Chicago, the third most populated city in the United States was founded in 1833 with a population of around 200. Today there are an estimated 2.7million people living in the city, situated in the state of Illinois on the shores of the giant Lake Michigan.
I’m back in the ‘Windy City’ (a nickname associated with Chicago, which to my surprise is not actually about the weather but thought by many, to be because of it’s ‘full-of-hot-air politicians’ back in the 1870’s) on a hot 86 degree June day for a short stay.
If like me you’ve only got a 72-hour tour of this great US city, here’s a little taste of seeing a side to Chicago most tour guides wont tell you about.
WHERE TO SLEEP?
Chicago has 1000’s of hotels on offer with the usual collection of high-end luxury hotels such as The Langham, Westin and even a Trump Hotel to budget conscious traveller chains such as Holiday Inn and Travelodge.
For me though, I recommend staying in a little piece of Chicago history, The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. Situated on South Michigan Avenue, directly across from the city’s millennium Park, the building was constructed in 1893.
Due to the Great Fire of Chicago, the building was delayed in its completion but its position on the early development of Michigan Avenue was encouraged due to local authorities wanting picturesque towers lining the important city thoroughfare.
Designed by Chicago-based architect Henry Ives Cobb, the 250 ft Venetian Gothic tower (inspired by the Doge Palace in Venice) was established to “Provide a Setting for Athletic, Business and Social Activities.”
Think of it as a private members club of wealthy business owners reserved only for the elite social gentlemen of Chicago. When it opened it had 3000 members and a 10 year waiting list.
As you enter the building you are greeted by colourful mosaic tile flooring, stained glass windows, Corinthian style columns and intricate crown mouldings. The interiors are influenced by the Art Nouveau movement that came to America around the time of the building’s construction, mostly thanks to architect’s Louis H. Sullivan and Richard Morris Hunt.
To the left is the Shake Shack restaurant, a casual dining venue serving burgers, hot dogs and (rather strangely) frozen custard shakes. Originally the site of the club’s men’s Turkish baths, the room features soaring wooden ceilings and vast amounts of white marble.
As I ventured through the entrance hall I arrived at the stunning grand central staircase. The black and white checkerboard tiles and the gold crown moulded ceiling create a real contrast to the bright white marble of the staircase. Amazingly one-third of the ceiling was destroyed over the years and during the restoration process, plaster artisans were able to remove intact parts of the original ceiling and create moulds to recreate the damaged section.
Behind the staircase was originally the club’s swimming pool, nicknamed ‘The Tank’. The swimming pool is now covered over, featuring the clubs logo at the centre and is used as an event space.
Stylish large Chesterfield sofas, green felt wing back chairs and tan-leather armchairs are grouped in large sectional seating areas within the main lobby area. Restored lighting with Edison bulbs were purposely chosen by the designers as the bulbs debuted at the 'Columbian Exposition' which took place shortly before the buildings completion.
The furniture is in a traditional style but with a modern edge, making the room feel funky rather than dowdy. You can imagine the fine gentlemen of the day, sat smoking their cigars, drinking whiskey and discussing their latest business dealings.
The Drawing Room is a perfect area for socialising with friends and family and when I visited on a hot Sunday afternoon it was full of "hispsters" enjoying drinks in the relaxed atmosphere of this sophisticated but fashionable lounge area.
A small room off from the Drawing Room is the Milk Room, named after its past as a Prohibition-era speakeasy (when everyone just drank “milk”) it is now an eight-seat intimate bar that serves rare vintage spirits, whiskeys and cocktails. The bar is available by reservation only and has a refined menu of shared plates from Executive Chef Pete Coenen.
On the second floor the hotel offers the vast Game Room, as its name suggests, this social space is jam-packed with shuffleboard, foosball, bocce, billiards, checkers, chess, and more. A playful menu of American street food classics like burgers and chicken wings accompany the drinks.
The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel features a full service restaurant, named after the original restaurant of the club, the Cherry Circle Room. Inspired by the original opening menus from the 1890’s, Executive Chef Pete Coenen has created dishes that are regional classics and only use seasonal ingredients, with the ethos of American farm-to-table products.
Featuring hand-made brown leather studded booths by a local tannery, cherry wood paneled walls and covered windows, the former men’s lounge was rumoured to be designed this way so people (or possibly their wives) from street level couldn’t see who the members were dining with (ooo er!)
The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel features 241 guest rooms and suites, with rates starting at $369 a night. Rooms take reference from sports clubs from the past, with custom lacquered wooden wardrobes, 19th century style brass beds and even pummel horses as ottomans at the end of the beds.
