Budget Guide 2013: Chicago

The neighborhoods that makes up the city of Chicago are in constant motion. It is a city of crime, segregation and flourish, a city of constant despair and rebirth. Because of that cycle, there’s always a neighborhood on the cusp of development or the brink of disaster, which means new edgy properties opening and closing – and vying for the tourist dollar.

It’s that competition that keeps the mainstream market on its toes. New budget hotels and restaurants on the outside neighborhoods have forced downtown spots to rethink the concept of “budget” and position new properties for a thriftier bunch. Find those new properties or visit the outer neighborhoods and you’ll find the best budget destinations in this city; then throw in a well-built public transportation infrastructure and one of the busiest national airports and you’ve got the perfect formula for an inexpensive weekend trip.

That’s not to say that all of your choices have to be limited to $2 taco stands and the youth hostel parked 30 miles west of town. “Budget” in Chicago can be experiencing celebrity-chef quality at food truck prices or a new boutique hotel at half the cost of the Waldorf Astoria. It’s the second city for a reason: it’s cheaper than New York, it’s less pretentious, it’s easier to access and its people are friendlier. Stick around, and your wallet might beg you to stay.

Hotels

Hotel Lincoln: Hotel Lincoln opened up in early 2012 after a massive renovation. Managed by Joie de Vivre, the hotel is a perfect mix of boutique and budget. Rooms are smaller, but unique and kitschy, and with its location next to Lincoln Park there is rarely a poor view. J Parker, the roof bar, is a swanky evening hangout that attracts a younger crowd, while Paul Virant’s Perennial, downstairs, is among the best restaurants in the city. From $119, based on the season. jdvhotels.com/hotels/chicago/lincoln 1816 N. Clark

Longman and Eagle: Though the restaurant in this Logan Square establishment doesn’t fit into the budget category, the inn upstairs certainly does. With only six rooms and a different design in each, Longman and Eagle is the perfect combination of boutique hotel property and high quality food. Appointments in each room include Danish furniture, reclaimed wood and vintage artifacts, and with each reservation comes two wooden nickels good for a whiskey downstairs. Give Will at the front our best. longmanandeagle.com 2657 N. Kedzie

Public: Ian Schrager’s Public hotel opened up in late 2011 and quickly gained traction as one of the hottest properties in the city throughout the following year. This is partially due to the F&B properties on the first floor. The Pump Room mixes modern lighting and design with a warm aesthetic and a hip clientele. Like the Ace in New York, young folks come here for the sole purpose of socializing, with naught an elevator taken to the residential floors.

Visitors that do stay overnight are privy to a clean and minimal design, with light tones, simple furniture and basic wall appointments for distractions. It’s the chic sort of quality one would expect from a four-star legacy – bundled cleanly inside this north side boutique. From $195. PublicHotelsChicago.com 1301 N. State Parkway

Eat and Drink

The Burlington: Neighborhood bars in Chicago tend to inherit the traits of their residents, and in Logan Square, the hipsters head to The Burlington. Dark, Spartan and unassuming, The Burlington packs in a wide variety of live shows and DJ sets for those interested in the musical offerings of Chicago, and for those just looking to socialize there’s a great budget bar selection separated from the stage as well. Try out the PBR + Jim Beam special for $5. TheBurlingtonBar.com 3245 W. Fullerton

Pork Shoppe: Pork Shoppe recently opened up on the north side of Chicago among a crowded field of barbecue joints in the city, but it’s earned a respectable home. Barbecue here is savory and tasty without being over the top, and the dining room is small, simple, casual and friendly – just like it should be. For best results try the fabulous lunch special of 2 Texas Brisket Tacos, Fries and a Soda for $5.95. porkshoppechicago.com 2755 W. Belmont

Xoco: If you’ve got a celebrity chef palate but don’t want to spring for the four-figure dinner tab, look no further than Xoco in the River North neighborhood. The brainchild of Rick Bayless, the same chef who runs Frontera Grill and a spattering of other restaurants, Xoco is a quick fire, Mexican-inspired restaurant that serves up delicious tortas, bowls and salads at exceptionally reasonable prices. The carnita bowl, which has delicious slow-cooked pork and potato-masa dumplings is a winner at $11.50. And if you miss Xoco, try out the Tortas Frontera in O’Hare airport on your way out of town. rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.html 449 N. Clark

Lush Wine and Spirits: Wine tastings aren’t unique to Chicago, but they certainly are perfected here. Among the best are those held at Lush Wine and Spirits, where every Sunday between 2 and 5 p.m. you can stop by for a free tasting of the newest bottles on the shelves. Stop by one of their three locations in University Village, Roscoe Village or West Town. lushwineandspirits.com Multiple Locations

Budget Activities

Headquarters: If you were born any time after 1975 there’s a good chance that video game culture is threaded into your DNA. And while many of us grow (or are forced) out of that phase, there are still fond memories attached to Ms. Pac Man and Street Fighter II. Headquarters, a bar in Lakeview, is the perfect place to journey back in video game time.

