Better Than The Website: China Doll Guest House, Chicago

I didn’t quite understand what I’d done. I saw a website while browsing for hotels and such in the Chicago area that looked nice. It appeared as though this one place in particular, China Doll Guest House, had apartment vacation rentals to offer out to guests traveling to Chicago. As I clicked the Next button on my screen repeatedly, I set my eyes on impressive pictures of apartment units much better endowed than my own in Brooklyn. Instead of the bohemian attitude meets dormitory equals artistic commune free for all I live in, these apartments looked different. They looked less used up–like they hadn’t been around the party-till-dawn block every other weekend.

Black leather couches, stainless steel kitchen appliances suitable for restaurant kitchens, and a steam room/jacuzzi shower with multiple shower-heads pierced through the monitor and resonated somewhere in my soul. I needed this. I needed to stay in a place like this. I deserved it as a reward for being on one of the most self-indulgent (and self-righteous) road-trips of my life.

I had built the China Doll Guest House up in my mind so much in the days prior to staying there that the excitement had launched a reverse affect on me. I started to doubt it. I became a naysayer.

“It can’t be that nice, Elizabeth”, I’d say… to myself.
“Websites lie. Pictures lie. Dolls freak me out.”

By the time I actually parked my definitely not eco-friendly but absolutely borrowed from my small-town parents SUV in front of the ivy-clad townhouse in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, I was expecting the worst. I fumbled with the lock at the front door, which I had received meticulous instructions for via email days before. Succeeding at retrieving the key from the coded key box my first try, I felt triumphant and confident that one day I too might be able to piece together IKEA furniture. I opened the door with my pessimism in hand, loaded and ready to fire.

I dropped my bags in the foyer and entered the living room to find everything As Seen on The Internet. The black leather couches were in place, lined up against the wall under a giant piece of colorful art. Like a dollhouse, not surprisingly, the rest of the apartment was puzzle-piece-perfectly organized. I danced through the rooms shouting out the amenities to Ben as I saw them.

“There’s a fireplace! Look at this dining room table! Ben! The stove! There’s an indoor grill! Oh my god, there are hand-drawn Chinese calendar art scrolls in this bucket!”, my voice echoed through the long and narrow unit. He wasn’t really listening, having his own eyes for seeing and all, but I continued, as I usually do, certain that someone somewhere has got to be listening when I speak.

“This room is cute and this room is cuter! Awww, we have a hammock and garden outside! HOLY SHIT, you won’t believe the bathroom! Come here! I’m getting in this thing…”

The verdict was in even before the remaining baggage was: China Doll Guest House wasn’t like the website, after all. It was better.

Unsure of what to do with ourselves, we started brainstorming aloud, wondering who we knew in Chicago… how many people would come over for a dinner party if we whipped up an impromptu one? We had dishware, wine glasses, flatware… all we needed were friends. Being that our only close friend in Chicago was expecting us in his recording studio later that night, we’d exhausted our resources and spent the night in the studio in Wicker Park, both privately fantasizing about the bed we’d be returning to when the song of the week, something we do every week, was finally finished. Turns out the song wasn’t actually finished for two more days. A lapse in planning, an exercise in procrastination and perfection.

Too depressed by the idea of forfeiting our keys in the morning, we decided to stay an extra night in the apartment. We dialed up Ben’s brother, a resident of the Chicago suburbs, at least an hour drive away, and passive aggressively, yet hospitably, insisted he, his wife Kim, and his daughter Lily come visit the city the next day. We baited them with promises of a massive cook-out, images of a garden filled with the songs of delighted birds, and talk of the pure Lake Michigan waters found at the beach just down the road. They obliged and arrived the following afternoon.

