The Root Cities: Sweet Home Chicago

In Part 3 in a series profiling the "Chi," The Root explores the fun side of the city that Lorraine Hansberry, Kanye West and the president call home.

Courtesy of Flickr user Manufacturer
Courtesy of Flickr user Manufacturer

In Dreams From My Father, President Barack Obama writes eloquently about why he chose to make Chicago his adult home. The city has traditionally been the political and economic capital of black America, while New York’s Harlem has held the mantle as its cultural capital. More black U.S. senators have come from Chicago than anywhere else — in fact, three out of the four who have served post-Reconstruction. From Johnson Publishing Co. to Johnson Hair Care, various iconic black companies were founded in Chicago.

The Windy City offers culture, entertainment and fabulous cuisine. A trip usually surprises visitors: It’s clean, and a real city that boasts a gorgeous lakefront. With world-class museums and theater, Chicago also boasts one of the most dazzling skylines in the country. Shopping is world class, too.

And let’s not forget Oprah. She single-handedly transformed the West Loop from skid row into a fashionable neighborhood. Don’t be embarrassed to take part in a typical tourist pastime — go ahead and take a picture in front of the gigantic “O” sign in front of her Harpo Studios. Much easier than scoring a pair of Oprah tickets.

However, there’s more to Chicago than Oprah, Michael Jordan and Al Capone — the names most associated with our fair city (pre-Obama, of course). Chicago is diverse, with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Polish, Korean, Chinese, Irish, Indian and Pakistani immigrants, among others. There is much richness to be explored in this city of neighborhoods — even if locals tend to stick to their own enclaves, thanks to long-entrenched, de facto segregation.

One of the best bars in Chicago is the Violet Hour, situated in the trendy, boho Wicker Park community. The speakeasy boasts homemade cocktails that sometimes shoot fire. A sign in the bathroom instructs patrons that no Cosmos, Grey Goose or light beer will be served. There’s no sign outside the faux-boarded-up building. And there’s often a wait on weekends, so go across the street to Big Star for tacos. Wicker Park is crowded with boutiques and high-end chain stores — not to mention lounges and cafes.

For clubby night life, the Funky Buddha Lounge, Red Kiva, Underground, Lumen and Flatwater top the list. The Shrine has featured nights showcasing everything from house music to Afro-pop to old-school hip-hop concerts. If you’re still not finished partying, Betty’s Blue Star Lounge stays open until 5 a.m. on Saturdays. The Darkroom spins classic hip-hop. If you want to hear house music and see how Chicagoans step in the name of love, go to the Dating Game. If a laid-back night of drinks with friends is more your speed, the Wit Hotel, C-View and Epic offer rooftop drinks.

Chicago is definitely a foodie town, with a slew of celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless and Graham Elliot. The City of Big Shoulders has evolved from its meat-and-potato stockyard days, but a steak from the iconic Chicago Chop House is a must-have. Blackbird is considered to have some of the best food in town.

In the Pilsen neighborhood, Nuevo Léon serves up delicious Mexican fare. Sushi Wabi is one of the best sushi spots. Japonais and Vermilion are always consistent with their respective fusion food. For wonderful wines, cured meats and an outdoor patio, Juicy Wine Bar can’t be beat. If you’re a history buff with a hankering to drive through the old stockyard area that Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle, stop at Amelia’s for lunch or dinner.