Step into this bar under the red line and you’ll see a score of vintage games ranging from the ’80s up to the 2000s surrounding a dozen high tops and a well stocked bar. But the best part? The games are all 100 percent free. Just stop by the bar and grab a few drinks to get your evening started. Hqbeercade.com 950 W. Wolfram

Maxwell Street Market: Each Saturday morning, a stretch of Chicago’s South Loop is transformed into a vibrant and raucous flea market. Vendors range from those selling fruits and vegetables to those selling tractor parts and bulk Mach-3 razors at a deep discount. You can find everything here, and the environment is friendly and busy. cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/maxwell_street_market.html 800 S. Des Plaines St, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Brew and View: If you happen to be in the city during a weekday, a few of the venues around the city turn their concert-floors into cheap spots to catch an old movie and drink a few beers. Brew and View up in Lakeview is probably the most popular. You can catch a double or triple feature here for only five bucks and beer is pretty cheap too. Just don’t ask for water, that’s almost as expensive as the beer. brewview.com 3145 N. Sheffield

Get Around

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) passes work on both the elevated (el) trains and public buses in this city, which for most travelers should take care of all of your travel. You can pick up day passes for $10 or three-day passes for $20 at O’Hare, Midway or almost any train station, then use those cards to swipe as you go.

Google Maps and Transit are the bibles of navigation for most locals; simply plug in your destination and get directions from your current location to find the easiest path home. If you haven’t got that functionality, remember that the city is divided into a grid and that State and Madison (downtown) is at 0,0. So Belmont, 32 blocks north of Madison is at “3200 North” while Western, 24 blocks west of State is at “2400 West.” Most buses go either straight north-south or straight east-west, and if you want to intersect with a train just ask the driver.

Budget Tip

If you’re looking to get the skyscraper views of the city from the John Hancock or Willis Towers, check out the Signature room on the 95th floor of the Hancock Building. It’s adjacent to the observatory, free, and rarely has a line. You can stick around for a (pricey) drink that’s less expensive than the cost of admission to the observatory, or if you’re really frugal, take a walk around and head downstairs.

[Photo credits: Kentaro Yamada]

Chicago’s best bar menus for holiday dining and drinking

Chicago bar menusIt’s no secret that Chicago isn’t lacking for great food or bars. But often, the two are mutually exclusive, no matter what city you’re in. Fortunately, as I discovered on a recent visit, Chicago has a wonderfully eclectic mix of new and established hotspots that manage to combine the best of both worlds. Indulge in boutique bourbon, esoteric microbrews, South Australian Shiraz, or meticulously hand-crafted seasonal cocktails, while savoring bar snacks ranging from pub fare and tacos, to elegant small plates and cheese flights.

Below, my picks for holiday snacking and sipping:

Longman & Eagle
Located in the rapidly gentrifying (but still somewhat seedy) Logan Square, this gastropub has become a hit with food-savvy hipsters for a reason. Besides an awe-inspiring selection of bourbon and other boutique spirits, the food simply rocks. An abbreviated bar menu is available between 3-5pm; expect treats like duck rillettes with cornichons and mustard for five bucks a pop. Dinner hour bar menu standouts on my visit included Slagel Family Farms meatballs with creamy polenta, parsley pesto, and fonduta for just six dollars, and tete du cochon with a sunny side-up duck’s egg, pickled shallot, parsley salad, and 5-spice mustard sauce.

Lovely cocktails like the Blood & Sand (Sheep Dip Scotch, Cherry Heering, Punt e Mes, fresh lemon, and flamed orange oil) or housemade spiced heirloom apple cider with applejack and Gosling’s Rum are a steal at eight dollars compared to downtown prices. For those late nights, avail yourself of Longman’s brand-new, six-room inn upstairs. P.S. The restaurant does brunch, too.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]Chicago bar menusSepia
This gorgeous, moody restaurant, housed in an 1890′s former print shop, is located in the Fulton River District, downtown. It’s a sedate, intimate atmosphere in which to enjoy chef Andrew Zimmerman’s whimsical, locally-sourced cuisine and well-crafted seasonal cocktails. There is a full menu with entrees averaging $28, so my friend and I instead parked ourselves at a cozy little table in the Lounge to make a meal of drinks and starters.