Uncle Ben with Lily at Foster Beach in Chicago

We drank iced tea by the pitcher while sitting in the sun on the patio. We ate absurdly overpriced burgers from Whole Foods and tried to remind ourselves that the cows were, you know, fed organic food, and, you know, raised in good homes on good farms and stuff. We abandoned analysis and social commentary at the hand of freezing cold lake water a couple hours later and watched Lily try her darndest to build a sand castle without a bucket, or even a cup. She’s a hard worker, that one. But she’s also smart and values her time, so the sand castle building without tools mission was quickly aborted. We returned to the sprawling kitchen for chocolate ice cream and bittersweet goodbyes.

After taking advantage of every square inch of China Doll we could discover, we left with only one regret: that we had to leave at all.

By: Elizabeth Seward, Photos By: Ben Britz

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15 Things to Do in Chicago

You can do pretty much anything you want in a city like Chicago. It’s like an idea jungle; it’s a city with discoveries to be made at every corner. Ben Britz and I recently spent a week in Chicago. We’re happy we gave the big town more than just a night. Our explorations took us around the block–a few times. Our readers and fans on Facebook and Twitter chimed in to give us some recommendations of spots to hit up. Those recommendations, combined with some spots we more or less accidentally bumped into and liked, make up this list. The list of what to do in Chicago, in case you don’t have a clue where to start.

1. Kuma’s Corner. If you like heavy metal and you like eating cow, you’ll love Kuma’s. Recommended initially by a trusted friend, all we had to do was see the menu online and we were sold. With burger choices like Slayer and Mastadon, Kuma’s is well worth the wait you’ll inevitably have to suffer through to get in the door.

2. Sushi Para M. A friend and Chicago local took us to Sushi Para M on Milwaukee for lunch one afternoon. All of us were strung out and exhausted from the night before, but the literal boat load of sushi we were served combined with the case of beer we were permitted to bring in woke us right up. This place is all you can eat sushi for $20 (not pre-made sushi–they make it to order on the spot). It’s also BYOB. The catch: you have to pay for whatever you don’t eat, so eat it all.

3. Ray’s Bucktown Bed and Breakfast. If you don’t already have a place to crash in Chicago, Ray’s is soooooo worthy of your time and money. I don’t know how to adequately describe this b&b, so here are some words that come to mind: photography, giant world map, sauna, steam room, breakfast made to order, vegan options, garden out back, washers and dryers available, top notch rooms, jacuzzi bath tubs, wireless, gigantic pottery collection, eccentric and fun owner, amazingly awesome staff, and convenient location.

4. Dublin’s. Someone told us to check out Dublin’s in Old Town. We did. We ate ridiculously good french fries while listening to a live Phish album that was being perpetuated by a young man determined to have Phish and only Phish on the jukebox all night. Somehow we liked all of this.

5. Dude, I Forgot. If you like smoke shops for tobacco or, um, non-tobacco recreational interests, Dude, I Forgot on Milwaukee avenue is THE SHIT. All of the beautiful hand-crafted pieces are locally crafted. The staff can tell you all about the artist behind each magical piece and the stuff is reasonably priced. Although primarily a smoke shop, this place also sells candles, incense, earrings, and hollowed out pens for your packing pleasure.

6. Delilah’s. She’s not just a song. Or a talk show host. She’s also a pretty cool punk bar you should check out. Not sold yet? Ok. They have over 400 types of Whiskey. How about now.

7. Kingston Mines. Ever wanted to just go watch some live blues music for the hell of it? Kingston Mines is the place to go. With more or less nonstop blues music, Kingston Mines has become a legendary venue in Chicago worth the admission dollars for anyone who likes to hum along, emotionally and heartfelt, to Miles Davis and Muddy Waters.

8. Foster Avenue Beach. It’s pretty. We liked it. We took some pictures we’ll hang onto forever. The water was cold, obviously, but not intolerable.

9. Angels & Kings. Although owned by Pete Wentz and friends and present in NYC and LA as well, Angels & Kings hasn’t lost its charm. We went to a party there our friends were hosting and the place was packed with people who weren’t at all unfriendly. In fact, a beautiful model changed her shirt on stage just for charity! Generous! A great DJ, DJ Abducted, was spinning and some bands we couldn’t turn away from held the stage. All for free.

