So going to Chicago in January might not have been the BEST idea— but tickets to the final weekend of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s #DavidBowieIs exhibit were too good to pass up.
January 1: Welcome to Chicago (I Can’t Feel My Face)
Afternoon arrival gives me time to drop off my bags in Wicker Park, then head out to explore the neighborhood. I make a beeline for Quimbys—one of the best zine/book stores in the world. …Aaaaand they’re closed. Good for my wallet, but sad for me. I snap a photo of the Closed sign silently taunting me.
I zip past the Double Door (no music this time, alas), the cutest doughnut shop in the world (Stan’s Donuts) and an elegant La Colombe outpost before zipping up to the Blue Line.
I’m headed to Longman & Eagle, a Michelin-starred restaurant that’s also a small B&B. Any place whose motto is “Eat, sleep, whiskey,” is after my own heart.
It’s just after 5:30pm, but the place is packed to the rafters, from the whiskey-lined bar to the cheek-by-jowl dining room. I ask the host if there’s room and he looks deeply apologetic before surprising me by saying, “Can you give us 10 minutes?”
And in less than ten minutes, I’m seated and perusing an amazingly detailed menu.
Here’s a crucial difference between NYC and Chicago: In NYC a place as packed as Longman & Eagle would be subtly rushing your dinner so they could turn the table.
Instead, when I order too much food and demur from dessert, the waitress says, “Sip your wine + just relax for a bit. No rush.” How lovely is that?
The whole meal is just as leisurely and wonderful, from the first drink (The Vice President, a warming sipper of rye, Montenegro, Bonal and orange bitters—definitely try this at home, kids) to dessert, an ultra-decadent boozy Twinkie-facsimile studded with powdered lemon and served with bourbon granita and a brown-butter/orange-blossom ice cream. Yes and yes!
(And the in-between, featuring a bountiful green salad with the most intriguing Green Goddess dressing ever, a hearty bone marrow app topped with bacon jam, and pigs-head torchon topped with a fried egg and drizzled with house-made five-spice mustard, was not too shabby either.)
January 2: Art + Wormwood
The lions in front of the Art Institute Chicago are still decked out in their holiday swag. I can’t feel my face, but at least I feel welcomed. (Hi, lions.)
I feel even MORE welcome when I notice there’s a Chris Ware exhibit of architectural sketches and poster designs. I can think of no illustrator more qualified to capture the Chicago’s architectural grandeur. Chris Ware is a #$%^ genius.
Downstairs there’s an eclectic exhibit of photography that’s been put together with little or no regard for chronology. This results in some odd, marvelous juxtapositions (a profane Mike Kelley riff on Carolee Schneeman’s “Meat Joy” next to a Heartfield; Surrealist selfies + studio cats next to El Lissitsky abstractions) — it’s quite great.
I could spend days here, but I’m running out of time. So I head upstairs to see Lucy McKenzie.
The Scottish artist has a reputation as a painter who mines the tension between (to paraphrase the artist) feminine whimsy and female empowerment to subversive effect.
Music and the concept of “fandom” also figures prominently in her work (in the ‘90s she was active in the UK Riot Grrl scene and was a founding member of the Scottish band Ganger).
The Art Institute show is sparse — a front room with large-scale pastoral landscapes, and a back room with small-scale series, including witty paperback facsimiles that rewrite the canon, and painted reproductions of her early zine work.
In the cinema is a 2014 collaboration with Richard Kern, for whom she modeled back in the ‘90s. “The Girl Who Followed Marple” borrows the tropes + structure of the whodunit, only to subvert them (the “clues” turn out to be red herrings).
A quick stop in the gift shop (alas, no catalogue for Chris Ware) and I’m off to pick up Brian on the Blue Line.
We couldn’t have planned it better — I step off the train and his is just arriving! We’re in a somewhat residential part of town, so we set off in search of lunch.
“Best Submarine #2” probably hasn’t changed since 1970—it’s the kind of place with Day-Glo injection molded benches and specials like “whiten nuggets” and “patty melt with fries & can pop” for, like, $5. The vibe is pretty skuzzy though — there’s a guy asleep in the corner and the order window definitely looks like it’s bulletproof. We get our food and scram.
Bruce and Karin text that they’re on their way, so we head back to our Air BnB place, an eccentrically decorated but cozy place on a quiet side street.
By the time they arrive, we don’t have a lot of time to kill, so we decide to walk to Trenchermen, our dinner res close to 6 Corners (Damen).
In a former life, the building was a Russian bathhouse, and the restaurant’s elegant, somewhat steampunk-y decor reflects its previous incarnation, from cast iron light fixtures to the rows of absinthe-green demijohns lining the bar.
We go for the 4-course prix fixe, which allows us to taste test/share the majority of the menu. Which is good, because everything is bright and beautifully composed — elegant, elevated comfort food. (Chef/owner Patrick Sheerin did a stint at WD~50, and it shows.)
