I recently moved to Chicago from my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee via my college town of Dayton, Ohio. I’ve gone from working at a bar and reviewing music for a Nashville website to wearing slacks and a tie to work every day. In this seemingly insurmountable transition, I’ve found pleasure in the weekly music, food, art and culture festival offerings Chicago has to offer during the summer. They’re great fun and a redeeming quality of summer in the city. Other Chicago summer activities include beaching it along Lake Michigan, biking around the shore, playing kickball at the park, and taking advantage of every open outdoor spot to eat and drink the night away. Still, I particularly enjoy the motivation and incentive the festivals provide in getting out and exploring neighborhoods beyond my own.
I’ll never forget what my friend Vinny said to me when I first moved here. “If you want to do it right in Chicago, experience the experiences, then there’s no time to be tired. No rest for the hungry, no sympathy for the devil.”
Words of wisdom, especially given my extravagant night prior to the Taste of Randolph. A hell-bent Friday night led to a hungover Saturday. Somehow, I found the courage to get out of bed and get going. I made amends to my girlfriend Paige for my uncouth behavior the previous night, caught the tail end of a barbecue I was supposed to be at four hours prior and managed to shake the swell out of my head. Then, I hopped a bus and headed south toward Randolph Street.
I basically knew nothing of the Randolph Street area. I’d surmised that the West Loop, in which Randolph Street resides, is a high-end, swanky neighborhood based on tidbits of conversation here and there. I had no real backing evidence for this assertion though, just a hunch.
I scooted off the bus and into the Randolph Street Corridor, as the area is known, at 7:30 p.m. The sun was trying its hardest to stay up, but it’d be the moon’s show soon. I made a mental note to check out the brewpub caddy corner to me called Haymarket, then moved west down Randolph. The street was closed from Halsted six blocks west to Racine. The blocks are lined with independent restaurant after independent restaurant — including a seedy looking gyro joint, a tapas bar, a meat market and fine-dining galore. Some of the restaurants seemed a little highfalutin, but I’m not one to judge a book by its cover and determined a second and third visit were probably in order.
The east entrance of the Taste of Randolph was quaint. There was a lady taking $5 “suggested donations.” I didn’t understand this concept of “suggested donation.” Either the festival should cost x, or it should be free. It turns out that charging patrons to enter any street festival is illegal, but that without these suggested donations, the festivals wouldn’t happen. I didn’t give them any guff. I paid my $5 and made my way through the gate. I was surprised to see a stage tucked next to the gate. I was also intrigued to hear the band getting into some interesting, weird synthy noise. THC-laden clouds engulfed me as I made my way into the crowd. However, what surprised me the most was the spectrum of people in attendance.
The place was packed. The blacktop had given way to an eclectic sea of people from all across the city. There were dressed-up date night people, quite a few strollers being pushed around and, to my surprise, a fair representation from the young festheads. Perhaps they were the culprits of that funny smell. I guess the quality and popularity of the bands were enough to draw in some serious show-goers from across the city and outlying suburbs. It’s interesting to note that many in this crowd would probably never set foot in the Randolph Street Corridor if it weren’t for this opportunity. Personally, it’d have taken something pretty special to get me down to the area before my experience at the Taste.
I hung around and listened to the band, American Royalty, for a song. They had an interesting electronic pulse, which I dug, but there was more to see. I made my way through the crowd and emerged to see a street festival five times the size I’d pictured. To my right was food vendor after food vendor, and all of them were local to the area. I knew right away I’d have to survey all their offerings before picking my dinner.
My friends Anthony and Kelly Ann were meeting me in 30 minutes, so I had some time to kill. I didn’t want to take it all in before they got there, so I meandered over to the non-food vendors. There wasn’t a lot of interesting garb, but I did find a wonderful gift for my girlfriend. A fellow from Georgia was selling colorful picture frames made from old scrap wood. I picked the prettiest one, paid the man and made my way further into the fest.
Anthony and Kelly Ann were running late, and my belly was growling. Food was in order. I stepped up to Public Quality Meats’ food stand with an eye on their jalapeno cheddar sausages Disaster struck when they informed the line that they were out of food for the next hour. What a pity. I perused a few more booths until I saw my victim. Staring at me from behind a glass box was the most delectable looking big fried ball of something. I asked the sweet Italian girl for one and she informed me they were called arancini di riso and would cost me $4. I thanked her for the information and for the fried ball. It was delicious, the best festival food I’ve ever had. The best part about it was that I could walk and eat it. This was especially convenient since Anthony and Kelly Ann arrived as I was really getting into it.
I walked and ate my way over to them at one of the beer tents. They got beers. I wasn’t drinking. We walked around and checked out the vendors. I showed Kelly Ann the frame for Paige, and she approved. They were hungry, so I took them to the nice Italian girl. Kelly Ann couldn’t turn it down, but Anthony wanted an Italian beef. They ate as we caught up on each others’ lives. Anthony was my roommate in college, and Kelly Ann is his girlfriend. She just moved to the city for the summer from Palm Springs, California where she’s an elementary teacher. Oh, the spoils of teaching.
After they finished eating, it was time for some Greensky Bluegrass. We moved up to the front of the West Stage and waited for some banjo and mandolin delights. They wouldn’t come though, at least not on the West Stage. Instead, we were met with a wall of electric guitars and drum.
“I don’t think this is the bluegrass band,” Anthony said.
He was right. It turned out Greensky was playing on the East Stage. We hoofed it over and caught them 15 minutes into their set. I’d never seen these guys before but had heard some of their stuff, so I was looking forward to some chunky, down-home bluegrass. Boy, did they deliver it. They were stellar, far superior to what I’d expected. Greensky even had Kelly Ann and Anthony grooving — not that they aren’t the bluegrass types, but not that they are either. I was initially disappointed that they played on the much smaller East Stage, but looking back it was definitely for the best. It was much more intimate and cozy, even with an enormous crowd. We let the twang take us. When they finished playing, the Taste was over. We weren’t done, though. There was overtime playoff hockey to be watched.
We meandered over to a quaint looking dive called PorkChop, but they weren’t set up for the game and didn’t have their A/C on. The next place didn’t have any television, and the place after that was taking reservations and bottle service only. We headed back to PorkChop. Between the muggy heat of the place and their spotty dish service, it wasn’t the best experience. Their menu looked great, but the rice ball was quite filling, so we didn’t eat. It was a hell of a game, but the Hawks didn’t come out on top. After PorkChop, Kelly Ann and Anthony went out to North Town for some late night drinks with some other friends. I grabbed a bus north and went home for some much needed solace.
I thought my liquid misadventures of Friday would ruin my Saturday, but I had a blast at Taste of Randolph. I would’ve paid two suggested donations for such a great time and wish I’d attended for longer in more opportune health. The festival is definitely a must-attend for next year.
The West Loop, well at least the part of it I saw, exceeded my expectations. It was a fresh change-up from the usual areas I frequent. The high-end feel and price tag gave me a view into the possible future and validity of other neighborhoods scattered throughout the city. The experience was a great testament to the wonderful balance in Chicago between fast pace living and slower, relaxing vibrations. Aside from the one bar that was only seating bottle service and reservations, the neighborhood had none of the “better than thou” vibe I’d wrongly associated with it. I’ll be making my way down to the Corridor again soon for drinks with friends and perhaps dinner with Paige to put that final brick in my apology.