10. Weiner Circle. Want weiners? Chicago weiners? This is a good place to grab onto some.

11. Cascade Drive-In Movie Theater. We had to drive 45 minutes to West Chicago to get to this recommended drive-in, but man, it was worth it. This place was fully functional, cheap ($9 for two movies), and this all came with the innate privacy and comfort of our own car.

12. Icosium Kafe. Recommended by a reader, promoted by us because of the crepes.

13. The Burwood Tap. This corner bar is old. It’ll remind you of Cheers. Mixed with a lot of cool shit Cheers didn’t have.

14. Ashkenaz Deli. For all your Jewish-Deli-food craving needs in Chicago.

15. Bistrot Zinc. Want French Toast? Go here.

We hope this helps.

By: Elizabeth Seward, The Better Photos By: Ben Britz

Ray’s Bucktown Bed and Breakfast: Chicago, Illinois

Ray’s Bucktown Bed & Breakfast would, by its name, lead a traveler into thinking it’s just a regular bed and breakfast. What Ray should really call it, if he wants people to realize how different it is from other b&bs off the bat is Ray’s Bucktown Comfy Bed and Made to Order Breakfast. But really, I can see why he wouldn’t want to bother with a name change so… off-putting and inconveniencing. Nonetheless, this is the first thing about Ray’s you should know: he doesn’t just make you any ol’ breakfast. He also doesn’t just put food out on a counter for you to sift through yourself. Instead, he gives you a menu, a full-on menu filled with things like stuffed French Toast, poached eggs, and vegan sausage (you can have real meat too but the vegan meat? That’s a lot harder to come by at a bed and breakfast). He and his staff make your breakfast to order, a la carte if you wish or a serving of the daily special.

Outside of breakfast, Ray’s does the unique and yet clean and refreshing inn thing just right. Ray’s a photographer and his walls are decorated with framed pictures throughout. I’ll bet at least one of these images sticks with you long after you’ve checked out of Ray’s. The sloped white floor beneath the couches in the living room is no accident—that’s where Ray used to have his photography studio. The man has also written some books on pottery and gorgeous pieces painted in bright colors line the shelves in the kitchen. A giant curved map of the world is the first thing you’ll see when entering Ray’s. A bowl of tootsie rolls available for the taking is the second.

The rooms are all different from each other. One upstairs includes his old work desk—a huge hunk of a thing, giving any guest of that room the opportunity to have a real, functional desk. The room I stayed in was cool. Titled the Skylight Room, it did have a beaming skylight above the bed. The room itself had a couch, walk-in closet, tv equipped with every kind of cable channel possible, and a door that exited directly out to a two story drop into the garden. Luckily, the door is more or less covered in a fence and overgrown ivy. You’d have to really want to walk off of that ledge—it’s not gonna happen by accident. Down our stairs (yes, we had our own staircase in our room) was the bathroom. It had a jacuzzi bath tub and next to it sat Ray’s bath soap—made from olive oil.

I can’t think of a reason anyone who wanted to be near Wicker Park/Bucktown wouldn’t stay at Ray’s. It’s eclectic, more than accommodating, and conveniently located.

Cascade Drive-In Movie Theater: West Chicago, Illinois

I was in Chicago. I wanted to go to the movies. Passively–that’s how I wanted to go. I knew, somewhere in the back of my head, that I’d like to, well, maybe like to, see that new Twilight movie. You know. For shits and giggles. But I wasn’t going to go hunting down a movie theater when there was so much more to do in the big city. And so I didn’t hunt one down. It kind of fell in my lap.

“You guys wanna go to the movies tonight?” my friend, Kevin, asked Ben Britz and me. Kevin had pulled up the website for the Cascade Drive-In Movie Theater. It flashed on the computer screen in the studio basement of his office in Wicker Park.

