Northwest Chicago's Trendy New Makeover

Chicago magazine recently released their April Issue: Real Estate 2013, citing the Northwest side as the place with the "best buys for first-time buyers." As a recent first-time home buyer, I can personally vouch for this. The good news is that the Northwest side is not only affordable and accessible - it's becoming fun. The Irving-Austin Business District has become a charming example of what happens when you combine economic risk with hyper-local allegiance: art, culture and appetite have all found a new hang-out on the Northwest side.

For a while, it seemed like the Northwest side was simply bungalows, small grocers and restaurants that catered almost exclusively to elderly Polish. However, a few years ago, the downtrodden economy created a unique opportunity for new businesses in the Northwest communities. Many storefronts were empty, commercial rent was lower than almost anywhere else in the city and the area was known to be safe and clean. Portage Park has seen a steady arrival of sophisticated eateries, cafes and tasteful upgrades to the grand, local theaters - most recently with a new gourmet burger joint.

45th Ward Alderman John Arena has worked tirelessly to bring art back to the community, forming Arts Alive|45 with the specific goal of showcasing the talent that exists in the Northwest neighborhoods. "These changes don't happen overnight. They take years," says Owen Brugh, Alderman Arena's Chief of Staff. "The Six Corners Association has been working for years to beautify their area of the Northwest side and recruit businesses, as have many community groups."

In 2011, over the course of a few months, three new businesses opened up in the Irving Austin Business District. The newly-reopened Patio Theater, Regulus Coffee House Company and Thrift & Thrive resale shop sprouted up along the 6000 block of Irving Park Road as pioneers for a newer, cooler community - all across from each other.

"We opened Thrift & Thrive because we wanted to improve the neighborhood we lived in, and it was serendipitous that the Patio Theater opened up a month before we did, and then Regulus shortly after that," says Thrift & Thrive owner Melissa Basilone.

Residents of the Northwest communities have been generally positive about businesses that have sprouted in the Northwest side. For most, this westward migration of cool places to dine and shop is evidence that the economy is picking up and that the Northwest side is becoming a more desirable destination.

In no particular order, here are some sophisticated spots with fresh ideas in Chicago's often forgotten Northwest neighborhoods:

Eateries & watering holes:

  • Fischman Liquors and Tavern - 4780 N. Milwaukee Avenue
    The establishment has been a Portage Park destination since 1950, but they have been doing some cool new things recently. In February, Chicago magazine named Fischman Liquors one of the "100 Best Bars in Chicago." On Thursdays, Fischman plays host to a swarm of food trucks lined up outside the tavern along Milwaukee Avenue for a weekly event called "Tap This!" Every other day, it's a friendly neighborhood bar with flat-screen TV's, an impressive stock of of craft beers and micro-brews, karaoke, trivia and an attached liquor store. Fischman has recently revealed plans to expand into a third adjacent storefront to open a restaurant as early as June 2013.
  • The Portage - 3938 N. Central Avenue
    American classic cuisine meets upscale, artistic expression on a seasonal menu that boasts local ingredients and an impressive array of alcoholic beverages. Proprietor Quay Tao and executive chef Airon Adams are behind the genius of The Portage restaurant. The restaurant also features a reservation-only monthly dinner, which includes a four-course meal of culinary mastery paired with four inventive cocktails, crafted by libation expert and bar manager, Amy Donahue. The smell of savory, fire-roasted mussels fills the air when regulars converge upon The Portage for their Thursday special. Also, the duck fat fries are outrageously addictive.
  • Leadbelly - 5739 W. Irving Park Road
    As the newest addition (and addiction) to the area, local residents have been fawning over Leadbelly like a newborn. Leadbelly is a local burger joint with black and white rock paraphernalia tastefully adorning the walls and live rock concert DVDs playing on the flat-screen TV. The burgers and fries are beastly, delicious, fresh, innovative, enveloped in inspired toppings and insanely flavor-packed - and the large portions make for excellent leftovers. Their beverage selection, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, is stupendous. Leadbelly almost seems like an unpretentious, family-friendly version of Kuma's Korner (I love Kuma's, too!). This brand-spankin' new hang-out opened its doors on March 23 and on most days is open for the dinner-time crowd - make sure to check the website for their hours, this place is a MUST try!
  • Regulus Coffee House Company - 6032 W. Irving Park Road
    Let's face it - is there anything cooler than an independent coffee house that slings delicious legal addictive stimulants in your neighborhood? With a crepe guy that comes in on weekends and baked goods from local Chicago bakery Fannie Schmoe's? And some awesome Pandora station playing in the background? Owner and local cool guy Brent Bogseth is a big believer in the locally owned businesses. "Our clientele is the best - we are tremendously lucky to be in this area," says Brent. "We've got all walks of life coming in here and we love getting to know them." The shop is pretty gifted with social media - I suggest following them on Facebook and Instagram for updates and specials. The Regulus art gallery, adjacent to the coffee house, will be reopening the first week of May 2013.
  • La Parrilla Colombian Steakhouse - 6427 W. Irving Park Road
    Great Columbian food in Dunning. Try the patacones con carne asada appetizer, which is basically an open-face jibarito sandwich. So. Good. I also had their hot chocolate, which was quite rich.

