Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Eating and Drinking in Chicago

We got to O’Hare late at night on a Wednesday and took a cab to our hotel, The Crown Plaza Metro, right along the freeway in the heart of Greektown. The hotel itself was fine—comfortable, reasonably priced, and well situated for exploring Chicago in any direction. After checking in, I asked the man at the front desk if the hotel’s restaurant or bar was open. He said neither was open, and handed me a delivery menu for a local pizza and subs place. I don’t need pizza you imbecile, I need a drink! But I took the menu up to the room and read it anyway, because I like to know what different restaurants put on Italian subs. I looked online for some local places that might still be open, and learned there were several nearby. I wondered why the front desk guy hadn’t been more helpful. Did my wife and I not look like the kind of people who wanted to hang out with Greektown cabbies? We walked two blocks to Spectrum on Halstead.

The Spectrum bartender was a good fellow who tended his bar in a very literal sense. That’s not to say he was nice or friendly or welcoming. He wasn’t. But that’s okay. I liked how when he was bored and didn’t know anyone was paying attention, he pumped all the wine-by-the-glass bottles to make sure they stayed fresh. Once you’ve worked in restaurants and bars you can’t help but notice these things. He served us two-dollar draft Budweisers just to remind me, as I’m always reminded, just how badly they gouge you in Los Angeles. A baseball game was on, volume and all, and clusters of locals ate hot wings and drank strange amber liquors. The second the final out was in the books, the music came on, some kind of weird pre-Yanni electro-polka. I ordered the chicken soulvaki and my wife ordered the pork soulvaki. The bartender put a generic ketchup squeeze bottle on the counter and I instinctively knew that these were going to be some damn good fries. Two more beers in fresh cold mugs and the sandwiches arrived, mine on flatbread, my wife’s in a pita. Which was confusing. Is there some subtle culinary distinction between kabobed chicken and kabobed pork, requiring different breads, or had they simply run out of pitas? It turned out not to matter since my wife’s pita basically exploded on impact, as they will, and we both forked and knifed our way through the meal. Excellent food. Excellent fries. Another beer and another beer and I felt like people were staring. What? I just got off a plane, okay? We paid the check and went to bed. I would go back to Spectrum.

In the morning of the next day we took an easy stroll from the hotel to the downtown area. It’s just so incredibly satisfying to be on vacation in a big city where almost everyone else is working. Eventually we went to the museum, which was amazing. Lots of great stuff from all over the world, great historical relics, and several classic works I never expected to see in person. When we left the museum I felt enlightened and sophisticated. And I was famished. It’s a genuine thrill when you travel, to reach that point in the day when you’ve accomplished all the necessary cultural stuff, and really all there is left to do is eat and drink. This feeling is especially wonderful if you’re in one of the great food cities of the world. So we went to Bennigan’s. I really can’t explain this absurd decision, other than to say I was in a delirium of art-fatigue and hunger. I used to work at Bennigan's in Boston. And the Bennigan’s in Chicago smelled exactly like that place did, which was crazy. I don’t know why I didn’t turn us around the second I caught that whiff. We strolled to the bar. I recognized the odor of stale bar-funk and sticky countertops marinated in lager. I recognized the distant familiar scent of kid’s crayons melted on the floor heaters. I ordered a large beer, which was served warm and flat in a nice hot glass. Perfect. Then it was on to the overpriced food and bad service. Which would all have been fine and very much expected, if I hadn’t kept thinking about how close we still were to the museum, to Van Gogh’s bedroom.  It bothered me, this juxtaposition of the shabby and the sublime. The tilted walls and wicker chairs deserve to be far away from this abomination.

So do Renoir’s Sisters.

And the huge Technicolor Mao.

Anyway, my wife enjoyed her half-Monte Cristo (“Molto Crisco”, we used to call it) with a side salad. She had never had one before (a Monte Cristo) and she loved that deep-fried pastry thing with jam and fatty meat and gooey cheese. She was sure they’d given her a full sandwich by mistake, but oh no, I explained. As a former employee, I knew the portions were absurd, and reminisced about the post-church Boston crowd, and how I had seen many individuals devour an entire Monte Cristo, plus the fries and extra sides of jam. I believe, in all seriousness, that it is the world’s single most calorie-packed lunch option. For myself, I tried to go with something they couldn’t screw up, a half-club sandwich and a Caesar salad. When they set it down I knew there was nobody to blame but myself. I will never go back to Bennigan’s.

