Chicago

The Best Chicago Arts & Culture Experiences You Can Enjoy at Home

Stay safe and stay cultured at the same time.

Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Remember leaving the house? It’s been approximately 10 zillion months since the state of Illinois began implementing various forms of shelter-in-place orders and yet somehow the new normal still feels like anything but. And between waning sunlight and rapidly dropping temps, winter-fearing Chicagoans all over the city are desperate for something-anything-new to experience.

We recommend taking this opportunity to get reacquainted with your creative self. Thankfully, Chicagoland arts and humanities organizations, music venues and performers, and other dedicated local creators are weathering this never-ending storm by adapting to the current virtual reality. Because if you’re going to stare at a screen all day, you might as well get a little culture in the process.

Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Take a virtual tour of Chicago’s top museums 

Institutional big wigs like the MCA, Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry are going to great lengths to keep Chicagoans good and stimulated during the lockdown. In addition to a full calendar of digital events, the Field Museum teamed up with Giant Screen Films to present Movie Night with SUE the T. rex, a series of action-packed educational film rentals for at-home streaming. At the MCA, quarantiners can follow along as Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith treats them to the ultimate insider’s tour of The Long Dream, a brand new exhibition featuring the work of more than 70 local artists, while the Museum of Science and Industry is delivering dazzling live walk-throughs of their Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibit as well as hands-on science experiments directly to your computer screen.

Cult favorite American Writers Museum is encouraging would-be guests to dive into its newly revamped virtual hub, a one-stop shop for online exhibits, free webinars and author chats, podcasts, and a bounty of YouTube videos like Little Squirrels Storytime. Before bidding farewell, make sure to stop by the online shop and stock up on clever holiday gifts for the lit lovers in your life.

The Chicago History Museum, Adler Planetarium, and the Chicago Architecture Center have also expanded community-based initiatives aiming to foster a feeling of togetherness while we’re apart. The History Museum is staying busy with a host of immersive digital offerings like virtual reality exhibits and neighborhood tours as well as Zoom backgrounds and other fun downloadables while CAC is home to its own online exhibits plus live streamed events covering all aspects of Chicago’s built world from Wrigley Field to Tiffany glass. Over at Adler, science-minded folks can connect to the Zooniverse to jump head first into real research projects from the comfort of their couches, participate in weekly skywatches, peruse virtual exhibits, and more.

Calling all Wellington fans! The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved resident penguin has become something of a quarantine hero since he was first filmed roaming freely around the shuttered museum. Keep up with your boy and check in on his fellow tuxedoed pals Edward, Annie, Izzy, and Darwin via the aquarium’s free virtual reality penguin expedition or step it up a notch with a personalized Virtual Penguin Encounter. Meet and greets with other cuddly creatures like otters and sea lions are also available, as well as audio guides, live underwater cams, online camps, stories, and other family-friendly activities.

 

Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center
Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center
Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

Transform your living room into an art studio

Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood has fully embraced Zoom life as evidenced by their massive roster of workshops led by esteemed artists. Sign up for adult-oriented classes on everything from hand-built ceramics, beginner’s cross-stitch, and drawing fundamentals to advanced bookbinding, oil painting, metalsmithing, and portrait photography or occupy the kiddos with seasonal crafting demos and painting tutorials just for them. And on the other end of town, Hyde Park Art Center has similarly pivoted into an online hub for all things creativity including virtual artist talks, open houses, and workshops.

As mentioned, major museums like the storied Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art have started pushing at-home activities inspired by their diverse collections and smaller outfits like the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago aren’t far behind. The Museum of Mexican Art includes activities in Spanish and English, as well as handicraft how-to guides, coloring sheets, and a full lineup of live streamed events while the Smart Museum has thrown their entire 16,000+ collection online for your browsing pleasure. 

