any excuse to visit chicago

I call this “Winter Boots,” featuring Janessa in black, Jess in pointy, and me in plaid.

A couple of weeks ago, Janessa, Jess, and I packed up our winter best for a Vida Vegan location-scouting trip to Chicago. Aside from checking out convention centers, hotels, and more unconventional spaces, we tested the limits of navigating public transportation with naught but our phones and my distant memory/gut feeling. We also ate and drank our way from the South Loop to Wrigleyville.

Our whirlwind tour really started with our Orange Line trip from Midway Airport. I’d never taken the train from Midway before, and guess what, it’s super easy and convenient (and cheap—a 3-day CTA pass is just $14)! We were staying at the no-frills Travelodge on Harrison, which was an easy walk to a couple different train lines and actually way nicer than we expected.

We were picked up by two very special folks, Dan and Nicole from Upton’s Naturals. How awesome is it to have friends who greet you with seitan wraps on your way to Chicago Diner? Before then taking you to the Bleeding Heart Bakery for cake balls?! That’s how you start a business trip.

Before setting off to meet up with some old friends at the Seven-Ten, we met up with the adorable and all-around-rad Kelly Peloza, who came down from school to spend the night with us. We popped in to Native Foods, ’cause it was right there on Belmont, where I spent so much of my adolescence being super punk rock. Oh yes, how the city has changed. Anyhoo, on to the Seven-Ten, where my bartending friend Chase apparently decreed that my glass should never fall to that contentious half-empty/half-full point, so I fear I can’t tell you just how much I drank. Luckily, I had my notebook to keep track of all the suggestions for not only locations but restaurants we should check out. Who knew how secretly vegan-savvy everyone would be?

The clock changed a bunch, and Jess had a hankerin’ for falafel, so my pal Tony threw us in his van and headed over to Pick Me Up, which was perfectly divey for our needs. I got to eat home fries and stare at a table covered with Star Wars stickers while we laughed our way closer to sobriety.

The next day we checked out our first space, the UIC Forum. This place is so perfect…but it’s not available on Sundays for the next 1800 years because some megachurch has it reserved while they build their new place of worship and whatever. Now, I know what they want to charge us for just using part of the building for three days—I can’t imagine what the whole building costs for like 200 Sundays. I don’t know the name of the church, but if you find out it’s yours, well, just sayin’ your money’s not going to help the needy.

OK, time for pizza! We met up with Snarky Vegan and Marla from Chicago VeganMania at the Boiler Room, home of the coolest bathroom in the world. It’s a train. I can’t tell you any more than that—just go there right now, however you can, and head straight to the bathroom. Oh, and the pizza’s good too. They’ve got Daiya and Upton’s, so throw in a chewy crust and you’re golden. Oddly enough, we were unable to find Chicago-style deep dish. The locals confirmed that there is in fact nobody serving vegan deep dish in Chicago. We told Kelly that she should just quit school and open a vegan hot dog/pizza/bakery joint.

After that we headed up to the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building for what was probably the most touristy thing we did all weekend. The Signature Lounge is way, way up in the sky and has an amazing view, with it’s walls of windows…unless you’re in a cloud at the moment. The fog was so thick that we just saw a pale, white, colorless sort of nothingness. Oh wait, there were hints of falling ice! Yeah, the buildings all had these signs on the sidewalks saying “Watch out for falling ice,” or “Beware of falling ice,” and sure enough, chunks of ice were indeed falling from them. What the hell? I’m glad to say we survived, only getting hit with the tiniest haily bits.

Then, my friends, we went to the most glorious Whole Foods ever. It’s getting its own post, but let me just tell you there was sparkling wine and a Chicago-style hot dog and we were there for probably two hours.

Jess was the first one to leave us, but we got to check out a vegan Mexican joint first. Quesadilla La Reina del Sur is also getting its own post…because you can get vegan sheep there. Yes, that’s all it takes. Again, the city has changed a great deal since I lived there.

After getting Jess on her way to the airport, Janessa and I went to see Loft on Lake. This was highly recommended by a few people, and with good reason. The guy there was really nice, it was easy to reach by train, and it was a gorgeous, open space with a kitchen and cool little workroom. If/when we hold the conference in Chicago, this place would be perfect for a gala/silent auction/some other excuse for a party. When they found the space it had been abandoned for quite some time, with a raw floor, missing skylight, and completely blackened brick walls. They really brought it back to life, and now it’s a space for celebration. Yay.

I spent the rest of the day emailing my friend Casey at Revolution Tattoo to see if we could somehow arrange an appointment for me, after he confirmed that he uses vegan inks. We’d happened upon the shop on our way to Quesadilla, and our Facebook-via-phone messaging delay proved to work against us and we just couldn’t make it happen. Next time! Tonight Janessa and I still had to do dinner and drinks. We ate at an old favorite from the omni days, Leona’s. I’ve written about this before, and I got the vegan burger, which you have to try to believe. Janessa went with a salad with tofu, and I wish you could have seen her reaction. There were little bits of pasta in her salad, and it was as if she discovered the cure for polio—everyone should be so lucky to find little macaronis hidden in their salad.

After running around Roosevelt University (no appointment, we just told the security guy that we were looking for event spaces and he wrote down a bunch of rooms for us to check out), we headed over to the vegan-friendly Handlebar. I sipped on a spiked tea (with sugar—no agave?!) and Janessa fell in love with a fruity stout. We were sooooo not hungry, but after checking out the menu we decided we had to order up some tiny fried pies for breakfast. One was a spiced pear and the other was PB&J! And yes, judgey, they were the perfect breakfast.

Our next no-appointment scouting was up at Pulaski Park Field House. Chicago VeganMania is held there, and it’s a neat old building with so much space it’s ridiculous. It’s got a great auditorium, some big ol’ gym spaces, a rentable kitchen, and cool breakout rooms. It’s more affordable than UIC, of course, but then you’ve got a clearly park-district bathroom, with one plastic mirror—not that pretty mirrors are a deal-breaker, but it’s the type of space that would have one plastic mirror, ya know? Marla was telling us about a new park district space being built, so we need to look into that.

Then it was time to say good-bye to Janessa. I met up with my dad then headed out to the ‘burbs to stay at their place for my last night in town. Got to hang out with my brother and sister-in-law a little more than that first night at the bar, and with my stretched-out stomach ate so much aglio olio con broccoli that I was just ashamed. Well, sated and ashamed.

My last day in the city included a last-minute meeting at the Green Exchange. They’re almost fully leased, so there probably won’t be an available space for us, but it was a really cool building. All the businesses inside focus on sustainability in whatever they’re doing. From event planning to design to logistics to banking, like-minded people have come together under one (beautiful) roof.

Finally, before getting my behind to the airport, I got to go to Native Foods with my parents. Sure, my dad wouldn’t eat anything, not even out of curiosity. “Michele, when in my life have I ever been curious about how something tastes? That’s insane.” The man’s supportive, but no morsel of fakey chicken shall make it through those lips. Mom, on the other hand, followed my lead with the Chicken Run Ranch, hold the ranch. She confirmed what I thought was the case: It really does taste like chicken.

So yeah, a whole lot of city fit into 96 hours. We haven’t made our final decision on where the May 2013 conference will be held, Chicago or Portland, but either one will work out jussst fine.

Here’s a slideshow of everything that won’t have its own post. Enjoy!

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