Isn’t it weird, said I to Billy, that people who live in Chicago, the great American city, also live in Illinois? — Illinois, a rather dinky state whose other attractions, I will have you know, include the world’s largest cross, largest ketchup bottle, and an albino squirrel colony. And yet — and yet, less than four hours’ drive east of Iowa City, there’s all this height, rush, and money.
Chicago still feels Midwestern though. Has everyone noticed this, or are my antennae extra sensitive from absorbing the Iowa zeitgeist over the past five months? Face-slapping freeze: check. The ice-chunks river horrified me.
A certain veneration of farm-culture and regionalist painting: an ironic check. The actual Grant Wood painting actually lives just down the street from its three-dimensional cousin, at the Art Institute. And delightfully, the Grant Wood studio museum is in Iowa, just half an hour away from us! If that’s not neighbor pride, I don’t know what is.
And perhaps most importantly, friendly people: check. I’m still not a convert to the traditional paradigm that posits all New Yorkers as rude rude rude and Midwesterners as golden models of folksy generosity, and I’m certainly not arguing that we insert Chicago into that tired scale. BUT. On Saturday night B and I went to an underground speakeasy, the sort of place without a phone number and only enough space for people on the list. And while in New York, part of the expectation (dare I say appeal?) in visiting such high falutin’ places is to be sneered at by beautiful hosts and bartenders — in Chicago they’re nice. They say “Hi Natalie, how’s it going?” They happily recommend swoon-worthy drinks with stuff like muddled strawberries and vanilla sugar rims. They circle back to ask how the drinks are. And lo, it is a wonderful thing.
Luckily, this Midwestern city still provides a break from Midwestern living, when you just need to sleep twenty stories above the ground, walk or subway but certainly not drive, and shovel some iconic pizza down your throat. We arrived last Friday night, walked over a mile to a tapas bar, and sat down past ten o’clock. Two hours later, we rolled out, having spent at least a quarter of the time moaning over too-full tummies. Between the jamon, the patatas bravas, the ham and chicken croquetas, the shrimp, and the seafood paella — well. Cafe Iberico, we were too weak for you.
The next day we had manifestly not learned our lesson: we rolled right into Giordano’s. (Three words: Stuffed. Crust. Pizza.)
And you know what? It did not rock my world. Even though we ordered their specialty (onions, mushrooms, green peppers and sausage OH MY), it was just — flat. In flavor. Tall and bland. No pop. I’m not ruling out your pizza, Chi-town; but next time I’m hunting for some locally-revered deep dish.
And what else did we do on Saturday, besides feel very cheesy? We shopped, we delighted in hailing cabs and riding elevators so high our ears popped, we ate a boatload of costly sushi and river crabs for next to nothing, and, of course, we dropped into a Prohibitionist watering hole. And the trip was only half done.
[[Read about the second half of the weekend tomorrow.]]