A Weekend in Chicago’s Lincoln Park

Where to stay, dine and catch a show this holiday season

As the holidays approach, Chicago beckons: Michigan Avenue glittering with lights, decorated storefronts and plenty of opportunities to shop, dine and be entertained. But set your sights slightly north of the Loop and you’ll find all the trimmings for a spirited weekend.

Bordered by Diversey Parkway to the north, Lake Michigan to the east, North Avenue to the south and the Chicago River to the west, the historic Lincoln Park neighborhood is home to tree-lined streets, beautiful architecture, exclusive restaurants and boutiques and some of the city’s best entertainment.

Start your weekend by checking into Hotel Lincoln, which opened in early 2012 and overlooks the neighborhood’s namesake 1,200-acre park, as well as Lake Michigan. Quirky yet sophisticated, the boutique hotel doesn’t try to be downtown slick; it has a vibe all its own, one that blends with its unique setting. Check out the front desk faced with drawers (including a few with dog biscuits for four-legged guests) and a nearby gallery wall of eclectic artwork.

Ready to head out for the night? Begin with dinner at BOKA, a sexy restaurant that’s lauded for its Michelin Star–earning progressive American cuisine as well as its incredible craft cocktails. Take a seat inside the dining room featuring a white sail-like form that extends from a wall up to the ceiling and peruse the menu—but then opt for the chef’s tasting menu. You won’t be sorry. Executive chef Guiseppe Tentori, who Food & Wine named a “best new chef” in 2008, the year he joined BOKA, emphasizes seasonal ingredients from local farmers in innovative combinations, which he carries out over seven creative courses. Perhaps it’s a bento box of Japanese treats followed by a soup, venison dish and parade of desserts—or something entirely different that’s most recently piqued his culinary interest.

Continue the evening just steps away at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company (catch Tribes, a play about family and finding one’s place, December 5 through February 9). Or pop over to the Second City for a hilarious show. A longtime stepping stone for Saturday Night Live castmates, the improv theater specializes in sketch comedy with audience interaction. But it’s even funnier than SNL and there’s something magical about seeing an impromptu story or joke come alive before you. This month, choose among the 101st revue, Let them Eat Chaos; the Chicago-themed What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You revue; and the Dysfunctional Holiday Show.

Back at the hotel before sinking into bed, stop by the J. Parker rooftop bar on the thirteenth floor. Enjoy small plates and signature cocktails like the French Maid (with orange-flavored cognacs, ginger liqueur, fresh lemon and hot water), as well as a stellar view of the city’s skyscrapers lit up. (And make a note to come back in the summer to linger on the outdoor lounge.)

The next morning, start your day with brunch at the hotel’s Perennial Virant. The cool space combines industrial lighting, wood tables and low, tufted banquettes with a culinary philosophy of doing as much as possible in-house and embracing the Midwest’s seasons and preservation traditions. “Eat what you can, can what you can’t” is the motto, and if you look closely, you’ll notice jars and other canning details used in the décor. Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s jams are delicious and play a role in the small but thoughtful menu that ranges from an omelet and patty melt to a smoked ocean trout “benedict” and house-made sausage.

Now that you’re stuffed, bundle up and venture outside. It’s a pleasant walk to the Chicago History Museum, the Lincoln Park Conservatory or Lincoln Park Zoo, the latter of which is free, open year-round and one of the country’s oldest zoos. Pause on the bridge over the South Pond into the zoo to appreciate a beautiful view of the city skyline before moving on to greet lions, gorillas, a polar bear and other creatures. If you visit later in the day, you’ll see the zoo illuminated with holiday lights, part of its annual program of special holiday events.

Now it’s time to shop! West Armitage Avenue and North Halsted Street form the retail epicenter, and on these and surrounding streets you’ll find a mix of national shops and independent boutiques. Pick up décor items and gifts at Comfort Me, Rara Avis and Art Effect, peruse on-trend fashion at Moi Boutique, Piper Boutique, CT212 and Shop 857 and score adorable baby gear at Giggle.

While you’re out, amble along quieter streets to see stately historic homes and grand churches. And stroll through Oz Park to glimpse statues of Dorothy and Toto, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum lived nearby, making him a notable but certainly not the last person to appreciate the neighborhood’s charm.

Katie Vaughn is managing editor of  Madison Magazine.

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