Pizza was the code word.
Summer, 1993; we were undertaking the first-ever Best of Chicago and we’d set the bar high: to transform the idea of a “service feature” into something else entirely: a living, breathing, surprising, even shocking snapshot of the greatest city in the world at that moment. A document of elevated writing and art, a work of journalism.
And a way to finally turn a profit after seven years.
Bringing together these two ambitions was a delicate undertaking. I wanted to be sure that in no way would we be perceived as selling an award; to do this meant our sales representatives had to be kept in the dark about winners until the issue was published; that is, until the publication hit the streets. (In later years, when we had a large office and staff, the place would be silent on distribution day as everyone read the new issue, save the occasional cheer, real or Bronx.)
In order to send a clear message internally, and make sure no one was tempted, we discussed the vitality of secrecy with our small editorial team in that first meeting that summer. Long before the internet’s cloud, we stored all company work on an in-house Apple file server that I administered, Though the advertising department, led by my brother Brent at the time, did not have access to the editorial section of the file server, I wanted to ensure that the wrong eyes would not trip over our Best of Chicago work say, by virtue of an editor forgetting to log out and going home. So instead of creating a folder with that name or the issue date, which would have been the normal practice, the digital folder holding the issue-in-process was entitled “pizza.” (Incidentally, we made a controversial choice for Best pizza in that first issue, forsaking “Chicago style”: La Roma Pizzeria, 3212 West Irving Park Road, a now-defunct spot started by George and Lucia Papalotti, who’d brought their culinary skills from Rome just four years earlier.)
We were far from the first alternative weekly to launch a “Best of” edition, though we would publish the only such issue in Chicago for many years. I’d heard about them at the annual Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference, and decided it was something we should do since the other, more established alt-weekly in town obviously had no interest in such a thing. If we were going to do it, though, we’d bring all the best practices developed in other cities and then endeavor to top them.
We’d been told that, while a reader poll was a good idea, writing up the audience choice was not; better to have it be a critic’s choice. Audiences tend to vote toward a less-interesting average; case in point, the reader’s choice for Best French fries that first year was McDonald’s; our critic’s choice was Doggie Diner at 723 West Armitage, a classic hotdog and Italian beef stand.
In those pre-internet days, the poll was printed in the paper over several weeks and had to be mailed in and then tabulated by hand, all seventy-five categories, versus the 200 we aimed to collect from a slew of writers—eighteen folks wrote items in that first edition.
Putting out this publication has always been physically taxing, with long hours and, for many years, working almost until breakfast was a regular thing. But that first issue of Best of Chicago took it to a new level, with every waking hour spent at the office, seven days a week, for weeks and weeks. (All while also putting out the weekly publication.)
In those days, we did not have a formal fact-checking prowess for the weekly, relying on several sets of editorial eyes to catch things. But we wanted Best of Chicago to have the shelf life of a book and for every name and address to be perfect (remember, no internet yet to easily look things up), so we implemented our first fact-checking system.
In the end it was worth it. That first Best of Chicago in 1993 was the biggest publication in our history at that point, clocking in at ninety-six pages. And feedback was extraordinary.
All we had to do was top it in 1994.
Sophomore follow-ups to successes are notoriously fraught. In retrospect it was probably a good thing that our editorial staff had largely turned over in the last year, as Dale Eastman left as senior editor and Marc Spiegler signed on, as we were so committed to ensuring this second edition be as fresh as the first that we created a rule that no category could be repeated for five years.
Everything was bigger in 1994, including the page count. We expanded to thirty-one writers, including Robert Rodi, Chris Jones, Rennie Sparks and Sergio Mims, and 230 items.
Broadcast media started to notice. I believe that was the first time I was live on a radio station, a guest of Richard Steele in WBEZ’s old, downtrodden downtown offices. It was a lively conversation about the new edition, in which, at one point, Steele turned serious and said, “I can’t believe you got away with publishing this one,” and he proceeded to read the entry for “Best fast-food place to get shot.” Out of 230 items, he’d zeroed in on the riskiest thing we’d printed, one that had, however, been cleared to publish by our lawyer at the time, the late, great civil liberties warrior Burt Joseph.
