In late September of 2002 I embarked on a good old-fashioned, university-style weekend road trip. The destination: Chicago, Illinois - about 9 hours drive from Toronto. Chicago was a city that I had never visited before, but that I always wanted to. Further, Chicago was known as a city full of good beer, and this helped motivate us to get on the highway. As it turned out, the trip to Chicago was one of the best road trips I've ever taken, and the beer was pretty damn good, too.
This in no way will be a comprehensive report on Chicago. Chicago is a tremendously large city, and I was only there for a little more than two nights. But in that time we packed in as much beer as we could, tempering that with absorbing some local culture and attractions. I will discuss here the places we visited in Chicago where the good beer was plentiful.
After settling in to our hotel room on Friday afternoon, we set out in search of dinner. Large American brewpubs tend to be a good bet, with reasonable beer and a wide selection of food. We came to the Goose Island brewpub, an old (in brewpub terms - since 1988) and well-known destination in Chicago.
We visited the original brewpub, located at 1800 North Clybourn. The brewpub is in a nice building, surrounded by large retail stores. The brewpub itself is a style that I am increasingly seeing more and more - a restaurant/bar concept that appeals to both families and friends alike, with separate dining and bar sections. We are starting to see this in Toronto, with the opening of the Gordon Biersch brewpubs in Whitby and Oakville.
The brewpub offers a wide range of diverse beers and a large food menu. As we were there for dinner rather than drinking, we sampled only a few of their beers, and found them to be quite nice. They offer a wide range of standard beers including a Blonde Ale, Red Ale, IPA, Nut Brown Ale and Oatmeal Stout, and seasonals such as a Christmas Ale and a Kolsch. Their beers are also available bottled for purchase, and their beers can be found at other bars in the city. Check out their web site for a current listing before heading down.
After taking a break from beer hunting to see a show, we hit our most anticipated destination of the weekend: the Map Room. What can I say about the Map Room? It is without a doubt one of the best bars I've been to in my life. It brings together within its walls an unpretentious bar atmosphere, an energetic and friendly clientele, live music and incredible beer. Perhaps it was due to being on a trip, a "grass is greener on the other side of the fence" mentality - but this place was outstanding. There really isn't a bar in Toronto that I could compare this too. There are many fine establishments in Toronto, but the Map Room was something special.
The Map Room is a relatively small bar, located at 1949 North Hoyne. It has a traditional long-bar layout, with the bar running along the right-hand side of the room, with tables surrounding it at the ends and the side. At the far end of the bar lies a compact band stage. And as the name implies, the décor is very geographic. Maps act as wallpaper, and there are flags of various countries (including Canada) hanging about. The bar area is spotlighted to highlight its diverse selection of draught and bottled beers.
And what a selection they have. The draught selection featured beers from the U.S. and elsewhere that we will probably never see in Ontario. On that one delicious evening, we sampled on draught:
Rarely have I found this kind of diversity of interesting beers at one bar. The Map Room's draught beer selection is ever-changing, and they also feature an extensive bottled list of beers. Be sure to see their web site before visiting, as they maintain an up-to-date list of draught beers online. The Map Room is an essential visit for any beer lover who finds their way to Chicago.
One other bar we checked out was the Clark St. Ale House, located at 742 North Clark. This was quite a small bar, again featuring a lively atmosphere and good beer selection. Unlike the Map Room, Clark St. featured primarily U.S. micros on tap, including (when we visited) New Glarus Spotted Cow, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Victory HopDevil, Three Floyds Alpha King and Robert the Bruce, Allagash White and Kalamazoo Bell's Amber and Oberon. I was surprised to see the Bigfoot on tap, and although it tends to be better after some aging, it was enjoyable nonetheless fresh.
After all this, we decided to retire from beer hunting for the weekend. We set our sights on some of Chicago's attractions and food, such as the Art Institute, walking the Magnificent Mile, enjoying some Chicago-style pizza and dining at the renowned Frontera Grill.
And what would a road trip to the U.S. be without hauling back some beer? Before departing we visited the liquor superstore Sam's Wine and Spirits, located at 1720 North Marcey Street. Like Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, Sam's Wine is heaven for beer lovers. They stocked many breweries that are unavailable in Buffalo, such as New Glarus, North Coast, Avery and Kalamazoo. They also have an extensive imported selection, including Westvleteren and others. For more information on their selection, please see their web site.
Overall, Chicago was a magnificent city, full of energy, rich history, great food, delicious drink, and stunning architecture. I highly recommend a visit for anyone looking for a destination to visit in the Great Lakes region.