Spendy but unforgettable small plates like chicken-fried sweetbreads with green tomato jam and piccalilli ($14), and pan-roasted sea scallops with popcorn grits and crispy ham hock terrine ($16) are deeply satisfying. Cocktails are a bit on the feminine side, but a great French 75 (Hendrick’s Gin, fresh lemon sour, orange bitters, and demi-sec sparkling rosé; $12) or sour cherry Old Fashioned (house-infused sour cherry Old Overholt Rye, mole bitters, muddled orange, and brandied cherries; $12) is hard to pass up,

Big Star
If whiskey and rowdy honky-tonks are your thang, and you don’t want to devastate your bank account, head to this insanely popular Wicker Park taqueria. You’ll have to duke it out with yet more hipsters (like Seattle, where I live, Chicago has a plague, but they usually congregate with good reason) and local cooks and chefs for a seat, but the reward is luscious, three-dollar pork belly tacos (you really can’t go wrong with any of the offerings), queso fundido, great guacamole and chips, and free squeeze bottles of salsa verde on every table. The whiskey menu is truly staggering, featuring 23 selections from Buffalo Trace Distillery, alone, and $3 select shots every night of the week. The beer, tequila, and mezcal menus aren’t too shabby, either.Chicago bar menus

ENO, The Intercontinental
You don’t need to be an oenophile or cheese geek to have fun at this wine bar located off the hotel lobby. The focus is on a changing list of pre-selected wine and cheese flights, arranged by category. Whether you like bubbles, rosé, Rhone Valley, Pinot Noir, or want to concentrate on a featured producer, ENO has something for you, for around $13 to $18.

The staff will also cheerfully help you decide what cheese flights (an amazing bargain at $12, for three cheeses, mostarda, olives, Marcona almonds, baguette, and fruit nut bread) to have with your wine, if you’re so inclined. With selections ranging from semi-soft goat’s milk to aged Spanish sheep cheese or Cheddars, it’s a great way to learn, minus any pretense. There are also daily specials inspired by the local Greenmarket; think milk-braised lamb with mint, or roasted beet salad with Capra Honey goat cheese and pistachios.

Tip: ENO is offering a holiday wine and cheese pairing special through February: a bottle of 2003 Ayer Kupp Reisling and a 13 oz. wheel of award-winning dairy Upland Cheese Company’s (WI) newest release, Rush Creek Reserve, for $45. I tasted this hard-to-find cheese yesterday at the cheese shop where I work, and holy @$%!. It’s a satiny, hammy, unctuously rich washed-rind that is the crack of dairy products.

The Girl & The Goat
It’s irrelevant that this bustling, six-month-old industrial-styled bistro in the West Loop is the baby of Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard. She’d be packing them in, regardless, with her rustic, soulful, Mediterranean and Asian-influenced cuisine and down-to-earth philosophy. Izard and her forager work closely with a number of local farms that inspire the ever-changing menu of 30 small plates (10 veg, 10 meat, 10 fish), which practically beg for pairings of wine or beer. Speaking of beer, this is the place for trying out new microbrews by the bottle, or indulging in Three Floyds on tap (an artisan craft brewery from Indiana). If the Chicago bar menuslong bar is full, try the communal table or a seat near the wood-burning oven.

Phoenix Lounge, TheWit Hotel
Open since June, this teeny little mezzanine bar is a great people-watching spot, given the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that surround the lobby of one of Chicago’s quirkiest, hippest hotels, minus the attitude. The location on the Loop and next to the river don’t hurt, either. Phoenix, like the rest of the hotel, sports a retro/Art Nouveau/modernist decor, all black and white and magenta, with etched mirrors and chandeliers. Grab a bar table and watch visitors and locals alike swarm the lobby (popular restaurants cibomatto and State and Lake are also in the hotel, as well as the Roof bar, an epicenter of Chicago nightlife). Despite the high ranking on the coolness meter, TheWit’s staff couldn’t be any nicer or more helpful.

Phoenix is all about short and sweet, with an abbreviated, but thoughtful, wine and cocktail list and bar menu. You can go for an in-house drink (all a steep $13), like Good & Evil (house-infused pancetta vodka, Godiva Liqueur, and cream, if you plan on a very short night), or the more refreshing Elevation (house-infused grapefruit vodka, St. Germain Liqueur, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and ginger ale). Bar snacks such as veal meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce ($10) and tempura rock shrimp with lemon jam and chili aioli ($12) are pricey for what you get, but very tasty, and a great way to celebrate happy hour.

Mercadito
One of the best Bloody Mary’s–here, known as a Bloody Maria–in town can be found at this upscale taqueria chain known for killer cocktails (there are also locations in Miami and New York). Mercadito thoughtfully provides an $18 brunch special labeled as a “hangover cure.” Choose three items from their menu, plus a cocktail. A tall glass of spicy, savory hair of the dog is even better paired with a steaming bowl of posole rojo loaded with barbacoa chicken; huevos rancheros, and juicy tacos al pastor anointed with grilled pineapple and chile de arbol salsa. Your head and stomach will thank you.