Thursday, May 14, 2009

Roosting at the Rookery

The Rookery Building (209 S. LaSalle St.) is landmark that makes architecture buffs all weak-kneed. Burnham and Root built it in 1888, and Frank Lloyd Wright remodeled the atrium 19 years later. Its magic is that while it looks like an imposing fortress on the outside, its interior is just the opposite – as bright and airy as a spring daisy.

The building inherited its name from the previous structure on-site, which was a favorite of roosting pigeons. The architects incorporated the bird motif. Check out the crows carved into the arched front entrance.

Learn more about it on the Chicago Architecture Foundation's tour today at 12:15pm. Actually, CAF runs sweet 45-minute tours every Monday through Thursday at lunchtime, which provide access into famous buildings' nooks and crannies you wouldn't get if you strolled in on your own. The price is a mere $5.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lake Delton's Re-appearance

Visitors see a lot of magic shows when they go to the Wisconsin Dells, but Lake Delton's disappearance wasn't part of the program. The man-made lake, home to various resorts and the Tommy Bartlett Water Show, vanished in June 2008 during a massive storm. The shore gave way, and all the water drained out and tumbled into the Wisconsin River below. Luckily no one was hurt.

The town refilled the lake, and today it's set to re-open – complete with back-flipping waterskiers – in spring 2009.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Time to Get Cheesy in Madison

Another springtime rite is here: the Dane County Farmers' Market, which overtakes Madison, Wisconsin's Capitol Square every Saturday from 6am to 2pm through early November.

It's the USA's largest producer-only market, which means the 150 vendors have personally grown or made the goods they're selling. Cheese and fresh vegetables are the most plentiful wares, but meats (bison and free-range emu, among others), flowers, maple syrup, and eggs also fill the stalls.

Keep your eyes peeled for one man in particular: Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy, who makes fantastic cheeses in his wind- and solar-powered cheese bunker, but in limited quantities. The farmers' market is your best chance to get your hands on his creations. If you miss him though, you can fill in the dairy gaps at Fromagination, just around the corner at 12 S Carroll St in Madison. It carries small-batch and hard-to-find local artisanal cheeses, as well as loads of information on wine and cheese (and beer and cheese) pairings.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dark Lord Day

Are you prepared to meet the Dark Lord on April 25? You'll need a Golden Ticket to do so and to imbibe his black elixir.

We're talking, of course, about Three Floyd's Brewery's par-tee when they release their limited batch Dark Lord beer, a Russian imperial stout with 13% alcohol, a motor oil consistency, and hints of bourbon, chocolate, and black licorice.

Fans in the past have so overwhelmed the small Munster, Indiana brewery on the one day per year they offer Dark Lord, that Three Floyd's this year instituted its Willy Wonka policy. It put around 2000 Golden Tickets for sale on its website in March. Fan who got them are guaranteed to chance to buy a few Dark Lord bottles at Saturday's event. The tickets sold out in four hours.

Even without a Golden Ticket, you can still attend the festival, which features bands, barbecue, and plenty of other craft brews. The suds swirl from 11am to 11pm.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wrigley's Knothole, Harry Caray's Bud

So it's gray, rainy, and practically snowing. But nothing says 'springtime!' like Opening Day at Wrigley Field.

Built in 1914, Wrigley – named after the chewing gum guy – is the second-oldest ballpark in the major leagues (after Boston's Fenway). Getting tickets is near impossible, but you can always watch the game via The Knothole, a garage-sized opening that let's you peek onto the playing field from Sheffield Ave.

One thing you should know before standing here and getting your hopes up: the team in blue pinstripes is suffering from the longest dry spell in US sports history. The hapless Cubbies haven't won a championship since 1908, a sad record unmatched in pro football, hockey or basketball.

Statistics over the decades show the Cubs have just a 46% chance of winning the game you're watching. Which is why you may want to head over to Harry Caray's, where you can at least sit in warmth while drinking away the pain. And if something feels familiar, almost game-like, while you're bellied up to the 60-foot-6-inch bar, well, that's the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cardinal George's Crib

Poor Cardinal Francis George. He should be eating cake, celebrating his 12th anniversary as Chicago's Archbishop (Pope John Paul II appointed him on April 8, 1997). Instead, George is fending off bad press from the Notre Dame debacle, when he said President Obama should be banned from giving the university's commencement address due to his unholy views on abortion.