The grey carpets and white walls give a minimal and characterful interior with custom-made woollen blankets and Sferra linens. All rooms also feature modern features such as 42″ HD TV’s, Carrara marble bathrooms and little unique touches such as the mini-bar stocked with famous Chicago snacks like Cracker Jack and Wrigley Gum.
I love the attention to detail the designers have paid to the room, wooden gym ladders are used as storage units and the bedside table legs are made from the leather handles of tennis rackets. Every guest can even feel like Rocky with boxing style bath robes complete with the hotel’s logo embroided on the back.
The hotel offers several suite options, all uniquely decorated, but the most impressive is the 'Founders Suite'. Intricate woodwork, a giant fireplace, original stained glass windows and wooden doors opening onto Michigan Avenue give the suite personality and character fitting to the history of the building. One of the suites offered features a free-standing wrought iron bath, overlooking the bedroom area.
On the hotel’s 13th floor is the rooftop bar, restaurant and outdoor terrace, Cindy’s. Upon reaching the rooftop the evening sun was still hot, so a nice chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc was certainly on the cards. The bar was busy with a great buzz and atmosphere.
Cindy’s glass and steel roof is designed to resemble a train shed which used to be situated on the opposite side of Michigan Avenue. The atmosphere and furnishings are reminiscent of a Great Lakes beach house; relaxed and comfortable. Out on the terrace the view is stunning. Looking out over Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and Lake Michigan, there’s not many places in the city that can boast this view.
The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel is truly one of the most unique hotels I have ever visited and gives a real and genuine sense of the buildings past. The hotel offers some equally unique event spaces with two ballrooms on the 8th floor, the original basketball court and gym on the 4th floor and the previously mentioned covered swimming pool on the ground floor.
Location wise, you couldn’t get better, perfectly positioned on Michigan Avenue with its wide selection of shops, bars and restaurants. The hotel also sits directly across from the Millennium Park with the world-famous Chicago “Bean” or ‘Cloud Gate’ as its officially known, The Crown Fountain, The Harris Theatre and The Art Institute of Chicago.
WHERE TO EAT?
A short 10 minute taxi ride takes you North to an affluent area of Chicago called the Gold Coast. This neighbourhood grew after the Great Fire and in 1882 millionaire businessman Potter Palmer, who along with his partners created the Macy’s Department store, developed the area into the most expensive area of Chicago. Palmer appointed the Chicago Athletic Association’s architect Henry Ives Cobb to construct a forty-two room castle like mansion, which led to fellow millionaires to follow and build their huge townhouses in the area.
Situated in the Gold Coast at 8 West Maple St is Maple and Ash, a beautiful world-class steakhouse complete with a custom-made 12 foot wood burning hearth at it’s kitchen centre.
As the taxi arrived at this smart-looking restaurant on a hot summers evening, the restaurant was brimming with people. Downstairs on the ground floor you enter the 40-seat bar and bistro, serving a modern take on traditional bar food with seasonal cocktails, opening from 11am till late. Serving lighter classic’s such as 'Shrimp Cocktail', 'The Downstairs Burger' and 'Wood-fired Prime Rib Sandwich', to main dishes like 'Classic Steak Frites' and 'Roasted Skuna Bay Salmon'
Featuring extensive refined millwork and beautiful patterned glass, the downstairs bar and bistro creates a casual warm and welcoming atmosphere. Large social booths in cool blue leather, art deco style chandeliers and picture gallery wall give a little nod to Chicago’s design history. 'Downstairs at Maple and Ash' also offer an innovative cocktail menu and wine list, all of which can be enjoyed on the outdoor patio, complete with beautifully lit trees…perfect for a warm summer evenings people watching.
Moving Upstairs, we were greeted by an elegant entrance hall, complete with a black solid wood and brass desk, large abstract artwork and a dramatic view of the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar.
Moving through to the restaurant, you first arrive at the lounge and bar area. The elegantly designed 40-seat lounge features large art deco style sofas in yellow velour and black leather with muted lime green and charcoal grey tub chairs. The bar follows the blackened wood and brass theme from the entrance hall, with intimate lighting from desk lamps, whilst a large abstract art piece dominates behind the extensive collection of spirits.
With the Chicago sun set shining through the lead glass windows of the lounge, we looked through the extensive wine and drinks menu. Not only do Maple and Ash pride themselves on high quality food by head chef Danny Grant, but the wine and drink selection is a major draw of the restaurant.
