Wednesday, March 31, 2010


It finally warmed up in Chicago today. Rather than the chilly days we've had all week, today we got 77 smokin' degrees Fahrenheit. What an amazing difference! Today's plan was breakfast at The Tempo, same as yesterday, but with smaller portions. Today I went with a simple order of French Toast:

I'm not sure what compels me to take pictures of my food, but no one has complained yet. Note: this is neither an invitation nor an inducement to do so.

I also seeminingly feel this odd compulsion to take pictures of our transportation. Today was a graduation, of sorts, in that we broke away from the Red Line and transferred to a Green Line train. It wasn't totally painless; we had no sooner gotten aboard the train to the Conservatory at Garfield Park when I induced a panic in myself by looking at the subway map and seeing that we were headed in the opposite direction from Garfield station. "Get off, get off!" I urged the Travel Director, much to the amusement of the native Chicagoans on the train. Once back on the platform, I realized my error but by then it was too late; five minutes in the penalty box waiting for the next train, muttering "better safe that sorry, better safe than sorry" to myself, ultimately unconvincingly. It turns out that the Garfield that I had seen on the map has nothing at all to do with Garfield Park. For a guy that held the presidency for all of 200 days, he sure is the namesake of a lot of stuff around here.

I'm sure it's normally a quick ride out to the conservatory but we suffered frequent delays for workers doing something or the other on the tracks. It wasn't much different from the orange barrel season which will be hitting full stride at home in just a few weeks.

The conservatory is only a short walk from the L train stop:

Amazingly, admission is free. Not nearly as amazingly, it is packed with school children as a consequence. We were in no hurry, though, so we just strolled around while I took pictures. I don't know what most of these plants and flowers are and I don't really care - they are just pretty. Here's a sample of some of my favorites:

After the conservatory, I thought we might go to the Museum of Science and Industry. I'm becoming almost British in my interest in railroad routing. It looked like the Green Line to 51st to catch the #15 bus to the museum would work just fine. The maps don't really give any kind of indication of the nature of the area, though. The train did all it could and should do - it dutifully deposited us on 51st. Not to put too fine a line on it, but it just didn't look like the kind of neighborhood for a pair of obvious tourists to be standing around waiting for a bus. I mentally performed a discretion over value calculation and arrived at the conclusion that we should cross the street and get right back on a northbound train.

I have been wanting to get a seat in the very front of the train in order to get a driver's eye view, and was finally able to do so:

As usual with these kinds of things, I now want to drive an L train. Just once would do.

We had to change trains back to the Red Line in order to get back up to the hotel, but since we would be changing at The Loop we walked around a bit to find someplace for a late lunch. Just when it looked like the best we could do was cold sandwiches at a nice looking bakery (almost a Panera Bread kind of place), we happened across the Exchequer Restaurant & Pub. It had a dark, bar like ambiance, but there were a ton of great things on the menu.

I finally had to decide, so I went with the Wednesday Special chicken kebab and a 16oz draft of Rogue Yellow Snow Indian Pale Ale.

Both the food and the beer were fantastic, and at $8.50 and $5.00 respectively, one of the better deals we've had all week. And yes, having seen the tap handle, they meant 'Yellow Snow' in the sense you imagined.

It was better to have learned that after drinking it.

Lost & Found

I couldn't find my hat this morning. That's bad news when you're staying in a hotel room - there aren't that many places for it to be. It's here or it's lost, in essence. And it's not just any hat, it's my Vans Air Force hat that I won as a door prize at the formation flying clinic I went to a few years ago. If not sentimental value, at least a copious souvenir value. Now you may not know this, but Chicago is a very big city. I grant that we have only traversed a narrow sliver of it, but the search area is nonetheless quite staggering in size. Amelia Earhart's final resting place would be in a smaller area. I figured it to be hopeless.

But, there were a few places that we had gone yesterday that were strong possibilities and were near by, so it was worth a look. We could simply retrace our steps back through the strata of restaurants, starting with the pizza place. I really didn't to go back to the snobby place hat in hand, so to speak.

On the way to the pizza place, we stopped at the Tempo Cafe for breakfast. It's right down the block from the hotel, so anything it may have lacked in culinary quality it would make up for in convenience. And how can you screw up an egg, anyway? Nothing to worry about, as it turned out, since the food was just fine. Huge portions, though! We'd be set food wise for the bulk of the day.

There was no sign of the hat at the pizza joint, so there was no choice but to return to the Bistro of Shame. Which, unsurprisingly, was just as uncomfortable as on the previous visit. Ten minutes of obsequiously faux efforts at finding the hat, knowing full well that they had immediately incinerated it in fear of a flea infestation, I found myself yet again slinking away. Ugh, I hate that place.

That left Chinatown as the last place to look, but that would have to wait until later in the day. We were on our way to the Navy Pier on the recommendation of a fellow subway rider. I figured it would be a touristy thing and not all that interesting, but it would be a chance to visit the lake shore. Correct on both counts. Still, it's always nice to see large bodies of water when we get away from landlocked Central Ohio.

