Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2008


So, you've seen Millennium Park, strolled down Michigan Avenue and probably visited Museum Campus. You've gone for deep-dish. Maybe you'll venture out of downtown to the boutiques and bars of Wicker Park and Bucktown. These are all worth doing, of course. But for a little variety, we've picked 10 places tourists — and even some Chicagoans — don't usually go.

1. National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum

After you've hit the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MCA, and the Art Institute of Chicago, keep heading south to see one of Chicago's most compelling yet under-viewed collections. The money-strapped National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum — the only art museum in the U.S. dedicated to exhibiting work by Vietnam vets and, most recently, Iraq War vets — has an almost appropriate vacancy about it. As you step into the main gallery, you're met by a graceful found-metal sculpture that mimics a soldier about to "step off to dance with death," portraying the romantic notion of war; one of the feet is molded using a tricycle part. On the second floor, get close to the softly clinking dog tags that make up Above & Beyond — there's a tag for each of the more than 58,000 service men and women who died in the Vietnam War. Take the back stairs or the elevator to the third floor to see the photos and installations of the Iraq War exhibits.

The museum is kept afloat by a handful of dedicated artist vets who regularly ship pieces out for exhibition, and also restore pieces — like a sculpture utilizing the POW bracelets of pilot (and Sen. John McCain colleague) John Borling, as well as the cup he used while imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton. Many of the pieces easily stand on their own. But within the context of the museum, they are quite overpowering.

On your way out, stop by the front desk and ask to see the hardcover rendition of the museum — Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections, which was released in 1996, the year the museum opened. The book offers a colorful and extended review of the larger collection, as well as artist reflections, and is worth a perusal.

2. Reggie's Rock Club and Record Breakers

Here's one of the best things about Reggie's Rock Club in the South Loop: If you're not into a set or who you're with, just walk up a couple flights to Record Breakers, a huge record store where you can snag not only new releases, but everything from an Eartha Kitt album and Minor Threat 45s to Rocky and The X-Files on laserdisc. In the rock-and-roll-heavenly reading room, there are old issues of KISS Magazine, tear-out Rolling Stones photo books and imported Zappa and John Cale session recordings from the '60s. And you can listen to anything you want. The downside of the Reggie's experience is that you may be drunk, and so psyched about your finds, that you spend all your money. (Don't ask how we would know that.) But it's an appropriate place to pick up a jazz album, as the South Loop corridor was once a hotbed of clubs — like The Shrine, a hip-hop concert venue and nightclub frequented by Questlove, producer and drummer for The Roots.

Back downstairs, there's also Reggie's Music Joint, a restaurant and bar across the hall from Reggie's Rock Club, which is a second place to listen to live acts — did we mention this complex is 16,000 sq. ft.? — while you eat, drink or watch one of 17 plasma TVs. The comfort-food menu is printed on a record sleeve with a real vinyl tucked inside (Hall & Oates, anyone?).

3. Judy Istock Butterfly Haven

The outside of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is a museum itself: The extensive prairie, rooftop gardens and solar panels, and water conservation systems make it one of the city's shining examples of green technology. The inside of the building sprouts kid-friendly interactive displays and workshops for adults such as "Geology of the Chicago Region," but the real reason to pay the $9 admission is the year-round Judy Istock Butterfly Haven — unless you hate butterflies (you'll be in an enclosed space with about 1,000 of them).

After watching a short video, you enter a huge room with a wall of windows, a trellis strung with vines, a rocky waterfall, and a curving path lined with benches. At first you may be afraid to move for fear of either stepping on or running into a butterfly. But that's when you realize how many there really are, and how they're able to camouflage themselves — maybe even after landing on your shoulder. The museum regularly rotates species of these winged beauties, featuring about 80 different types at a time.

Just before the exit, there's a mirror so you can check and make sure there isn't a butterfly trying to hitch a ride out on you. In the next hallway there's a glass display where you can watch various species miraculously emerge from chrysalides. Then it's time for you to emerge out of the museum and flap thee to the lakeshore nearby.

4. Paseo Boricua and Humboldt Park

With the threat of gentrification looming from the east, leaders in the Humboldt Park neighborhood worked to solidify the staying power of its Puerto Rican community. And thank goodness. Two huge, arching, steel Puerto Rican flags mark either end of the district known as Paseo Boricua (on Division Street, from North Western Avenue to North California Avenue). This pair of engineering feats — the world's largest monument to any flag — bookend a gauntlet of salsa music, murals and vibrant street life. Grab a guava-cheese pastry from Cafe Colao; at Coco Restaurant, try the passion fruit martini with fresh-squeezed juice, or the house martini topped with oven-toasted coconut shavings.

At North California Avenue is an entrance to Humboldt Park itself, part of Chicago planner Daniel Burnham's "Emerald Necklace" of parks and boulevards. There are gardens, playgrounds, fields, lagoons (including one that's chlorinated for swimming), architectural gems like the Germanic-style stable and receptory, and usually some locals showcasing their custom cars and cruisers. Make your way up Humboldt Boulevard toward North Avenue, the northern border of the park, and you could score a watermelon from the back of a vendor's pick-up, or maybe an elote (roasted corn on the cob slathered with butter or mayo and sprinkled with cheese and hot pepper).

