The WISCH LIST
By Dave Wischnowsky
On Wednesday, the best thing to hit Chicago in decades turned 10.
It was back on July 16, 2004, when Mayor Richard M. Daley sliced a red ribbon to officially welcome the public to Millennium Park, the downtown gem that has since grown to become a true jewel of the city.
Construction of the $490 million, 24.5-acre urban playground has long been criticized for rampant overspending, and just this month a trial over a controversial contract for the Park Grill again brought that enduring drama to light.
But as Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin wrote this week, “Little matter. Calculate the pluses and minuses, and it’s hard not to conclude that Millennium Park … is a great work of civic art, a robust generator of jobs and construction and the latest demonstration of Chicago’s audacious ability to invent the urban future.”
It’s also a resplendent oasis in the midst of Chicago’s concrete jungle that’s more accessible, beautiful and festive than adjacent Grant Park. Featuring the reflective Cloud Gate sculpture (better known as “The Bean”) as well as the Crown Fountain, Lurie Garden and Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park is also chock full of city icons.
And as it celebrates its milestone birthday, it may indeed be the best urban oasis in Chicago, but it’s not the only one. Here are three of my other favorites throughout the city.
The Patio at Café Brauer
Lincoln Park Zoo – open year-round and free to the public – is an oasis itself, but just south of the main zoo grounds sits one of the prettiest and most relaxing summertime spots in Chicago.
Billed as “Chicago’s most scenic al fresco restaurant and bar,” the Patio at Café Brauer (2021 N. Stockton Dr.) is a historic Prairie Schools-style landmark that overlooks the pond at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo and offers guests gorgeous views of the surrounding restored prairie ecosystem and the gleaming Chicago skyline to the south.
The food and drinks aren’t bad, either, with specialty burgers, salads and flatbread pizzas dotting the menu along with cocktails and an exclusive blueberry-infused ale from Goose Island Brewery called Boardwalk Blue.
Most sun worshippers visiting downtown Chicago know about North Avenue Beach with its packed sands and rollicking Castaways Bar & Grill, and about Oak Street Beach, where the shallow waters are ideal for wading.
Fewer, however, are likely familiar with Ohio Street Beach, situated just north of Navy Pier at 600 N. Lake Shore Drive. Resting beachside at Ohio is Caffé Oliva, a hotspot for the annual Air & Water Show, but a relaxing spot during most of the summer that provides all of the sunshine, sand and surf with half of the crowds.
I recommend the blackened fish tacos and whatever specialty cocktail the server suggests.
The Dock at Montrose Beach
Further north up Lake Shore Drive encompassing a sweeping swath of lakefront land is Chicago’s largest beach, and tucked just behind it sits The Dock at Montrose Beach.
Still a relative newcomer to Chicago’s beachfront scene, The Dock (200 W. Montrose Harbor Dr.) opened only three years ago, and with its location away from the downtown it remains largely unknown to many city dwellers.
They don’t know what they’re missing. Offering table service, live music and plentiful sunshine – or shade, if you want an umbrella – The Dock makes for an ideal relaxation spot and features a surprisingly solid beer list (try the Polish-brewed Zywiec) and menu (including the signature The Dock burger) for what’s little more than a beachfront shack.
It’s family friendly too, allowing everyone to enjoy a slice of paradise in the big city.