SOPHY Hyde Park: A New Hotel for Chicago’s Sophisticated Hyde Park
By Brian E. Clark
At first blush, the brick and glass facade on the new SOPHY® Hyde Park in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood looks like a restored former warehouse or apartment building.
But truth be told, the site where the chic hotel is located at the corner of 53rd Street and Dorchester Avenue was a nondescript parking lot until the construction of the Sophy began several years ago. And before that, some long-time Hyde Parkers say, it was a restaurant and jazz club.
SOPHY is directly across the street what is one of Hyde Park’s more popular attractions these days: a plaque affixed to a boulder that marks the spot where former President Barack Obama first smooched Michelle Robinson, his future wife.
On the plaque is this quote:
“On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer… I kissed her and it tasted like chocolate.”
Hyde Park is also home to the fascinating Museum of Science and Industry which I visited a number of times as a youngster on visits to the Windy City with my family. Built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, it’s a must-see and experience for science geeks of all ages.
But we never stayed in Hyde Park, which has always been something of a desert in terms of places to stay. (We always opted for lodgings downtown.) The 98-room Sophy Hotel helps fill that gap.
The Southside neighborhood also boasts the Robie House , which is located on the University of Chicago campus and is considered one of the finest examples of Prairie-Style architecture. Built in 1910 and designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, it recently reopened after an $11 million restoration.
Another spot worthy of a visit is the DuSable Museum of African American History which is located in Washington Park and has more than 15,000 artifacts, including prints, artworks and other historical memorabilia.
The University of Chicago is also home to the Oriental Institute, which focuses on the Middle East. In addition, the campus has the Smart Museum of Art, which houses modern masterpieces, millennia-old Chinese artworks, rich examples of European painting and provocative works of contemporary art.
Anthony Beach, general manager of the hotel and a 12-year resident of Hyde Park, said the hotel was designed to highlight its links to the nearby University of Chicago – where former President Obama taught in its law school from 1992 to 2004. A portrait of Obama – made from pennies – hangs in the lobby. Other artwork, some of it made by students from local schools, is displayed around the hotel.
Beach said the lobby, bar and restaurant were designed around the motifs of music, literature and science. The individual sleeping rooms also display those themes. And fittingly, he noted, the name SOPHY has its roots in the Greek word “sophia,” which means wisdom and dedication to excellence through the pursuit of knowledge.
Beach said the hotel celebrates former Hyde Park residents such as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, writer Saul Bellow and physicist Enrico Fermi, who engineered the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction on the University of Chicago campus in 1942. His experiment was a key step in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.
Beach said the bar has become a gathering spot for Hyde Park residents, while the hotel itself is a preferred lodging place for university guests and visitors.
When I ate at the hotel’s Mesler – from a French word the means “mix and mingle” – Restaurant recently, I felt liked I’d somehow slipped into a faculty club. At least one diner sported a bow tie and I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any Nobel laureates supping there that evening.
The restaurant seats 65 and there is a private 14-person dining room behind two large doors with a huge, circular relief that represents the world’s first Ferris Wheel, which was built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
When Beach wants to get away from his workplace, he said he sometimes stops by The Promontory , a restaurant and music venue that has been open for about five years. After dinner on the lush patio, step upstairs to the gorgeous music venue for jazz, house, hip-hop, and soul.
Other dining options include the Virtue, which recent got five stars from Time Out Chicago, for serving up “Southern charm in a winning combo of technique, nostalgia, personality;” the Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria & Brewery, Hyde Park’s first brewpub from the Dexter, Michigan-based brewery, known for its award-winning sour beers aged in oak barrels.
The fast-casual pub menu includes starters, salads, sandwiches, and unique pizzas; and the Valois, a Hyde Park icon that has been serving up great breakfasts and cafeteria-style comfort food to generations of Hyde Parkers for the past century.
And for something a little spicier, there’s Saucy Porka, an Asian-Latin American restaurant named for the Puerto Rican slang word, “porka,” meaning attitude and sass.
For a little culture, try the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre, which is dedicated to innovation, inquiry, intellectual engagement, and community service. Functioning as the university’s Center for Classic Theatre, Court and its artists mount theatrical productions and audience enrichment programs in collaboration with faculty.
There’s also the Connect Gallery, which merges community and culture, creating a space that inspires social innovation through art. And the Hyde Park Art Center, which is a hub for contemporary arts in Chicago, serving as a gathering and production locale for artists and the broader community to cultivate ideas, push social change and connect with new networks.
And if you want to shop, check out Sir & Madame clothing store, The Silver Room for jewelry and salsa dancing; Modern Cooperative for home decor; Dearborn Denim for men’s clothing and shoes, the Busted Bra Shop, for, well, you guessed it, women’s undergarments;
The Silver Umbrella for upscale vintage clothing, shoes and accessories; and 57th Street Books for cookbooks, travel guides, mysteries, science fiction, children’s tales and more.
1411 East 53rd Street Chicago, IL 60615
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.