City Spotlight: Your Guide to America’s Favorite Bayside Destination; San Francisco

City Spotlight: Your Guide to America's Favorite Bayside Destination; San Francisco

July 15, 2019

Universally considered one of the greatest cities on the globe, San Francisco has an irresistible and international allure. So what’s the best way to enjoy her world-famous splendor? With the wide eyes of a visitor and the leading hand of a knowledgeable local… ( ahem, that would be me )

I confess… I cannot remember the last time I roamed Fisherman’s Wharf, climbed to the top of Coit Tower or said hello to the chatty sea lions relaxing at Pier 39. However, I have been gleefully shopping, eating and cocktailing my way around town—from South of Market to Pacific Heights and the Mission District—for the better part of 17 years. Ding, ding, ding! Precisely why you should take my proverbial hand and let me steer you toward some of my favorite neighborhood haunts, buzzy dining spots, amazing boutiques and cool cocktail bars not plastered in every guidebook known to man. What of all those world-famous icons, museums and attractions? Absolutely worthy of their acclaim—and a visit. But you don’t need me to tell you that. The ultimate goal of this insider’s tour to the City by the Bay is to help you experience the mind-blowing hills, stunning Victorians and mouthwatering chocolate through the eyes of a still-smitten local—New Yorker by birth, San Franciscan by choice

Get Your Shop On:

San Francisco often gets a bad rap for its fashion sense. But one thing is certain: it’s impossible to impeach the city’s shopping scene – one I have been successfully mining over the years. Indeed, the city is a buyers’ paradise, stuffed with an eclectic mix of boutiques and department stores. Here’s an introduction to some of my favorite local shops in neighborhoods you may not know. 

Hayes Valley 

Meet my hands-down favorite place to score giddy-inducing fashions. Think of this neighborhood, anchored by Hayes Street, as the SoHo of San Francisco, except teensier and without a recognizable chain store in sight. In other words, welcome to the coolest cluster of independent boutiques in town. You’ll find hip and sophisticated women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, fabulous footwear, and funky housewares and home furnishings all within five square blocks. The best way to tackle it? Just wander—and lust. 

This airy and still-newish boutique woos both genders with an ultra-chic bounty of coveted clothing from the likes of Comme des Garcons, Acne and Alexander Wang. Excellent customer service and amazing accessories by local artists add to its allure. ——— 425 Hayes Street 415.634.0881 

A hipster favorite—it’s all about promoting and selling new, emerging and ecofriendly local designers. The perfect spot to purchase gifts, edgy tees with San Francisco graphics, fun jewelry and decidedly cool baby and kids clothes. ——— Located just off Hayes at 541 Octavia Street 415.621.7718  

The MO of this happy little shop: sleek and simple with a Scandinavian twist. Cool kitchen gadgets, jewelry, home accessories and unique gifts are stylishly displayed along with products by Marimekko, Design House Stockholm and Alvar Alto. ——— 346 Hayes Street 415.400.5572 

The whimsical windows of this cavernous menswear spot will demand that you enter, while the Americana vintage vibe and fresh mix of denim, sportswear and workwear are sure to keep you interested. Styles run the gamut from fullon fab Zig-Zag shoes for $20 to investment pieces by Rag & Bone and Paul Smith. Crazy-cool curios with a manly-man slant add to the fashion fun. ——— 460 Gough Street 415.864. 2079

Don’t forget to cure your shopping munchies! Refuel at these hotspots before you get back to the main course – shopping!  

Blue Bottle: A new cult of java lovers can’t get enough of this local, organic coffee. Look for the kiosk (and the queue). 315 linden street 510.653.3394

Miette Confiserie: Kids of all ages will eagerly get their sweet fix on here. Scrumptious candies by the pound, cupcakes and macaroons will have you sufficiently sugarrushed in no time. 449 Octavia Street 415.626.6221

La BoulangeThis French cafe is the perfect stop for an au lait and chocolate croissant, salad Nicoise or croque monsieur. 500 hayes street 415.863.3376

How about a side of Bar – bary Coast history with your shopping? Situated in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid (north and west of the Financial District), this little-known enclave has an Old World feel with its beautiful brick and ornate cast-iron buildings dating back to the Gold Rush days. It’s home to the city’s finest arts and antique dealers, as well as modern design stores and two of the best women’s boutiques in the city. Meandering these historic blocks is a wonderful way to spend a couple of only-inSan Francisco hours. Grab a bite at Bix—a San Francisco institution—or the more casual but equally historic Old Ship Saloon. Prefer a champagne break? Pull up a couch at The Bubble Lounge.

