Chicago Travelogue: Fall Break Edition

We just returned from a four day weekend trip to Chicago.  What was it like for a middle-aged (forties) couple and their two kids (11 and 14)?  Here’s the story.

We left from Jackson, TN late on Wednesday afternoon and drove to Champaign, IL to stay for the night.  On the way, we stumbled into an apparently famous restaurant called the 17th Street BBQ.  While the restaurant has been nationally profiled and the food much lauded, I suffered from the curse or blessing of having grown up during the heyday of Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue in Decatur, AL.  I have yet to meet the barbecue pork that exceeds it, except maybe its almost across the street rival, Whitt’s.  So, 17th Street, you provided good, warm food to weary travelers and I thank you for that.  It’s not a small thing.

After a stay in a Drury Inn, we took off for Fair Oak Farms, which was only a little out of the way to Chicago.  Ruth had been there before and enjoyed watching baby cows blow through the birth canal and land heavily on straw.  (She has a professional interest.)  We went along for the ride.  This was my first encounter with big time farming.  I’d seen a lot of the smaller version as a kid, but I got to see the pigs all the way from birth to pregnancy.  I also saw the cows living together in a quest to provide massive amounts of milk to the world.  It was clear to me that the cows had it better.  They get to be more or less outside and spend a lot of time riding the carousel where they get hooked up for milking.  The pigs’ life looked more boring.  One thing blew me away in both cases, the agricultural use of information technology is astonishing.  If you thought computers were just for the office, think again.

What’s the best part about Fair Oak Farms?  It’s the food.  They make their own ice cream, milk, and cheese.  We had all of it.  The grilled cheese sandwiches rank in the special category.  I had the sweet, smoky swiss, while the rest of the family ate cheddar.  In both cases, you’ve got world class grilled cheese.  We ate so much dairy we had to delay any pizza for later in the Chicago journey.

After spending several hours at the farm (and that is virtually unavoidable if you want to full experience), we hit the road to Chicago.  We were entering the city between 6 and 7’oclock pm.  My hopes that traffic would be light were entirely unfounded.  Things were pretty good at first, but the closer we got the worse it was.

Tolls.  I have to talk about the tolls.  If you don’t have an EZ-Pass for Chicago, the tolls are absolutely barbaric in nature.  We are all accustomed to being able to throw change into a bucket and then to quickly move on.  These toll booths required that you put each coin separately into a slot.  Doing so with tolls of a few dollars or so at a time made me feel as if all human progress had been lost.  If you had cash, you were going to wait a while.

We decided to get a hotel deal via Hotwire in the tony part of town.  As a result, we got the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker.  It was a little less expensive than usual, but still pretty aggressive price-wise relative to what I’m used to in my interstate Hampton Inn world.  We had the idea we’d drive into downtown and get a parking garage.  Around 7pm, that was an absolute nightmare.  I never pay for valet if I can avoid it.  In this case, after fruitlessly trying to get a parking garage where I could leave the car for a few days, I gave up and gratefully put the car in the hands of the capable men at the Hyatt.  More money, yes, but my sanity was at stake.

Inside, some kind of assistant director spotted us in the check-in line and waved us over to his kiosk.  I think he took to our disheveled, nuclear family appearance and enjoyed getting us set up with a double queen room on the 21st floor.  He recommended we eat at Portillo’s, which turned out to be a restaurant that essentially contained a mini-food court inside.  An American place and an Italian place in one building.  The food was unspectacular, but good after a long day.

We had to get up the next morning for the Shoreline Architectural River Cruise.  It was on the way that I snapped this immortal picture:


The fellow was annoyed, but who could avoid snapping that pic?

In any case, we made it to the cruise, which docked near the Navy Pier and had a tremendous time navigating the Chicago River as our guide regaled us with stories about the town and its eclectic architecture of classical, art-deco, modern, brutalist, and postmodern styles.  After we disembarked, I tipped the gentleman and told him that “I am a professor and I enjoyed your class today.”

This was a shot from the cruise:


After a big cruise, you have to eat.  I had one meal in mind for Chicago.  A bucket list meal.  I had to go to Lou Malnati’s for Chicago-style pizza.  I’d seen it on the Food Network and I wanted it.  Somehow, we got seated within a reasonable period despite the throng that extended well past the lunch hour.  And then we waited and waited for the pizza.  But no problem, that’s part of the experience.  What can I say about it?  First, it’s good.  Let’s get that out of the way.  It’s good.  But you have to compare it with other types of pizza.  I simply find that I prefer the perfect balance of crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings you get from a New York style slice.  Lou Malnati’s has a really good, thick, crunchy crust.  I liked that.  But it is absolutely overwhelmed with meat, sauce, and cheese.  I had the sausage pizza.  Virtually every slice was basically covered with a flat patty of sausage.  It was like a meat crust on top of the crust.  Some people will love that.  But it wasn’t for me.  I’m glad to have tried it.

We also visited the Field Museum.  It is an impressive museum, but it also has a pretty powerfully retro feel to it.  It is very much a museum of the 1980’s in terms of how it presents.  After one has spent much time in the Smithsonian, the Field Museum seems fairly far from the cutting edge.  Plus, it’s expensive.  If I am the calculating tourist, I’d arrange as much of my museum going for Washington, DC as possible.

There were other things, but I think what I’d emphasize in the end is the overall sense of coordinated human achievement you get from visiting Chicago.  The buildings are spectacular.  The way the river intersects the downtown area is beautiful.  Almost all around you there are working monuments to human ingenuity.  If I had it to do all over again, I think I’d spend all of my time touring.  I’d take the cruises.  All of them.  And I’d spend time riding on the sight-seeing buses with the narrated tour.