- Pastrami-cured pork belly with gnocchi, cheddar cheese and potato puree
- “Pickle tots” with chicken bresaola and red onion yogurt
- Wagyu tartare with crunchy daikon
- House S’mores
Afterwards dessert and Rare Tea Cellars tea, we head to the bustling bar, where we manage to grab a table. I’m pretty sure I order a riff on a Boulevardier. When the time comes for a second round, the GM sends out two digestifs on the house.
We try Malört, a gnarly regional super-bitter described as tasting of “baby tears and gasoline.” (Like Underberg, but with a Midwestern accent!) I kinda like it. (I think I’m the only one.) We also try Bittermens’ Nordic fernet, Baska Snaps—definitely an acquired taste.
PS I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent soundtrack at Trenchermen: Vivien Goldman, Delta 5, Talking Heads, Broadcast, the Feelies, the Pixies… #getouttamyhead
January 3: It’s #BowieWorld (We Just Live in It)
Saturday morning is slushy, icy and just plain NASTY weather, but we have early tickets to see #DavidBowieIs at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and we’re not going to miss it.
It’s the show’s last weekend, so there’s a line around the block of hopefuls trying to nab tickets. We feel slightly (slightly!) sheepish about breezing in with our tickets.
Everything in the exhibit is backlit, so you feel completely immersed in #BowieWorld, which turns out to be a place I don’t really want to leave. It’s amazing and filled with incredible artifacts: the synth Brian Eno used on “Heroes.” The Tzara-ist costume Bowie wore on Saturday Night Live. His tiny coke spoon.
SO covet the @mcachicago employee t-shirt that reads, “#DavidBowieIs Here to Help.” It’s true: he’s like a socio-cultural guardian angel. (Runner-up: the security crew’s tees read, “#DavidBowieIs Safe + Secure.” Bowie’s is a hashtag universe.)
Eventually we are reluctantly ejected back out into the real world—after purchasing some Bowie swag, naturally. Our next quest: to coat our stomachs with a layer of fat to get us through our 3-course cocktail tasting at Aviary.
Bruce hits up Yelp and the first place on the list is The Purple Pig, Jimmy Bannos, Jr.’s James Beard-nominated tapas-and-charcuterie joint. Sold.
It’s just past noon and the place is packed—line out the door. We put our names in and are told it’ll be an hour. Bruce and Karin say they’ll wait, so Brian and I head to the empty wine bar across the street. Five minutes later, our table is ready!
We proceed to order an insane amount of charcuterie and cheese, from pistachio-studded head cheese to lengua and Mangalitsa lardo that tastes like grass-fed butter. Bruce orders a chorizo-stuffed octopus that is amazing. The place is still hopping, line out the door—but service is cheerful and unhurried. Jimmy is working the line, too, which is inspiring to see.
After a leisurely lunch, we only have a few hours to kill before the Aviary booze onslaught.
Time to shop! Or window shop, to be precise. The Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue) is nothing if not deeply over the top. I mean, there’s a combo Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti dealership!
Amidst the ridiculous luxury there are some very odd neon signs, which seem to be a real thing in Chicago. (My favorite one features a dapper frog sloshing a martini glass.) The Barneys holiday displays consist of golden SQUIRRELS. This is whimsical, but perplexing.
Soon it is time for The Aviary, which is in Chicago’s meat-packing district (still an *actual* thing here) and is fairly anonymous from the street. (No sign; discreet entrance on the side.)
This isn’t your typical cocktail bar. Actually, there’s no bar to speak of — there’s a kitchen. Which gives you some sense of how seriously they take their booze. While waiting for our table we watch a chef painstakingly concocting an entire tray full of intricately-layered drink painted sunset colors. It’s magic.
Y’see, Aviary is one of the world’s finest cocktail bars. You’d be hard pressed to find a menu more wide-ranging, inventive, and downright mad science-y than Aviary’s.
And, being slightly mad people ourselves, we went for the 3-course cocktail prix fixe. (Which was an amazing, if somewhat heroic/foolhardy, amount of booze.) Oh, and we witnessed a proposal (she said yes!).
The crazy Tequila Sunrise-ish concoction turns out to be a layered drink of pineapple, Campari and multiple rums that transformed the world’s booziest bubble tea when stirred at the table.
Three of us couldn’t resist getting the famous In the Rocks (version 4.0), a Boulevardier that’s brought to the table IN a large ice cube. (Cracking the ice turns into a fairly conventional, if beautifully balanced, drink.)
My favorite (not pictured) was a Last Word variation served in a flute glass and comprised of St George rye gin, hops and a whole lot of herbs, all strained into a magically pale and elegant final form.
We had to order Organized Chios, a Armagnac and whole-lotta-fruits-and-herbs concoction that steeps in a vessel called a Porthole before being poured. It deepened in flavor and color as it steeped. (Plus it made a gorgeous centerpiece.)
By now we have had more booze than anyone should consume, and it’s time to head to Publican, Paul Kahan’s convivial beer hall. I try Kumamotos for the first time (yum), and we have a lovely, if somewhat unexciting, dinner. (We also TOTALLY over-order — “small plates” in Chicago have a defiantly Midwestern sense of scale.)
The next morning, I’m out the door early to catch my plane back to Providence. Hope to return soon! I like ya, Chicago — but do something about the weather, thanks.