Lost in the Loop

Hidden gems make Loop livable for those with the inside track

Dr. Maria Gracias already had the inside scoop on just how great the Loop could be when she decided to trade her Lincoln Park home for a condo at The Heritage at Millennium Park.

But Gracias, a dentist who has worked downtown for the last 15 years, also knew that beyond the postcard attractions – the Millennium Parks, Art Institutes and Symphony Centers – the greater Loop was filled with hidden but equally important amenities.

At Heaven on Seven, the Cajun restaurant tucked away on the seventh floor of the Garland Building, 111 N. Wabash Ave., the owner sits down at Gracias’ table and greets her like an old friend. She buys fresh produce from the Farmers Market at Daley Plaza. And at Ada’s Famous Deli, 14 S. Wabash Ave., Gracias can always find her favorite chicken soup, even close to midnight.

“You get the best of both worlds in the Loop,” Gracias says. “You get the culture and excitement, but you also get the neighborhood-type environments, all in one.”

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The greater Loop, including the area east of Michigan Avenue that some call the New East Side, is, of course, a business district, and many of its restaurants and bars close on weekends and after 6 p.m. during the week. When the area was populated almost exclusively by office workers, that schedule worked fine.

But residential development has pushed south of the river and as thousands of new homebuyers have moved in, the Loop has experienced some growing pains. The kinds of amenities needed to create a neighborhood are slowly trickling in. The Jewel Food Stores at 1224 S. Wabash Ave. and 550 N. State St. aren’t technically in the Loop, but they’re close enough for comfort. A Dominick’s at 1340 S. Canal St. and a new Target at 1154 S. Clark St. also have been welcome nearby additions.

But restaurants, retail and services have lagged behind the new housing. Until more amenities arrive, Loop residents say, there are enough positive tradeoffs to make it worthwhile to live in the area that the world most identifies with Chicago, a dense stretch that sits in the shadow of the Sears Tower and arm’s reach from Buckingham Fountain, The Art Institute The Harold Washington Library and Monroe Harbor. Not to mention the offices where so many residents work.

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Until the usual neighborhood amenities catch up with those larger, cultural ones, Loop residents have a host of hidden treasures. No other neighborhood has so many gems, whether they’re buried below ground, hovering 10 stories above it, or tucked away behind hotel lobbies. It’s only when you live in a neighborhood that you discover such perks, and the Loop’s new residents are finding a trove of secret amenities that reveal an area much more livable than a casual knowledge of these blocks might suggest.

Highrise boom

The area many people think of as the Loop, bounded by the Chicago River, the lake and Roosevelt Road, is in the midst of a highrise condo boom. The Loop was the third most active condo market in downtown Chicago in 2005. It accounted for 16 percent of sales, behind the South Loop (36 percent) and the West Loop (23 percent), according to housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors.

The median condo price jumped to $305,000 in 2005, from $219,450 in 2003, an increase of 39 percent, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.

Why is it suddenly so hot?

The West Loop, South Loop and River North have been residential areas for some time, and it was only natural that homebuyers would turn their attention to the very core of downtown.

Living in the Loop means a painless commute, with more time to spend enjoying the very best Chicago has to offer: the lake, the Art Institute, Symphony Center and the Museum Campus.

Lakeshore East, the mixed-use community that sits on Illinois Center land, south of Wacker and west of Lake Shore, has been an important catalyst, making it fashionable for buyers of high-end homes to come south of the river, much the way an earlier Chicagoan persuaded the well-heeled to move north of the river from Prairie Avenue, to a spot now known as the Gold Coast.

Lakeshore East, which will eventually contain around 5,000 new homes, has, in turn, gained tremendous momentum from Millennium Park, the city’s newest civic jewel and the community’s southern neighbor.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the park has inspired a mini-highrise boom. In its orbit are The Heritage at Millennium Park, 130 N. Garland Court; The Legacy at Millennium Park, 60 E. Monroe St.; Metropolitan Tower on the Park, 310 S. Michigan Ave.; and 340 on the Park, 340 E. Randolph St., which is part of Lakeshore East. The first two Lakeshore East highrises, The Lancaster and The Shoreham are occupied, and The Regatta, which is under construction, sold out in February.
“The area is like a fine Cabernet or Meritage, it’s got so many flavors,” says Anthony Lyle, a waiter at the Loop restaurant Nick’s Fishmarket. “Before, it was pretty simple. It was two dimensional – a white Zinfandel.”