“It’ll take 45 minutes to get there” he told us. And the movie started in 55 minutes. Hurriedly, we jumped in the car, grabbed some things at our apartment, and headed out toward the suburbs, West Chicago to be exact, guided by the iPhone’s NOT ALWAYS RELIABLE but still handy GPS app.

We arrived a few minutes into the DOUBLE feature’s first film, Inception. We paid $9 each for two movies and the ability to sit in our own damn car and do our own damn thing while we watched the movies. Infer what you wish. We talked through the movies without care and heard every line at top volume with a simple accurate tuning of our radio–88.5.

The night was perfect. It was summer. It was periwinkle, subtly backlit by the city’s faraway glow but alive with the twinkling white dots of a star-blanketed sky. The temperature was perfect enough for the couple that belonged to the straight ahead car–they were sitting on the car’s hood, arm in arm. The screen was massive enough that their silhouettes didn’t block our view.

All in all, I promise you this, traveling to the suburbs was never before such a good idea.

By: Elizabeth Seward, Photos By: Ben Britz

Gold Coast Guest House B&B: Short and Long Stays in Chicago

Chicago is a city I stopped into handfuls of times but never really visited until recently. In for an evening, out by morning–I danced that dance around the More Than Just Windy City for years. I’d stop in for a show, or to see an old friend, and I’d be on my way without venturing further than the coolest corner bar–or so it seems. Somewhere in that stupor, I managed to visit Millennium Park, the record shop High Fidelity was filmed in, and feed the homeless on an ambitious afternoon. Nowhere in that stupor did I actually stop to spend some quality time with the city. Maybe I was assuming New York was better. And for as many redeeming qualities as I can count for the city of New York, definitively, I liked NYC more back then than I do now.

On this grand road trip of summer 2010 I’ve been on, I’ve had one major advantage I didn’t have on almost all of the road trips previous: no scheduled shows. This has left my plate wide open for exploring places–and exploring them for as long as I want to. I spent five days in Chicago. The first two were on behalf of Gold Coast Guest House Bed and Breakfast.

Gold Coast Inn is a wonderfully posh and prim b&b/guest house you might have never heard of if you weren’t specifically looking to stay in a small inn in Chicago. With only four bedrooms at the inn’s main location, the townhouse builds vertically and it builds quickly. A steep spiraling staircase brings the front entrance way to the mouth of the skinny, long, and fully modernized kitchen. It’s filled with treats you can take any time and amenities for even the pickiest of eaters–including gluten-free cereal and soy milk. With plenty of hot water sources, coffee and tea are always available. Properly billed as a bed and breakfast, Gold Coast offers no cooked breakfast, but a farmer’s market fresh selection of berries, other fruits, cereals, and other easy-and-delicious-to-eat breakfast items–the kinds that we wish were available at continental breakfasts everywhere… but they aren’t.

As you dine in the morning, you’re looking out onto a floor to ceiling pane of glass–a window that frames the ivy-covered, butterfly-infused garden. It’s a sight you’re lucky to find in this section of Chicago. Although Old Town/Gold Coast have some pretty famous gardens, the area is more or less developed and inns like Gold Coast Inn act as an eagerly sought after oasis in the thick of the city.

Just a few blocks walk away from the inn is the beach–and I don’t just mean grass leading up to concrete as beach is defined in much of Chicago. Oak Street Beach is the beach I’m referring to. Not only is it nice and nearby, but Sally, the amazingly knowledgeable innkeeper, has a stash of beach chairs and umbrellas ready to go at the inn’s front door. Convenience at its finest.

Sally’s the kind of innkeeper who will take care of you. She’ll tell you exactly where to go to eat, sight see, dance–you name it. She’s well-read in the listings of Time Out Chicago and doesn’t let any guest check into their room without a map of Chicago, personalized with pen marks indicating all the places you’ll want to see. I liked this about her. She greeted Ben Britz and I with ice cream sandwiches, lime/pineapple frozen fruit bars, and ice cold water on the smoldering afternoon we pulled up in front of her inn. I liked this about her, too.

