Thursday, April 16, 2015

A howling good time in Chicago

In "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", Donald and Daffy challenge
each other to a piano duel.  Image credit here.
At the western end of 42nd Street in New York, just before you get your feet wet in the Hudson River, there's a little place called Tobacco Road.  It won Best Dive Bar in 2011, and deserved the accolade for sure.  A former bikini bar, Tobacco Road would never win prizes for its decor but it was here that I discovered Shake, Rattle and Roll - New York's fun and silly Dueling Pianos show.  They've since taken their act on the road, moving the pianos down to the cool Tribeca neighbourhood, but that's just geography really. Shake, Rattle and Roll is still the good-time evening out, where you're entertained by super-talented musicians who enjoy sharing good laughs, music, and drinks with a likeminded audience.

I didn't just randomly wander into Tobacco Road that night though.  My interest in the musical craziness that is Duelling Pianos actually began years before, in Chicago.  So just recently, when I was back there with my parents, I took them to where my rowdy, beer-fueled musical education began - Howl At The Moon, on West Hubbard Street, just off Michigan Avenue.

I have never seen a Dueling Pianos show in Australia (maybe we don't have it) so I had to give Mum and Dad the heads up on what to expect.  In Dueling Pianos, there are two pianos up on stage, facing each other.  The pianists take it in turns to play songs that the audience has requested (you do this by writing down your song request on a small piece of paper, and leaving it on the top of one of the pianos).  Adding a few dollars on top of each request helps ensure that your song works its way to the top of the playlist.  If one pianist starts playing a song you don't particularly like, or if you'd just rather hear a different song altogether, you can put some more money on the opposite piano and the other pianist may well start playing your song, basically cutting off the first song.  The duel is on, and it's like musical warfare!  Things can get pretty feisty, and dollar bills and song requests fly back and forth, but the crowd really gets into the spirit and the sing-a-longs alone are worth it.

We showed up at Howl At The Moon on a really frosty Sunday evening and there wasn't much of a crowd at all.  Cover charge wouldn't kick in until later, so we got in for free and we settled down to the business of beer-drinking and brainstorming our song list.  Before long, the small but enthusiastic collection of music fans in the room had started to warm up and we had pulled together a fairly impressive list of diverse requests.

Obviously this wasn't the first time my parents had been exposed to the depths of musical talent in Chicago. After all, we'd hit up Buddy Guy's Legends Bar on Friday night, and The Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues that Sunday morning (where I had been years ago).  As a result of all this, my parents had come to expect big things from Chicago musicians.  But I don't think any of us really anticipated just how talented the Howl At The Moon artists were going to be that night.  Just when you start admiring how well they play the piano, they switched around to accompany each other on drums, or even the guitar, and they were equally brilliant at everything they touched.  From Michael Jackson to AC/DC, and Sir Mix-A-Lot to Van Morrison, the artists managed everything we threw at them, and all without sheet music!  How?  Incredible.

Whether you get to Howl At The Moon in Chicago, or you visit Shake, Rattle, and Roll in New York, you're bound to enjoy Dueling Pianos.  Amazing musicians play the songs you want to hear, while you sing and dance along with a noisy crowd of fun people.  What's not to like about that?!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Turning deep dish pizza upside down

We've discussed once before the unique nature of the Chicago hot dog, but I would have to say that deep dish pizza is the fast food for which Chicago is the most famous.  And rightly so - it's cheesy, it's gooey and it's SO filling.

Our time in Chicago was pretty short this time, and we were so busy during the days that I made the potentially controversial decision not to feed my parents deep-dish pizza while we were in town.  Instead, I took them to a place where pizza is theatre, a place where the concept of ooey-gooey pizza is literally turned upside-down.

The Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company is located in a converted townhouse in the leafy suburb of Lincoln Park, and the cash-only business is worth every good review it gets.  They don't take reservations though so if you're hungry, I'd recommend you show up either just as they open, or right before they close.

