Chicago

Actually Cool Things You Can (Still) Do in Chicago Right Now

Fun still exists. We promise.

Courtesy of Art on the MART
Courtesy of Art on the MART
Courtesy of Art on the MART

As the pandemic wears on and restrictions continue to tighten across the city and the country, it can be hard to stay upbeat. That’s why you need fun now more than ever. And while most of Chicago’s iconic winter events from the Chicago Auto Show to the Cubs Convention have been either cancelled or postponed, that doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had during this season of darkness. You just have to look a little harder. Here’s everything fun you can (still) do in Chicago this winter. Be safe and wear a mask, and be sure to monitor local sites for the latest closures and safety information.

Courtesy of Kaiser Tiger
Courtesy of Kaiser Tiger
Courtesy of Kaiser Tiger

Do some ice curling at a local beer and sausage bar

Not only is Kaiser Tiger one of Chicago’s best spots for beer and sausage. It also hosts ice curling on the outdoor patio every winter, even in 2020. Cost is $50 per lane for 30 minutes for up to four players, and reservations are required. 
 

Grab some winter reading material from a local bookstore

There’s nothing like settling in with a good book during a winter snowstorm. Support local independent bookstores by masking up and paying a visit to a cool local spot like Quimbys or Myopic Books, both of which offer curbside pickup. No, it’s not as easy as Amazon. Which is kind of the point.

 

Courtesy of Cebu Chicago
Courtesy of Cebu Chicago
Courtesy of Cebu Chicago

Gorge yourself during Chicago Restaurant Week

We’re not sure what exactly this iconic annual restaurant showcase will look like in 2021, but we’re assuming there will be some sort of a virtual/takeout component. All we know for sure is that, according to the city, Chicago Restaurant Week 2021 “will look a little different this year.” So check back for updates.
 

Unleash your inner Bill Murray at Woodstock’s Groundhog Days

A road trip to Woodstock is always in order for the town’s annual Groundhog Days festival, which tours several Woodstock filming sites from the 1993 Bill Murray classic Groundhog day. The festival is still on for 2021 in scaled back form from January 30 – February 2, with a handful of events on the calendar including a walking tour of filming sites, trivia, and, of course, the groundhog prognostication.
 

Discover a new meaning of “chill” at the Chicago Polar Plunge

One way or another, the annual plunge into the icy waters of Lake Michigan in your favorite Speedo or costume at this annual “winter swimming” event raising money for Special Olympics of Illinois is happening this year. It just might not be the same event you’re used to. Organizers state that it is “too early to determine the format” for the 2021 Chicago Polar Plunge-scheduled for March 7-but they say it’s currently game-on.

 

Courtesy of Davis Theater
Courtesy of Davis Theater
Courtesy of Davis Theater

Get your fill of holiday classics at a local drive-in movie theater

One positive byproduct of this endless pandemic is the preponderance of drive-in movie locations across the city, several of which are open for the holidays for your drive-in holiday movie pleasure. Hit up Chi-Town Movies, the Drive-In at Lincoln Yards, and SeatGeek Stadium for a range of seasonal classics from Elf to Die Hard. There are also two new pop-up holiday drive-in movie experiences from the folks at Replay including the Miracle on West Madison downtown and the Holly Jolly Drive-In in Lincoln Park. Movies are screening through December 26, and may be extended after.

Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum
Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum
Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

Get in the spirit by checking out a holiday light display

From Lincoln Park’s iconic ZooLights and the Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic to the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination and Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lightscape, there’s no shortage of brilliant holiday light displays across the city and suburbs. You can also check out Let It Shine in Northbrook or the Aurora Festival of Lights. Closer to home, Art on theMART is the world’s largest permanent digital art projection-screening on the side of the Merchandise Mart nightly through the end of the year.
 

Party in your car at House Party at the Drive-In New Year’s Eve Bash

What better way to close out this weird year than a New Year’s Eve party from the comfort of your car? Stop by SeatGeek Stadium’s House Party at the Drive-In New Year’s Eve Bash for a full lineup of live house music performances with food/drink and a fireworks show to bid farewell to this shitshow of a year. Masks and social distancing required, obviously.
 

Sip seasonal cocktails in your very own gingerbread house at Whiskey Business

Wicker Park rooftop bar Whiskey Business is getting into the holiday spirit by converting its rooftop cabanas into heated gingerbread houses available for private rental. The holiday decorated gingerbread houses will include candy canes and fake fireplaces, with seasonal cocktails available to order and an online contest to win a gift card. Reserve yours here.

Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden

Get lost in some local nature

The Chicago Lakefront Trail remains open, but it’s not the only place to get some fresh air in the city. Did you know the entire Chicago metro area is surrounded by a 210-mile nature trail complete with Cook County Forest Preserve campsites and lakes? How about a 2.7-mile urban hiking trail along a former railway corridor? How about one of America’s newest national parks just across the Indiana border? If all else fails, your local park will do just fine.
 

Support Chicago’s Black Community

Whatever else you do this winter, be sure to do your part and make the community we live in a better place for all its residents. Aid in the fight for racial justice and social equity taking place across the city, while also supporting Chicago’s Black community from nonprofits and community organizations to restaurants and bookstores. Here’s our guide to doing just that.
 

Take a quick road trip to discover some Illinois hidden gems

With air travel down and car travel up, it’s no secret that the Great American road trip has made a spectacular return in 2020. Luckily, you don’t have to travel too far to check out some amazing spots right here in Illinois — from the quaint small town vibes of Galena to the sprawling Shawnee National Forest near Carbondale. Check out some more options here and, if you’re looking to cross state lines, we’ve got you covered here.

Evanston SPACE
Evanston SPACE
Evanston SPACE

Go see some live music (virtually)

While we aren’t yet ready for packed sweaty shows in crowded clubs, there are plenty of excellent virtual options from The Hideout, Empty Bottle, Lincoln Hall/Schubas, Experimental Sound Studio, and more. The City of Chicago is also hosting its own streaming channel as well in honor of “The Year of Chicago Music.” And whatever else you do, be sure to help support the National Independent Venue Association if you don’t want 90% of the country’s independent music venues to close for good.
 

Try to laugh during a pandemic

If Netflix reruns of The Office aren’t quite as funny as you remember them, you might need to turn to the experts for your comedy fix. Comedy clubs across the city are doing their best to keep you laughing through America’s ongoing nightmare, so be sure to tune into the virtual editions of Second City, ComedySportz Theater, Cornservatory, Annoyance Theater, and others.

Courtesy of Maggie Daley Park
Courtesy of Maggie Daley Park
Courtesy of Maggie Daley Park

Lace up the skates at Maggie Daley Park

While there will be no ice skating at Millennium Park this year, you can still lace up the skates at the Maggie Daley Park Ice Skating Ribbon. Reservations are required, and can be made here. Over in the burbs, you can also get your skate on at Parkway Bank Park in Rosemont.
 

Book your own private escape room

We’re not sure why anyone would want to voluntarily trap themselves inside an escape room after a year of living a real-life escape room experience. But hey, to each their own. We don’t judge. Popular local escape room Fox in a Box may be currently closed, but they are offering virtual escape room experiences in what they are calling the Live Remote Bunker room. How very 2020.

The Violet Hour
The Violet Hour
The Violet Hour

Party hearty with a boozy cocktail kit from a local bar

It’s no secret that it’s been a rough year for Chicago bars. And while they are currently being forced to close at 10 pm due to covid, you can still mix a cocktail at any hour of the night from the comfort of your home-from upscale offerings by folks like The Aviary and Violet Hour to more down-to-Earth booze creations such as Big Star margaritas and Twisted Spoke Bloody Marys. You can also go tiki with tropical creations from 3 Dots and a Dash, which you obviously should do.
 

Order in Chicago’s holy trinity of hot dogs, pizza, and Italian beef

While we can’t be out at the stadium munching on hot dogs and pizza, we can still recreate the holy trinity of signature Chicago foods thanks to the miracle of takeout. Order delivery from old-school Al’s Beef for your Italian beef fix, dial up Pequod’s for some amazing caramelized-crusted deep dish delights, or make your way over to Superdawg for the classic Chicago-style hot dog experience-and yes, the drive-in is still open.

Prepare for your at-home power meeting Zoom session with a Manny’s Deli order

It’s been a last meal request. It’s been a hangover cure. President Obama dined there. As did President Clinton. As did just about every politician who ever set foot in Chicago. And so should you. Power lunch on a Reuben or beef pastrami with a takeout order from this legendary cafeteria-style diner where business (and the occasional shady deal, of course) gets done in Chicago. Who cares if you’re still not in an actual office and your suit is now a pair of flannel pajamas? No one. Order pickup or delivery here.