Whether you’re in the mar – ket for a new masterpiece or just window-shopping, take a whirl through this almost-30-year-old gal – lery, one of the city’s finest, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings with a focus on California artists. ——— 406 Jackson Street 415.788.8300

Ladies, prepare for 4,000 square feet of uber-chic fashions in a landmark building, formerly occu – pied by Ernie’s restaurant, featured in Alfred Hitch – cock’s Vertigo. What’s being served up nowadays is a meticulously edited menu of sophisticated designer cloth – ing. Name-dropping just a bit to whet your appetite… Helmut Lang, Rick Owens, Viktor & Rolf… Throw in gorgeous accessories and footwear? Swoon-worthy is an understatement. ——— 843 Montgomery Street 415.834.9040

La Boutique L’art et la Mode

A relative newcomer, this insouciant boutique con – tinues to make a positive impression on local stylistas who flock to the bright bi-level space for innovative European designer collections. Another plus: It’s also part contemporary art gallery and event space. Ooh la la! ——— 415.693.9950

Even though the best way to sop up the local flavor is to hit the boutiques and neighborhoods, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Union Square a proper nod. It is, after all, the city’s central shop – ping hub overflowing with department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Mar – cus, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys New York and Nordstrom) and designer storefronts (Prada, Gucci, Hermès, Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton and just-opened Mulberry). Also noteworthy: Maiden Lane, just off the square (between Geary and Post Streets from Stockton to Kearny Streets), a cobble – stone, pedestrian-only street clustered with more luxury stores (Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Diptyque and Tory Burch) and outdoor cafes. Local highlights include Manika Jewelry, Glory Chen and Gump’s, the 150-yearold legendary retailer that sells artful objects, jewelry and home décor. (Just look for the red awnings.) 

Around the City in 5 Plates: 

San Francisco is a veritable foodie heaven with an innovztive and ethnically diverse restaurant scene, an excess of superstar chefs and a gastronomic reputation that rivals the best in the world. The perfect way to get a taste? Eat like a local and chomp your way through the city from taco truck to Tony hospot, one palate-pleasing meal at a time.  

Chef Thomas McNaughton brings us upscale Cali cui – sine married perfectly with a desirable location in the center of culinary hipster – dom—the Mission District’s 20th Street corridor. The bright space has a rusticurban feel with equal parts indoor and outdoor dining. Refined yet simple dishes with an emphasis on local ingredients will have you at first bite. Two to try: ham, greens, herbs, marinated bread and white cheddar; and squid, avocado, celery and pine nut mousse. More adventurous types should go for the daily tasting menu—you don’t know what you’ll get until it’s served. ——— 782 Florida Street at 20th Street 415.826.7004  

Location, location, location. That and a mean latte have made this coffeeshop-cumbistro the go-to hangout for venture capitalists, techie bloggers and tech rockstars themselves. It all makes sense when you consider that the eatery sits across from the Caltrain station (the commuter hub between the city and Silicon Valley), nearby AT&T Park and a slew of startups. The deal-making all goes down in a hip indus – trial space (carved from the refrigerated room of a one – time creamery) with both indoor and outdoor seat – ing. Best bets on the menu: breakfast sandwiches, salads and savory crepes. Also find a selection of beer and wine. ——— 685 4th Street at Townsend Street 415.896.1446  

All hail the city’s first per – manent food truck pod. Finally, we truckie devotees can stop stalking and obsessively checking Twitter to find out what abandoned space or hidden alley is the location du jour for scrumptious falafels, tamales, pies or po’ boys. The park is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and you’ll find a rotating group of six to 10 trucks at any given time. (Curry Up Now is my fave.) No doubt, this is food truck dining deluxe— there’s covered seating, free WiFi and on-site park – ing, regular movie night screenings for clarity and a soon-to-open beer garden. ——— 428 11th Street at Division Street 

Finding a tasty burrito in San Francisco, especially in the city’s Latin-meetshipster Mission hood, isn’t exactly like discovering the Holy Grail. But if dining among locals at an authen – tic, colorful and comfort – able taqueria that delivers consistently fresh and flavorful food sounds appeal – ing, this one’s for you. You can’t go wrong with anything on the extensive menu— enchiladas are universally lauded, but I say fish tacos all the way. And make sure to order one of the signa – ture (yummy) agua frescas. ——— 2406 Bryant Street at 22nd Street 415.641.7209  