Not heeding my own advice, we arrived around 6.30pm on a Saturday night, amidst the hustle-bustle of the dinner rush.  I fought my way past the throngs of people to register ourselves with the maitre d'.  He didn't write anything down - not my name, not my phone number, nothing.  How he possibly remembered who was who is still beyond me.  We purchased a couple of drinks from the bar and waited in the warm, cosy vestibule for the maitre d' to come and find us.

An hour or so later, we were finally seated and confronted with the food menu.  I don't know why they bothered giving us a menu at all; I mean, we knew exactly what we were there to enjoy.

The half-pound pizza pot pie is the most inventive and delicious pizza I have had in a really long time.  It's an individual serving, and includes "triple-raised Sicilian bread-type dough; a homemade sauce consisting of olive oil, fresh garlic, onions, green peppers, whole plum tomatoes and a special blend of cheeses; sausage made from prime Boston butts; and doorknob-size, whole, fresh mushrooms".  I mean, come on.  How could you go wrong?!

But the thing that makes this pizza so special - and so theatrical - is that it is baked in a bowl, with the crust-side up.  So when your pizza pot pie is ready, the waiter brings it over and inverts it at your table.  The ooey-gooey cheese settles into place on the surface of your bowl-shaped pizza, and it is an utter delight to behold, and to gobble up.


With apologies to the deep dish purists but when it comes to pizza, THIS is the taste of Chicago for me.  I definitely recommend you visit The Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company.  Sure, the name is a mouthful, but so are the amazing pizzas!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A mile of magnificence, and then some

Daniel Burnham was a splendidly-mustachioed American architect and planner, charged with rebuilding the City of Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  To my mind, the best quote ever attributed to Burnham was "make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood" and I think it perfectly characterises Burnham's approach to the 'new' Chicago.

One of the prime ingredients in Burnham's 1909 restoration plan for Chicago was a new commercial centre for the City, that would create retail opportunities away from overcrowded State Street.  With the opening of the Michigan Avenue bridge in 1920, the city was ready to give full expression to Burnham's vision for this busy district.

Regrettably, Daniel Burnham died eight years before The Magnificent Mile sprang to life, but I am fairly confident he would love what it has become.

The Magnificent Mile is the 13-block stretch of Michigan Avenue that runs from the Chicago River in the south to Oak Street in the north.  In that area alone, residents and visitors alike are spoiled with "460 stores, 275 restaurants, 60 hotels and unique entertainments", which includes art galleries and museums.  You can download official maps here to see what I mean.

If you're only in Chicago for a short time, and shopping's not really your thing, you should still walk the Mag Mile to get a feel for exactly what this amazing city has to offer.  We did exactly that on our second morning in Chicago and it was fantastic.  My friend Bolts had flown in from NYC to join us for her maiden visit to Chitown and we were so pleased to have her along.  

After a restorative brunch at super-popular Yolk, we headed back to Michigan Avenue and walked up and down the wide, clean promenades past the shops.  More than once, we remarked how lovely it was to have plenty of space on Michigan Avenue.  Had this been New York, we would have been pushing and jostling with people already.  Such a lovely change of pace for us.

Before long, we were back at the Michigan Avenue bridge and the top of the Magnificent Mile.  We crossed over the frosty Chicago River, which the City would dye green for St Patrick's Day less than a month after our visit.  Hard to believe the ice would have melted in time, no?

As we have already seen, the Magnificent Mile part of Michigan Avenue is dominated by shops, hotels, and restaurants.  But walk across the Michigan Avenue bridge and continue walking south, and you're into The Loop (Chicago's central business district).  You'll quickly note that the architecture becomes decidedly different here.  To the west, you've got big office buildings the occasional high-rise apartment residences.  But to the east, you've got beautiful Lake Michigan and some of the most elegant parklands and cultural institutions you'll see anywhere.

Case in point, we headed into Grant Park, named for decorated Civil War veteran and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.  This park is actually a monster, covering 319 hectares of prime lakefront real estate.  Locally referred to as "Chicago's front yard", Grant Park is put to sensational use throughout the year for a range of public events, music concerts, food festivals, and sports.  