Entertainment, retail & services:

  • Patio Theater - 6008 W. Irving Park Road
    The Patio Theater is over 85 years old - however, it made my list of new hangouts for it's re-opening in 2011, swanky new upgrades and their recent partnership with the Chicago Cinema Society. For $5 per person, you can enjoy an evening at the movies - even new movies, it's a second run cinema - in one of Chicago's oldest and most beautiful restored theaters. The theater boasts the largest single screen in Chicagoland and presents films under a simulated celestial body of a dark blue, star-studded sky with moving clouds. The Patio Theater, which is available for event rentals and birthday parties, also delights audiences with a state-of-the-art sound system, a "neo-Pompeian lobby restored to original elegance" and 1000-person seating capacity. A successful grassroots fundraiser in 2012 helped raise funds for a digital projector. Check the events page or Facebook to see what's playing this week and for special events.
  • Thrift & Thrive - 6025 W. Irving Park Road
    This cute Dunning thrift shop, which recently expanded into their basement, yields some awesome, affordable antiques, clothes and furniture. Thrift & Thrive also has an impressive Facebook presence, which features photos of a few new items daily - often with a hilarious description that is worth a chuckle or two. A typical weekend for me often includes perusing their fine goods - both online and in the store.
  • Kahlo Salon - 6452 N. Milwaukee Avenue
    Tucked in Norwood Park, Kahlo Salon is a source for reinvention and hair revolution. I first discovered Kahlo, named for famed Mexican painter and feminist icon Frida Kahlo, when they opened shop in late 2011. If you're looking for a luxurious environment with creative and well-informed hair professionals that pamper you, treat you like royalty and don't overcharge, Kahlo is it. They SERVE you complimentary water, coffee, wine and sweets WHILE you are getting your hair done - and they're usually playing some universally adored Pandora station, like 80s Pop. In the spirit of Frida Kahlo, the salon also supports local artists by featuring their work in the shop. Needless to say, I've become a salon loyalist and keep coming back to my stylist, Tatiana, who is a master of color and cut. She has been able to, without fail, keep my tresses the perfect balance of adventurous and professional-looking.
  • Replica Chicago - 4425 N. Milwaukee Avenue
    Replica has been printing Eco-friendly t-shirts for musicians, small businesses, local artists and more since 2007, but they recently opened up a physical retail store in Portage Park. Whether you're looking to purchase a t-shirt, banner, button, poster, sticker or postcard to support a local businesses or looking for print screening services for your own, Replica has rave reviews.

Upcoming events:

  • Portage Park Farmer's Market - Sunday, May 5
    This indoor farmer's market, run by Friends of Portage Park, operates from inside the grandiose and historic Portage Theater on Sundays during the chilly seasons. This will be the last indoor farmer's market of the season, so don't miss it!
  • Mother's Day at the Patio Theater - Sunday, May 12
    Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film All About My Mother will be playing at the Patio Theater May 11-12, with a special Mother's Day celebration on Sunday, May 12 with sweets and coffee.
  • Second Annual District Days - Friday, June 14th and Saturday, June 15th
    The Irving Austin Business District celebrates it's Second Annual District Days with a two-day sidewalk festival. Food vendors, local artists, musicians, classic car enthusiasts and local shops will line the sidewalks of the 6000 block Irving Park Road. The St. Pascal Carnival, straight down Irving Park from the Irving Austin Business District, will also be held during that time on June 12-16.

Residents are hopeful that more businesses will continue to see the allure and charm of the Northwest neighborhoods. Brugh sums it up best: "The hard work of countless individuals is just starting to pay off. We're thrilled, and we think the future is very bright for the Northwest side."
For a complete list of my Yelp! reviews on more of my favorite Northwest spots, click here.

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