Saturday, November 17, 2012


One of the many advantages of traveling by train, especially on the
transcontinental and north-south routes, is that if you have intervals
while connecting to other trains, you can enjoy and explore the
downtown areas near the train stations.

If you travel by air, you are stuck in an airport, usually far from a city’s
downtown with its restaurants, museums, coffeehouses and sights to see.

My favorite American city for a layover between trains is Chicago.
Amtrak’s Union Station is a huge structure designed for the heavy traffic
of 75 years ago and before, but the Windy City remains a great rail hub,
not only for passenger trains going across the continent, and for regional
trans, but also for the city's huge local ridership to the suburbs near and far.

It’s not as beautiful as Union Station in Washington, DC, nor perhaps as
busy as Pennsylvania Station in New York City, but it is still one of the
nation’s busiest rail terminals. Numerous fast food restaurants,  featuring
American and ethnic menus, are on site, but considering the choices
available within walking distance outside the station, you should definitely
choose the walk if you have enough time.

Going west from Union Station, just a few blocks away, is Chicago’s
legendary Greek Town. Not only are there numerous full-menu restaurants
serving Greek  specialties all day long, there are also Greek bakeries,
grocery stores, ethnic shops and taverns as well.  Plan on at least two hours,
including walking time.

Going east, on Adams and Randolph Streets, is a treasure hunt of sights,
historic hospitality locales, restaurants, bistros, bars and coffee and tea

I always begin at the Hotel W lobby, a stylish and hip locale filled with
younger tourists, a great bar, and the hotel’s resident Asian-French dining
room. Sip a complimentary and refreshing beverage in the lobby, pick up
one of several daily newspapers, and watch the fascinating crowd go by.

Down the street on Adams is Argo Tea, a small but attractive venue for
fine brewed teas, espresso drinks and upscale snacks. An almost Zen
tranquility pervades their tables and booths.

Cross the street, walk past the main post office, and go one block  to
Randolph where you will find the small flagship of the Intelligentsia
coffee empire. Just espresso drinks and fine coffees, brewed teas and a few
pastries, but this is where you will find Chicago’s signature coffee.
Intelligentsia coffee is now served all over the nation, but this is the
home base. They used to provide newspapers European style (with
wooden holders), but have lamentably discontinued this at their limited
number of tables.  A must stop for the coffee tourist nevertheless.

Walk back toward the post office, and turn right on Adams, and you are at
the most famous Chicago restaurant of them all, Berghof. Since the 1880’s,
this Teutonic outpost has been dispensing its own brewed beers and serving
the celebrated Germanl culinary specialties. Berghof almost closed down for
good a few years ago, but has been re-opened with a classic German and
continental menu. The good news used to be that dining at the Berghof
was also a great food bargain with sophisticated dishes, large portions and
impeccable service at surprisingly low prices. The great service is still there,
and the menu is, if anything, better than ever, but the reasonable prices are
gone. Lunch and dinner, especially lunch, are now quite expensive. In the
basement there is a more reasonably priced cafeteria offering quick and tasty
lunches with a limited menu, but in the famed and cavernous dining room it’s
definitely now only an upscale experience for your wallet.

To your right, one block, and your are at State Street, that great street; one
block to your left on State Street is an entrance to the Palmer House, one of
America’s iconic hotels. Its lobby is an experience in itself, with its decorated
high ceiling and breathtaking spaces. They have added a stylish lobby bar,
and at Christmas time, astonishing decorative displays. Up the stairs at one
end of the lobby is the entrance to the fabled Empire Room. If you come on
a Sunday, ’it serves a lavish brunch buffet. For decades, in the evening, this
room has hosted some of Chicago’s most elegant and fabulous parties, balls,
weddings and, yes, bar mitzvahs.

Going out from Palmer House on Wabash Avenue (which runs parallel to State
Street), go north back to Adams, then turn left until you reach Russian Tea
Time, an oasis of the finest cuisine of the Slavic regions going back to their
imperial era. The owners emigrated from the now-Ukrainian city of Zhitomir
(where, incidentally, my father was born at the turn of the century), and their
borscht, pierogi, Chicken Kiev, Russian gunpowder teas, and a myriad of other
delectable specialties, make this one of the best restaurants for this cuisine in
the nation. Before caviar became so scarce, even unobtainable, you could also
find the full range of beluga, osetra and svruga caviars fresh from the Caspian
Sea here. Those days, apparently, are now over, and what caviar you can find
is priced astronomically.

One more block east on Adams, and you are at Chicago’s incomparable Art
Institute with its fabulous collections of painting, sculpture and art objects from
around the world. Plan on much of a day just for a proper look at the museum’s
unique collection of French impressionists. This is one of the world’s major
art museums.

On your way back to Union Station on Adams is Pret A Manger, a British-based
chain for superb organic sandwiches, salads soups and desserts. Eat there, or
have your selections wrapped for take-out (to be eaten on the train, if you wish).
Prices are reasonable, and everything is fresh daily and made on the premises.

Two more blocks, one past the nation’s tallest building (formerly known as the
Sears Tower), and you are back to Union Station.

There are many more interesting places along this short walking route than I
have mentioned, but I have listed what I feel are the high points. You won’t be
able to do them all during one layover, but they represent a civilized and
distinctive choice of how to best fill your time, when only a limited time is
available in this otherwise vast and overwhelming American metropolis.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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