David Witter’s Personal Best
Best Renovated Formerly Cheap Hotel: The Hotel Lincoln
It is located in the heart of Lincoln Park and looking at it now you may wonder how it ever got that way. Even though it never got to the point of being an SRO or fleabag, the Hotel Lincoln used to be known as a place where people, often single men or couples between jobs, stayed. This is how it was in the 1950s. In the hippie days of Old Town in the 1960s, the sympathetic owner gave quarters to bloodied demonstrators running from the police during the 1968 riots. It was also a cheap place for artists: playwright David Mamet lived there during the early seventies and wrote much of “American Buffalo” while staying in its small rooms with musty carpets and windows that were often hard to open or close. Mamet fondly remembers the nightly messages from the owner, a woman named Elaine, who called him every evening at eleven offering him a coffee or tea nightcap. In fact, the hotel’s first-floor coffee shop is named “Elaine’s Coffee Call.”
Today the Hotel Lincoln is one of the few non-Airbnb places to stay in Lincoln Park. Refurbished by the Hyatt chain, it contains a downstairs bar, Kennison’s eatery, and most importantly, the J. Parker rooftop bar. Boasting a retractable domed roof and furnished outdoor deck, it offers three views: Lincoln Park, Lake Michigan and downtown. Unlike the rooftop bars downtown or in River North, the views are unobstructed. It is one of my favorites because I grew up nearby, and can gaze at Lincoln Park’s south fieldhouse, where I went to day camp as a pre-teen. Another childhood memory is of the long-gone Jeff’s Laugh-Inn Lounge. Located on the first floor where Elaine’s is now, it was just a regular neighborhood hangout. I was very young then and wondered incorrectly if the network television show “Laugh-In” was recorded at the bar, and would stare at it in wonder, hoping to see Lily Tomlin. 1816 N. Clark
Best Artistic Camera Store to Reopen After the 2020 Civil Unrest: Central Camera
Central Camera was opened in 1899 by a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in Chicago in 1894 and saw a future in what was then a bulky, expensive process—film. In fact, third-generation owner Albert D. Flesch has said that, “At that time, cameras were large and awkward and cost two dollars. After the film was shot you sent the camera back to Kodak who developed it for a dollar. At the time a loaf of bread was a nickel, so it was an expensive process.” Kodak dominated the industry and held what it thought was a monopoly. Beginning at 29 East Adams, the store continually opened and closed to more or less hide from Kodak. The business moved to 230 South Wabash in 1929. There, Central Camera witnessed advances like the spool camera, Exacta and Leica lenses, the Polaroid, and cameras with built-in light meters and auto exposure. But film always had to be developed through a meticulous process using chemicals, dark lights and trays. Central Camera, along with a host of other camera stores in the Loop, South Loop and River North, catered to the needs of professional, amateur and artistic photographers. Then came digital photography, and soon, phone cameras. Photographic stores disappeared, like street lights turned off at dawn. But Central Camera, now with members of the fourth generation of the Flesch family on the job, endured. Central Camera became one of the last places where photographers—including students from the Art Institute and Columbia College who preferred the depth, brilliance, and ability to create art using film and film cameras—could practice their craft. The 2020 civil unrest almost destroyed the store. After 120 years, Central Camera has reopened, for now in a space next door. 230 S. Wabash
Best Place to Get a Horseshoe Sandwich: 6 Degrees
Unlike deep-dish pizza, the Italian beef and saganaki, the Horseshoe sandwich is not native to Chicago. Invented in 1928 in Springfield, it consists of two slices of Texas toast and a ham or beef patty under a pile of French fries or tater tots. This whopping combination is then drowned in cheese sauce. But this is not the tepid nacho-style sauce you would find at lesser hot dog stands or 7-Eleven. Styled after the Welsh Rarebit, it is made from eggs, beer, butter, sharp cheddar cheese, flour, dry mustard, paprika, salt and pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. A favorite at many bars in South Central Illinois, it is best sampled locally at 6 Degrees, a Bucktown bar and eatery that was likely introduced to the dish by the many students from downstate colleges who gobbled its high grease and caloric content after nights of alcoholic adventures. 1935 N. Damen, 6degreesbucktown.com/
Best Vestige of the 1920s Egyptian Craze: Reebie Storage and Moving
Lotus and palm fronds, Egyptian columns, a magnificent bronze doorway, and a white terra cotta facade that features two larger-than-life statues of Ramses II greet passersby on Clark Street. Built in 1921, it is the closest Chicago gets to Hollywood and Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Both were part of the Egyptian craze of the 1920s, when, after the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb, everything from movie palaces to diners donned the theme. In the case of Reebie Storage and Moving Co., the boss actually traveled to Egypt. Designed by George S. Kinsley, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Chicago Landmark in 1999. Ever aware of the Great Chicago Fire which occurred about fifty years earlier, reed-colored terra cotta lettering that states “Fireproof” surrounds the structure. The interior of the building boasts stained-glass windows, more lotus and palm fronds and plaster reliefs depicting grain being transported on barges. It now houses a resale shop where visitors can get a peek at the storied interior. I grew up three blocks north, and as a child I was afraid to venture anywhere nearby, because the older kids told me “The Mummy” lived there and he would come out at night and kidnap children and drag them to his tomb. 2325 N. Clark