I have a special place in my heart for Charles Phan’s Vietnamese restaurant, which opened the same year I moved to the city. There is one reason I have remained loyal over the years as it moved locations and welcomed siblings and accolades galore—the food has never failed me. Now, long settled in its stunning Ferry Building location, with breathtaking views of the Bay and its namesake bridge, it has solidified itself as one of San Francisco’s culinary gems. What to order? Dai – kon rice cakes, shaking beef and cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab. And that’s just for starters. ——— 1 Ferry Building 415.861.8032

San Francisco 101: A Nugget of History

Right around the same time those 13 colonies were declaring their independence, Spanish settlers were building a church near a beautiful bay, 3,000 miles away. That house of worship was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, nicknamed San Francisco. Fast-forward 75 years or so and the Gold Rush was on, Levi Strauss was selling his first jeans to the miners and California became the 31st state (1850). The 20th century began with a tragedy: the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed 80 percent of the city. But the tide had turned by 1915, when a newly reconstructed and grander metropolis debuted at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. And the rest, as they say is…. 

Lay of the Land 

San Francisco proper consists of 40-plus diverse and distinct neighborhoods, plus an ever-evolving crop of trendy, new micro-hoods. Daunting for visitors? Perhaps. But the good news is that many of the must-explore neighborhoods are clustered together and easily accessible by car, taxi and public transportation (bus, cable car, streetcar and underground). Most areas are walkable, but hills of varying steepness will greet you at some point during your travels. Here are your options: Inhale and take it one block at a time; find an alternate route to your destination (there usually is one); or hop back in your car (or hail/call a cab).

When to Go

The best time to visit is between September and November, when Northern California is at its warmest and sunniest. Of course, every time of year has its own appeal. The holiday season through February is the least touristy, most rainy and best for fog watching (you have to see it to believe it). Spring is lovely and dry although still quite cool. Summer is the busiest time with visitors, so be sure to make reservations for must-do, -eats and -sees well in advance of your trip. Warm layers are another must. That famous quote about the coldest winter being a San Francisco summer is so brilliant because it’s true. 

The Clock Strikes Cocktail Hour

San Francisco has long loved its cocktails. Today, it’s home to an ever-burgeoning scene where cocktails-from classics to cuttingedge and complex varieties – are stealing the spotlight. Thirsty? Mix and mingle at this trio of utterly unquenchable nightspots. 

Bourbon and Branch 

Slip on your fedora and take a trip back in time to Prohibition days at this stunning speakeasy. An incognito entrance, passwords and a revolving bookcase are all part of the fun… and kitsch. Bourbon and Branch is known for its curated offering of hand-selected spirits and an extensive menu of cocktails, from old-school classics to market-fresh varieties made with produce from the morning run at local farmers’ markets. Knowledgeable slingers are always game for creating personalized libations (order a cosmopolitan at your own peril). Reservations and taxis are highly recommended; food is not served. ——— 501 Jones Street (between O’Farrell and Geary Streets)  415.346.1735

Lion Pub

It’s always a roaring good time at this unmarked lounge, beloved by pretty much all who know about it. You’ll find a chill scene complemented by a cozy fireplace, dim lighting and non-blaring dance music; things tend to get more hopping as the night progresses. But the ambience wouldn’t mean much, of course, without the signature libations (ahh! those cocktails) made with fresh-squeezed juices (orange, grapefruit, cantaloupe, strawberry, mango and watermelon). Mojitos, margaritas and, my favorite, the fresh basil vodka gimlet are all simply dee-lish. ——— 2062 Divisadero Street (near Sacramento Street)  415.567.6565

Rickhouse 

Après work to late night, every hour is happy at this Financial District favorite. Lots of wood, exposed brick walls, a fireplace and vaulted ceilings decorated by 300 Kentucky-imported whiskey barrels add to the cozy-slash-hip ambience. Bourbon lovers, especially, will be in their element as it’s the bar’s raison d’être. Not a fan of the hooch? No worries. The massive menu is loaded with amazing local beers, superstar artisanal cocktails and boutique California wines. Like me, most regulars flock for the specialty punches, intended for four, served in oversized glass bowls. Cheers! ——— 246 Kearny Street (between Sutter Street and Hardie Place)   415.398.2827

Experience Toronto Like a Local

Experience Toronto Like a Local

July 3, 2019

Toronto, the capital of Ontario, is known for its stunning skyline, with endless tourist attractions and greens paces to explore. If you’re lucky enough to visit this enchanting metropolis, here are the foods you have to eat, the places you have to see, and the activities you have to try. 