MarinaP13 / Shutterstock
MarinaP13 / Shutterstock
MarinaP13 / Shutterstock

Go on the ultimate Chicago outdoor mural crawl

One thing Covid can’t stop is the city’s thriving street art scene, which can best be enjoyed IRL via an urban mural crawl. Start your excursion in Pilsen, where dozens of vibrant murals turn the neighborhood’s streets and alleys into an outdoor feast for the senses. Check out standout options like the Hector Duarte Studio at 1900 W. Cullerton before making your way to Logan Square to marvel at the famous Robin Williams mural outside Concord Music Hall and the nearby “Greetings From Chicago” mural at 2226 N. Milwaukee. Finish the mural crawl with a trip to Rogers Park, where you can see a mile-long stretch of wall art along the Red Line path as well as the brightly colored seawall of murals off the lake at Tobey Prinz Beach Park.
 

Check out the public art downtown (while social distancing, of course)

Looking to get out of the house and stretch your legs a bit? Yes, you can go see The Bean, but don’t stop there. Swing by the “Chicago Picasso,” or the Calder “Flamingo.” Head down to the southern end of Grant Park to walk among the giant, headless sculptures that make up “Agora.” Take a selfie with the Art Institute lions. And be sure to check out the new “People in Your Neighborhood” installation along the Chicago Riverwalk between Lake and Franklin. The concentration of world-class public art in downtown Chicago is astounding and not to be missed. And, most crucially of all, still open during a pandemic. Just keep your six feet, okay?

VIP Paints
VIP Paints
VIP Paints

Recreate your own date night at home

When it comes to dating at home, there are options besides pizza delivery and Hulu. (But if you are getting takeout, hit up the fondue from Chicago’s romance mainstay Geja’s Café.) Otherwise, you can nerd out with some digital cosplay with GeekHaus, get creative at a virtual paint and sip party with VIP Paints, or get a little naughty with Michelle L’amour’s perennially sexy Quarantine Cabaret.
 

Cruise Chicago’s Emerald Necklace

A scenic drive around the city is never a bad idea, especially before winter kicks in.Yes, you could certainly cruise Lake Shore Drive. And by all means, you should. But for a lesser-known option that allows you to see the actual beating heart of the city instead of just highway, seek out Chicago’s Emerald Necklace, a 26-mile network of interior city streets and wide boulevards. Linking together some of the city’s most grandiose parks like Humboldt, Garfield, Washington, and Jackson parks, this is the way Chicago was meant to be seen — with the added bonus of being excellent quarantine therapy.
 

Make a mental health pilgrimage to the Shit Fountain

If you’re in the Ukrainian Village area and looking to do the whole public art crawl thing, you may not have as dense of a concentration of murals as Pilsen or as many fine art sculptures as downtown. But you have one thing those other places can’t touch: the one and only Shit Fountain. The human feces-shaped sculpture is located on a residential front lawn just off Augusta and Wolcott, created by a Chicagoan fed up with dog poop. Cheers.

Dispensary 33
Dispensary 33
Dispensary 33

Smoke some of Illinois’ “essential” legal green

Who knew that just a few months after Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana that a full-blown public health emergency would bring our society to its knees? Can you imagine dealing with the current situation without a little green? We don’t even want to imagine it — and you don’t have to either. Deemed essential businesses, Illinois marijuana dispensaries are still open for business, with certain restrictions depending on the business. Check out our full dispensary rundown for details.
 

Listen to a local podcast

Finally, you have plenty of time to catch up on that podcast you’ve always been meaning to listen to. Luckily, Chicago is rife with an array of interesting options. Get your politics fix with David Alexrod’s The Axe Files, nerd out on music with Greg Kot & Jim DeRogatis’ Sound Opinions, learn about unique aspects of local city life with WBEZ’s Curious City, drink virtual beer while exploring the brewing industry with Good Beer Hunting, or give Hollywood a lesson or two via Chicago-based Please Make This. And that’s just scratching the surface.
 

Take a virtual tour of Chicago filming locations

Chicago has long been a popular TV and movie filming location, and the City of Chicago has assembled some of the finest spots to appear on both the big and small screen that you can visit during the age of coronavirus. On the tour of movie filming sites, hit up outdoor screening locales from Blues Brothers, High Fidelity, The Untouchables, and more. On the tour of TV filing sites, check out Google Street View images of sites such as the Gallagher House from Shameless, Molly’s Pub from Chicago Fire, District 21 Police Station from Chicago PD, and more.