 

Courtesy of Zine Club Chicago
Courtesy of Zine Club Chicago
Courtesy of Zine Club Chicago

Get up close and personal with bestselling books, build your collection, or pen your masterpiece

Burned out on Netflix? Satisfy your inner nerd by joining one of the city’s premiere virtual book clubs. Treasured indie venue Empty Bottle has taken a turn for the literary this year, featuring free monthly Zoom discussions on thought-provoking works like Dave Eggers’ “Monk of Mokha” and other choice picks. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Reader is living up to its name with their own online lit collective featuring virtual chats with celebrated authors like Mikki Kendall (“Hood Feminism”), Riva Lehrer (“Golem Girl”), and Sonali Dev (“Recipe for Persuasion”) for just $20 a session. And if bible-thick novels aren’t your thing, try Quimby’s Zine Club Chicago on for size, a monthly online meet-up celebrating the latest and greatest in DIY publishing.
 
Those inspired to chart their own literary course will be happy to learn that StoryStudio Chicago’s entire fleet of classes is now available online. The organization, which supports writers in honing their craft, strengthening their voice, and communicating with confidence, launched “Pajama Seminars” led by authors in various genres, tackling topics such as playwriting, memoir, building imaginary worlds, crime fiction, and more. Seminars can be purchased as single session one-and-dones or more in depth multi-week programs.

Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park relaunched its Front Table newsletter since closing its doors to keep with COVID-19 precautions. Readers can browse and purchase the store’s Front Table Books (aka titles deemed current must-reads), discover its backlist, engage with university and small press books, and uncover future favorites.

 

Ditch the couch for a dance class

Battle the winter blues and get your blood pumping with interactive dance tutorials presented by some of Chicago’s top performers. Noteworthy pros like Alvin Ailey II’s Antuan Byers, Jazz Roots Dance Company Artistic Director Sue Samuels, Motivated Movers’ Elise Melendez, and others have been lending their showstopping talents to the virtual lessons listed on Dancing Alone Together, an online resource for the dance community created during the state’s first lockdown last spring. Students can sign on for contemporary ballet barre, Butoh training, West African dance, classic jazz steps, and everything in between.

 

Courtesy of Old Town School of Folk Music
Courtesy of Old Town School of Folk Music
Courtesy of Old Town School of Folk Music

Tune in to world class live music, film screenings, and onstage performances

It’s a well-known fact that Chicago is a music town, birthing house music, redefining modern day hip-hop, and influencing garage rock on a national scale over the past few decades. So when venues across the city were forced to darken their stages, the community quickly got to work adapting to this new normal. Nine months in, indoor gatherings remain off-limits and dropping into a live streamed show sponsored by one of the area’s many neighborhood gems is still an ideal way to spread the love. Keep an eye on event listing specialists like the Chicago Reader for the skinny on what’s (virtually) popping at the Hideout, Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s, the Bottle, Sleeping Village, Old Town School of Folk Music, and other much-loved haunts.

Elsewhere, Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts continue to deliver live sets and archival footage from Monday night performance showcase Option’s 5 year history through its website, with 100% of proceeds going directly to the artists performing each day.

Bring two of the city’s most beloved movie theaters, the Music Box and Logan Theatre straight to your living room. Music Box at Home is a revolutionary streaming service offering the venue’s acclaimed international art house lineup on demand. Current and upcoming selections include Zappa, Flowers of Shanghai, Frida Khalo, and Jindrich Polák’s pioneering IKARIE XB-1.

A night at the theater is tough to replicate during quarantine but, as they say, the show must go on. Get into the holiday spirit with festive streams like Manual Cinema’s puppet-fueled Christmas Carol, Porchlight’s Burning Bluebird, One-Man Christmas Carol from Writers Theater artistic director Michael Halberstam, Looking Glass Theater’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, two versions of The Nutcracker at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and the Goodman Theater’s inventive audio-only adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Off the Christmas beat, indie darling Steppenwolf Theatre Company has rolled out a robust schedule of upcoming performances and the Belmont Theater District has banded together to keep folks entertained while at home, with programming from different improv comedy and stand-up acts and theaters across the North side neighborhood, available online for bite-sized yet effective respite. Remember, laughter is the best medicine.

Looking for something a bit less, er, tame? Quarantine Cabaret, brought to you by burlesque performer Michelle L’amour, features a titillating array of performance artists, illusionists, comedians, drag performers, circus acts, and dancers. Episodes and additional content are available through L’amour’s websiteSign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

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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