OBAMA’S KIND OF TOWN (NO, NOT D.C.)
Chicago, the home and stomping grounds of former Senator and now President Barack Obama, is once again in the limelight. And frankly, it's about time. The Windy City is one of my favorite places, a big city with a small town feel, a town that always seems more welcoming and a lot more liveable than the Big Apple.
Since my wife is from Chicago, I've spent a lot of time there in the past decade, time spent visiting my mother-in-law, Zona; learning to love deep dish pizza; and making lots of new friends. The perennial challenge is finding time to do everything we want to do, from taking our daughter to Oz Park (as in Frank L. Baum's Oz) off Lincoln Avenue to giving culinary credit to Chi-town for that deep dish pizza (which hasn't supplanted New York pies from my tastebuds).
I love the sublime Mexican food and the stellar service at Topolobampo, which is apparently the Obamas' favorite Chicago dining room. But I also love Dee's for Chinese with our pals Midge and Herb, Tiffin for amazing Indian food, and Resi's Beer Stube for the best draft weissbeer served in North America, in a city where all things German are still celebrated. Or maybe hitting one of the lively Greektown places like Greek Islands with my father-in-law, Jim and his wife, Carole. And I could go on, from the hot dogs at Byron's on Irving Park (Zona rates them pretty high) to the view from the Rebar on one of the lower floors of the new 92 story Trump Hotel. Even if a mere glass of wine flirts with $20 for the privilege of overlooking the Chicago River and the myriad windows of neighboring skyscrapers, sights best seen during a light snowfall.
Which brings me to Chicago in winter. You either love it or loathe it, and I'm in the former camp. I love skating (and yes, it's free) with my wife and daughter at McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millenium Park, in the shadow of The Bean, that sculpture by Anish Kapoor that ranks as the city's new icon.
Attending a concert at Orchestra Hall, visiting the world-class Aquarium or strolling through the Art Institute of Chicago, where my daughter delights in the Thorne Miniature Rooms. I like walking down Michigan Avenue when it's decked out for the season, taking my daughter to the wonderful (and free) zoo in Lincoln Park when the temperatures rise a little. Looking, always looking, at some of the best architecture in America, from red brick town homes in Lincoln Park to venerable towers like the Wrigley Building (while awaiting Renzo Piano's new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago). And knowing that there's always a coffee shop or a tavern (hey, this is Chicago) on the corner when the wind, the slush or fatigue become too much for us. And always, that expanse of lake at the city's front door is an aesthetic treat, the better to reflect the city's moody light.
Which brings me to this. Like virtually everywhere else on the planet, there are sales galore and deals to be had in Chicago hotels. So if you're pining for an urban fix and you want to traipse in the footsteps of our new president, listen up:
I just stayed at the Westin Chicago River North (above), ideally located overlooking the Chicago River, with comfortable rooms, the trademark Heavenly Beds and quintessential city views. It's a short walk to House of Blues, Topolobampo and all of the diversions of Michigan Avenue, and about a five minute cab ride to the Art Institute of Chicago. The hotel is running a number of teasers right now, but probably the best one (and most aptly named) is "Better Tomorrows." When you stay one night, the next might is 50 percent off (good Thursday through check out Sunday, mention rate ZBT).
Finding a hotel with an available deal is easy, especially over the next couple of months. Have a look at Quikbook for this coming weekend (January 23-24) and you'll see the W Chicago lakeshore for $120, the James Hotel for $150, and the Amalfi at $121, places that any self-serving hipster would be proud to crash in for the night. And more modest wallets will find the Comfort Inn and Suites Downtown for $80 and the Allerton Hotel for $75.
On the other hand, if you're really feeeling presidential, consider The Fairmont Chicago, which just underwent a $50 million renovation by David Rockwell. On January 20, Inauguration Day, the hotel opens it's new top floor Fairmont Presidential Suite. The 1,850 square foot suite has views of Grant Park, where Obama made his acceptance speech upon winning the election as the 44th President of the United States. There's a living room, dining room, library with fireplace and grand piano, open wet bar, butler's pantry, and a separate bedroom with dressing room and bath. The decor includes Obama memorabilia, from campaign buttons to framed newspaper headlines to copies of Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Vintage). The hotel's "Presidential Suite and Hometown Tour Package" includes a chauffeur-driven tour of the Obama family's favorite Chicago places in the hotel's Bentley Continental Flying Spur. But you might need to apply for a Federal bailout to afford the two-night package, which includes dinner at Topolobampo and a night at Buddy Guy's Legends, because it runs $8,244.
For more info, visit Fairmont Chicago
Since Chicago is one of America's great dining cities, foodies should note that Chicago Restaurant Week will feature more than 130 restaurants, offering 3-course lunches for $22 and dinners for $32. It runs February 20-27, 2009. For more on this, and for much more on Chicago, check out the city's new website:www.explorechicago.org