I'm in love with Chicago AND Northern Michigan (part 2)

It’s 5:15 in the morning. Instead of heading to the writer’s chair, I head down to the storage area in our condo building. Walk over to the bike, wheel it over the cold concrete, up the stairs.

It’s not a Northern Michigan bike ride with my Dad, but it is my Dad’s old Fuji bike from the late 1970s. Earlier in the week, I took it to Johnny Sprockets over on Broadway. They fixed a few things and could have charged me 4x more than they did. But the local bike shops in Chicago never rip you off. You get the sense their staff would do all of this for free if they could. They love working on bikes the way I love writing; the making money aspect is just an annoying part of the equation. Johnny Sprockets had the old Fuji running as good as new, ready to hit the lakeshore path.

Chicago is a different city before 6 a.m. The sides of the streets are packed bumper to bumper with parallel parked cars, but the streets themselves are empty. Just the delivery trucks and the buses which both let out these heavy exhales like a guy trying a little too hard in a meditation class.

A few joggers are out on the sidewalks. A few cyclists pass by. There’s a guy who looks like Popeye the Sailor doing kind of a waddle to the gym. He’s always carrying a protein shake that looks like 16 ounces of freshly scooped mud.

You start pedaling north on the Lake Shore Path. Get to Belmont Harbor and you can’t help but pull over. Grab the phone.


You send the photo out to a friend in Michigan. Their reply later in the morning: “Nice! How long are you guys in Traverse City?”

Cities are dirty. And smelly. They aren’t supposed to have nature. Or sunrises. Or sunsets. That’s the perception at least.

And there are times when that description hits pretty close to home. Like yesterday, there was just a random stuffed garbage bag in front of our condo. Who put it there? Nobody knows. Think about that, Northern Michigan has a lady who carefully handcrafts you a cherry pie for two days, leaves it outside her place to be picked up by a stranger. Chicago has the same thing; except that it’s a strange bag of garbage that you really don’t want to pick up.

But at 5:30 in the morning, Chicago tells a different story. Early morning Chicago is like Mufasa taking you up to the top of Pride Rock. Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom. Keep riding north and you can make a journey up to Evanston, ride through Northwestern University – one of the best universities in the country. Ride beyond that and you have this random moment where a building just pops up, completely unannounced.


It’s the Bahá’í House of Worship. This sanctuary is located in Wilmette, about 12 miles north of our place in the city. It’s an incredible building. If this were located overseas, there’d be an entire afternoon of a vacation dedicated to it. But when it’s 12 miles north of Chicago, it hides in plain sight. I’ve lived here for seven years, had never even heard of it. 

Ride south down the 18 mile Lake Shore Path and you can head all the way to the exits for UIC (another one of the best schools in the country) or the Science and Industry Museum. One morning I noticed I was at mile 16. Wait, I’m almost at the end? Kept pedaling. When I reached the end of the Lake Shore Path, I had this deep feeling of accomplishment. I think we give our brain too much credit. We think we have to accomplish incredible things to impress it . But the brain is easily fooled. Reaching the end of that bike path brought me a deep euphoria. I felt as or more accomplished at that moment than I’ve ever felt between 9 to 5.

I told my friend and his wife about the morning bike ride. “Oh, next time you do it, you gotta go to Calumet Fisheries on 95th street. It’s where all the cyclists go to celebrate. Incredible spot for fish.”

Well, let’s not get carried away with incredible. Incredible is a Friday night perch fry in Northern Michigan. Or when you’re walking down the marina docks and someone with a knife in their hand, a big slab of salmon in the other, bunch of fish guts in a grocery bag, says, “Hey, you guys want this? We got extra.” Grill it up with your family. Hard to be any fresher than that.

But Chicago pushes their chips to the center of the poker table. I see your fish fry, I’ll raise you Diversey Avenue. 

Start your seafood journey at 2957 West Diversey with the restaurant Fat Rice. They serve seafood dishes like this:


And their bakery has a dessert called the pastel de nata. You know a dessert is good when it comes with two disclaimers on the menu: “Limited Availability” and “1 Per Guest.” You’ll have the world traveler friend at your table who goes on an ego trip and declares, “Sure, these things are good, but they’re not like the ones I had in Lisbon. Or this quaint little bakery on the Algarve, the southernmost tip of Portugal who served me a pastel de nata that literally changed my life.” You have every right to roll your eyes. The ones at Fat Rice are just as good.

Head east toward the lake, and just a reminder, this is Lake Michigan after all, the same one in Northern Michigan. Stop at Diversey and Orchard at a place called Half Shell. Head into the basement bar or sit outside in the summer. Crab legs. Oysters. Calamari. Granted, they weren’t caught from the lake, this stuff is flown in, but I’ll put Half Shell up against almost any place on the east coast, west coast, or the fresh coast of Northern Michigan.

The end of your seafood journey is a few blocks away at 432 West Diversey. It’s an intimate restaurant called mfk. Seats maybe 20 people. This spot would look right at home in Paris or Cinque Terre, Italy. It’s considered by many lists, including the new Michelin one, to be the best seafood restaurant in Chicago. Yet it flies under the radar, hidden behind all the commotion of University of Michigan fans stumbling out of Duffy’s.

One problem when writing about Chicago, if something is great, it still needs to be compared to the coasts. Or Europe. Even the name, “The Second City” there’s this subtle undertone that Chicago is the next best thing. Greatness in Chicago means that our best things could simply hold their own in one of those more elite places, but never truly be the best. The best can’t be in the Midwest. So Chicago is viewed like Rocky going the distance against Apollo Creed. But I’d argue Chicago is Rocky II where Rocky wins the fight. I’m throwing the challenge flag at the location bias. Chicago and the same can be said for Northern Michigan, these are great places. We are not the JV team.

Ok, so Chicago has some nice early morning bike rides and great seafood. But what if you don’t like seafood? In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “Seafood is really just bug meat.” What else ya got? Next week I’ll dive deeper, show you some of my favorite spots in the city, and why I still feel like–after seven years–I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to keep this series contained to four parts. It’s all leading up to a new writing project called “The Midwest as a Foreign Country.” The overall thesis being: We aren’t flyover states. There are so many great things to see, do, eat, drink in the Midwest and for way too long we’ve been giving the coasts and foreign countries way too much credit. We have great things right here! Stay tuned for this new series on Long Overdue Books (site currently under construction). Also keep an eye out for “Here or There” the book, which is still trending toward an October 15th release date. Thank you for stopping by the blog and see you next week for some more Chicago love.  

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