You don’t want to miss these Toronto restaurants where the city’s top chefs put their skills to work in kitchens across the city, testing the boundaries and pushing the limits of cuisine.  

Toronto Restaurants

Pizzeria Libretto: Staying true to Neapolitan  tradition, this pizzeria ordered its wood oven from a thirdgeneration pizza oven maker in Naples, Italy. Pizzas rely on authentic ingredients baked in a 900-degree oven

Acadia: This East Coast-inspired restaurant serves up dishes with fresh, sustainable ingredients that travelers love. The menu is rooted in the Atlantic provinces, with specialties like Lois Lake Steelhead and skillet cornbread. The drink menu lives up to the food.

La CarnitaWhat started as a pop-up taco food truck soon became a Toronto sensation. Now permanently located in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, dine in this avant-garde space and enjoy authentic Mexican dishes with a hint of North American flair. 

Wine BarSet near the city’s unique Distillery District, Wine Bar offers an extensive wine list and locally sourced, artisanal foods served tapas style. With exposed brick, an open kitchen and a giant wall of pickled ingredients, this restaurant and lounge is a must-see. 

Bier Markt: With more than 100 beers from 24 countries, this is one place every beer lover should visit in the city. But the food holds its own with a bountiful mix of European favorites like Vienna schnitzel and a wurst board, along with lighter fare like Arctic char.  

If shopping is more of your forte, Toronto offers a wide range of shopping districts that offer everything from fashion to hard goods. 

Toronto Shopping

Yorkville: This snazzy district is the epicenter of high-end shopping in Toronto. Yorkville Avenue itself consists of elegant cafes, boutiques and galleries. South to Bloor Street and north to Davenport Road hosts everything ritzy from Holt Renfrew and Louis Vuitton to the Hazelton Lane shops and any designer store you can dream of.  

Kensington Market: For a completely different experience, visit the eclectic neighborhood of Kensington Market. Running along three streets in the downtown core, the area offers everything from distinctive art galleries to incredible independent cafes, stores and restaurants. 

The Distillery District: The historic Distillery District is unique in look and feel. Restored brick-lined streets of old breweries and Victorian warehouses create an inviting Old World charm highlighted by restaurants, theaters, shops and galleries. The Boiler House restaurant epitomizes this lively part of town with exposed brick-and-beam architecture and an innovative menu. 

The Toronto skyline at sunset on a calm summer night.
Toronto Skyline Sunset
toronto,  ontario,  canada,  sunset,  dusk,  sunrise,  dusk,  night,  cn,  tower,  rogers,  center,  island,  lake,  water,  mirror,  flat,  calm

Toronto is an eclectic blend of bustling markets, old world charm, and a worldly cosmo flair. For travelers looking to get the most out of the city, the activities are endless.

Toronto Activities

Farmers’ Markets: Pick up farm-fresh ingredients for dinner or stop for a local, artisanal snack while walking through a park. Check out the seasonal markets at Trinity Bellwoods, Dufferin Grove, Evergreen Brickworks (to name a few) and the yearround St. Lawrence Market. 

HikingExtensive trails meander through the city and surrounds. Set out on the paths from High Park and enjoy more than 400 acres of rolling hills, ornamental gardens, rare oaks and even a zoo. If you left your gear at home, stop in to Mountain Equipment Coop to satiate your outdoor apparel needs. Discovery Walks is a system joining the city’s hundreds of acres of ravines, beaches and parks. Follow the signs for a self-guided adventure as long or short as you want. The Belt Line and Beaches are great choices. 

Gardens: Previously a garden estate, Edwards Gardens boasts wild flowers and mature trees along winding trails that span 35 acres. The Toronto Botanical Garden sits on the property, showcasing award-winning themed gardens.  

Get the Goods: The St. Lawrence Market offers an enormous array of fresh foods and personalities. A longstanding locals’ favorite, the market is a must-see for any visitor to get the true flavor of Toronto. 

