Chicago’s loop in HD

Want to spend a lazy day riding around on an architecturally-scenic elevated railroad in Illinois? Now, you can. Watching this high definition video by Michael Salisbury, listening to the dreamy, relaxed sounds of Boards of Canada, you will be transported to The Loop in Chicago. Glance out your window at the commercial style architecture, the impressively complex rail tracks, and some of the city’s tallest buildings (the 110-story Willis Tower, which is 1,454 feet high, is not only the tallest building in Chicago, but in the United States, as well).

If you don’t have time to head over to the Windy City to see The Loop for yourself, you can check out this video:

Chicago’s best bar menus for holiday dining and drinking

It’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]Sepia
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.

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 long 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.

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.

10 things to do in St. Louis: how to enjoy the city like a local

Whether you like jazz or opera, historic sites or popular entertainment, the visual arts or dance, there’s something to satisfy every taste in St. Louis, Missouri. Centrally located, yet exotic in its quirkiness, this city on the Mississippi occupies a unique spot in our nation’s history as the Gateway to the West. The graciousness of the south meets the hustle-bustle of the north in “the Lou.” It’s a family-friendly town where kids and adults never run out of places to go and things to do.

Here are ten things to do in St. Louis that will make you feel like a local.

Walk through the belly of a whale in the City Museum.
Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company (701 North 15th Street), the City Museum defies categorization. Dress comfortably in closed toe shoes so you can climb, slide, and explore.

Built with such recycled materials as a shoe factory’s conveyor belt, this stunning feast-for-the-eyes includes a museum-within-a-museum of architectural wonders, an art area where you can try your hand at being creative, and hands on circus entertainment. Need a pedicure? Visit the World Aquarium on the second floor and let the doctor fish (Garra rufa) nibble away your dead skin.

Eat “concrete.”
Under the green and yellow awning at Ted Drewes (two locations: 4224 S. Grand Blvd. or 6726 Chippewa St.) you’ll discover a “concrete,” a milkshake so thick you can turn it upside down. It’s the granddaddy of thick, frozen desserts. Don’t panic if you arrive to find a policeman directing the traffic overflow; the lines move quickly. Try the hometown favorite Terramizzou, a blend of frozen custard, chocolate, and pistachio nuts. (“Mizzou” is a nickname for University of Missouri.) Send up a cheer!
Rated by The Sporting News as one of the best sports cities in the US, St. Louis is home to outstanding professional baseball (the Cardinals), football (the Rams), hockey (the Blues), and soccer (AC St. Louis) teams. On game days, the whole city turns out in team colors.

Prefer motor sports? East of the city you can watch NHRA drag races or NASCAR races at Gateway International Raceway (Madison, IL).

Marvel at the more than 7,000 colors of mosaic tiles at the “New” Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.
The “New” Cathedral Basilica (ground was broken in 1907) boasts the world’s largest mosaic installation. Many were designed by Tiffany. When you visit, be sure to look for the red Cardinals’ caps (galeri) hanging from the ceiling. Legend has it that when a cap crumbles to dust, the soul of its former owner goes on to heaven.

Get down and funky in “the Loop.”

Named for an old streetcar turnaround, this unique neighborhood runs from 6000 to 6600 Delmar. Stop for dinner at one of its 45 restaurants, including Chuck Berry’s famous Blueberry Hill, where the vintage toy collection is sure to bring back memories. Enjoy the 140 unique shops located along Delmar’s “Walk of Fame,” where brass stars in the sidewalk commemorate such St. Louis-connected luminaries as Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Kevin Klein, and Redd Foxx.

Eat toasted ravioli on “The Hill.”
Toasted ravioli is a St. Louis specialty. Your order will come with a rich tomato sauce for dipping. “The Hill” is a historically Italian neighborhood best known for its fine dining. Visit Trattoria Marcella (3600 Watson), and do like the locals. Order the lobster risotto even if it’s not on the menu!

Imagine an elephant running down the middle of a highway.
For more than 100 years, the St. Louis Zoo has thrilled animal lovers the world over. In 1997, the zoo celebrated the birth of its first Asian elephant, Raja. A few years later, the city’s favorite (pachyderm) son broke out of his enclosure, opened a zookeeper’s wallet and ate all the man’s cash. Dire predictions followed that Raja would escape the zoo grounds and wind up dodging cars on Highway 40. Today, you’ll visit Raja at the River’s Edge, his new enclosure.

Ride your bike “down in the Valley.”
Once submerged in the Flood of 1993, the low lands along Highway 40 (I-64/40) have been revitalized. Today the area known as “the Valley” hosts two million square feet of retail space, making it the longest outdoor strip mall in the country. Not only can you shop ’til you drop, you can also bike or walk the Chesterfield Monarch Levee Trail, which will eventually become a 17-mile loop directly behind the shops. When you get hungry, stop in at the Smoke House Market (16806 Chesterfield Airport Road), for a pastrami sandwich it takes two hands to hold.

Admire the Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles A. Lindbergh’s non-stop flight in 1927 from New York City to Paris was financed by two St. Louis businessmen. You can see a replica of the young pilot’s Ryan B-1 Brougham at the Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Boulevard). The museum also features the gifts and trophies presented to Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Ask, “What high school did you go to?”

St. Louis boasts more private schools than Chicago, which is four times its size. By hearing which high school you attended — if you attended locally — the questioner can figure out your religious preference, your ethnic background, your test score results, how wealthy your parents were, and whether or not you are “old” St. Louis. Bluff your way into the “old family” category by saying you attended MICDS or John Burroughs.

Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series, which is set in St. Louis, Missouri. Her first novel, Paper, Scissors, Death, was an Agatha Award Finalist. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | Adam_d_; Mike Schmid; dyobmit; Clara S]

Stay at The Blackstone and explore Chicago by bike

We’ve been talking a lot about green travel this month. Well, here’s one more way you can do your part to reduce the impact your travels have on the environment. Book a room at The Blackstone in Chicago through October 31, and you’ll be given two Strida bikes to use for the duration of your stay.

Bike Chicago” package prices range from $199 to $269 per night and include overnight accommodations for two, a city map and the use of two bikes. Strida bikes are the world’s lightest collapsible bikes, so you can easily pedal around town and then fold up the bike and carry it with you on the bus or El if you need to travel farther than you’re willing to pedal. And because biking all over Chicago can take a lot out of you, The Blackstone will also provide you with some tasty fuel – a picnic lunch for two from Mercat al la Planxa, a Catalan cuisine restaurant inside the hotel.

The Blackstone is a Marriott property located on Michigan Avenue, near Grant Park. While it’s not the cheapest accommodation you’ll find in the city, the hotel’s restored luxury (it was originally built in in 1910), excellent service, and ideal location make it well worth the price. For the date I checked, the bike package was only $40 more than the basic rate, an amount you could easily spend on cabs over the course of a weekend. So overall, I ‘d say this is a pretty good deal. See Chicago, save some money, and do a little to help save the planet at the same time.