Chicago: Day One

They could be playing "Stormy Weather" all night...

The weather on Friday was a dance between cold, wet, colder, and wetter. Every time we stepped outside the conditions seemed to have changed for the worse without somehow changing very much at all. We were colder with every new trip, or the rain struck us harder.

This did not make ideal weather conditions for taking photographs, but that’s alright with me. To tell the truth, I’m not much of a picture-taker when on vacation. I wish I was. I envy people who come back from long trips with a mile of photos glorifying their travels. They have pictures of everything they did, everywhere they went, everyone they saw. Drank a pint with friends? It’s in the pictures. Car got stuck in the mud? It’s in the pictures. Ate an amazing dinner at a famous four star restaurant?… Well, it would be in my pictures as well. But you get the idea.

As a result of the crappy weather and how it restrained us to our hosting neighborhood- Lincoln Park – and the surrounding territory, I don’t have much photographic record to share. The picture above was taken a few doors down from one of my favorite stores in Chicago, Shake Rattle and Read, on Broadway in Uptown. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Green Mill Jazz Club is a famous Chicago venue, opening in 1910 as a roadhouse complete with indoor and outdoor dining and dancing areas. In the twenties, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, henchman of Al Capone, took over a large percentage of the club’s ownership, and the place became a favorite mob hangout. The story of McGurn’s takeover is best described in the historical summary on the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge website:

“Manager Danny Cohen had given McGurn the 25% stake to “persuade” comedian/singer Joe E. Lewis from moving his act south to the New Rendezvous Café at Clark and Diversey. McGurn managed to convince Lewis by slitting his throat and cutting off his tongue. Miraculously, Lewis recovered, but his songs never regained their lush sound.”

Ah, isn’t history wonderful, kids? I’d love to be a school child on a walking tour of jazz clubs in the city. Way more blood, booze, and broads than an average Pittsburgh field trip to the zoo.

The two highlights of our first full day in Chicago were hanging out with my friend Anna Sophia and her boyfriend, Ryan, at a little place in Bucktown called Gallery Cabaret. Our visit coincided with the opening of an art show, complete with snack table and songs from a guitarist and his various accompanying performers. It was definitely the kind of place you want in your own neighborhood – homey, friendly, reasonably priced, and colored with eclectic taste all its own.

The second highlight was our visit to The Chicago Diner, something that my partner was possibly more excited for than the overall trip itself. Restless and unable to hesitate at the hostel, we reached the diner about forty minutes too early, which permitted us time to take a poorly reasoned stroll toward the Lakefront, through sweeping wind and rain. Forty minutes later, chilled to the bone, we sat down for a meal.

Chicago Diner on Urbanspoon

And what a meal! The Chicago Diner is all vegetarian/mostly vegan, but it’s the sort of place that if you took anyone, ANYONE, they’re guaranteed to be satisfied. The food is reasonably priced diner food, twisted for dietary restriction and flair. The bargain comes in the portion: You may spent 10 bucks on a meal, but you’re getting two meals worth of food. This is the kind food that will sustain walking up and down neighborhoods on a rainy day. Gut-filling, rib-sticking, soul-gratifying cuisine, and completely animal-free.

James dived right into the culinary deep end and ordered the Breakfast Bowl: Potatoes, scrambled tofu, soy sausage, and chive-flecked biscuits, all smothered in vegan country gravy. He had mentioned the gravy before, each time with a kind of mistiness normally reserved for beloved and long-dead pets, and now I got to find out why. I was overwhelmed with one bite of the gravy. Overwhelmed with flavor, overcome with anger.

Yes, anger. Why? Cause it’s just not right, okay? IT’S JUST NOT RIGHT! How do they get it so smokey, so heavy, so… meat-gravy-like? I’ve made some delicious vegan gravy in the past, but this, this…. this was something else entirely. When I asked the waitress what the secret was, she kind of shrugged. “Mushrooms… pepper… Probably black magic.”

What really pushes this dish into instant favorite category is that everything underneath the gravy is also perfectly prepared, each with their individual flavors intact. The tofu is mild and refreshing, the sausage has a little kick, the potatoes are a little seasoned and crunchy. I even thought the biscuits, which looked a little flat to me, were well done, especially with the little fresh blast of chives amidst the neutral doughiness of each bite.

My partner has a healthy appetite, but he had to cry uncle about three-fourths of the way through the dish. Considering that he was both saving his gut from busting and giving himself a tasty snack for later, I think he made the best choice.

I love Reubens and Rachels, and when people complain about the “Pittsburgh” sandwich being so low-class, I only have to point out that the Pittsburgh sandwich is really just a variation of a Reuben with added starch in the form of fries, and Reubens are found everywhere, in every metropolitan area, in low class and high class areas alike.

But I’m getting off track. I opted for the (slightly) lighter California Reuben. Tasty marbled rye slices were laid thick with agave-glazed seitan-turkey, homemade vegan coleslaw, and cheese. The sandwich came with a happy little portion of sweet potato fries, cut thin and fried to a nice crunch. The coleslaw was really top notch, fresh and crisp and lightly vinegary, but of course, the star of this dish was the faux turkey, which had none of the flatness of so many vegan protein slices. It was genuinely (and a little disarmingly) meaty, a quality that ensures a successful vegan Reuben.

To sell the Chicago Diner just a little more, can I add that our waitress was super friendly? That we were never short on coffee or water? That we were treated with absolute welcome from the moment we stepped in the door (when it was virtually empty) to the moment we left (when nearly every table was filled)?  It wasn’t just the amazing food that had us waddling off in such high spirits. It was also the cheerful environment which – as we have learned from Square Cafe – really brings out the best qualities a restaurant has to offer.

Of course, what would a satisfying meal be without the requisite sweet treat to finish it off? We were way too stuffed to consider dessert in the restaurant – although the vegan milkshakes were calling my name – so we grabbed a dozen cookies to take back to our hostel.

To give you an idea of how good the cookies were, they didn’t make it past the night. They’re available for purchase at select Midwestern Whole Foods, so if you’re in that region, but can’t make it to the actual diner, make a point to find a participating location and buy some. I’ve never had a vegan chocolate chip cookie that tasted so much like a Soft Baked cookie, which are the kings of the cookie aisle.

The rest of Friday not spent eating at Chicago Diner, walking in the rain, or enjoying the quirky ramshackle charms of Gallery Cabaret was spent either relaxing away from the rain in our hostel or more walking about various neighborhoods bordering Lincoln Park. Luckily for us, the weather cleared up on Saturday, so we got to do a bit more outdoor venturing, which I will get to in the next post.

One response to “Chicago: Day One

  1. I love hearing about adventures in other cities. Looks & sounds like, despite the rain, day one was terrific. I think I might be one of those people who photographs everything when on vacation, but even though it seems so, I often find myself wishing I would keep my camera more at the ready instead of tucked inside my purse. I still miss out on a lot photographs I wish I’d been ready to take.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s