Ah well. George can always lay low in his mansion 'til things cool down. A sweet perk of being the 'Bish is living in the $15 million, Church-owned abode at 1555 N. State Pkwy. The house is famed for its chimneys. There are 19 of them, which makes Christmas-time stocking-hanging a real chore.

George considered selling his crib a few years back, saying it was more than a humble servant of God needed. But jeez, if he sold, how would he entertain? Everyone from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Pope John Paul has crashed here over the years. And they're not going to like moving down the road to the Comfort Inn.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Foodies Dine Underground, Farm-to-Fork

Underground dining clubs have burrowed into the Chicago scene, as they've done in New York and San Francisco. Here, rogue chefs cook high-end, locally grown chow, and serve it in funky, changing locations such as galleries, warehouses or even the chef's home.

Foodies are eating it up, since it costs less than a restaurant (multi-course meals run $50-80, and you can bring your own booze). It also has an "underground" feel, since chefs don't reveal when/where their events take place until the last minute. Three groups have sprung up - Clandestino (which is hosting an event tonight southwest of the Loop), Sunday Dinner, and X-Marx. The hungry go to the groups' websites, get on the mailing list, and grab a spot when they send out event invitations. Chefs typically serve 20 to 40 diners at communal-style tables.

A riff on this theme is "on-the-farm dining." Several groups now offer city slickers the chance to go where the chickens roam. Again, chefs emphasize local, sustainably harvested foods. They're served outdoors, with tables set up amid the fields. At least three groups do it, all within a few hours drive from Chicago: City Provisions, Prairie Fruits Farm, and Learn Great Foods (which also goes into southern Wisconsin).

Monday, March 30, 2009

If You Don't Swing, Don't Ring

Hugh Hefner just put his Los Angeles home next to the Playboy Mansion on sale for $28 million. The two-story, 7300-sq-ft, English Manor-style pad has 5 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms, and a butler's pantry. That's tiny compared to the Mansion itself, which is 22,000 sq ft with 29 rooms and an onsite zoo.

Remember, though, that the whole "Playboy Mansion" thing started right here in Chicago. The First Playboy Mansion, as it's known, was a 70-room colossus at 1340 N. State St. A brass plate hung over the door warning "If You Don't Swing, Don't Ring.”

Hef not only lived and partied here, but published Playboy magazine here. That's how the whole jammie-wearing thing came about. Hef was working around the clock from home, so he just quit bothering to get dressed.

By the mid 70s, Chicago had gotten too square for Hef, so he split for L.A. He donated the Chicago mansion to the Art Institute. It was a dorm for students until 1993. Then developers carved it into $3 million condos.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kuma's and the Goblin Cock

Quit whining and wait. You can swill one of the swell microbrews on tap, or one of the many bourbons (also on tap). So what if you have to stand elbow-to-elbow in this buzzing, dimly lit meat hive for at least two hours, until the tattooed hostess leads you to your table?

Because then, get your carving knife ready. Or unhinge your jaw. Kuma's cooks monster burgers: 10 fat ounces hefted onto a pretzel-roll bun, each burger named after a heavy metal band. The Slayer piles french fries, chili, peppers, andouille sausage, and "anger" atop its burger. The Iron Maiden heaps on avocado and chipotle mayo, while the Goblin Cock - well, you should see it to believe it. The Kuma Burger provides breakfast, lunch and dinner on a single plate. It's like an Egg McMuffin on steroids, with bacon, cheddar, and a fried egg crowning the juicy meat patty.

Kuma's Corner is always ridiculously busy, and head-bangingly loud. It's located at 2900 W. Belmont Ave. Open daily for lunch, dinner, and adult beverages. For less-carnivorous patrons, there's a full menu of mac-and-cheese dishes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

You Say Syrup, Funk's Grove Says Sirup

No, it's not a typo. About 145 miles southwest of Chicago, not far beyond Bloomington on Old Route 66, Funk's Grove is a 19th-century maple-syrup farm. Actually, it's sirup – with an "i" – which means the product is naturally sweet. When spelled with a "y" it means the makers have added fruit juice to enhance it.

At Funk's they tap and boil the sirup from mid-February to mid-March, depending on the weather. And though it sounds like a sweet job, it takes 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of sirup, so it ain't easy. The family sells their wares from a store onsite (free samples!). The sirup is usually available between March and August.

