Destinations – Chicago, my kind of town

My partner Keith’s 40th high school reunion provided the reason for a recent 5-day trip to the Windy City, the Second City, the toddling town, the city of broad shoulders, all of which are names for the place otherwise known as Chicago.

Other than an overnight break on a cross-country train trip in 1998 in order to visit the Art Institute, I hadn’t spent any time in Chicago since I worked as an employee for Amtrak in the first half of the 1990s. I liked visiting it then for work, so I was looking forward to this visit. I wasn’t disappointed.

To put it simply: Chicago is a great city.

I can’t find a theme to link our scattered experiences into a cohesive journalistic whole so I’ll simply cover things randomly.

Deep-dish pizza

This type of pizza is known also as Chicago-style pizza, so what else could we possibly eat when visiting its namesake city? Loving deep-dish pizza as we do, we knew as soon as the trip was planned that we would seek out pizza places when we were there. Not long before the trip, I read a post in a blog I follow about deep-dish pizza, which added substance to the desire.

The first night we were there, we walked the few short blocks from our hotel to Gino’s East on Wells Street. This is not the original Gino’s location although that isn’t far away. We ordered a deep-dish sausage pizza. The verdict: delicious. The crust was cornmeal. Not what I would expect but it worked. The service by a new server was fast and friendly, and her colleague gave us beer samples when we couldn’t make up our minds. (A tasty IPA-like brew from Wisconsin helped us wash down the pizza.)



The other famous deep-dish pizza establishment we dined at was Lou Malnati’s. Their pizza was very good, though we gave the edge to Gino’s. On the other hand, Malnati’s had a dynamite salad (“Malnati Salad”) served family style that we loved. The server warned us that the regular serving was more than enough if we were also eating pizza.

Boy, was he right!

We liked this salad so much we came back the following night and skipped pizza in favor of splitting the enormous large size Malnati Salad. Both times at Lou Malnati’s we ate outside on the sidewalk and enjoyed a great view of the “El” making a turn as it leaves The Loop. Lou Malnati’s also was less crowded, as it seemed not quite as thronged with visitors to Chicago as Gino’s was.

Keith and I came to Chicago with a fierce loyalty to Zachary’s Chicago-style pizza in Oakland (and Berkeley and San Ramon). For years Zachary’s has won “best pizza” awards in the Bay Area for its deep-dish and for good reason, but I’m happy to say, that we did not compare it with Gino’s or Lou Malnati’s.

Zachary’s is different from Gino’s and Lou Malnati’s. Zachary’s has a thicker, chunkier, and more savory tomato topping than either of its “old country” counterparts that we enjoyed, but all three are outstanding. Eat Chicago-style pizza in the city where it began, and you’ll simply come back hungry for good deep-dish pizza, anywhere!


(rear of the monolithic Merchandise Mart in background)

Millenium Park

Since my last trip to Chicago many new buildings – largely residential – have been built in the downtown core. Furthermore, a former railroad yard was reclaimed for the magnificent Millenium Park. Situated on the east side of Michigan Avenue connecting to Grant Park and the Art Institute, it is home to an outdoor concert venue, a remarkable art piece called “Cloud Gate” (and appropriately nicknamed “The Bean”), a garden that would look right at home in California, and more.











Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour

Not too long ago I read about these tours and it was the one thing I put on my “punch list” for what was otherwise a trip organized around Keith’s reunion events.

The 90 minute boat tour leaves from a dock on the Chicago River at Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue. The Chicago Art Foundation (CAF) docent did a superb job of providing timely commentary without notes as we first cruised up the north branch of the river, then up the south branch, then back downriver close to where the river does not empty into Lake Michigan, and then tied up where we began.

I wrote “does not” empty into Lake Michigan because one of the things I learned on the tour is that in 1900 the flow of the Chicago River was reversed with a massive series of locks. Among the benefits of the project was the partial cleansing of the river which would be accelerated later in the 20th century. As our guide said, the river has gone from being “toxic to merely polluted”.

I’m partial to boat tours anywhere, and this one is special because many of Chicago’s great buildings from the 1920s to the present day are lined up for inspection. Even without a docent it would be impressive, but the informed commentary by a docent will really make a difference in what you take away from the experience.

North State residents will find the following tidbit interesting.

Santiago Calatrava, architect of Redding’s Sundial Bridge has designed what will be North America’s tallest building if it is constructed. “The Chicago Spire” would tower 2000 feet above Chicago, along the river and close to the Navy Pier and Lake Michigan. Our docent pointed out the proposed tower’s location, which now, it is no exaggeration to say, is merely a hole in the ground. As you might expect, the design is unusual and would add further to Chicago’s reputation for cutting-edge architecture. Construction of the building is currently tied up in litigation.

Here are a few pictures from along the river of buildings that really exist. Most were snapped on the boat tour while others were taken from street level.