Although we partook in being guests of the inn, we also explored one of the three condos Sally owns and rents out as part of the inn. Only officially available for month-long rentals, the condos make for the perfect go-to place if you need to be in Chicago and want to rent month to month. The studio condo we checked out was not only adorable and located in a building filled with the kinds of people who talk to you, across the board, while in the elevator, but it, of course, included a full kitchen and Sally has the kitchen furnished with basic cooking ware, dish ware, etc. After weeks and weeks of being on the road without a kitchen to use, I was embarrassingly excited to be able to finally cook again. The grocery store is just around the corner from the condo(s) and believe me, there’s something interestingly relaxing about spreading out a few bags’ worth of fresh ingredients across the kitchen counter and cooking (with fire!) when you have been traveling for a long time.

Thank you, Gold Coast, for that. And everything else.

That’s the view of the garden from the top floor. I swear, there were no fewer than 200 butterflies in that garden at the exact moment this photo was taken.

By: Elizabeth Seward, Photos By: Ben Britz

Ricobene’s: Chicago

During my last trip to Chicago, my brother, Sam, and his friend, Jake, decided it was time to let me in on one of their closely guarded secrets. All I needed to hear was “breaded steaks” and we were in the car driving south through the city to a place they called Rico’s at 252 W. 26th Street. Let me set the stage for you: we’re in a Southside Chicago area called Bridgeport, parking below an overpass, entering a restaurant under a neon sign that says “Eat at Ricobene’s” and right below that – “Since 1946.” This is where I wanted to be.

My first impression as I walked in the front door is – this is exactly where I would take my family if I wanted to get shot at the end of a mobster movie. There were pictures of Chicago and Italians all over the wall from years past. There was the booth in the corner where I’m sure the big boss sat. Across from that though, I was surprised to see that the counter looked like it was part of a mall food court, which I have absolutely no problem with if they can meet the standards Sam and Jake had been promising to me.

We walked up to the counter and I perched myself beside my brother. I like to order food in the native tongue so I paid close attention to how he ordered our food and later had Jake correct me on the diction and intonation. When I go back my order will sound like this: “Breaded Steak with hot peppers and cheese, easy on the cheese and a Cherry Coke.” In layman’s terms: breaded steak with hot giardiniera and mozzarella cheese. The ‘easy on the cheese’ part is a survival tactic, because without that part, I got about as much cheese as I did anything else. The Cherry Coke was a late addition after Jake made yet another wise suggestion, “Don’t make the mistake of getting Flashin’ Fruit Punch because you’ll need to burp throughout the meal and you need something carbonated, so get a Cherry Coke.”

The preparation was quick and we were unwrapping these behemoths five minutes after we ordered them. I got anxious as I lowered my gaze to the silver bundle in front of me. I slowly took off the foil wrapping…more foil. I peeled away the second layer…Oh, Ricobene’s…what have you done? It wasn’t just a steak. How naïve could I have been? This was a sub, a monster-sized sub! Red gravy had bled all over the inside of the wrapper; I was staring down the barrel of a breaded steak, Gonnella French bread bazooka. Mozzarella cheese was spilling out of its gaping maw. I caught the reflection in one of my tears of hot giardiniera waiting in ambush. I looked at my brother as if to say, “et tu, Brute?” I did the only thing I could do. I began to remove this conjured apparition from the Earth bite by bite. The bread was super-saturated with the red gravy; my guess is they inject it directly into the loaves. The breaded steak played its part perfectly as the ringmaster and the hot giardiniera and mozzarella performed deliciously as the supporting cast.