Discover a new cool neighborhood

While you’re cooped up during Covid, it can be tempting to never leave your six-block radius. But if you look at things another way, there’s never been a better time to discover a new favorite ‘hood. As any Chicagoan knows, the real heart of the city lies within Chicago’s spectacularly diverse 77 neighborhoods. From the laid-back residential enclave of Norwood Park to the cool historic sights of Bronzeville, there’s always a new neighborhood to explore in a city that’s meant to be explored on foot. Yes, even during a pandemic.Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile

Chicago

A Food Expert's Guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram

Chicago’s Chinatown, a triangular slice of the Near South Side loosely bordered by Cermak Road, Wentworth Avenue, and a northbound-snaking branch of the Chicago river, has been fueling Grace Wong’s culinary cravings long before she cut her teeth dishing on the city’s vibrant restaurant scene for the Chicago Tribune

“Both my parents are from Shanghai and they immigrated to Naperville, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city,” says the esteemed former dining reporter, recalling her suburban upbringing. “When I was growing up, we’d make this semi-monthly pilgrimage into Chicago, especially Chinatown and the Argyle area, to get supplies because there was no real Asian population where we lived. There were maybe two small Asian grocery stores at the time; when we got an H Mart, it was literally the biggest news of my life. My mom was so hype about it.”

“It was always just a huge deal, piling into the van,” she continues. “We would go for dim sum in the morning and then the entire afternoon we’d be following my mom around to all these different specialty grocery stores so she could get the ingredients she needed to make dishes from her homeland. I remember being a kid and carrying giant plastic buckets around because we would pick up live crabs and live fish, stuff like that.”

Wong now lives on the North Side and although both the pandemic and her recent departure from the Tribune and their centrally located office has made travelling down to Chinatown a bit less convenient, she still manages to pay her favorite establishments a visit every now and then.

“I haven’t gone much since the virus hit but I have made the trip a few times, mostly when I’m just like, ‘I need my Boba fix!'” she says with a laugh. “And then once I get down there I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need barbecue pork from BBQ King House. And I need my roast duck. And I might as well go to Park To Shop because I’m out of like, I don’t know, oyster sauce or whatever.’ It always ends up being an extended time.”

Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram

Getting the lay of the land

It might look like one cohesive cityscape at first glance, but according to Wong, Chicago’s Chinatown is actually composed of two distinct, nuanced districts.

“So, there’s new Chinatown and there’s old Chinatown,” Wong explains. “The big plaza with all the Zodiac animals next to it-that’s considered, at least to my parents, new Chinatown. And then old Chinatown is down Wentworth Avenue, south of Cermak. If you look at a map, there’s a little triangle where Archer, Clark, and Cermak meet. Everything south of Archer is more old Chinatown and everything north of Archer is more new Chinatown.”

“Growing up, we spent a lot of time at old Chinatown, mostly because there are a bunch of bakeries there and we would bring home pastries to eat for weeks and weeks,” she says. “As I got older, we started going to new Chinatown more. You’ll see a younger demographic in new Chinatown, trendy places like Bonchon and Mango Mango-that’s more of the vibe. And it’s more touristy in the sense that the people who go into new Chinatown to walk around and spend their day there, they might not necessarily live there. Whereas with old Chinatown, you’re bumping past the old ladies that have lived in that neighborhood forever.”

What makes the neighborhood stand out?

After high school, Wong moved to California to pursue a degree in journalism at USC. And while she enjoyed the years she spent on the (much, much) sunnier West Coast, her experience in Los Angeles only further cemented her devotion to Chicago’s Chinatown.

“I think a lot of Chinatown’s across the country are kind of going away,” she says. I was in LA for like six and a half, seven years, and the actual designated “Chinatown” there is maybe one city block. Here, you can bump into people who straight up just arrived from China or Taiwan one minute then turn around and talk to someone who has lived in the area for generations the next, that’s all they know. I think that’s really cool.”

“Another important thing to note is that Chinatown is not only for the people who live there but also for all the Asian-Americans who in the surrounding suburbs, of which there are so many,” Wong adds. “To be able to go to a place where my parents can just chit chat with whoever without any worries about language, or where I can tell someone my very specific boba order and they’ll get it exactly right without asking me all these questions-I don’t know, it’s just a really special place for everybody.”
 

Grace’s list of can’t-miss Chinatown spots:

Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings

Qing Xiang Yuan

“One of my favorite places to get dumplings is Qing Xiang Yuan. They also have a location in the Loop. They do a lot of different styles, all handmade, which is really awesome. They’re really playful with the fillings and you can customize if you want them boiled or fried. And they have these really amazing takeout boxes that they designed for themselves-yes, I’m here for that packaging. They’re also pretty new and modern. I don’t know if my parents would love it, per se, because they’d be like, ‘This is a fancy restaurant.’ But it’s just dumplings! Go there and you’ll have a really great time.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Elitea