Hidden treasures

Interior designer Emily Salami and her husband are moving from their West Loop home into a condo at Metropolitan Tower on the Park, 310 S. Michigan Ave. Salami works part time in a store at the Merchandise Mart and says she wants to spend more of her spare time attending exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center and concerts at Symphony Center.

“My old neighborhood just shuts down on the weekends but there is so much to see and discover around the Loop,” she says.

Art lovers like Salami will find a surprising number of cultural attractions tucked away in unlikely places, says Jane Stevens, an art curator.

At the Chicago Fine Arts Building, a colony of artists’ lofts at 410 S. Michigan Ave., artists showcase and sell their works at a gallery on the fourth floor. City residents who have walked by the building for years have no idea the gallery exists. The same can be said for the Illinois State Museum Chicago Art Gallery, where Stevens works, in The James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St.

In the busy government building, the gallery is a calm oasis featuring the works of contemporary and historic Illinois artists like William Conger and Manierre Dawson, Stevens says. “The governor drops in occasionally, but a lot of people don’t even know we are here.”

Exploring the pedway

There are treasures below the Loop too. Catch an elevator down to the concourse level of the Thompson Center’s Great State Fare food court, and from there, follow signs to the pedway, Chicago’s underground walkway.

The three-mile pedway is a collection of subterranean walks that pass through the basements of 50 public and privately owned buildings in the area bounded by Wacker Drive, Monroe Street, Columbus Drive and LaSalle Street. The walkways were designed so that Chicagoans could move easily between buildings in the depths of winter.

Some branches of the pedway are lengthy thoroughfares, others small walkways that come to abrupt ends, and not all are connected. They wind their way past more than 160 shops and businesses, including a post office, a barber, a couple of gyms, dry cleaners and even a couple of car rental companies.

Few Chicagoans have more than a cursory knowledge of the pedway, says John Albrecht, an architect who works for the city’s Department of General Services and conducts tours of the subterranean trail.

“The amenities down there would be so useful for all the people who are moving into the Loop to know about,” Albrecht says.

When they do investigate the pedway, they’ll find that once again, Starbucks is ahead of the curve. Pedway pedestrians can grab a grande latte, or their pricey beverage of choice, in the basement Starbucks at Columbus Plaza, 233 E. Wacker Drive.

Descending into marriage

The pedway under the Thompson Center connects to City Hall and the County Building, providing Chicagoans with easy access to government agencies to file taxes, update drivers’ licenses and apply for marriage licenses. Sheriff’s deputies munch Dunkin’ Donuts and bureaucrats debate the weekend football game. The occasional homeless person can be spotted camping out on a hard, backless bench.

“There is something about the pedway that makes people different from how they are on the street,” says Joan Helie, who has worked in an office along the underground walkway for the last 22 years. “People aren’t cold, or distracted by traffic lights and loud cars, so they smile, they make eye contact, they even talk.”

And get married. Helie works at Cook County’s Marriage Court, in the bowels of the County Building, which is connected to the pedway.

Six days a week, about 20 couples wait amid the paper poinsettia flowers and plastic ferns in this pleasant subterranean room to say their vows before a judge. It’s a happy place, most of the time, Helie says. “Once in a great while, you see a mother come out not too thrilled.”

Hidden bars

Those living at The Heritage at Millennium Park will find the underground walkway particularly convenient. From their building’s basement, they can take the pedway all the way to the gourmet food and wine market in the basement of Marshall Field’s, at 111 N. State St. If the trip proves too long, they always can stop for a beer at “In Field’s,” a bar and restaurant in the basement of Marshall Field’s.

In Field’s is just one of many bars tucked away from view in the Loop. Only the sharpest eye would spot Cardozo’s Pub, a Prohibition-era basement speakeasy at 170 W. Washington St. A small neon sign is the only evidence that just down the stairs is a cavernous bar serving beers, burgers and pasta to a lunchtime crowd of mostly lawyers.

Owner Harry Haris points to a 40-foot tunnel that begins behind the bar and runs beneath Washington Street, where patrons gambled discreetly once upon a time, according to Haris.

Cardozo’s is open until 10 p.m. on Fridays, but Haris says that so far, he hasn’t seen enough business from Loop residents to warrant opening on weekends.

A new residential highrise recently rose close to Cardozo’s, but Haris fears that many of the condos were bought by companies as in-town suites, not by people determined to make a home in the Loop.