The blustering winds and frosty weather prevented us from exploring Grant Park in its entirety, but we did stop to admire "The Bean", the world-famous sculpture in the Millennium Park section.  The sculpture's actual name is "Cloud Gate" and it was installed in 2006.  Created by Indian-born British artist, Anish Kapoor, The Bean stands 120-feet tall and is comprised of 168 shiny, stainless-steel plates welded together.  During installation, each plate underwent a 5-stage construction process and the end result is that they appear to have been fused together seamlessly.  Even on the cold day that we visited, you can see that the sun shines brilliantly off The Bean's mirrored surface.  Kapoor's vision was always that his sculpture would be publicly accessible but of course, that means The Bean gets pretty dirty.  Annual cleaning costs are estimated between $35,000 and $50,000 which are met through an annual endowment - no public tax dollars are used.

The Bean also overlooks the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink and we watched a bunch of ice skaters navigate their course, with varying degrees of success.  Anyone not brave or coordinated enough to skate should definitely call into the adjacent Park Grill Chicago, where the cocktails are unapologetically strong.

Our art and people appreciation in Grant Park wasn't quite done yet.  We walked past Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, which is one of the most fun places to people watch in summer.  Unfortunately, based on my photos below, Crown Fountain requires a bit more imagination in the winter.

As you can (hopefully) see, the fountains are huge free-standing structures, about 50 feet tall.  They use over 1 million LEDs to display the faces of Chicago residents that change expressions frequently. Between May and October, the faces pout and basically spit water out of their mouths.  The fountains are separated by a large granite slab (covered by the snow in my pictures).  Water spurts out of holes in the slab too, and many children play and splash in the water spouts during the warmer months.

Our final stop on the Grant Park whistle-stop tour was the gorgeous Art Institute of Chicago.  We didn't go inside this time (300,000 works of art being quite beyond us at this point), but I couldn't help but admire the majestic lions standing guard at the entrance.  Reminiscent of the New York Public Library, no?  Fans of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" will of course recognise this building as one of the destinations that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane visit in the City when they play hooky from school.   And who knows, if you come inside the Art Institute, you might be just as mesmerised by George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" as Cameron was.

Whether it's shopping, food, art or architecture that floats your boat, Chicago's Michigan Avenue has it all. On our recent visit in frosty February, we only scratched the surface of the Magnificent Mile and the gorgeous parklands - there is just so much more to see.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Where buddies and legends hang out

A steak lunch and two glasses of red wine should have put me straight to sleep but being back in Chicago had infused me with some strange kind of energy.  I wanted to soak it all up, and miss nothing.  Plus the fact it was Friday meant I was buzzed about heading to one of my favourite Chicago haunts, Buddy Guy's Legends Bar.

When I lived in Chicago from 2005 to 2009, I discovered a deep and unwavering love of the blues.  There was no pretension about it.  The musicians were young, old, black, white, but all very cool and in turn, I felt cool just listening to the blues - feeling it.

As a result, I never missed a chance to pony up to Buddy Guy's on the south side of Chicago on a Friday night, usually after a few sherbets at a nearby Irish pub, to appreciate live blues and beers with my buddies.  Now Chicago may be home to the fantastic Blues Brothers but for my money, fans of real blues music need look no further than Buddy Guy's to get their regular fix.

Blues legend and electric guitarist Buddy Guy opened his bar in June 1989 and for a long time it was an average, no-frills establishment that cared not for fancy decor or food items.  The real star of Buddy's' bar was the music - the bar became legendary because of the music legends that Buddy invited to grace his stage and delight his audiences.

My recollection of early visits to Buddy Guy's include plastic chairs, toilet doors that didn't lock, and dim lighting.  I also remember taking a blind date there once after our dinner, as I just wanted to be on familiar territory, and somewhere loud enough that I wouldn't have to talk to him.  Ah, memories!  I was even fortunate to hear Buddy play on a number of occasions; taking breaks between songs to drink shots that a steady procession of attractive women had bought for him.  Nothing was slowing that old guy down - and his wicked grin betrayed his every cheeky thought (about the music and the girls).