Experience Chicago Like a Local

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Experience Chicago Like a Local

May 13, 2019

I worked pretty damn hard to get to Chicago for the first time. I was cycling across the country, from west to east, with a group raising funds for global hunger relief, and we didn’t have a day off between Salt Lake City and the Windy City. With each pedal push across Nebraska, Iowa and finally Illinois, Chicago—with its famed barbecue joints, soul-satisfying blues music and the jewel that is Wrigley Field—got a little closer.

The “City of Big Shoulders” as poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago, did not disappoint. As luck would have it, my hometown San Francisco Giants were in town to play the Cubs at Wrigley on July 17, 1986, and when a Cubs official heard we were riding across the country, (I think our police-escorted entrance into town made the local news), he promptly offered us free tickets above third base.

Walking to Wrigley for the first time made me feel like a kid with off-the-charts anticipation. There it all was: the big red sign out front reading “HOME OF CHICAGO CUBS,” the ivy-covered outfield walls, the classic green scoreboard with an analog clock on top and the buildings beyond the bleachers where people picnicking on rooftops watched the games for free.

“What makes Wrigley Field unique to me is the location. It’s a neighborhood ballpark that suddenly appears amid the brownstones,” says Carrie Muskat, author of Banks to Sandberg to Grace: Five Decades of Love and Frustration with the Chicago Cubs. “If you go to a game and have a sense of baseball history, Wrigley is even more special,” adds Muskat, who covers the Cubs for MLB.com. “Babe Ruth played there; Ernie Banks wanted to live there. And someday, the Cubs might win a World Series there.”

Wrigley Field has been showing its age, but that’s part of its charm, and a new Jumbotron installed this year adds 21st-century technology to the creaky yard. Mark Gonzales, who covers the Cubs for the Chicago Tribune notes that baseball is “deep-rooted” in Chicago and that loyalty is passed down through the generations. “You can always sell hope, and hope remains strong with the Cubs.”

That hope is captured in Norman Rockwell’s 1948 painting The Dugout. It focuses on a slump-shouldered bat boy with dejected Cubs players sitting in the dugout behind him. Above are several jeering fans, but there’s one smiling kid, thrilled just to be at the game. That’s the symbol of the true Cubs fan.

My 1986 visit to Wrigley was a day game, a couple of years before the ballpark installed lights. I soaked up sun and suds, cheering as my favorite pitcher, Vida Blue, hit a home run and pitched the Giants to victory. Welcome to Chicago.

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A human-scale park (not a stadium) that holds about 40,000 people, Wrigley opened in 1914, and, astonishingly, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in the century they’ve played there. Their last champion- ship came in 1908. The closest they’ve come in recent years was in 2003 when they were five outs away from reaching the World Series. A fan interfered with a foul ball that may have been caught; then the floodgates opened. The Cubs lost that game and the next, ending their season.

Across town two years later, however, the Chicago White Sox won the World Series, and South Side fans, including an Illinois senator who’d be elected president in 2008, rejoiced.

Chicago knows how to celebrate. “This is possibly the last city in the world where you can see blues seven nights a week,” says Marc Lipkin, a spokesman for Alligator Records, a Chicago blues label. He ticks off the city’s famed blues clubs: Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, Rosa’s Lounge and Buddy Guy’s Legends, which opened in 1989. Guy typically plays a series of dates at his club in January. At other times of the year, if he’s not touring, Guy often joins whoever is on his stage for an impromptu jam. “To see Buddy at his own club is spectacular,” Lipkin says.

People in this traditionally blue-collar city have worked hard and danced into the wee hours at clubs featuring some of the best blues music in the country. It’s music that comes from the Deep South, songs meant to ease hardship and bring joy. “When people from the South got to Chicago, they electrified,” says Ed Williams, a Chicago native and bluesman known as Lil’ Ed. “Electrified blues gave people a lot of feeling—that’s what made Chicago blues so special. And it was up-tempo too. The south blues was slow. In Chicago we started to put a little buff on it.”

Williams, the nephew of the late blues legend J.B. Hutto and front man for Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, laughs easily and smiles often. “Musicians like to see people have fun, so blues is not all about just cryin’ and woo-woo-in’ and talkin’ about my baby’s gone, but a lot of blues is about gettin’ up and shakin’ your tailfeather,” he says. “Most people that’s got the blues, they’re looking for a way out. If you give them that way out through music, that helps them along because people don’t want to be miserable all the time, they want to be happy.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, when the acoustic Delta blues of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon moved north to Chicago, the musicians plugged in “to compete with the volume level of the city,” says Alligator Records’ founder Bruce Iglauer. “You couldn’t play an acoustic guitar under the L tracks and expect to be heard.”