But some Loop residents are doing their part. At The Village, a cozy upstairs bar at the Italian Village group of restaurants, 71 W. Monroe St., bartender Rich Swerbinsky says that his patrons now include a number of judges, lawyers and stock brokers who have recently moved into the Loop.

“They work 10 and 12 hours a day, and before they moved to the Loop, they were commuting two hours a day as well,” he says. “What do you do with those two extra hours once you get them back? You sleep, eat, drink and work.”

Hip hideouts

Residents can do all of the above without heading north of the river, and Loop hotels are full of hidden resources for those in the know.

Whiskey Blue is one of three bars inside the chic boutique W Chicago – City Center hotel, at 172 W. Adams St. Waitresses in sleek black miniskirts and knee-high leather boots prowl around leather chairs and velvet lounges serving $13 mango and pear martinis as R&B plays in the background. How can you beat a bar where the concierge hails your cab on a winter night while you wait in the warm lobby?

The Hard Rock Hotel, which opened in the art deco Carbide and Carbon Building, 230 N. Michigan Ave., caters to a young, well-coifed clientele at BASE Bar, and the new pan-Asian eatery, China Grill. Other hot spots tucked away from view include the Lobby Lounge, inside the Swissotel, 323 E. Wacker Drive, and Lobby Court, inside the Renaissance Chicago Hotel, 1 W. Wacker Drive, which has live jazz. Or there’s the Big Brasserie and Bar at the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker Drive. Younger and more energetic Loopers finish the night at the Hyatt Regency’s dance club, Hard Drive.

Diamonds in the rough

The famous Palmer House, now The Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe St., is far from hidden, but lots of patrons enter its restaurant and bar, The Big Downtown, on the building’s Wabash side without realizing they’re visiting part of the hotel.

Wabash, that scraggly Loop street crouched beneath the elevated train tracks, has a number of hidden and not so hidden gems (you’ll find the latter in Jeweler’s Row, between Monroe and Washington streets). The former include the Exchequer Restaurant and Pub, 226 S. Wabash Ave., and steakhouse Miller’s Pub, 134 S. Wabash Ave. One 40-year-old bookkeeper, who says that she’s been a regular at Miller’s Pub for nearly 20 years, laments the disappearance of what she calls “bar bars,” the kinds of places that don’t serve seared ahi tuna.

But she’s pleased that so many students have begun to move into the city, drawn by the new housing provided by DePaul, Columbia, The Art Institute and other schools. The city has encouraged the student presence as part of its plan to build a “24-hour downtown,” and facilities such as University Center, a new dorm for 1,700 students, developed by three colleges at State Street and Congress Parkway, are starting to have a noticeable effect on after-hours foot traffic.

“They have so much energy and ambition to make the world a better place,” she says. “I know one young guy who tells me that he is determined to do something to help the homeless people in the city. It reminds me of what it was like to have that kind of energy and dreams.”

Making friends

The 69-acre Lakeshore East community is clearly becoming a better place, though it will remain a construction zone for the near future as new highrises, townhouses and commercial spaces continue to be built. At least it’s a construction zone with a park in its center and one with wireless Internet to boot. This is an invisible, not just hidden gem, but when weather permitted, the perk was starting to draw laptop jockeys out of the cafes and onto park benches.

The six-acre park with a children’s play area, dog run and Wi-Fi opened at Lakeshore East last spring. It’s a cloudy winter’s day, but about a dozen residents are in that park, chatting and walking dogs. In less than a year, the green space has helped integrate residents of Lakeshore East and the older highrises in the neighborhood into a tangible if inchoate community. Nothing, however, builds community like having a shared need.

“Everybody around this neighborhood wants a restaurant,” says Mary Baldermann, who lives with her husband, Al, at The ParkShore. “We can hardly wait.”

Dustin Domer, 14, who lives at Harbor Point Condominiums, says he walks to River North when he wants to go to the movies or a bowling alley. But the burning need in his immediate neighborhood? A skateboard park, of course.

“There aren’t too many kids my age around here,” he says. “I’ve hardly seen any neighbors on my floor.”

But friendly neighbors are starting to appear out of the woodwork. Buckingham Condominiums resident Elizabeth Ryan is walking Sailor, her parents’ Golden Retriever. She stops to chat with the Baldermanns, who are walking their playful Newfoundland, Otis. Ryan and her parents have become firm friends with the couple since they met in the park last summer.

“We’ve been here five years,” Mary Baldermann says. “Having the park here has made this a neighborhood. Before that, everybody just passed each other by. The park gave us a destination where we got to know peoples’ names.”

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