Local knowledge: Christen Carter’s Chicago

United States

A tour of Chicago with Christen Carter, owner of Busy Beaver Button Company and co-curator of the Button Museum.

Corbet vs Dempsey
The curation of this gallery is so smart. They dig deep and find art that deserves greater appreciation, mostly showcasing artists from around the Midwest including some deeper cuts from Chicago’s past. C&D are also big music fans, occasionally you can see some of Chicago’s more free-form music talent perform along with the art.

Hyde Park
A day trip to Hyde Park, a southside neighbourhood and home of University of Chicago is an often overlooked jewel – bars can get crowded with U of C students at night who found a fake id online from the looks of many party goers.

A perfect day might start with a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry, then a little walk through Jackson Park. Then, walking along the Plaisance (once part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition) toward 57th street to Woodlawn, go north (right) a couple of blocks and you’ll find Plein Air Café. They do coffee, specialty drinks and pastries amazingly well; my favourite thing is the Plein Grain Bowl for lunch.

If the weather allows, you can sit outside while looking onto the house next door – which happens to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful Robie House. Tours happen there every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, on the other side of Plein Air, you’ll find the most recent iteration of the Seminary Co-op bookshop. You can tell that it’s run by a bunch of bookworms and it also looks like a 1970s library.

Then across the street is a beautiful church, the Rockefeller Chapel. You might get lucky and hear the organ playing in this room that seems taller than it is wide. Plus, they often have concerts there – I’ve seen some rock shows and it’s very special.

There’s a wonderful arthouse movie theatre called Doc Films and a beautifully built park, Promontory Point, that juts out into Lake Michigan and is surrounded by public beaches.

The shopping district is mostly on 53rd Street. If you want your jeans no fuss, no muss and made in Chicago, Dearborn Denim is the place to go and there’s a fun place to grab a bite and see a show, called Promontory.

Calumet Fisheries
It’s worth a trip to the far southside for Calumet Fisheries: the best smoked fish is here! There’s no seating so it’s best to go on a warm day when you can just sit on the kerb and soak it all in, or a lot of people just eat in their cars. It’s been a Chicago institution since the 1940s and still flourishes.

I have to admit that most of the musicians they invite to perform are intellectually way above my head. But a gal must have some sophistication in her life, right? It’s always a beautiful experience. I get some good thinking done when I go to these shows – it kind of unlocks my brain when I’m feeling stuck.

Lula Café
My favourite restaurant of all time. It’s like coming home. Back in 1999, Lula was the first place I went to that served seasonal, creative American food. The chef often hides a special sauce under the main attraction, so make sure you check to see what tastiness awaits. And in true Chicago form, they make it pretty accessible to people: you can have a nice plate of food for $12 while your dining mate can spend $50. The staff is full of creative people, you can tell that they foster that type of environment, and they are also are very community-focused. It’s just up the street from my house and work in Logan Square, so I go to Lula pretty often.

Another place that feels like home. A small music venue that is stuck in what is for now – although that might change with the development in the area – an industrial corridor. It has dark panelling and a swordfish on the wall. They also do a lot of community events – send-offs to Chicago bands playing SXSW, a soup and bread night in the winter where locals make soups and donate all the money to a food kitchen, veggie chilli bingo in summer. They are a hub for social justice events and care deeply about the community.

Millennium Park
I gotta say, when they were starting construction on this park, I goofed on it. First, the name: Millennium Park? Plus, I liked Grant Park as it was. Well, they really did a wonderful thing. Public art is so hard to do right, but Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) does it very right – it’s basically a bean-shaped funhouse mirror. It’s cool to look at since it reflects the viewer, the city and sky all at the same time. It’s fun to watch everyone interact with it, and it’s an excellent selfie opportunity. Behind that is a huge bandshell designed by Frank Gehry with amazing sound. During the summer, you can see loads of shows – it feels like at some point or another the whole city has reason to see a show here. During the winter, there’s a cool ice skating ribbon, so you can tool around the park like you’re on an elevated road. And be still my heart for the Lurie Garden. It’s such a midwestern beauty of a thing, understated and simple, seemingly common but deeply thoughtful. A prairie where you can momentarily think you’re out in a field.

North Avenue Beach
I just like to sit with friends and drink a little wine on a summer evening here. There’s a point that faces south to the downtown skyscrapers that’s really pretty quiet, with good people-watching. You go through a sea – like hundreds and hundreds- of beach volleyball players to get there, which is fun in itself.

If you're in Chicago, Christen's Button Museum is a must-see. No matter where you are, Busy Beaver makes the best custom buttons around.

Published 21 January 2019

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