Over the years to follow, radio appearances on WGN, WLS and WBEZ became a regular thing, with occasional TV bookings. Radio is a spontaneous medium, and it was always a challenge to have a host ask me about any one of the hundreds of items, most of which I did not write, and for me to respond intelligently in real time. (Not to mention taking calls from an audience strewn across all of suburbia.) TV is as shallow behind the scenes as it seems watching it, with only a few most obvious items being chosen to discuss. And, no surprises, as they give you the list of topics in advance, when you arrive. One year, though, the TV host ambushed me. He told me that one of the items we were going to discuss was our best dance club winner that year, which was a layup for me, as I’d written it. What he did not tell me was that he had had a bad experience there, being forced to wait outside in a line when the club was virtually empty inside. He thought he was being singled out. As I could have explained, he’d been a victim of a common practice in nightlife, the artificial line as a way to gin up demand, but that did not make it on the air. He had an agenda and I was just a vessel for it.
One of the unexpected “benefits” of the audience poll was that once we put something on the survey, someone had to write it. I was all-in to do best ribs that first year, driving all over the city and gorging myself on Hecky’s in Evanston, Twin Anchors in Old Town and Carson’s in River North, among others, before heading south to Leon’s and my eventual choice, Lem’s in Chatham, a place I’d never tried until then. But when no writer turned out to be a golfer the next year, I dusted off my old clubs and took up a sport I’d given up years earlier, in order to determine the best public golf course in Chicago (South Shore was my eventual choice). It turned out that the years of no practice had been good for my game. Without any internal pressure to perform, I shaved strokes off my score and decided it was OK to play again, occasionally.
But the worst ever, hands down, was the year our editorial team decided a good, provocative poll item would be “best food at a strip club.” Not my idea but I got stuck writing it, and it was one of the more unpleasant things I’ve done at Newcity. At some point in time, long after we’d simplified the polling process via the internet, we decided to stop the audience element entirely. I never missed it.
The issue quickly became a reasonably systematic thing for us, an intrinsic part of our work and our identity, peaking in 1999 at 144 pages, our largest page count ever in newsprint days. Around that time, Newcity had about 65 full-time employees, and that issue featured an artistic collaboration with Obi Nwazota of Orange Skin. (It was hard to top 1998’s cover, a photo of the legendary Cynthia Plaster Caster astride a rocket.)
We set the bar high with our first edition’s Chris Ware masterpiece, and the creation of the cover became a driving force over the years. A who’s who of comics artists created many of the covers, but we also went through periods of photographic set pieces, graphic designers and fine artists. In 2020, we did a split run of two covers, one by Andrea Coleman and one by Nikko Washington.
Keeping the edition fresh and non-formulaic was always a central concern. For our tenth anniversary in 2002 we published the “Best of the Best”; later we’d do a geographic focus, with Best of the North Side, Best of the South Side, etc. During the racial reckoning of 2020, we turned the issue over to Scoop Jackson and Tara Betts as guest editors, to create an issue that focused on the best of Black Chicago. It was extraordinary, and evidence of how a timeworn concept could stay fresh.
