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.