Chicago Photo Tribute #4: a Few of Our Favorite Little Places

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

[This coming] weekend is the fourth annual Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (that “C2E2″ thing I won’t shut up about) at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, which my wife and I will be attending for our third time. As a tribute to this fascinating city, and an intro to C2E2 newcomers to provide ideas of what else Chicago has to offer while they’re in town, a few of this week’s posts will be dedicated to out experiences in the Windy City when we’re not gleefully clustered indoors with thousands of other comics and sci-fi fans.

Part One was worm’s-eye views of the skyscrapers and other upward fixtures about town. Part Two looked at Chicago from other angles. Part Three was our art appreciation festival. Today in Part Four: some of the local businesses that caught our attention and imaginations.

When you mention Chicago to anyone who’s ever been there, any restaurant discussion inevitably turns to deep-dish pizza. Chicago has no shortage of pizza places, and I’m sure everyone has their favorite. One of their largest, most well-known chains is Giordano’s. I’d trade half the nationwide pizza franchises in Indianapolis for a Giordano’s near us.

Pictured below: a pie of my own choosing, topped with sausage and anchovies. I’m the only person I know who stomachs anchovies, steeped as they are in salty richness.

Giordano's Pizza, anchovies, Chicago

Last time in town, we tried one of their competitors, a much smaller chain called Gino’s East. Their works were just as worthy, but we failed to snap photos. Although this traditional pizza chef and his cosmically colored cow in their second-story front window caught our eye…

Gino's East, Chicago

…even more eye-gouging is this traditional pizza chef brutalized by passersby. Customers are encouraged to make a mark on Gino’s wherever space can be found. I’d recommend bringing your own writing instruments, preferably something thick and broad-tipped.

Gino's Pizza, Chicago

Seriously: everywhere inside is festooned with impromptu decor contributed by patrons. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to encourage spray cans, but good luck finding a canvas between tags to call your own.

Gino's Pizza, Chicago, graffiti

For lunch on our last Chicago visit, we stumbled across a hidden gem called the Billy Goat Tavern. Their original location is under the Magnificent Mile, accessible near the south end of Michigan Avenue on the west side via a staircase easily mistaken for a subway entrance. The front door leads down another staircase into a lower basement, so remote that some tourists thought they were trespassing or in danger, and left without ordering. I’ll admit the Tavern has all the ambiance of a drive-in theater restaurant and the urgency of the Soup Nazi, but I have no problem with either quality. They offer over a dozen sandwiches, but if you take more than three seconds to decide, or imitate my wife’s mistake of asking what sounds good, your meal will be a double cheeseburger.

Don’t be fooled by the simplistic appearance in this photo, which proves we’ll never be accomplished foodie bloggers: this was a hearty handcrafted double cheeseburger, the kind that would do Ron Swanson proud. And yes, it’s also available triple-sized.

double cheeseburger, Billy Goat Tavern

If you want all of the Billy Goat Tavern menu but none of the barely lit underground appeal, there’s a family-friendly location on the Navy Pier. Their rainbow-bright signage alone tells me they can’t possibly surpass the original Tavern. We didn’t even enter this one because I just didn’t want to be let down.

Billy Goat Tavern. Navy Pier, Chicago

In those rare opportunities we’ve taken to engage in this “shopping” activity at which others excel, my wife and I find ourselves puzzled and alienated by the wonderland of upper-class options taunting us up and down the Magnificent Mile. South of the Mile in the area called the Loop, storefronts are smaller and less glamorous, but a few of them actually cater to my hobbies. Prime example: Reckless Records, one of the few stalwart survivors of that business genre called “music stores”. Once upon a time, your parents ventured out to their local malls and bought physical media with music imprinted upon it in various formats. I’ve been without a turntable for years, but I still prefer CDs to streaming music because I’m old and attached to physical artifacts. I’ll miss shops like these when they’re gone. Amazon is cheap and convenient, but unsatisfying when I’m craving a moment of browsing casually through stacks of hundreds of random albums at a time.

Reckless Records, Chicago

Another relic from previous generations is the phenomenon once known as “bookstores”, such as After-Words, tucked away a block west of the Mile. Back in the day, they sold books, which you bought, read, parked on your shelf, and appreciated visually when you accumulated enough of them to form a personal library. After-Words has a basement jam-packed with thousands of used books, more than their ground floor sales area has. Be forewarned: they’re an independent small business, which means they do not double as a Starbucks.

After-Words, bookstore, Chicago

As MCC readers would expect, yes, I found a comic book shop. Graham Crackers Comics has several locations in the Chicago area, as well as a recurring presence in the exhibit halls at both C2E2 and Wizard World Chicago.

Graham Crackers Comics, Chicago

My wife and I share similar shopping tastes: neither of us enjoys shopping for clothing that costs more than our weekly groceries. Neither of us wears jewelry, designer sunglasses, scarves, shoes with triple-digit price tags, or fragrances that cost more than our utilities. We’re simple townsfolk through and through in that regard. This is also why we’ll never be accomplished fashion bloggers. However, the Magnificent Mile has at least one (1) shop that we found stimulating: the Lego Store Chicago inside Water Tower Place.

Lego Store Chicago

They sell nothing but Legos. They have large Lego statues greeting you. Best of all, they have several tabletops and desktops that allow you hands-on time with Legos, whether you’re reacquainting yourself with them or passing along a new tactile experience to your child. As an added treat, behold: Lego Chicago skyline.

Lego Chicago skyline, Lego Store Chicago

To be continued! Eventually. We’re out of time before C2E2 kicks off tomorrow, but I have a few more Chicago galleries in store, once my annual C2E2 mania subsides.

Also coming soon: Midlife Crisis Crossover’s first birthday! Which I should probably celebrate. Somehow. Suggestions and party favors welcome.

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