I put my wife in a cab, since she was actually in Chicago to work. I was alone, playing hooky, buzzing mildly from the two Sam Adams schooners. In Chicago. Chicago! How on earth have I been to godforsaken Miami three times and this was my first trip to Chicago?  I fingered the museum ticket in my pocket. Could do the mature thing. The right thing.  Could go back in there. Buzzed. Could look at the Medieval shit again, the polished armor. Could get one more hot flat beer and rehit the museum. The pole lances. Could maybe look at some more pole lances. Maybe a renaissance era vanity. But no. There was baseball to watch with Happy Hour locals. Real culture.

With no specific place in mind I turned up Adams St. and wandered to Wabash and found an old-school looking restaurant/bar called Miller’s Pub. Maybe a tourist trap, maybe not. It was hard to tell. I scrambled in and took a seat at the bar. I was handed a beer menu heavy on the Belgian options. I smiled. I made an enthusiastic comment to the person next to me and was ignored. The person on the other side of me suggested I order the pumpkin ale, so I had to ignore her. I ended up with something Trappist I couldn’t pronounce, which was fine since the bartender couldn’t pronounce it either. Great beer in hand I settled in, watched some of the game, and tried to form some early opinions about Chicago. First off, what did I already know? Well, there was famous the poem, the American Lit standard by Ryne Sandburg, er…Carl Sandburg. Wait, how are two of the most famous people I associate with Chicago both named Sandberg? A delivery truck guy stopped in for his usual, a scotch and something, which he ordered with a silent nod and paid for with three one-dollar bills. He didn’t even bother to sit down. He slurped his drink and left. It seemed strange at first, but then again, why are only business-type people celebrated for drinking on the job, and not the rest of us? Good for you, local blue-collar alcoholic! The bartender keep trying to get me to order a shrimp cocktail. Because that’s why everyone comes to Chicago? I just ate, I told him. At Bennigan’s, I didn’t tell him. I would go back to Miller’s Pub, if necessary.

On to Franklin Tap. This was a loud crowded bar focused on the baseball game. I wondered how so many people got so drunk so quickly. It was only four in the afternoon. Then I realized it wasn’t a Happy Hour crowd; it was a baseball crowd. They’d been there all day. They were good folks though, friendly boozers who offered up a barstool when they found out I was from out of town. The guy next to me got his check and my beer was on his bill. “I thought you guys were together,” the bartender told us. We looked at each other. “I’ve never seen this asshole in my life,” he told her. We knocked glasses. I gave the guy a five for my beer. Later, the bartender wouldn’t give a too drunk woman her keys. Didn’t know bars still collected keys from known degenerates. I liked that. I considered another beer but decided to move on. Nothing specifically compelling there, though I was impressed by the bartender’s patience with several testy guys yelling to get the channel changed. I think if you come from the west coast you have a tendency to lump Chicago in with Boston and New York and Philadelphia. But Chicago’s not nearly as cold as those places, personality wise. There’s a friendly current running beneath the drunk sports watching angst—it matters, but not that much. Then, I heard this phone conversation happening next to me:

Hey mom....
No, I’m at a bar...
No, I’m by myself...
Did I tell you my car got fucked up?

I would go back to Franklin Tap, if necessary.

I headed back out to the city and found myself at the foot of the Sears Tower, or whatever they call it now. Looking up at it, with clouds sailing past, swaying a bit from the beer, I felt an inspirational giddiness. I understood how a building could be something profound. I leaned my back against it and stared along the flank, up, up, up, so perfectly straight. I moved on. I took a left, then a right, then a left, working the city, crossing against lights, the wind twisting through the concrete trenches.


City of the Big Shoulders. 

I never got the name of the next bar, though it was very similar to the last one, a bar and grill built into the bottom floor of a high-rise, a type of restaurant location I always associate with mediocrity. Then that weird thing happened where you sit at a barstool and immediately the person to your right and your left both get up and leave. Even though the checks were paid before I walked in the door, it was hard to not take it personally. Just as my beer arrived, my phone rang and I took the call outside.

Where are you?
I don’t know.
Are you close?
I don't know. I think so.
What are you doing.
Um, just, I don't know. Drinking.
Should I come meet you?
I don't know where I am. I can’t see any street signs.
How much have you had?
I'll come meet you.

I hurried back to my barstool and downed my drink. Then I was back on the road, across the interstate, into the lobby, up the elevator, into my room, where my wife was waiting, all decked out. We should we go out on the town, she said, get some drinks, see what’s happening?
Uh…sure, okay.

Click here to read Part II

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