So I was really pleased that Mum & Dad were keen to come to Buddy Guy's for a Friday night musical treat.  And I'll admit to being rather taken aback by the amazing renovations that had taken place since my last visit.  This wasn't just a coat of paint either; this was a total overhaul of the establishment - right down to the employment of one of friendliest toilet attendants you'll ever meet in your life (a significant plus for women, trust me).  If you didn't know any better, you'd say that Buddy Guy's version 2.0 was much like the Hard Rock Cafe - a blues museum of sorts.  Guitars displayed everywhere, plaques, awards, and historical photos galore.  And what's not to love about that?!

That particular Friday night of our visit, we had tickets to the 9pm show of the fantastically-named Biscuit Miller and the Mix.  Have you ever seen a band and realised that they are way cooler than you will ever be in your entire life?  Well, enter Biscuit Miller.  With his musical roots firmly planted in gospel and soul, this Chicago native raised the roof off Buddy Guy's and had us all clapping and dancing in our seats.  Mum and Dad were really loving it, and we totally got into the spirit of the music, appreciating the decades of obvious talent on stage before us.

Before we knew it, it was midnight but the crowd and the musicians showed no signs of slowing down.  The pace of the day had hit us though, and it was time to call it quits.  Even though Buddy Guy himself was a no-show, our $20 cover charge was so well spent and we would come back in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sweet home Chicago

I had to work during Mum and Dad's recent visit to New York, but I was fortunate to secure a couple of days of vacation so that we could disappear to my old sweet home Chicago. I spent a very happy 4 years there from 2005 to 2009 and while Mum visited me during that period, Dad had never been.  Given that Mum was hell-bent on seeing snow during her US visit, I was fairly confident that Chicago would deliver the goods.

Our American Airlines flight left around 9am one Friday morning, and while the sun was shining on our descent into Chicago, you can see for yourself the frigid conditions awaiting us below.  The ice on Lake Michigan stretched back as far as the eye could see, and snow covered most of the houses and city buildings we flew over.

Chicago O'Hare is the busiest airport in the United States, in terms of flight traffic, but whenever I disembark there I always feel like I'm home again.  I led Mum and Dad through the push and shove of passengers, cabin crew, and airport staff and we headed straight to the baggage claim.  Luggage safely in hand we headed down the escalators to the Blue Line train.

New York has the subway system, but Chicago has the "El" train.  Short for "elevated train", the El is a network of 8 elevated train lines serving over 140 stations.  Like the New York subway system, the El system is colour-coded and clearly marked, and features express and local trains.  The Blue Line runs from Forest Hills (the western terminus), through the City, and out to O'Hare and it is a fantastic way to get to and from the airport.  Not only is it an easy, fuss-free way to travel, but it's inexpensive too.  A one-way taxi fare from O'Hare to Chicago Downtown will cost you about $50 and takes about 30 minutes.  A one-way trip on the Blue Line will only cost you $3 and granted it will take you a little longer, but if you haven't got a heap of luggage, and you're not in a rush, the choice is pretty easy, no?

Another advantage of the Chicago Blue Line train is that it literally stops underneath the baggage claim terminal.  You don't even need to go outside the building to catch it - so handy.  When we got to the station downstairs, I discovered that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) had replaced its old travel cards with a new Ventra Card system that are like Mastercards (they're credit card sized, and they're rechargeable just like NYC's Metrocards).  In the end, we purchased 3-day Ventra cards from the vending machine to last us for our visit.  The cards can be used on the El trains, as well as on the city buses, so they are a fantastic and flexible way to travel.

Looking back on it, I suppose I was a bit mean making Mum and Dad travel downtown by train, because when we got to the Thompson Center station at Clark/Lake, we had a bit of a walk to get to our hotel.  In fine weather, this would not have been a problem, but winter in Chicago is something else.  You may be aware that Chicago is known as the Windy City.  This nickname actually originated to describe the puffed-up, wind-bag politicians of Chicago's early history, but over time it has also come to capture the heinously cold breezes that come off Lake Michigan, as well as the frozen Chicago River, which winds its way through the Downtown area.  And it was these weather conditions that greeted us as we emerged from the stuffy warmth of the El station.

