Chicago’s South Loop, Chinatown & Greektown

“Hog butcher for the world,
Tool maker, stacker of wheat,
Player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of big shoulders.”

– Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916

156Back to Chicago, where my husband once briefly lived, my first visit in nearly a decade. Certainly much has changed, yet the city remains much as I remember it: gritty, even at its “prettiest”; middle America in big city, New York-reminiscent form. No it doesn’t woo me or haunt my dreams, like San Francisco or New Orleans do, nor secure my eternal loyalty like New York, but it’s the one true city in the middle, as far as I’m concerned, and here I eat heartily well, surrounded by locals who are welcoming, rough around the edges, genuine.

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Neighborhood by neighborhood, in a multi-part series, we’ll cover some of my favorite haunts during my recent stay.


The first neighborhood I took up residence in, the trek via bus up Michigan Ave before even hitting the El is a long one. I felt somehow far from the city center, central as it is. It was the best locale, however, from which to see the new wing of the Art Institute or classical concerts (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with full choir) in Millennium Park.

Pimientos de Padron at Mercat

Pimientos de Padron at Mercat a la Planxa

• Pretty truffles and cool gelato on a hot Summer day made Canaday le Chocolatier my favorite little sweet stop in South Loop. Gelatos are simple and candy-sweet, rather than tasting of the freshest of fruit as Italy, or even SF & NY’s best gelatos do. But I found their Pomegranate and Blood Orange tartly playful.

•  A Chicago institution, Manny’s Deli serves one kick-ass Corned Beef Sandwich ($10.95).

•  Mercat a la Planxa is a spacious, chic hotel restaurant right on Michigan Ave, one of the few less touristy restaurants on that stretch. With friendly service, though lackluster sangrias (both I tried were disappointing), the food is authentic and deftly prepared. Catalan-inspired cuisine includes plenty of charcuterie, quesos, tapas, and larger plates. A traditional Pimientos de Padron ($5) satisfied, the fried green peppers perky with salt. A Serrano Ham & Fig Salad ($8) is ultra-fresh spinach greens with salty ham, spiced almonds and sherry vinaigrette.


A feast at Lao Sze Schuan

A feast at Lao Sze Schuan

•    Lao Sze Chuan came highly recommended as the one place worth going out of the way for in Chinatown. Ideal for a group, we were seated around a large table upstairs in the bustling restaurant, tucked out of the way in this desolate, spread-out part of Chinatown. For not a lot of cash, six of us were fed with plenty of food left over. Being Szechuan cuisine, it was a full blast of spice and heat, especially the famous “Chef’s Special” Dry Chili Chicken, loaded with blazing peppers. That was my favorite dish, along with a mild, but expertly fried Salt & Pepper Squid.  I can’t say I was much excited beyond those two but none of it did me wrong.  Many say it’s hands down the best Szechuan spot in Chicago, along with its sister restaurants.


Cappuccino with a view at Artopolis

Cappuccino at Artopolis

•   Though the staff at Artopolis Bakery & Cafe seem bored out of their minds, it’s a charming spot for European-quality cappuccinos and an Artopita ($7.95) for breakfast or lunch. The stuffed phyllo disk comes warm on your plate from a cafeteria line.

Preferably, you’d sit upstairs overlooking the street for a quiet respite. I tried the ham and kasseri cheese version: warm, gooey, filling. This is Greektown’s most beloved bakery and a welcome cafe in which to linger (if you don’t mind cheesy Euro dance music playing).

Concerts in Millennium Park

Concerts in Millennium Park