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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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.

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