“Just south of QXY is the entrance to the Richland Center, which is basically a glorified food court. It’s one of the few places where you can get really regional cuisine and it’s also home to Elitea, one my favorite places to get boba. They have this fire brown sugar boba that is just, I mean, incredible.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Hing Kee

“For soup dumplings, I like to go to Hing Kee. Back in the day there were always, like, aunties making dumplings in the window-I loved that. Every now and then I’d go for some other kind of snack, but their soup dumplings are the best.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine

Hello Jasmine 

“Hello Jasmine on Clark Street is really good for Taiwanese snacks and boba. I usually get their roasted oolong, popcorn chicken, and maybe some sausage skewers. They also have this fried chicken sandwich that’s unreal. It was definitely a spur of the moment decision to get it, but it was so good I posted about it on Instagram.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Laojiumen

“For hotpot, there’s this new place called Laojiumen. They basically do ‘fancy hotpot’ and I honestly can’t wait to go there when I feel like it’s safe to do so.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Bingo Tea

“Bingo Tea has the best cheese tea. They were one of the first and the biggest to do it. You know how cheesecake is cheese but not really? Like how it’s sweet but has a touch of like salt to it? Imagine that but whipped. There’s a fruit or loose-leaf tea on the bottom and on top there’s this foam-like latte foam but thicker. The name might be a little bit of a marketing issue, but don’t knock it until you try it!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Lao Sze Chuan

“Lao Sze Chuan is a classic for Sichuan food across the board. It might be an unpopular opinion, but I love their dry chili chicken. People say it’s for tourists, but it’s actually so good!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine

MingHin

“Right next to Lao Sze Chuan is MingHin. I’m telling you, no dim sum trip is complete without a stop there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles

Slurp Slurp Noodles

“Slurp Slurp Noodles is in the old Chinatown area and their hand-shaved noodles are some of my all-time favorites. They’re super bouncy and springy and served in this delicious sauce. And they’re not soupy noodles-more like the dry, tossed-in-a-wok kind. They also make their own mustard greens, which are fire. It’s a solid spot.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

BBQ King

“BBQ King is the absolute go-to for all your barbecue needs. And they’re for sure doing takeout right now, I know that from experience.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

MCCB

“MCCB, they do ridiculous, mouth-numbingly spicy food and it’s fantastic. Their grilled whole fish, it’s just swimming in chilies, and you’re like, ‘I’m going to die and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.’ I love it there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong

Chef Xiong

“Another good place for spicy Sichuan-style food is Chef Xiong. They have a really cute logo with a Panda on it. I don’t know if I have a favorite dish, but I would say just go, sit down, and whatever they tell you to eat, do that. You won’t regret it.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Dolo Restaurant and Bar

“If you want to feel like you’re at a club but also eating Chinese food, Dolo is the spot for you. They also do cocktails and their food is definitely good, but it’s just like, ‘I’m here with my parents in this dark room with this loud music… I don’t know what to say.'” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Feida Bakery

“Barbecue pork buns? Obviously great. Ham and egg buns? Obviously great. Cream horns? Obviously great. Am I missing anything?”
How to order: Call 312-808-1113 to order.

Park To Shop

“You have to check out a grocery store because grocery stores are the best. We love going to Park To Shop-there are two big locations in Chinatown. One is on Archer and one is farther south but both are great.” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Xi’an Cuisine

“Xi’an Cuisine, they do what people call Chinese hamburgers. I kind of hate that name because it’s a bun that’s been pan fried and stuffed with cumin-spiced meats-to me, that’s not really a hamburger, but I understand the desire to assign it a name you’re familiar with. Either way, they taste great.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Aji Ichiban

“Up near the Richmond Center there’s this little candy specialty store called Aji Ichiban. I love going in there for sweets-they have Japanese candies, Korean candies, Chinese candies, all the candies.”
How to order: Click here to order online. 

Nine Bar

“More recently, there have been a few pop-ups coming from second generation Chinatown kids like this one out of Moon Palace. Pop-ups are such a big COVID thing. I would be remiss not to mention them.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago

Meet Fresh

“Another place for dessert is Meet Fresh-it’s so good. And you will definitely be shell-shocked by a tiny, 90-pound Asian girl eating an entire mountain of ice cream on her own because, yeah, that’s a normal occurrence there. It’s happened to me twice now and I’m shocked every time. I’m talking a mountain of shaved ice and pudding and taro balls-delicious, but you’d need at least four people to eat it. It’s amazing.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Meredith Heil is originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that’s feet on the ground, none of that airport BS). She enjoys reading about, thinking about, talking about, writing about, putting on events about and drinking about craft beer.

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