Ever since British artist erected a giant stainless-steel lima bean in the heart of Chicago's newest downtown park, the visitors have come. In one elliptical façade, the 110-ton curvilinear curiosity Cloud Gate reflects the downtown skyline's century of architectural brilliance, from renowned fin de siècle Beaux Arts buildings to 's Aqua tower, one of the most exciting high rises to be built anywhere in the U.S. in the past decade.
The year-old represents contemporary Chicago at its best: The gently undulating balconies, 80,000-square-foot green roof, and energy-saving technology are very much features of today—conceived, no less, by a 46-year-old female architect who had zero experience building skyscrapers. But the 82 wavelike floors mask a conventional glass box, the kind with which marquee modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made his name. "I really liked the idea of taking part in a dialogue across the generations," says Gang, who cites as influences architects Daniel Burnham and John Root, Louis Sullivan, and Bertrand Goldberg, all of whom created signature buildings in the city. "In a brief way, I was trying to make, for the first time, a high rise that would connect to different landmarks." She's referring to one landmark in particular—downtown's 24-acre , LED fountains by , and Kapoor's scrupulously polished sculpture, the park, which was built atop century-old railroad tracks, is frequently cited as evidence of a Chicago resurgence. Says one of the city's leading experts on modern design, auctioneer , "I actually feel the transformative power of art and design crystallize there. Nothing is more inspiring than taking my kids to the fountains on a lovely morning and watching the mix of people. We're all standing there sharing a beautiful moment on land that ten years ago was a rail yard."
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Just past Millennium Park is another sign of a local architectural renaissance: 's , a 264,000-square-foot addition to the . With the opening of the new wing in May 2009, the museum was able to display nearly nine times as many contemporary works as before, making it the second largest art institution in the country. Interior designer Nate Berkus, who has lived in Chicago since 1990, recalls attending the opening party and having to catch his breath at Piano's "flying carpet," a suspended canopy assembled from 2,600 aluminum blades that filters sunlight into the galleries. "I thought, We have come a long way," he says.
Berkus launches his syndicated daily talk show on September 13. Although the TV series will be produced in New York, the self-taught decorator and regular says he will feature Chicago people and places often. "There is a tremendous amount of talent in this town," says Berkus, who recommends dropping by one of the city's independent auction houses, (for art and antiques) or (for modern design). He also revels in showing off his neighborhood, the Gold Coast, where he lives in a vintage condo originally designed by the late Samuel Marx. "I love to go for lunch at Fred's at and take my niece, who is two and a half," Berkus says. He also likes to shop at the store not far from his apartment, and, to unwind, ducks into the nearby karaoke dive bar, the .
The Gold Coast earned its name for a reason—the city's most privileged reside in the area's gilded homes, and a number of high-end boutiques cater to them. Designer , local fashion icon , and decorator have all set up shop in the neighborhood. The best place to start exploring is the , where shoppers will find a newly expanded , which sells an exclusive Chicago scarf, and a Barneys that recently doubled in size. "Our Chicago business was always very strong, right from the beginning," says , creative director of Barneys. "When I first went to Chicago in the 1980s, there was a discernible difference. You could definitely see a style lag, which was also true of Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Now we do just as big a business in Chicago with and —and edgy designers such as —as we do in New York. It would be a horrible mistake to treat the Chicago customer as if she were different."
Chicago remains, at its heart, a city of neighborhoods, so while downtown may attract visitors with its architecture, museums, and shops, savvy locals recommend venturing beyond Michigan Avenue and the (so named because the tracks for the elevated trains, known as the , form a rectangular perimeter around the central financial district). It's only a short cab ride to , where two venerable Chicago theaters, and , champion new plays by the likes of (a Pulitzer prize winner for August: Osage County) and (a Pulitzer finalist for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity). New work is risky, but it's what Chicago theater is known for, so take a gamble on an unfamiliar playwright in an unfamiliar setting. , another company, puts on hard-hitting psychological dramas in a forgotten part of north Lake View, and the , an enthusiastic young ensemble of performers, writers, and directors, stages rocking new plays in a 1918 terra-cotta former nickelodeon in Wicker Park. And in the , a black-box theater above a funeral parlor in Andersonville, one of the city's gutsiest—and, consequently, longest running—shows takes place. Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 P.M. (and Sundays at 7), brave actors tackle a rotating roster of 30 original plays in 60 minutes in a production called .
The Neo-Futurarium is not the only reason to trek north to , a neighborhood originally settled by Swedes. Alessandra Branca became a fan after shopping there for her son's new apartment. "The area is exploding, and the stores are incredible," says Branca, who singles out the tartan-filled home shop and the urban antiques store , adjacent to each other on a lively section of Clark Street. "Go for dinner at ," adds the Rome-born designer. "It's fantastic Italian." Or sample a locally crafted beer—try 's I-Beam Alt or 's Green Line—at the Belgian-loving gastropub Hopleaf.