Martini lovers will adore their re-imagined selection of the classic with the “History of The Martini” collection. It features eight variations of the drink from it’s beginning in 1848 with the ‘Improved Holland Gin Cocktail’ to modern-day versions such as ‘Floral’ and ‘Savoury’
If wine is more your forte (like myself) then the book sized wine list will really impress. Maple and Ash doesn’t just serve wine, it actually educates guests with a team who have been intensively trained and have a personal love of wine to guide guests in selecting specific wines for each dish.
After selecting a lovely champagne by recommendation from the restaurant’s Wine Director Belinda Chang (yes they even have a Wine Director) we were invited into the restaurant’s wine cellar.
Maple and Ash take their wine education very seriously and have developed a ‘Sommelier in Residence’ program where well-known sommeliers spend 6 months working at the restaurant, sharing their knowledge and expertise. The restaurant also holds a ‘Weekly Wine School’ and a ‘Monthly Wine 101’ course for staff and guests, including the wealthy Gold Coast neighbours.
A couple of glasses later it was time to head into the main dining room. A large impressive double height indoor courtyard surrounded by glass doors, complete with blackened steel and brass detailing. In the centre of the ceiling is a giant custom ‘necklace’ inspired chandelier adding drama to the room, complemented by jewel toned leathers and natural woods.
To start I can recommend the delicious ‘Roasted Seafood Tower’ complete with Oysters, Scallops, Mussels and Alaskan King Crab, fresh and roasted in the restaurant’s open-hearth with garlic butter and chilli oil.
The seafood platter is huge and to be fair we were stuffed, but powering through, the next course brought Steak Tartare and Shoestring Fries. The steak came with toasted sour dough and an egg yolk, served with fries and a béarnaise and aioli sauce.
Maple and Ash provide an upscale fine dining restaurant upstairs and a casual bistro/bar and patio downstairs, both with a relaxed ‘neighbourhood’ atmosphere. With delicious food and wine, attentive and friendly staff and a stunning interior, reservations are highly recommended.
WHERE TO DRINK?
Located around 5 miles from Michigan Avenue in North West Chicago, is the hipster neighbourhood of Wicker Park. The area is known for it’s art community, cool nightlife and restaurants. The area is gaining popularity for hosting new emerging bands, high-end fashion boutiques and art businesses. Forbes magazine in 2012 named it the ‘#4 hippest hipster neighbourhood’ in the US.
Milwaukee Avenue and Damen Avenue are the main thoroughfares of Wicker Park and feature endless eateries, bars, boutiques and coffee shops. It’s easy to do a little bar crawl round this cool neighbourhood, with plenty of options available, recommendations include Bangers and Lace, The Revel Room and The Blue Line Lounge.
Though if you want something a little bit special then you need to head for the über cool hidden bar The Violet Hour. Located right in the heart of Wicker Park at 1520 N. Damen Avenue, you might have to look a little bit harder to find it as the bar has no signage. As we walked along we saw a two-story sized building with a natural wood facade. There is no obvious door visible, instead the front of the building is covered in a street art mural, which changes frequently with collaborations from local artists.
As you enter through the discreet wooden door, you are greeted by an almost pitch black small corridor and a sign with the ‘House Rules’. Not the best for a blogger, the ‘No Cell Phone use’ rule made me wonder where we were heading, though a pretty young lady awaited to greet us.
We were led through giant floor to ceiling power blue curtains into a gorgeous interior complete with beautiful parquet flooring, crown mouldings and a giant white marble bar. Lighting is extremely low, almost verging on dark, with most light coming from hundreds of candles dotted around the bar. High-back blue leather armchairs, solid white wooden tables and dimly lit crystal chandeliers give this bar a unique swanky feel.
If you’re after a Bud light then this probably isn’t the place for you, however, if you love bespoke cocktails by expert mixologists you’ll love The Violet Hour. An extensive cocktail menu includes a lot of ingredients I had never even heard of, but the friendly bar tender was happy to explain what they were and what they tasted like. We decided to go for the ‘Nervous Breakdown’ a vodka based cocktail with ‘Modest, Lime, Lustau Manzanilla, Flor de Jamaica and Sparkling Wine’ (I was sold on the vodka and sparkling wine)
The Violet Hour offers a tasty light bite menu with a selection of bar snacks such as ‘Stuffed Dates’ ‘Chicken Wing Tartine’ and ‘Hot Ham and Cheese Sliders’
So, if you find yourself in the "Windy City" anytime soon, try something a bit different and venture towards the unique!