5. Sidekicks

Back before karaoke was hip, there was Sidekicks. Pretend that the vintage marquee outside is glowing your name (instead of "Open Till 4AM" and "Karaoke Every Night"), open the bright red door and prepare for a time warp. You'll half-expect the Blues Brothers to bust in and jump onstage with you for "Livin' on a Prayer" — well, maybe just Jake, since Elwood would probably bolt for the beer-can wind chimes near the bar. If you want to celebrate a special event, like a birthday, call ahead to give the bar a heads-up, and they'll tape you and your friends for free — at the end of the night, you'll get a copy on VHS (sorry, no Beta). The bar also has a serious dart-playing contingent; to check out their game grounds, follow the wood-paneled walls to the back room.

If you get hungry looking at the framed pictures of Italian Beef, pizza and onion rings, don't worry: There's a walk-up counter where you can order food until late. Karaoke starts at 8 p.m. and goes until about midnight during the week, 2 a.m. on Friday and 3 a.m. on Saturday.

6. Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy

Walk into this firefighter training academy — past one of Chicago's original steam-powered engines in the lobby — and you can see a plaque that marks where the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began. And you may also smell smoke: As part of cadets' training, instructors build live fires. You can often overhear firefighters banter, while you're looking at the monument to the volunteers who have fallen in the line of duty (paid for by Ron Howard after the filming of Backdraft), as well as photos and historical info on landmark fires and inventions. For example, the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903 was so brutal that it prompted the city to revamp its building code, thus requiring doors to swing outward. And did you know that the sliding pole was invented in Chicago in 1878? (The original was made of wood.)

Academy candidates are allowed to walk through this hallway once when they first start training, and not again until they graduate. It's an issue of respect, so feel honored during your visit. Call ahead if you'd like a guided tour.

The Fire Museum of Greater Chicago (773-863-1405), which is scheduled to open in its new South Side location at 2311 West 57th Street in the spring of 2009, will feature a separate collection.

7. Brown Elephant Resale Shop

On Chicago's North Side, the Music Box Theatre serves up art-house cinema, live organ music, and horror film fests with guests like George Romero. Nearby, the romantic old Riviera Theater and Aragon Ballroom showcase the likes of Wilco and the Flaming Lips. But the 1920s-era Calo Theater in Andersonville doesn't show movies or host live performances anymore: The huge space — with its vaulted ceiling, sloping tiled entryway, beautifully tattered walls and decorative moldings — now boasts the secondhand wares of the Brown Elephant Resale Shop, whose proceeds go to AIDS research and providing medical services within the gay community. This makes it one of the neatest shopping locales in the city — plus it has a higher-quality selection than other consignment shops, including, say, a wallet (for $5) from the Andy Warhol clothing-and-accessories line and vintage Dunhill lighters. If you're not a thrift-store junkie, grab an old copy of Life magazine from the '60s or perhaps A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples and plop down on one of the nearby couches — they're the best seats in the house.

8. Lutnia Continental Café

Chicago has the largest population of Poles outside of Warsaw, and the area by Belmont and Central avenues is just one of the community's hot spots. If you're just looking for great no-frills food, head to Grota, but for a more romantic Eastern European dining experience, dip into Lutnia Continental Cafe. The dark red carpet, matching fake flowers, gold trimmings and white tablecloths give it a charming decor — we'll call it "18th-century shabby chic à la banquet hall." Go on a Friday or Saturday night when the candles are ablaze and a player is at the white piano.

Many menu items — some with a French flair — are prepared tableside, like the Polish Woods Venison, the Steak à la "Diana" and even the Caesar salad. To prepare the Polish coffee, a server heats a glass containing honey liqueur and brown sugar over a flame, pours in rich coffee, and tops it off with whipped cream, an orange peel and a sprig of mint. The pears and peaches for the ice cream flambé desserts get similar treatment, so save room. And if you're looking for a unique cocktail, try the Zubrowka martini: vodka bottled with neutralized buffalo grass, and a splash of apple juice.

9. Artis's Lounge

If you can't make it to Artis's Lounge for the crowd-pleasing blues bands that play Sunday and Monday, this corner pub on the South Side is still worth the trip for its DJs, jukebox and friendly neighborhood character. Old-time pictures hang on the wall, like the '70s-era shot of a sharp-looking Artis in a dress and white platforms (she still comes around, just wearing different shoes). The dance floor is small, but that doesn't stop anyone from getting down, even when the band takes up most of it. R & B karaoke happens on Wednesday night, though it's not unusual on any other night for someone to commandeer the DJ's microphone for a song — while the rest of the place sings along. If you find yourself sitting at the centered round bar grooving to some soul or funk number you don't recognize, just ask someone. That's how we found out about "Mississippi Slide" by the Southern Mixers. Now it's time to master the moves.

10. Pick Me Up Café

Chicago may be the "Hog Butcher for the World," but it isn't meat-headed when it comes to feeding its vegetarians and vegans: There's Chicago Diner, Karyn's Cooked and Karyn's Raw (the latter is the longest-running raw-food restaurant in the country), Amitabul, Victory's Banner, the Heartland Cafe and the Handlebar — shall we continue? But what if you're a hungry non-carnivore and it's 4 a.m. on Saturday night? Then head to the '50s vintage-style Pick Me Up Cafe in Lakeview. It's open 24 hours on weekends (until 3 a.m. on other nights), has colorfully lacquered tables — and you won't feel like complete crap the day after your binge. Our fave vegetarian option is the Skordalia on a pita, and a good vegan bet is the Vegan Tofu Scram. (Don't worry, the café caters to meat-lovers too.) If you need a pick-me-up, try the Zombie coffee drink: three shots of espresso, two cups of coffee, steamed milk, and whipped cream drizzled with chocolate and caramel. Skip the dairy, and you've created your own vegan monster.