It doesn’t dry up and blow away, that’s for sure. Not every New Yorker heads to the Adirondacks or the Jersey Shore come Friday noon. Many of them stay right where they are, and are joined by great googobs of tourists in from the sticks and ready to experience big-city life.
Ah, but there’s a sweet spot in this equation. In theory, at least, one can have a delightful city weekend by going to the places that are off the out-of-towners’ radar, where the locals would go if they were there. And all it would take is a local or two to point the way.
We put this theory to the test on a recent weekend excursion to Chicago. Chicago is a perfect test subject because on any summer weekend you can barely see Wisconsin for the Chicagoans, and because the best parts of Chicago are the parts the tourists never see. (Sorry, Navy Pier.)
We actually started our Chicago city weekend in Milwaukee, at German Fest. Milwaukee is a fine, underrated city, and German Fest is an absolute hoot, with great food and much beer, but we are unnerved by vast quantities of lederhosen and dirndls anywhere west of Munich.
By staying overnight in Milwaukee we avoided Friday rush-hour traffic and had a leisurely (by Chicago standards) drive into the city Saturday morning.
We met up with our locals for the weekend, who promptly guided us through the Fulton District Market area, where new restaurants are popping up and flourishing like yellow rocket, each with its own increasingly specific raison d’etre. Root beer and barbecue? Check. Charcuterie and doughnuts? Check. Mega-huge Italian wood-fired oven and locally sourced greens? Got it. The restaurants in this area are playing their own version of the random-buzzword-generator game, only with cuisine.
We opted for an early lunch at one of the few places in the area that doesn’t play the game, the J.P. Graziano grocery. Graziano’s has been in the neighborhood since 1937, and is exactly what it appears to be: a food wholesaler and neighborhood grocery that just happens to sell the city’s best Italian sandwiches. You want a gallon of giardinara or a Porchetta with a lemon Pellegrino on the side? Graziano’s has you covered either way.
After wolfing down half of the best Italian sandwich this side of a Cochon Butcher muffuletta and saving the rest to marinate for the next day we set our sights on the city’s new Riverwalk, but stopped first at the French Market, located on Clinton Street in the West Loop. The market was less crowded than on a weekday and would have been hugely tempting had Graziano’s not been weighing heavily on our minds (and stomachs). Marked with an “X” for a return trip was Fumare, a deli that purportedly serves the best Montreal-style smoked meat this side of Schwartz’s.
The Riverwalk is sixish blocks from the French Market, over city streets sprinkled with a mix of tourists, runners, and locals. However, once you leave Franklin Street and head towards the Riverwalk the ratio of Chicagoans to tourists increases dramatically.
It’s obvious that the Riverwalk has quickly become the place where Chicago goes to exhale. Live music pours from small walkside cafes and bistros, opened recently to take advantage of the increased foot traffic. Kayaks, Jet Skis, tour boats and recreational watercraft ply the river, occasionally mooring to grab a bite and a beverage.
On the Riverwalk, people stroll and promenade; they don’t bustle and jostle. Even the runners turn it down a notch. The Riverwalk humanizes Chicago, mellows its abrasive character, and gives the city an affecting blend of European ease and American bustle. It’s what the city needed.
We traversed most of the Riverwalk, but it was a hot day, so we headed topside and walked four blocks to Pinstripes, which purveys the improbable hyphenated mix of bistro-bowling-bocce. Several cool beverages and bocce games later and we were rejuvenated for the rest of the day, which concluded with an at-home dinner with friends and board games. Hey, not every city weekend has to be all city all the time.
Sunday began with biscuits from Bang Bang Pie and Biscuits. The well-known (to locals, anyway) carb-loading destination is under new ownership, but the biscuits are the same decadent creations they’ve always been, made even better by fresh cherry jam and an improved al fresco brunching area out back, with picnic tables and plum and peach trees. And rejoice, summer Bang Bangers: The inside A/C works better than ever, too.
After that came a trip to Logan Square and its farmers’ market. “Farmers’ market” is a misnomer; it’s actually a vendors’ market, but a very good one, with baked goods and nut roasters and cuisines of all types, broken up by the occasional wax-bean seller. Just don’t expect to park anywhere within 10 blocks of the market when it’s going strong.
If the city-weekend hypothesis was totally valid, the market would have been deserted on Sunday, and we could have parked anywhere. The fact that it wasn’t says more about the market than the possibilities of a city weekend. Summer city weekends are not only doable; they’re wonderful. All you need to do is find a local and go.
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