Iglauer calls Chicago blues the “toughest, hardest-edged, most visceral style of electric blues, because it grew out of the acoustic Delta blues sound which was the hardest, most rhythmic, most intense of the blues styles around the country. So Chicago, being a rough, tough city, nurtured a rough, tough blues sound.”

Billy Branch, a blues harmonica player who played with Willie Dixon in the late 1970s and early ’80s, believes most people don’t understand how much Chicago blues influenced rock music since its beginnings. He calls Dixon “one of the most influential musical composers of modern times,” but says that he’s not as well known as he should be. “You look at all these Led Zeppelin records and Rolling Stones songs, most of their early music was covers, including a few Willie Dixon songs. That’s not common knowledge to the general public.”

Branch hopes to spread awareness about Dixon’s contributions at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, a free event held in Grant Park. “We are bringing back many of the musical players that are still around that played with Willie,” Branch says, but “that’s not a lot.”

Dixon and fellow blues legend Muddy Waters were born in 1915. The City of Chicago is honoring the centennial of their births at this year’s blues festival, says city spokeswoman Mary May. Some sources say Muddy Waters, whose real name is McKinley Morganfield, was born in 1913, but no definitive records exist. “Muddy said he was born in 1915 and that’s the date on his tombstone,” which is good enough for the city, May says.

Two of Muddy’s sons will be part of the tribute, she says, and Buddy Guy will headline the festival. The setting is ideal, she adds, with views of Chicago’s skyline and Lake Michigan. And because it’s free, some people who can’t go to blues clubs can enjoy the music.

Branch notes that Muddy Waters defined the Chicago blues sound in the mid-20th century, and that it’s this sound that so many rock bands sought to emulate. He recalls that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named their band after Muddy’s song “Rollin’ Stone” and in 1981 came to Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge to pay homage to him and serve as his backing band.

Gospel and soul singer Otis Clay, who like so many others journeyed to Chicago from the South as a teenager, says blues isn’t the only roots music in Chicago. “When they talk of Chicago as being the blues capital of the world, it’s hard to say that without thinking of it as the gospel capital.” Clay says blues has borrowed heavily from gospel, the music of Southern church- es. “You’ve got to follow that path from the South,” Clay says. “When they brought the blues in here, they brought the gospel as well.”

The transcendent gospel singer Mahalia Jackson came to fame in Chicago, Clay recalls. Chicago disc jockey and oral historian Studs Terkel was credited with “discovering” Mahalia because he played her records on his radio show, but he dismissed that, noting that she was filling black churches and concert halls in the city before most white people had heard of her.

Ultimately, Clay says, good music is good music, whether it’s soul, gospel or blues. “So when people start defining this music, it’s not an easy thing to do, I wouldn’t even try to do it. You know, if you like it, good.” Alligator’s Lipkin says that even people who think they don’t like the blues change their minds when they come to Chicago. “When somebody says, ‘I don’t like blues’ and you put them in front of a live blues band, they will leave that club a blues fan. It almost never fails.”

The blues scene in Chicago has certainly changed since the days when Muddy and Dixon played to predominantly black audiences, and Bud- dy Guy and Junior Wells jammed at the now-defunct Theresa’s. “I do feel something has been lost,” Iglauer says. “When I used to go to blues clubs on the South Side or the Westside, the people in the audience and the people on the stage were basically the same people. They all shared a culture. Most had grown up in the South; they were working-class people, and they were sharing a style of music they have been listening to their whole lives. They had an ownership of the music. Even if they didn’t play it, it was their music.”

In sharp contrast to big arena shows, at blues halls you can get close to the performers. At B.L.U.E.S., “you can sit three feet from the stage,” Iglauer says. “At Kingston Mines you can sit 12 feet from the stage. At Legends, if you get a good table you can put your feet up on the stage. It’s music that is right there. The music is not showbiz; Chicago blues is the opposite of slick.”

Which is a fitting way to describe the barbecue and soul food that gives Chicago’s cuisine its distinctive flavor. This is down-home food, meant to satisfy hard-working people without breaking the bank.

Soul food and barbecue have been “hugely important in keeping Southern traditions alive,” says Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. “What we understand as soul food is really the immigrant cuisine of the African-Americans who left the South. They did what any other immigrant group does: You land in a new place, and you try to re-create home.”

