Photo: Max Grinnell
As the frosty chill of Chicago in wintertime yields to the milder temperatures of spring, many visitors, locals, and trespassers start to go outside on a regular basis. Some are going outside to run a 10K on Lake Michigan, and others are going outside just to walk to a hot dog stand to get some fries and a francheezie (translation: a hot dog stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, and then deep fried). Hopefully, this will inspire dedicated urbanistas to take a walking tour around River North. What’s that you say? River North, aka “RiNo” (in the parlance of local real estate types)? Damn, that’s not very NFT, you might opine. Well, on the surface, it’s not. But, with this handy guide, you too can find some of the little gems and treasures of the area in an afternoon, or even better, an afternoon coupled with a boozy evening.
At its eastern edge, River North, provides a few stylish hotels (and some not-so-stylish) for those who want to be further from the mainstream stores of the Mag Mile, and nearer the fashionable one-of-a-kind boutiques that clutter River North. If you want art galleries, the western edge of RiNo has ‘em in spades. All are housed of course in the requisite former factories that only art gallery owners seem to seek out. A short distance from all the things that allow RiNo to have such a truncated name in the first place lies an enormous McDonalds and a Rain Forest Café. River North is the place where a Hard Rock Cafe shot glass buyer and a collector of hand-blown chandeliers can be in the same vicinity, but never have to cross paths.
Jazz Record Mart
Photo: Max Grinnell
That being said, every tour has to start someplace, and that place for this tour happens to be at the southwest corner of Ohio and Wabash. Yes, I know. Pizzeria Uno
may strike some as a “for tourists” destination. I’m dragging you by here because amidst all the modern hotel towers and tacky theme restaurants, this rather lovely 19th century Second Empire home is representative of what River North used to be: an exclusive locale for Chicago’s well-to-do in the 1890s. This area used to be full of such glamorous homes, and Pizzeria Due (down the street) is another example of such architecture. By the way, Uno’s pizza is fine, but not usually worth the two hour wait during high tourist season.
Moving around the corner and down the street, visitors will find the Arts & Crafts gem that is the Tree Studios complex at Ohio and Ontario. For most of the twentieth century, these structures housed all sorts of creative types, including painters, sculptors, and even actors, including Burgess Meredith (aka the Penguin and Sly Stallone’s sometimes curmudgeonly mentor) and Peter Falk. As with the way of all things Bohemian (see Rent
, et al.), this off-beat and heavily subsidized endeavor couldn’t last, and the complex was renovated several years ago, and most of the working artists left.
Photo: Max Grinnell
Around the back of the Tree Studios stands a large and somewhat funky melding of various Islamic and other Middle Eastern architectural styles. This massive edifice happens to be the Medinah Temple, which until a few years ago was the area headquarters of those lovable cart-riding Shriners. When the real estate boom hit River North a decade or so ago, the Shriners decided to decamp for the ‘burbs, and they wanted to sell the Temple to a developer. Fortunately, the building was given city of Chicago landmark status, and while you can’t go see the circus there anymore or play poker in a smoky room, you can walk around the building and run your hands over some of these stylized architectural details.
Alright, after all this architecture and such, it might be time for a break. Jazz aficionados have been making their way to the Jazz Record Mart
for decades, and owner Bob Koester also happens to be the head of Delmark Records, which has recorded everyone from Otis Rush to the late Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. There are in fact, many, many thousands of jazz records (both LP and CD) here, but that’s far from all that’s stuffed into various display cases in the store. There’s a substantial section dedicated to the blues and a very strong collection of avant-garde recordings as well (Anthony Braxton, anyone?). Ten minutes here can easily become two or three hours, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Deals are all over the place here, and some of my recent finds here include a rare recording of Gene Ammons for $7 on LP and a hard-to-find Abbey Lincoln CD for $6. Other
schwag can be had here as well, including t-shirts emblazoned with Sun Ra images (He recorded for Delmark as well) and a bunch of wayward cassette tapes of all musical stripes for 99 cents.
Billy Goat Tavern
Photo: Max Grinnell
Moving right along, a walk down Hubbard Street reveals some of River North’s tawdry past, and astute visitors will notice a smattering of garden-variety porno stores and related businesses. Most of these adults-only businesses have given way to surface parking lots or shiny new hotels, but there’s one building still around that’s seen more scandal and sauciness then the rankest 25 cent peep show. Yes, folks, it’s that ponderous pile of Richardson Romanesque, Courthouse Place
. During its tenure as the home of the Cook County Court, it was witness to the Black Sox Scandal trials, along with those of Leopold and Loeb and other noted Chicago bad boys. Now, the scene’s a bit more placid, as the building is home to a number of law firms and such.
If there was an official category of “endangered” hotels, the Tokyo Hotel would most certainly be on this list. The Tokyo serves a wide range of persons, and is by far a mighty step above its closest relative, the SRO. Dozens of hotels like the Tokyo have been demolished as various interested developers “rediscover” the city, and this place definitely serves its niche well. I’ve stayed at the Tokyo before, and for only 40 bucks (cash only, please), you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal. They don’t have a website, room service, or chocolates on the pillows, but for $40, who cares? I would say call ahead for reservations, but I don’t think they do that either.
After dumping your stuff in the Tokyo Hotel, make a move on over to the venerable Billy Goat Tavern
. This place truly straddles the line between being a tourist destination and housing a number of regulars who come to drink and trade stories. It’s been around in one form or another since 1934, and this particular sub-Michigan Avenue location has been there since 1964. It’s appeared in the newspaper columns of the late Mike Royko, the imaginations of a very well-known Saturday Night Live skit, and most recently, a very loving book-length tribute by Chicago Tribune columnist and urban chronicler, Rick Kogan. The place is littered (quite literally) with all types of newspaper ephemera (old bylines, etc), tributes from local celebrities, and the very quizzical
sign “Calvert Whiskey is NOT sold here.” Of course, there are also the cheeseburgers and chips, and it’s a fine place to sit for a bit, have a drink, and even catch part of a Cubs game. Then it's back home, knowing that you've gotten a full day out of the scene that's River North.
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