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Once an artists' enclave full of independent coffeehouses and music clubs, the northwestern neighborhood and its sister area, Bucktown, today nurture a fertile crop of boutiques. Two stylish stretches within walking distance of each other buzz with activity. On Damen Avenue, Chicago native runs an influential, minimalist women's store. Across the street, Deborah Colman and Neil Kraus specialize in 20th-century French, Italian, and Scandinavian furnishings at their shop, . Less than a mile south, Division Street is home to such unconventional stores as Habit, which stocks lesser-known fashion lines.
Go to Wicker Park and Bucktown for the shopping; stay for the nightlife. In between the two shopping districts is , the most casual of James Beard award–winning chef Paul Kahan's establishments. The formula is simple: On Big Star's sprawling terrace, diners sip small-distillery whiskeys and munch on $2 tacos al pastor with grilled pineapple. Even Chicago's most sophisticated have fallen under the place's spell. "Big Star is on everybody's list right now," says auctioneer Wright. Across the street from Big Star, the city's cleverest cocktail bar hides in plain sight. There is no sign for the , just an unmarked door that leads to an elegant speakeasy where original drink recipes are passionately shaken (or stirred) with house-made tonic water, bitters, and syrups. If the line to get in stretches too far, head down the street to the , which pours from a 100-strong list of domestic craft beers and international brews.
The neighborhoods north of the Loop get all the media attention, but there's an entire city to the south—and those communities arguably have more character. Artists and designers are fleeing Wicker Park for the more affordable Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood a short hop from the Loop. Like many in the city's creative class, emerging fashion designer Annie Novotny works out of a combination boutique-atelier there. Hers is called Workshop, and while its focus is women's clothing made of wispy organic fabrics, it also sells jewelry, local honey, and Danish-modern home goods. "I hope to grow with the neighborhood," says Novotny, who adds that the best introduction to Pilsen is a public art walk that takes place along the main thoroughfare, Halsted Street, the second Friday night of every month. Further south, the tree-lined Hyde Park neighborhood also offers plenty to see. There's Michelle and Barack Obama's house, for starters. And 2010 marks the centennial of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a low-slung, horizontally lined home that architectural historians consider the best existing example of his Prairie style.
It's also in the neighborhoods—not downtown—where the city's best chefs churn out boundary-pushing cuisine without any pretense at all. "In Chicago, we're latching onto informal fine dining, and we're doing it really well," says Grant Achatz, who has drawn international acclaim for his pioneering restaurant , in the Lincoln Park area. "It used to be that the only way you could find really high-end cuisine was at an über-French restaurant or , but now you can go to a neighborhood and find amazing food." As proof, he mentions the tiny Wicker Park storefront restaurant , where the chef, Michael Carlson, still answers his own reservation line and prepares inventive, globally inspired fare for only 26 diners at a time. "I've traveled all over the world, and while I may be a little bit biased because Michael once worked for me, it's a pretty original concept," Achatz says. "It defies convention—and if people don't like it, fine."
Achatz himself continues to defy convention, and not just with such dishes as "hot potato/cold potato," a chilled potato soup served in a custom-made paraffin bowl with a hot Yukon Gold on a tiny spear. (When the spear is drawn away, the potato chunk falls into the soup, creating a mélange of textures, temperatures, and flavors.) Later this fall, the chef and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, will open a daring new restaurant on West Fulton Market in Chicago's gritty meatpacking district. Their idea is to allow guests to do something no food establishment ever has, travel in time. Each season, Achatz will focus on a different era and place—think three months of Thai street food from the 1920s—before switching everything up entirely. "We will go all over the world, and all over the timeline," says the chef, who has rebuffed all offers to move his kitchen to New York.
Instead, he says, he wants to concentrate on this city, his city, which he recognizes is not only in the midst of a culinary renaissance, but a revival in architecture and the arts as well. He's chosen a name for his new venture that reflects the innovative spirit that's pulsing through Chicago right now: .
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The area code is 312, unless noted.
Set sail. Get a unique view of the city's iconic buildings on the fascinating riverboat tour sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (922-3432; ).
Go for a spin. Rent a bike at the north end of Millennium Park (239 E. Randolph St., 888-245-3929; ); pedal south to Adler Planetarium or north to the beaches.
Rise up in the City of the Big Shoulders. The John Hancock tower isn't Chicago's tallest, but it houses the city's highest bar. On a clear day, you can see four states (875 N. Michigan Ave., 787-9596; ).
Play along. Steppenwolf still provides some of the city's most visceral theater experiences (1650 N. Halsted St., 335-1650; ).
Bring home a design souvenir. Richard Wright, an authority on modern furnishings, holds a dozen or so auctions annually at Wright (1440 W. Hubbard St., 563-0020; ).
Mingle with jazz masters. Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase has hosted the greats since 1947; at his new location, the tradition continues (Dearborn Station, 806 S. Plymouth Court, 360-0234; ).
WHAT TO SEE
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park, 708-848-1976; : The place where the famed architect developed his distinctive Prairie style.
Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St., 742-1168; : The highlights of this 24-acre park include a shiny Anish Kapoor sculpture, fountains by Jaume Plensa, and a massive Frank Gehry band shell.
The Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, 159 E. Monroe St., 443-3600; : Designed by Renzo Piano, this 264,000-square-foot addition houses masterworks—and is a masterpiece in its own right.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., 280-2660; : An elegant space filled with artworks produced since 1945.
National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St., 738-1503; : In the heart of the bustling Mexican-American community of Pilsen, this is the nation's largest Latino arts museum.
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 50 E. Erie St., 932-8665; : A restored Gilded Age home with a superb collection of pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
WHERE TO STAY
Elysian, 11 E. Walton St., 646-1300; : This European-style hotel just opened, and its restaurants and cobblestone courtyard are already attracting trendsetters.
Four Seasons, 120 E. Delaware Pl., 280-8800; : All the luxuries, great views of the city and Lake Michigan, and 345 glamorous rooms and suites.
The Peninsula, 108 E. Superior St., 337-2888; : The most sybaritic lodgings in town, with a popular bar and a peerless spa.
Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, 20 E. Chestnut St., 324-4000; : A 32-floor modernist standout on the traditional Magnificent Mile.
The Wit, 201 N. State St., 467-0200; : A spunky new Loop addition, with a lightning bolt etched into its façade and one of the best rooftop bars in the city.
WHERE TO EAT
Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted St., 867-0110; : Foodies flock to chef Grant Achatz's pioneering molecular gastronomy, so be sure to book months in advance.
Avec, 615 W. Randolph St., 377-2002; : A wine bar with well-crafted small plates and a see-and-be-seen crowd. Avenues, 108 E. Superior St., 573-6695;
Avenues, 108 E. Superior St., 573-6695; [link href="http://www.peninsula.com" target="_blank" link_updater_label="external"]peninsula.com: Seasonally driven, avant-garde cuisine at the Peninsula.
Big Star, 1531 N. Damen Ave., 773-235-4039; : A casual but brilliant concept from chef Paul Kahan: whiskey and tacos dished out on a packed Wicker Park terrace.
The Bristol, 2152 N. Damen Ave., 773-862-5555; : This Bucktown hot spot's chalkboard menu is full of charcuterie and Mediterranean-inspired bar food.
Great Lake, 1477 W. Balmoral Ave., 773-334-9270: The city's best pizza establishment sources its fresh ingredients from local farms.
Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Ave., 773-276-7110; : Wild-boar sloppy joes and a long whiskey list draw hipsters.
Mado, 1647 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-342-2340; : Produce from Midwestern farms stars at this Mediterranean-style slow-food restaurant in Wicker Park.
Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted St., 526-3385; : Simple craft cooking with a handwritten menu that changes daily.
Piece, 1927 W. North Ave., 773-772-4422; : This popular brewery serves up award-winning beers and delicious thin-crust pizza.
The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market, 733-9555; : An homage to every cut of pork and craft beer, in the gritty meatpacking district.
Schwa, 1466 N. Ashland Ave., 773-252-1466; : Michael Carlson churns out inventive, globally inspired dishes from a tiny, unassuming neighborhood storefront.
Table Fifty-Two, 52 W. Elm St., 573-4000; : Oprah Winfrey and Obama favorite Art Smith updates Southern seafood and meat dishes to stunning effect.
Xoco, 449 N. Clark St., 661-1434; : A new carryout spot from Rick Bayless, adjacent to his Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
WHERE TO SHOP
Architectural Artifacts, 4325 N. Ravenswood Ave., 773-348-0622; : 80,000 square feet of antiques, vintage finds, and architectural remains.
Blake, 212 W. Chicago Ave., 202-0047: A high-fashion shop (Dries Van Noten, Balenciaga) with the air of a gallery.
Branca, 17 E. Pearson St., 787-1017; : Well-known decorator Alessandra Branca's mix of stylish furniture and affordable gifts.
Elements, 741 N. Wells St., 642-6574; : A refined array of tableware and accessories.
I.D., 3337 N. Halsted St., 773-755-4343; : A North Side gem that stocks eyeglasses by Tom Ford, furniture by Blu Dot, and designs by Tord Boontje.
Ikram, 873 N. Rush St., 587-1000; : Owned by Ikram Goldman, unofficial stylist for Michelle Obama, this is a mecca of chic.
Jayson Home & Garden, 1885 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-248-8180; : Offerings both beautiful (elegant furniture) and curious (petrified wood stumps).
June Blaker, 870 N. Orleans St., 751-9220; : An eclectic mix of jewelry, gifts, and home items.
Pavilion, 2055 N. Damen Ave., 773-645-0924; : Lighting from the 1940s through the '80s, furniture, and decorative pieces.
Post 27, 1819 W. Grand Ave., 829-6122; : Vintage furniture and works by local artisans.
Scout, 5221 N. Clark St., 773-275-5700; : The Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville brims with interesting home-goods stores. This is one of the best.
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