From the lake shore you can get a rare unobstructed view of the city scape:

Chicago has kept an eighteen mile stretch of the lake shore unobstructed to allow residents an area for a bike/pedestrian path (it's a shame they couldn't keep the terrific airport they had too) and there were a few people braving the cold to get some exercise:

It was either exercise, or running/biking was a necessity for personal survival. This guy apparently wasn't fast enough:

If you can ignore the various carcasses, it's a nice little beach:

If I wasn't afraid I'd end up like that seagull, I'd come back in the middle of the night and steal this sign. The irony of hanging it in my house might be worth the risk:

At last, the pier:

It's mostly a mall, but there's a Children's Museum (mummified remains of famous children?? Not sure!) and a little conservatory. We skipped the mall, not having any real interest in children, museum-worthy or not, but made a pass through the conservatory:

Ok, this one is just water, but it's noteworthy in its cohesion into a glass-like stream:

This is what happens when your name falls into the public domain:

I'm sure they had to pay a lot more to buy the right to use the fictional Bubba Gump name for the little seafood restaurant.

This guy asked me if I had seen his brother lately. I didn't know how to break the news to him that I had, in fact. I just told him "he's sunning on the beach."

The end of the pier!

Having reached the end of the pier, we were able to cross "Go to the end of Navy Pier" off of the list of compulsory Chicago tourist items and get on with the search for my hat. Rather than walk the five or six blocks to the subway station for our ride down to Chinatown, we jumped on the number 29 bus that was sitting right there on the pier, ready to go. As I looked over the CTA map, I saw that not only did the bus go to the Red Line subway station we needed, but also went all the way to Chinatown. Why mess with getting off of the bus and onto the train when they're both going to the same place, right?

Well, because the bus takes an hour to get there. We found that out the hard way.

The other reason is that you (and by 'you' I mean 'me') might go the wrong way at the Cermak Rd. bus stop and end up wandering around lost in a distinctly non-touristy part of Chicago. And even then, it's about pictures! There must always be pictures!

I'm trying to figure out the best way to crop this one. Option #2:

We eventually found Chinatown (the Travel Director asked for directions - I'd still be wandering around down there), but no hat. That was the last hope - it's gone for good.

We for sure took the train back up to downtown, you betcha! No more buses!

I've learned how to read the map well enough that we're going to try making a transfer to another line tomorrow. The Green Line will take us out to the conservatory at Garfield Park.

The huge breakfast had gotten us this far through the day, but it was definitely getting to be time to eat. I've been trying to find an opportunity to eat at The Soup Box, a place recommended by a Chicago resident. This was our big chance! It's one of those places built into a quaint, old residence:

Soup upstairs, tavern downstairs. You just can't beat the convenience of living in the city!

You're greeted by a cheerful wall mural on the way in:

There are twelve soups everyday, but the selection varies:

I sampled the Spicy Masala Tomato Lentil, Rosemary Chicken Dumpling, and the Potato & Bacon, but ultimately decided on the Lobster Bisque. Very, very good!

And, after days of searching, I found it! No, not my hat - I found mustard!

Having had quite enough walking for the day, we repaired to our lodging for a few hours of reading and relaxing. There were still a couple more must-do items on my agenda, though, one of which was to go to a martini bar. I had noticed a small place called Tilly's Jilly's (the Travel Director was aghast that I didn't remember that since it was emblazoned in sequins on our waitress's chest. I was equally aghast that the Travel Director thought for one instant that I had taken note of anything regarding our waitress's chest) Piano Bar while out on my morning constitutional, so we strolled up there for a couple of drinks. As luck would have it, they also had a food menu that included the infamous Italian Beef sandwich. That was number two on the to-do list. I'd say that it offered an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone but, well, I'm still thinking about that poor seagull. It would be tacky and insensitive, no?

Still, I ordered the Italian Beef and I loved it! It was so authentically Italian that they had to shave the beef before serving it! Not funny? Yeah, the waitress didn't think so either. Hey, they can't all be gems! Perhaps it would work better with Greek gyros...

Tilly's Jilly's was originally opened in New York by Frank Sinatra and his bodyguard Jilly Rizzo when Frank retired from the Rat Pack scene. There are a few of them now, and the one we were at has been there for fifteen years. Or something like that - for some reason (probably having to do with the quality of the martinis) my memory for the exact details is a bit fuzzy. I do remember the ambiance, though. Hard wood floors, red painted walls, and wall-to-wall black & white photos of Sinatra and his contemporaries.

I don't remember there being a piano, though. But they do have a song.

From Jilly's web site:

Located in the heart of Chicago's nightlife district, this Rush Street landmark is one of Chicago's original spots for the rich, famous and flashy. The Piano Bar is among the few places to offer live entertainment without a cover charge or drink minimum.

Well, at $12 per martini...