intimate than a typical hotel. The crown jewel of the Hotel Lincoln, the J. Parker, can be reached via dedicated elevator to the roof, with some of the best views I have ever seen of this world class city. J. Parker was President Lincoln’s bodyguard in charge of the entrance of the President’s box at Ford’s Theater on the evening he was assassinated in Washington, D.C., but during intermission Parker wandered over to a tavern, and the rest is history. The J. Parker serves delectable hors d’oeuvres and bespoke cocktails in a spectacular setting.
We chose Adobo Grill for some delicious Mexican food and margaritas and just a few minutes from Hotel Lincoln, then headed next door to catch “Second City’s 100th Review: Who Do We Think We Are?” Entering the world famous improv theater reminded me of some of my personal favorite Second City alums: Belushi and Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Tina Fey. The show was belly-laugh funny and the talented cast elicited oceans of laughter from the packed theater.
After a great night’s sleep, we found ourselves back at Elaine’s where I met Nino, the manager. Nino informed me the coffee they serve is La Columbe Torrefaction, a brand he finds inspiring because of the company’s ethics of sustainability. Even the background music was cool, playing everything from Booker T. and the MG’s to one of my new favorites, the Chromatics.
Across the street from the hotel is the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of America’s oldest, open 365 days and free of charge. I took my children there often when they were young, but this zoo is for all ages and easily accessible. The hotel has nice bicycles available for guests, but if you don’t want to pedal yourself, they have a trike with a driver.
I was picked up by an old friend. We toured a bit through Old Town, the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, reminiscing about when we were young Turks living here. We stopped at O’Briens on Wells, a perfect place to have a beer and a great steak sandwich. They have a large outdoor patio in the summer and a nice fireplace for those chilly Chicago winters. Chicago is a city with so many neighborhoods and the North Side’s Lincoln Park is a wonderful place to visit. If you are coming to town, consider Hotel Lincoln, it’s a great alternative to perhaps more conventional accommodations.
I was especially excited to see my daughter who is just finishing college and lives in Chicago. She selected Cafe Babareeba for some tapas, paella and sangria. It turned out to be an excellent choice and the desserts are not to be missed . Lettuce Entertain You restaurants set the standard for consistently good service, and Cafe Babareeba was a fine example of why they stand out.
The next morning we headed down to Nookies, a great diner with a line out the door on weekends. Afterwards, we explored the The Green City Farmers Market near our hotel in Lincoln Park. TravelandLeisure.com has listed this particular farmers market as one of America’s best. I must agree, as this year-round market attracts many locals, including Michelin starred chef, restaurant owner and author Paul Virant who incorporates the farm selections into his imaginative menu at Hotel Lincoln’s Perennial Virant. It’s also the first farmers’ market in the country to require all farmers to be certified green by a nationally recognized agency. They move indoors to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum during winter months.
We truly enjoyed the fresh food and complex flavors at Perennial Virant. The standout of our dinner was the delicious fried kale. Paul sat down with us for a few minutes to explain his farm to table ethics and variable menus which guarantee culinary surprises with each visit. Classic Mason jars of preserves from the seasonal offerings at the Farmer’s Market line the shelves above the restaurant’s busy tables. I took a peek at Paul’s beautiful cookbook, “The Preservation Kitchen” where his knowledge and talent in the art of food are abundantly clear. His book will make for a great holiday gift for my sister, who loves to cook and make preserves.
After dinner we were off to Steppenwolf to see Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, yet another Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. The Chicago Tribune described Good People as a “Fiery production… aggressive and raw”. On par with theater productions in London, New York and Los Angeles, Chicago’s Steppenwolf lives up to its mission of engaging audiences that will make you think more, laugh longer and feel more.
I fell asleep on what was to be our last night at Hotel Lincoln thinking that I might have just discovered the perfect place for an author to reside while writing a decent novel. After all, didn’t A.E. Hotchner write Papa Hemingway while in residence at The Ritz Paris? Well, the Ritz just closed for renovations.
The next morning, our first priority was to get downstairs to Elaine’s. We needed all our faculties to figure out how to get downtown to the finish line of the Chicago Marathon in Millennium Park. The roads were temporarily closed, so we took the El to the Loop and walked towards the excitement. After congratulating the runners in our midst we beat the brunch crowd at The Gage just a couple blocks away. The Gage was a nice place to rest and enjoy tasty comfort food prepared by chef Dirk Flanagan and surrounded by vintage Chicago decor. The restaurant is in one of Louis Sullivan’s buildings, the architect best known for creating the modern skyscraper and a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Outside again, we took a moment to take in some of the marvelous architecture. Chicago is of one the worlds most magnificent cities. As roads opened up, we took a short ride to Gibson’s Steakhouse, a local institution and one my favorite restaurants where we met up with friends and family. The food is superb, the service outstanding and for me, a familiarity that represents my old sweet home, Chicago.
Meanwhile, Edgar was holding our luggage. We were joined at Elaine’s for one last cup by a friend who stopped in to say goodbye. She shared a story with us, inspired by my enthusiasm of our visit to Chicago and this gem of a place, Hotel Lincoln. It took place many years ago when she was touring and performing in the USSR. Just as she was preparing to leave Moscow, she met an elderly lady in the hotel lobby. They spoke for a few minutes about her visit and the old woman said, “In life you pick up pinnacle moments along the way. Those are your gems. You collect them, put them away in a jewelry box in your mind, and when you get older like me, you can reopen the box and here you have a marvelous collection of gems to revisit and enjoy once more.”