It was a snapshot of my usual trips to Chicago. Mystery, surprise, fear, leap of faith, blackout, regret, acceptance…in that order. When I recovered from the food coma, I emotionally postponed the last two steps to find out what else Ricobene’s had to offer. Jake was enjoying an order of hot fries that my brother and I named Murder Mountain because of its striking resemblance to a mountain that could, in fact, murder someone. The fries were made with peanut oil, the buffalo sauce was filthy-good, and as far as hot fries go, I was down. Another great choice offered at Rico’s is the Vesuvio, which consists of breaded chicken, garlic butter, onions, tomato, and lettuce. Jake had ordered one of these for his mom. The rest of the menu highlights include hot wings, a buffalo chicken sandwich, a pizza puff, zucchini sticks and deep dish pizza by-the-slice.

Ricobene’s was an eye-opening experience for me. I had overrated my food knowledge and exposure only to have a breaded steak sandwich slap me in my drool-covered face. It completely caught me off guard. I’ll warn you though, the hearty meal isn’t for the health-minded or dieters. But, if you let yourself go for regularly scheduled Italian food binge-fests like the rest of us, give Ricobene’s a try. The breaded steak sandwich alone will knock your socks off and as you’re bending over to put them back on, the rest of the menu will pull your shirt over your head and knock you out like only a Chicago native could.

By: Joey Rovinsky

Ipsento Coffee, Chicago

On a lazy Tuesday morning in Chicago, shortly after leaving a Mcdonald’s parking lot on foot, I wandered past a mechanic jacking my car up for repairs. I stood on the sidewalk sipping my Styrofoam-cupped coffee and watched as the mechanic sauntered around his shop for tools. It seemed my struts were broken. Driving too quickly on the interstate was a bad decision. Buying McDonald’s coffee was, conveniently, also a bad decision.

For a short time, I was worried. I felt puzzled and confused. I wasn’t sure what could be done with my car, where I was exactly in Chicago (road-trips with no destination will do that to you,) or where I would find breakfast. But further along the sidewalk, there it was: a bar/coffeehouse sign, wide-legged on the sidewalk. On its display area, someone drew in a massive, chalky question mark. It seemed to highlight my morning perfectly so I stepped inside.

What a place! It turns out I had wandered into Ipsento coffee, a diamond in the rough for the area of Chicago I was waiting in for my car. One of the baristas greeted me politely as I glanced at my surroundings. A small table sat to my right, couches with (readable) magazines to the left, and an in-house roaster (!) set to the side of the room. Along the left wall, the work of local artists and photographers hung alongside each other.

I surely felt like a jerk walking in with a McDonald’s coffee cup. Nonetheless, the staff was friendly and helpful in suggesting what I should have to eat. I was in love with their special menu of breakfast and lunch sandwiches: all named after well-known authors. I personally snacked on the Thoreau (egg, mushroom, onion, bell pepper, and goat cheese on a croissant,) but the other selections were just as great. There’s the Jane Austen (apple, cream cheese, and honey on a croissant,) the Hemingway (salmon, egg, cream cheese, and capers on a croissant,) and others just as wonderful. Their options for vegan/vegetarians was staggering. It seems they also offer free coffee on Friday mornings!

After paying, I sat down at my table and admired the shop. I charged my phone in one of their power outlets, perused their magazine selection, and read an advertisement on the wall that let me in on one of the most important aspects of Ipsento coffee. Ipsento is a socially-conscious coffee shop. They (or their partners) work personally with the farmers that grow the coffee beans they use. There are photographs of the farmers, a mission statement, and information about where the coffee is grown, who grows it, and what their relationship with Ipsento is.

I was further impressed while listening to a staff member discuss with a customer the finer intricacies of roasting, brewing, and general coffee-knowledge. I have to admit, I don’t even know what was going on. This man was an artist. If Darwin was still around, he’d be jealous of this guy’s encyclopedic knowledge of the bean. He knew more about coffee than I know about… anything.

All in all, I walked away from Ipsento with a seriously great sandwich, a new respect for coffee-making and coffee houses, and a fixed car waiting for me at the mechanic. And yes, I did go back later for the coffee. I grabbed an iced and wandered around in the sun. I decided something that morning: The sandwiches, the staff, and their mission are worth the trip alone but – there is no coffee but Ipsento’s.

By: Jon Boulier