Ultimately though, the best way to stay fresh is to kill your darlings. And so, one last time, we salute iconic Chicago and move on to newer things. (Brian Hieggelke)
Best of Chicago 2023 was written by Ted C. Fishman, David Hammond, Sharon Hoyer, Scoop Jackson, Ray Pride, Vasia Rigou, Mary Wisniewski and David Witter
With additional contributions by Alison Cuddy, Dave Hoekstra, Dennis Polkow, Robert Rodi, Frank Sennett and Sara Stern
Cover illustration by Jorge Colombo
With essays by Candida Alvarez, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Joe Bryl, Bette Cerf Hill and Gordon Quinn ((Essays scheduled to go live between February 6 and February 10)
BEST OF CHICAGO 2023 INDEX
(Additional items scheduled to go live between February 6 through February 23)
Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool
Art Institute of Chicago
Bahá’í House of Worship
Billy Goat Tavern Under Michigan Avenue
Binny’s Beverage Depot
Bloomingdale Trail/The 606
Bobolink Meadow and The Osaka Garden
Buddy Guy’s Legends
Chi White Sox
Chicago A Cappella
Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise
Chicago Artists Coalition
Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Hot Dog
Chicago Sky Games
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Dance Center of Columbia College
Deep Dish Pizza
Edith Farnsworth House
Enclosed Wooden Porches
Erick and Eric Williams
Eternal Construction Projects
Field Museum of Natural History
Former Alderman Ed Burke
Garfield Park Conservatory
Gene & Georgetti
Gene & Jude’s
Gene Siskel Film Center
Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company
Grant Park Music Festival
Harris Theater for Music and Dance
Henry Gerber House
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Hyde Park Art Center
Illinois Institute of Technology Campus
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
Italian Fiesta Pizzeria
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lions of Michigan Avenue
Lutz Cafe and Pastry Shop
Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen
Mario’s Italian Lemonade
Marshall Field’s State Street Store (Macy’s)
Maxwell Street Polish
Middle Eastern Bakery and Grocery
Mies van der Rohe
Movies in the Parks
Museum of Contemporary Art
Museum of Science and Industry (MSI)
Music Box Theatre
National Museum of Mexican Art
Navy Pier Ferris Wheel
North, Damen and Milwaukee Intersection
Old Post Office
Old Town School of Folk Music
“One Chicago,” the Dick Wolf Mega-Series
“One Chicago” The Book
Original Ferrara, Inc.
Original Rainbow Cone
Printers Row Lit Fest
Public League High School Basketball
Publican Quality Bread
Remains of Central Station
Renegade Craft Fair
Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
Richland Center Food Court
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
Row of Architectural Gems on the South Side of the Midway on the University of Chicago Campus, Hyde Park
Seminary Co-op/ 57th Street Books
Seven Treasures Cantonese Restaurant
Siskel and Ebert
Skyline (and flying into Chicago at night)
South Shore Cultural Center
Sports Talk Radio
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Stony Island Arts Bank
Taste of Chicago Water
Textile Discount Outlet
Title of the Black Music Capital of America
Transformation of South Shore (via The Obama Library, The Tiger Woods Golf Course and the Reconstruction and Renaming of LSD)
2008 Chicago Parking Meter Deal
Uniting Voices, Chicago
View of Downtown from Rainbow Beach
Zhou B Art Center
Best of Chicago Cover Credits
Illustration: Chris Ware
Illustration: Archer Prewitt
Illustration: Mitch O’Connell
Illustration: Kirsten Ulve
Illustration: Charise Mericle
Photo: Susan Anderson
Photo: John Adams
Cover design: Obi Nwazota
Photo: Nicole Radja
Cover design: Sean Hernandez
Photo: Dana Tashima
Cover design: Sean Hernandez and Lizelle Din
Photo: Anna Knott
Cover design: Zach Dodson
Photo: Audrey Cho
Photo: Audrey Cho
Photo: Audrey Cho
Cover design: C2AK
Illustration: Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi | Sonnenzimmer
Illustration: Paul Hornschemeier
Illustration: Lilli Carré
Illustration: Jorge Colombo
Illustration: Ivan Brunetti
Illustration: Jay Ryan
Illustration: Tristan Young
Cover design: Fletcher Martin
Illustration: Jorge Colombo
Illustration: Tom Bachtell
Illustration: David Heo
Illustration: Andrea Coleman
Illustration: Nikko Washington
Illustration: Dan Streeting
Illustration: Jorge Colombo