Just down the road is the Sugar Grove Nature Center with trails and birdwatching, and a brooding graveyard and chapel. Together, they make Funk's Grove a surprisingly impressive jaunt.

But if that's too far to drive to sauce your pancakes, try North Park Nature Center by Pulaski and Peterson Rds., which hosts Maple Syrup Fest this weekend.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dye Me A River

Chicago's premier St. Patrick's Day tradition started by accident almost 50 years ago. Plumbers were using dye in the Chicago River to test for chemical spills, and holy leprechaun! The dye turned the river a perfect shamrock green.

The plumbers' union still does the honors each year, dropping in the secret-recipe (and biodegradable) coloring from Columbus Drive Bridge. The magic happens at 10:45am today. The best spot to see it is from the bridge's east side.

The St. Pat's Parade follows at noon. Tall-hat-wearing brass bands, curly-haired step dancers, and giant inflatable leprechauns float down Columbus Drive from Balbo northward.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Heroic Pie at Hoosier Mama

"Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished."

So said a New York Times editorial in 1902. And so says Paula Haney, owner of Hoosier Mama Pie Co., who opens her new pie shop tomorrow in West Town (and who features the quote on her website). She's opening on 3-14, like 3.14, which is pi. Get it?

As a former pastry chef at Trio, Haney knows her stuff. She hand-rolls and crimps her dough, then plumps it with apples, pumpkin, banana cream, and more. She also bakes Southern-style chess pies in flavors like chocolate and lemon.

Remember the earlier blog post saying 1 out of 5 people have eaten an entire pie solo? This is your place to do it. Because it's heroic.

Hoosier Mama is located at 1618 1/2 W. Chicago Ave. She's open Monday and Wednesday-Friday 8am-7pm, and Saturday 9am-5pm (closed Tue. and Sun.).

Monday, March 9, 2009

New Brew

Half Acre Beer Co. has begun pumping suds at its new brewery at 4257 N. Lincoln Ave. That yeasty smell wafting from within? Either the crisp, cloudy Lager or the dark, hoppy Over Ale.

To introduce itself to the neighbors, Half Acre sponsors a weekly scavenger hunt. The staff hides a little logo'ed capsule in the 'hood, gives clues to its whereabouts, and whoever finds it first wins a free case of brewskis. Keep an eye on HA's blog for details on the next hunt.

At this time, Half Acre's facility kicks out mostly kegs for pubs. By May, it will host a tasting room and retail shop.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Labyrinth Stroll

The Higher Power works in mysterious ways. Within equal spitting distance of JBar's Smor-tinis and American Girl's doll teas, a meditative journey awaits.

Let's assume you're like most 13th-century Europeans, who wanted to pilgrimage to Jerusalem to cleanse their souls, but couldn't wrangle up the donkeys and supplies to get there. These folks went walking at their local labyrinth instead, which was supposed to provide a comparable sacred passage.

You can do the same at St. James Cathedral, just off the Mag Mile. Head to the plaza's upper level, between the church and 65 E. Huron St. Step on the spiraling footpath painted on the concrete, and let the mystical healing begin. The trek should center the heart and mind and relieve stress. This particular labyrinth is based on one in France's Chartres Cathedral.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Movies + Music = CIMM Fest

There's a new fest in town. The Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, aka CIMM Fest, reels through the Windy City from March 5-9. It presents movies. And music. And movies about music, which is the main gist. The grand finale is the Wilco documentary Ashes of American Flags at the Music Box Theatre.

The rest of the events take place at various Wicker Park venues and at the Chicago Cultural Center. The latter is worth a visit in and of itself.

After the Great Fire ravaged Chicago, Britain's Queen Victoria sent over a box of books to cheer up everybody. Actually, it was a great big box, and the city needed somewhere to put them all. So it built a library. Not just any old library - rather, one modeled after the Doge's Palace in Venice. No one's really sure why. But, hey, more people might read if they could do it surrounded by marble, brass and the world's largest Tiffany stained-glass dome.

Eventually, the library moved to larger digs down the road, and the building morphed into the Cultural Center.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Springtime for Sherman's

When daffodils shoot up green stems, and baseball talk trickles onto the airwaves - spring is coming, they say. But when Sherman's Dairy Bar flings open its doors at the beginning of March and starts scooping Mackinac Island Fudge, Chocolate Cake Batter and 47 other flavors, it means spring has arrived.