Best Places That Tell Us River North Was Once Full of Factories, Factory Workers and Winos: The Green Door Tavern and Club Lago
Filled with townhouses, condos, high-rises and four-star eateries that sell fifteen-dollar craft cocktails consumed on quaint streetside patios, the area has been called River North for a while. But the neighborhood just north of the Chicago River was once called “Smoky Hollow.” This was due to the plethora of factories that then lined the river, receiving steel and raw materials via barges and sending back manufactured parts, machines and products. After World War II, the advent of trucking moved the factories to the far ends of the city and beyond. As depicted in Tom Palazzolo’s photographic book, “Clark Street,” the area became watered-down skid row, filled with cheap bars, diners, burlesque houses and adult book stores as well as SROs filled with pensioners and struggling artists. Built in 1872, 678 North Orleans is one of the oldest surviving wood structures in Chicago and a place those pensioners would have gone. Originally a grocery store, it became a tavern in 1921 and the Green Door was added during Prohibition to signify it was a speakeasy. Since then little has changed inside and out. The building itself is “racked,” or slated, leaning like a Chicago Tower of Pisa, and the bare hardwood floors bear the ruts and wear of over a century of foot traffic. The prices still reflect those of a neighborhood bar, and old-timers and hipsters continue to make it thrive. The same can be said of Club Lago, a half-block north at 331 North Superior. The restaurant was opened in 1952 by the Nardini family, who still own the restaurant. Adorned with a tin ceiling, old-style red-and-white checkered tablecloths, terrazzo tile bathrooms, and straightforward pastas and drinks. Club Lago is the kind of old-fashioned Italian restaurant that modern corporations try to duplicate, and fail. 678 N. Orleans and 331 N. Superior
Best Church to Represent African American History: The Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church
Bronzeville is returning, as shops, galleries and restaurants line streets like South State, Michigan Avenue, Cottage Grove, Pershing and 43rd Street. While it boasts historical references like the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, there is one structure that is an embodiment of what was once called the Black Metropolis. Built in 1890,the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church has welcomed worshippers including Ida B. Wells and Gwendolyn Brooks as well as visitors including Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson and Thurgood Marshall. The brownstone structure was the spot where the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters met and organized. In 2001 the building was set to be demolished, and even the stained-glass windows were removed. Groups led by Preservation Chicago fought to keep it from being razed, and in 2007 it became a Chicago landmark. 4100 S. Martin Luther King
Best Reminder That Chicago Was Once the Brewing Capital of the Nation: Peter Schoenhofen Brewery Historical District
As German, Irish, Polish and other immigrants streamed into Chicago in the second half of the late eighteenth century, the workers who stacked wheat, shoveled coal into furnaces, and built houses and buildings by hand developed an enormous taste for beer. Breweries like the John A. Huck Brewery, the Conrad Seipp Brewing Co. and the Lill & Diversey Brewery quenched the thirst of these workers. But the brewery that topped them all was the Schoenhofen Brewery. At one time it occupied three city blocks, with as many as fourteen structures pumping out 190,000 gallons of beer a year. The main structure was erected in 1862, which makes it one of the oldest buildings in Chicago. Schoenhofen, who immigrated from Germany, was a master brewer who was one of the first major producers of lager beer. Lager is lighter, crisper, and requires more time and expertise, as even today, many microbreweries produce more ales, stouts and porters. Schoenhofen’s best-selling lager was Edelweiss, made from water tapped from an artesian well on the premises. Buildings including the main brewery, a cooperage, machine shop, powerhouse and storage areas occupied the area along Clinton, Canal, 16th and 18th Streets. The brewery closed in 1972 but the main buildings remain. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Schoenhofen Brewery Historic District is now a mixed office and residential complex. On the cornice in the western part of the complex is a six-pointed star. While many think the hexagram is the Star of David, it is actually the “Bierstern,” or “Brauerstern,” a symbol of brewing purity which dates to the 1300s. While these structures survive, the towering staircase where The Penguin pushed Jake and Elwood Blues down as part of St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage was part of the structure that was torn down. Yet as the former home to both the Blues Brothers and a brewery, this building is a true Chicago landmark. 500 W. 18th Street
Best Fountain: The Little Cold Water Girl
Located in Lincoln Park near North Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, the statue bears a striking resemblance to Savannah, Georgia’s Bird Girl, the Sylvia Shaw Judson sculpture made famous through the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The statue was erected by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Originally called “The Little Cold Water Girl,” it was placed at the 1893 World’s Fair primarily to dissuade men from propagating the beer tents that mushroomed along the Midway.
Although the World’s Fair was a marvel of technology and culture, the city around it teemed with corruption and alcoholism. Groups like the Anti-Saloon League, The Independent Order of Rechabites, and the Sons of Temperance were formed, and the WCTU made their national headquarters at LaSalle and Monroe Streets. Members of the group traveled throughout the city “converting” drunks, and a major portion of the $3,000 for the statue’s funding came from abstinence pledges.