North Shore suburbs

Keith’s high school years were spent in Winnetka, Ill., a leafy suburb to Chicago’s north. We rented a car for one day and tooled around his old hood. This was all new to me and let me tell you these areas are beautiful and expensive (think Bay Area real estate prices). Evanston, home of the renowned Northwestern University, is the largest (and closest to Chicago) of these cities that reach close to the Wisconsin border.

Because the communities date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were and remain well-connected with Chicago by rail. The heavy rail of the Metra system (identical service to that of the Peninsula’s Caltrain) stretches far beyond Chicago as far as Kenosha, Wisc., while the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) “El” service stays closer to Chicago but does reach Evanston, as well as both O’Hare and Midway airports.

On our rental car drive around, we went looking for a place where Keith worked as a busboy during high school: the Pancake House in Wilmette. Sure enough, the place was still there (and has grown to six locations) and Keith verified that they still served their famous apple pancake. A couple of days later, Philistines that we are, we sacrificed going to the Art Institute in favor of a Metra ride to Wilmette and an apple pancake at the Pancake House.

He was right; it was delicious!

Hey, you can have art any old time but how many chances do you get to have a genuine Pancake House apple pancake and a ride on Metra? (On a future visit we’ll devote at least a day to the Art Institute. It’s an outstanding museum.)



Planes, trains, and boats

First the planes.

I try to fly out of Chico whenever possible, but in this instance the convenience and significant price advantage (even when paying $54 for six days of parking) persuaded us to use Southwest out of Sacramento.

This was the first time in years that I had flown Southwest and I have to say the experience was an entirely positive one. Unlike many travelers, I hate carrying anything other than a laptop on to a plane. I actually like to check bags and not have to deal with them until I reach my destination, so it was pleasant to not have to pay to check the bag. That savings there immediately canceled the cost of parking in Sacramento. Southwest still does not have seat assignments but their system of 24-hour in advance check-in to receive a boarding letter and number works smoothly and is easy to understand.

Southwest only operates one nonstop flight daily between Sacramento (SMF) and Chicago-Midway Airport (MDW) but the flight times both directions couldn’t be better. Our flights operated on time or early both ways, and the flight attendants were friendly and helpful. Because Southwest does not charge for checked luggage, there wasn’t any competition for the overhead bin space because more passengers opted to check bags. The flight attendants didn’t have to act as overhead bin referees and traffic cops as they do on other airlines.

Finally what impressed me in general about Southwest is that they had adequate personnel everywhere. Especially in Sacramento but also in Midway (a hub for Southwest), the lines to check in were long. But they moved very, very fast and in large part because employees were deployed not only behind the counters but also along the way in the line. One did not reach the front of the line, unsure about which counter to use.

Southwest has a winning product, they don’t nickel and dime you, and their route structure now is truly national in scope. They never will serve cities as small as Chico, but if I can’t fly out of Chico conveniently and at a competitive price (taking into account the drive and parking in Sacramento), and cannot use Alaska or Horizon (my airline first choices), then I’d pick Southwest for sure.

Second, the trains

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates a train (the “El”) between Midway Airport (also O’Hare) and downtown Chicago’s Loop.

The service to and from Midway is on the Orange Line. Except for a slightly confusing ticket purchase process, this was very easy and remarkably inexpensive at a little over $2 one way. Because our hotel was in the Near North Side we transferred at the Roosevelt station to a Red Line train.

We would not choose to make this transfer again. Making the connection with suitcases to a very crowded Red Line train was a hassle. Rather I would go as far as I could on the Orange Line, then exit the system and catch a cab for the remaining distance.

On the return this is exactly what we did; we took a taxi from the hotel to the State & Lake station on the Orange Line for an easy no-connections ride on the “El” back to Midway for our flight.



I already mentioned that we took a joyride on Metra in our search for the perfect pancake. This went well. Metra’s service in downtown Chicago uses two stations: Union Station (also used by Amtrak’s intercity trains) and the nearby Ogilvie Transportation Center. While I’ve been to Union Station many times, this was the first time I’d been to the Ogilvie station, from where our Metra train on the Union Pacific North line left. This line actually goes all the way to Kenosha, Wisc. The Ogilvie station is a busy, big city railroad station with lots of people coming and going. My only quibble was the fact that Metra does not provide automated ticket machines for simple transactions, and only one person was working the ticket window in this busy station. On our quest for the apple pancake we got off the train in Wilmette at an attractive and well-kept suburban station, utterly appropriate for the equally attractive and well-kept town of Wilmette.

With Metra and the CTA, you can get around Chicago very nicely, supplemented with taxis and maybe a car rental if necessary.

There’s even a water taxi with frequent service between four regular stops on the Chicago River to get you around downtown! I didn’t ride that this time but you can be sure I will on my next visit.

This is my kind of town. A big city with lots of moving parts.

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