The South Haven, Mich., institution has been whipping up ice cream in the attached factory for more than 50 years. Lines snake out the door on most days, as well-muscled scoopers plop meal-sized portions atop "baby" cones. The top seller, according to our dipping boy? Vanilla. Followed by Butter Pecan.

You won't regret the two-hour drive from Chicago.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Puppet Bike Party

You can't help but smile when Clover the Bunny (an aspiring starlet) and Chock the Kitty (a blues musician and dice-rolling gambler) dance together under the glittering disco ball. Which is why many people refer to the Puppet Bike as a "happiness maker."

The Puppet Bike, in case you haven't had the pleasure to meet it downtown or in Andersonville, is a mobile theater atop a jolly red tricycle. A lone puppeteer parks it at varying street corners and puts on a show with Clover, Chock and five other hand-operated critters. Solar panels power the boom box that blasts jazzy music. Out front kids wave, jump and dance around in circles - just like the puppets.

Each year the Peter Jones Gallery hosts the two-day Puppet Bike Extravaganza with bands, costumes and revelry. The bash rages this Friday and Saturday, Feb. 27 and 28; admission is by donation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Donut Diaries, Entry #2

"Donuts return the magic of your childhood and take away the disappointment of your adulthood," said baker Kirsten Anderson in a recent Sun Times article.

True, we thought, and after a failed attempt to get Cubs tickets on the first day of sales, we decided to put Ms. Anderson's words to the test. Could her $3 mint chocolate donut cure our Cubbie blues?

Anderson crafts her wares with soy vegetable oil, forgoes eggs and butter, and sweetens with cane juice. Quirky flavors include pistachio with cardamom and lavender, orange spice with nutmeg and clove, and the aforementioned mint chocolate (with real sprigs of mint baked on top). Anderson hand rolls each cakey treat, so output is limited - only seven dozen donuts per week, popped out of the fryer on Fridays. Grab 'em at Bite Cafe's counter.

Is it worth it, you ask? After all, three bucks equals three Dunkin Donut chocolate kremes or two packs of Dolly Madison Gems. Yes, and no. Yes for the flavorgasm and lack stomach ache/sugar crash afterward. No, because aren't cheap aches and pains part of the defining donut experience?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

George Washington's Whiskey

Monday was George Washington's birthday celebration. While it was crushing to discover he didn't really have wooden teeth, it was redeeming to learn GW fired up his very own whiskey still. Right at Mt Vernon, the Father of Our Country operated one of the country's most successful distilleries, percolating 11,000 gallons of nostril-singeing booze at its peak in 1799.

Historians recreated Washington's distillery a few years ago, and they occasionally cook up a batch of hooch following his recipe - which they're doing now, during the two weeks around his birthday. They'll bottle and sell half the whiskey at Mt Vernon starting in June. The un-aged product is akin to what Washington and troops swilled. The makers will age the other half in oak barrels for future sale - this is more like what we drink today. A daily blog documents the process.

Here in Chicago, top places to quench a whiskey thirst include Delilah's, Duke of Perth and Twisted Spoke. The latter has Whiskey Wednesdays so if you hurry out now, you can sip among the 150 varieties for half price.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln's Disappearing Body

Honest Abe has been in the news a lot lately, and not just because of his 200th birthday (which happens to be today). Back in December, when Illinois governor Blagojevich got busted for corruption, the federal prosecutor said time and again that Blago's conduct "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."

Funny thing is, Lincoln has been rolled out of his grave. Several times.

In 1876 thieves boozing in a Chicago tavern hatched a plot to steal Abe's body from its Springfield site and ransom it. Cops stopped the crooks at the cemetery. Soon thereafter custodians moved Abe's body to a concrete-fortified vault.

In 1901 they moved it again, to an even more secure location. Today when you visit Abe's Springfield tomb and circle through the burial chamber, past the crypts of his three sons and wife Mary, and arrive at the marker bearing his name, know this: Abe's body is actually 13 feet below floor level, with a six-foot concrete slab on top of the coffin.

He may roll over in there, but he won't be rolled out again anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Donut Diaries, Entry #1

Is it our imagination, or do donuts taste better when served to customers on a lazy susan from behind bulletproof glass?