When the fair shut down, the fountain was transferred to the WCTU headquarters downtown before being relocated to Lincoln Park in 1921. After being moved east of the LaSalle Street underpass near North Avenue in 1940, the statue was stolen in 1958. The four-and-a-half-foot figure was recast and rededicated just east of the Chicago History Museum near other famous monuments like the Lincoln Standing statue. Today joggers, bicyclists, and children from the nearby Latin School regularly visit the fountain, as they gaze in wonder at a girl their age, cast in bronze for eternity.
Best Replacement for Uncle Fun: The Extraordinarium
In the early days of Newcity’s Best of Chicago, “Uncle Fun” was the perennial winner for Best Toy Store. Its stock of books, hard-to-get toys, novelties and gags tied together the old hippies, new punks, and LGBT elements of its Belmont and Clark-ish location. Uncle Fun has been closed for many a year, but there is a larger and even more diverse emporium for kitschy toys and fun gags. Located at the hub of Milwaukee Avenue, Diversey and Kedzie, The Extraordinarium is 4,100 square feet of more than toys. Some of the items sold include books, comic books, magazines, novelties, movie posters, sixties, seventies and eighties memorabilia including lunch boxes, toys, vintage trivia books, fan magazines and action figures. But it doesn’t stop there. There are mini-sections that sell buttons, patches, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, jewelry, denim and other types of apparel. The arts section features books, cassettes, 8-track tapes and a DVD collection boasting what could be the worst movies ever made. The best-selling items include Funko Pops and items involving Anime. The most unique may be a collection of Frida Kahlo playing cards.
“The store is about inspiring people’s imaginations, doing things differently,” the business owner, known throughout the city as Flabby Hoffman says. A musician, comic and filmmaker, Hoffman is turning the rear portion of the store, which was formerly a miniature golf course, into a space featuring live music performances, poetry readings, pop-up art markets and stand-up comedy, to be broadcast via social media. 2800 N. Milwaukee
Best Tour Combining Chicago’s Best New Foods and Best Old Writer: Sidewalk Food Tours
Unlike New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, Philadelphia and other cities, Chicago does not have a central historic district. Take blues and jazz: How is a tour going to travel from Buddy Guy’s to Rosa’s to the Green Mill, let alone the historical district near 43rd Street? Ghost tours drive past many venues that have, just like the ghosts, disappeared. The same with gangster tours, which pay homage to murderous creeps and killers. Chicago’s food tours at least give you portions of food in new, exciting locations. But Chicago’s Sidewalk Food Tours combine food and history. The River North tour provides tastes of deep-dish pizza, gourmet doughnuts and carnitas via Rick Bayless with the history and architecture of the Merchandise Mart, the Chicago Varnish Company Building, and the landmark Criminal Courts Building. But the Wicker Park Tour does one better. Guests taste java from Fairgrounds Coffee, burgers from Small Cheval, chicken from Harold’s, tacos, and empanadas. But walking down Hoyne Avenue they pass the historic mansions of Beer Baron Row, then turn on Evergreen Avenue. Here it stops at the longtime apartment of Nelson Algren at 1958 West Evergreen. As the author of “The Man With The Golden Arm,” “Chicago, City on the Make,” and many others, this National Book Award-winner chronicled the down-and-out drunks, drug addicts and characters of Wicker Park, in the portion then known as “Polish Broadway.” The tour also stops at nearby Alliance Bakery, a venue where Algren and his partner Simone de Beauvoir may well have bought morning sweets. In many quarters, Algren remains unheralded and even forgotten. Using the tempting tastes and smells of the area’s fine eateries, tourists and local members of current generations are exposed to an author whose writing, in many ways, still represents the street-level artistic feelings and sensibility of earlier generations of Wicker Park residents. sidewalkfoodtours.com
Best Real Chicago Version of “Nighthawks”: Diner Grill
Edward Hopper’s ubiquitous painting, also known as “Nighthawks at the Diner” defines the word “iconic.” One of the most popular works at The Art Institute, it has been duplicated and imitated in hundreds of ways—some complimentary and others in cheap representations with the likes of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and even Mike Ditka sitting at the counter. (You can find these versions in the “art” aisle at Walmart.) But with its long, narrow configuration, gleaming light that cuts through the nighttime sky, and sign that reads “Open 24 Hours,” Lakeview’s Diner Grill is Chicago’s “Nighthawks.” The business boasts a backstory and menu that would make Hopper proud. Opened in 1937, it is Chicago’s oldest diner. It survived the end of the Depression, World War II, one or more health-food crazes, and multiple turnovers of neighborhood clientele. In 2016 a fire burned it to the ground and nearly tolled its doom. But the restaurant reopened two years later. Today there are new items like wraps and salads, but you can count on this diner to still provide hot coffee, eggs and hash, burgers, chili, and if you want them all at once, their famous “Slinger” which combines hash browns, two burger patties, cheese, grilled onion and two eggs, all covered with chili. 1635 W. Irving Park, dinergrill.com
Best of Chicago 2021