Offbeat Adventures in Chicago

It stands to reason that Chicago’s second-city complex would lead to a lot of validation-seeking boasting and bragging – and it sure can. But there’s also that pesky Midwestern meekness, not to mention a well-learned, necessity-birthed knack for the clandestine (see our storied histories of speakeasies, house-music loft parties, alternative-exhibition galleries, etc.), both of which contribute to an undeniable fact: This town can keep a secret. Without giving away too much, we’ve decided to open the vault on a few favorite hidden gems, off-the-beaten-path highlights, and obscure delights, plus one bonus offbeat adventure: New Belgium’s Tour de Fat, an annual celebration of “bikes, beer & bemusement,” lands Saturday, July 12th at Palmer Square with a bike parade, dance contest, live music, and thousands of local cycling enthusiasts. Don’t miss it!

1. Sunday Dinner Club
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Before unveiling their justifiably hyped Honey Butter Fried Chicken last September, chefs Joshua Kulp and Christine Cikowski had already solidified an ultra-dedicated clientele with one of Chicago’s best underground supper clubs, Sunday Dinner Club. Favorites on the rotating menu include burgers, cassoulet, and, of course, fried chicken, but there’s really no bad night to go; and the diverse, enthusiastic group of diner-evangelists ensures adherence to the No. 1 rule of hosting: that the company around the table be as interesting as the food on it. SDC is referral only, but they’ve been doing this long and well enough that chances are you already know someone on the inside – even if you don’t know it yet.

2. Cole’s Bar
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Pedal a few blocks northwest off the Tour De Fat route and you’ll find this unassuming-at-first-blanche, outstanding-at-second Logan Square anchor bar. Owner Coleman Brice’s rotating beer list and tap puts more than a few craft-bars-come-lately to shame, and he curates the back performance room better than some dedicated events spaces in the ‘hood. On any given night you’ll catch a book-release party, local-label DJs, an outré film/video series, a crowd-slaying turn at the must-see comedy open mic, or a hungry, young indie-rock crew destined to kick off Pitchfork Festival this time in two years.

3. Archie’s Iowa Rockwell Tavern
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Near the borders of Ukrainian Village and Humboldt Park, you’ll find Archie’s, one of Chicago’s oldest bars (happy 70th!) that also happens to be one of its great hidden gems. Locals often head here to catch the big Blackhawks game on the projector or compete for an intimidatingly large tub of Cheez Puffs (even by Midwest-portion rules) at trivia night, usually with a furry friend or two. (Yep, you can bring the pups.) There’s nothing on tap (because, well, there is no tap) but a well-stocked fridge, along with the elusive, must-try Zubrowka vodka — distilled with bison grass and packing an amazing vanilla/coconut finish – do the job just fine.

4. Upstairs Gallery
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While comedy institutions like Second City and iO continue to earn their rep as incubators for top national comics, there’s a strong, fiercely committed fringe element in Chicago that rewards performers and audiences alike who are willing to take a risk. Upstairs Gallery is one of the unofficial headquarters for this experimental-minded set. On any given visit, you’ll hear absurdist storytelling or alt-style standup, but we recommend starting with some conceptual improv or variety shows, like the much-loved Making Out with Wes Perry and Friends, which reliably prize wonky over wacky.

5. Black Cinema House
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From the Music Box Theatre’s palatial splendor to Doc Films’ celebrated reparatory room, Chicago has its share of legendary movie houses. That same standard of excellence extends to the lesser-known guys, too, like not-for-profit upstart Black Cinema House, a relative newcomer operated in conjunction with Theaster Gates’ ambitious urban-renewal/art project in the Grand Crossing neighborhood, on Chicago’s South Side. BCH’s programming focus — on films “by and about the African diaspora” — runs deep and wide. Just take the Summer 2014 calendar, which includes Charles Burnett’s 1977 indie landmark Killer of Sheep and Prince’s finest, Purple Rain (plus dance party, of course).

6. International Museum of Surgical Science
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The news that the United States is home to more museums – many of them of the indie, oddball variety — than it is McDonald’s and Starbucks combined didn’t surprise us. We were nearly crippled by paradox of choice at the prospect of favoring just one or two of Chicago’s myriad offbeat museums. (See also Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art and Busy Beaver Button Museum. Seriously, go see them.) But Chicago’s Smithsonian of WTF has got to be the International Museum of Surgical Science. Where else can you ogle medical claptrap from centuries past, perplex over assorted medical oddities, and also take in some biology-based contemporary art?

7. East Garfield Park Art District
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The West Loop is Chicago’s most prominent art nexus, home to several internationally recognized commercial galleries, but venture a few miles west, to the East Garfield Park neighborhood, for perhaps the city’s most vibrant emergent district. The preponderance of artist-run spaces and alternative-exhibition venues emanates a very invested, lived-in brand of creative freedom — and a dedication to outreach in the historically blighted and underserved community tips the scales away from the dreaded “g” word. Standout places to visit include Peregrineprogram, Julius Caesar, Adds Donna, The Franklin, and devening projects + editions.

8. “Ask a punk” shows
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We can’t name names here, and certainly can’t name addresses, but if grab your Internet pipe and hat and spend a few minutes Google sleuthing, you’ll find a vast network of DIY music venues. You’re guaranteed a memorable time with just about any bill of local ragers, but plenty of mid-major national acts pay visits, too — if you need that selling point. (Recent and upcoming examples include Priests, The Body, and Total Abuse.) Just play nice, of course, and don’t offend the natives.

9. New Belgium’s Tour de Fat
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For one day only (Saturday, July 12), cycling and suds enthusiasts alike will get their fill at Palmer Square. The free fest kicks off with a costumed bicycle parade featuring rideable bike art, and ends with a big fat party. Awesome bilingual rockers Los Amigos Invisibles headline on one of two stages; a Thousand Person Dance Contest challenges attendees with smooth moves; and of course various New Belgium beers flow for all those 21 and over. See you there!