Clearly, people kill for the sinkers at Dat Donut (8249 S Cottage Grove Ave). Which is understandable. Take Dat's custard donut, with its dense, eggy filling and thick, powdered-sugar exterior. It's so sublimely doughy it's like a pillow one could nap upon for epochs. Conversely, the caramel frosted donut is light as air, smothered in finger-lickin' icing that melts over the sides.

Chocolate long johns, apple fritters, Boston cream - the list goes on for the hand-cut yeast bombs at this shop on Chicago's far South Side. But the hubcap-sized Big Dat remains the sweet to beat. Even behind thick glass, under fluorescent light, its glaze glimmers and dazzles.

Is it worth the possible gunshot wound and/or the onset of diabetes to obtain its glazed goodness?

"Yeh," the counter girl says, and she spins out a half dozen on the lazy susan that prove it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama's Missed Pie Op

President Obama looked stressed in Elkhart, Ind. yesterday, as he tried to sell his economic stimulus plan. No wonder. Elkhart - the RV Capital of the World, with more than 100 RV manufacturers in a 100-mile radius - has seen its industry collapse and unemployment rocket to 15.3%.

At least these Hoosiers have first-class comfort food at hand, and Obama could have indulged had he driven 15 miles east. The town of Middlebury has a real live Main St. On it stands the Village Inn Restaurant (107 S Main), maker of big fat wide flaky creamy slices of pie.

Bonneted Mennonite women in pastel dresses and chunky white tennis shoes come in to bake the pies daily at 4:30 am. And yes, lard is the secret ingredient. You have to arrive before lunch to get the best selection, which includes strawberry, peanut butter, Snickers, and the life-changing banana cream.

"How's the pie?" the waitress asked the customer hunkered down at the counter, forking with a frenzy.

"Mmm. Mmm, mmm, mmm," came the reply.

That says it all.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Holy Smoke

Holy Name Cathedral - the seat of Chicago's Catholic Church - has had an unholy time of it. The Great Fire torched it in 1871. Parishioners rebuilt it a few years later.

In the gangster age, a flower shop used to stand by the church. One day in 1924, the nice man who managed it was gunned down while trimming chrysanthemums for funeral wreaths. Turns out he was Dion O’Banion, a bootlegger who crossed Al Capone. Hymie Weiss took over the biz, but his flower arrangements fared no better. Capone's gang killed him two years later.

Powerful archbishops preached from the pulpit in the decades that followed. When they died, the church hung their red hats from the ceiling forevermore - except when the ceiling let loose a 10-pound piece of decorative wood that smashed 70 feet to the floor in 2008. This prompted a costly structural rehab. A few months after the church completed the job, Holy Name caught fire again. The blazed happened today, Feb. 4.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Banana Cream Calling

You can deny it all you want, but 1 in 5 of you has devoured an entire pie solo; 35% of you have forked into pie for breakfast. It's a sinful tin-ful, to be sure. Oliver Cromwell banned pie in 1644, saying it was pagan. Restoration leaders lifted the sanction in 1660, saying they were hungry. The American Pie Council

educates the public on these vital facts and more.

But the best way to immerse in flaky goodness? Become a Pie of the Month Club member. No, you do not get an apple, pumpkin or banana cream treat each month, but rather an arty postcard with a quirky recipe to do-it-yourself. Crustless Coconut (President Obama's pastry passion) and Cape Breton Pork Pie (relax, it's made of dates and brown sugar) are among the sweet archives.

The club website has a pie data base, where members review pie places around the country, and a Pie Expert, who answers members' pie-baking questions. So if you want to know what state whips up the most billowy meringue, or how to thicken fruit filling, the club has the juicy answers.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Join the Swingers

The skyscraper, zipper, Twinkie, electric blues - Chicago has blessed the world with many 'firsts.' Add 16 inch softball to the list. You know the game - no gloves; a squishy ball that's like whacking a small pumpkin; teams named the Manglers, Nine Inch Males and Spicy Meatballs.

It started more than 100 years ago, a practical game for Everyman. The ball's large size meant it couldn't be hit far - perfect for Chicago's small playlots. And the lack of equipment needed (other than a bat) meant people of all income brackets could partake.

Approximately 30,000 locals have at it. February is league sign-up month. Join the swingers at or

And keep an eye out for the forthcoming 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame Museum in suburban Forest Park.