Needless to say we dragged our suitcases the few blocks to the hotel in basic silence, pausing only to admire the majestic Trump Hotel and also the historical Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, that dominate the skyline and Michigan Avenue.

We checked into the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel, where Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic gold medalist and film's original Tarzan, used to train in the gorgeous Olympic-sized swimming pool.  We didn't have time for a dip though because we needed to defrost and have a feed.

For this purpose, we chose the Michael Jordan's Steak House in the lobby of our hotel.  I had neglected to tell Mum and Dad that there is a New York site of the restaurant upstairs at Grand Central Station, overlooking the concourse, and it's a fantastic place to eat and to people-watch. But in Chicago, to be honest, we chose this restaurant not out of any Chicago Bulls loyalty; but rather in part to avoid having to step outdoors in the freezing cold again, but also so we could see my former room mate Lexie, who works in an office building just across the road.  I've been friends with Lexie for 10 years but my Dad had never met her, and Mum had only met her once. It was fantastic to just sit in the restaurant and have a proper catch up with Lex where none of us were actually in a rush or needed to be anywhere in particular.

Food and friends.  This is exactly what our return visit to Chicago was all about, but it was only the beginning!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nothing to sneeze at here

Every year in late March to early April, the ground floor of Macy's in Herald Square blooms in the brightest of colours at the annual Flower Show.  Signaling the impending arrival of spring, the Flower Show is definitely an iconic event for the store and thousands more shoppers stream through the doors to get a look at the inventive displays.

This year's show is called "Art In Bloom" and flowers carpet the floor and even parts of the ceiling!  With a combination of flowers and pretty lights, I'm a floral fan for sure.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bend your arm at this New York institution

Established in 1854, McSorley's Old Ale House is widely recognised as the oldest Irish bar in New York City.  Located in the East Village, it's the kind of place with swinging doors, sawdust on the floor, and it has not been redecorated since forever.

McSorley's operated as an all-male establishment for the first 115 years of its life.  Then in 1970 Faith Seidenberg and her brave female friend attempted to come in for a drink but were ejected from McSorley's onto the frosty January sidewalk, much to the raucous delight of the male patrons and waiters at the time.  Faith Seidenberg decided enough was enough.  A lawyer by trade, she sued McSorley's to compel them to admit female patrons.  She won the landmark case, but she never went back to the bar again.  Ms Seidenberg died at her New York home in January this year, but her efforts will always be remembered.

McSorley's, like Ms Seidenberg, is an unforgettable New York character.  The staff there are always ready with a smile and a tall story.  To wet your whistle, your only choices are light beer or dark beer.  Either choice is a great one of course, and you're rewarded with two little beer steins of frothy, cold goodness.  You can also buy a couple of food items, which is particularly useful as the beers go down very easily.

You'd think that McSorley's would be a tourist trap but it's really not.  I've only ever seen a handful of tourists in there over the past few years; usually it's just locals and the crazy St Patrick's Day crowds (who admittedly come from all over).  When I completed the New York half-marathon in 2012 I hobbled to McSorley's for a cleansing ale (or four, if my memory serves).  And there is something wonderful about coming here on a wet, wintry day, hiding from the cold in the warm, dimly-lit pub.

But even if you go to McSorley's on your own, you'll never be bored.  You need only browse all around the walls, behind the bar, and even on the ceiling for some historical treats and treasures.  There is a bust of JFK, framed photographs of the neighbourhood through the ages, and lots of black and white images of old time New York.  Of a more macabre nature though are the wishbones suspended over a light fixture.  Legend has it that American soldiers in WW1 left the wishbones there after a satisfying chicken lunch, pledging to take them down when they came back from the war.  They have remained there, untouched, ever since.

McSorley's is a beautiful time capsule of New York, and as long as you obey the sign over the bar, "Be good or be gone", your memories will always be good ones.  Cheers!