Otis Clay offers this advice for finding good soul food: “If it’s a soul food restaurant, it’s gotta have a woman’s first name.” The soul singer says he used to eat at Edna’s or Alice’s several times a week. Al- though their namesakes have passed on, Clay says, “sometimes I still go back; they left good recipes. They’re still going well.”

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Miller agrees. “After eating my way through the country, I think Chicago has the best soul food scene outside of the South. What’s special about Chicago is that it’s a close approximation of what people were eating in the South.”

He also appreciates the barbecue options and says the city’s iconic dish is rib tips. Decades ago rib tips, which can be tough and chewy, were so unpopular that meatpackers would trash them or sell them for pennies per pound, so they became a staple for those with limited means. Today they’re a delicacy.

At Lem’s Bar-B-Q on the city’s South Side, manager Lynn Walker can spare only a minute to talk—she’s busy making sure the boisterous crowd that’s already arrived at the restaurant at 5 p.m. is getting fed.

What makes Lem’s ribs and tips so special? “It’s the sauce,” Walker says, “and the seasoning. They’re smoked, and you can feed your family with them.” Then Walker turns away to serve the next customer in the squat brick building with the big neon sign. Ribs and tips, because they’re not naturally tender, need to cook for a long time. But what once seemed like a curse turns out to be a blessing, as the slow cook- ing infuses the meat with smoky flavors.

Barbecue has come a long way from its roots as affordable meat. Carson’s, founded in 1977, elevated barbecue to fine dining “when no one else was doing that,” says Carson’s owner and operator Dean Carson. He says Chicago is a “great food town” especially for meat. “Everything went into Chicago alive, and everything left Chicago butchered to parts everywhere and unknown,” he says, recalling the town’s role in meat processing. “Chicago is a meaty town in all ways.”

And like all the best barbecue purveyors, Carson’s has a credo: “We stand firm in this: We do not boil or steam our ribs in any way; we do not bake them; we do not marinate them. We do not put a dry rub on them. To me those are euphemistic words for chemical tenderizer. End of story.”

Carson notes that ribs aren’t cheap anymore. You can pay as much for a plate of ribs as for a steak, but the lines out the door at his restaurant show many people are happy to spend the money.

I ask the owner to recommend his signature meal: “Cornbread, coleslaw, slab of ribs, au gratin potatoes,” all made on the premises, he says. When I ask about sauces, Carson stops me. “I got one sauce. I always think that if I go to a restaurant and they have eight different kinds of barbecue sauces that maybe they don’t have one great one,” he says. The bill for this abundant feast is about $25 and worth every penny.

With so many great chefs and bluesmen having passed, some may wonder if the traditions that have given Chicago such visceral vitality can live on. Muddy, Mahalia and Willie are long gone, yet traditions are being kept alive by Chicago stalwarts such as Lil’ Ed, Otis Clay and Buddy Guy, and so many others who learned from the masters.

Blues players and the people who put out their records are confident the music will endure because it keeps changing with the times. Lipkin, the spokesman at Alligator Records, notes that artists such as Lil’ Ed are “playing the blues the way it’s supposed to be played,” writing lyrics that are “meaningful now.” To this day, Lipkin adds, Chicago blues remains “a sound that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

Lil’ Ed himself remains optimistic about the future of Chicago blues: “A lot of people say that the blues might die away, but I think blues, all blues, will last forever,” he says with a smile. “You know why I say that? Because everybody has the blues, and the blues is going to be here all our lives. Even the young generation has got the blues. It’s something that will never go away.”

Then Lil’ Ed ends on a hopeful note. “You might be sad today, but the grass is always greener on the other side.”

Experience New York City Like a Local

Experience New York City Like a Local

February 7, 2019

Excited for the long weekend ahead, we woke up early on our first morning at the Dominick and ordered room service. It was the best way to savor our suite’s Hudson River view before a busy day in Brooklyn. Since it was warm outside, we decided to meander through Soho toward the Canal Street station, where we’d pick up the Q train. As we walked, the streets thrummed with life: Against a cacophony of traffic noise, bike messengers whizzed by and shoppers jockeyed for space on the crowded sidewalk. Once we were on the subway, we couldn’t help getting giddy when the train came above ground onto the Manhattan Bridge and we caught a glimpse of the skyline. 

Ascending the station stairs in Park Slope, where most buildings don’t exceed five stories, we were struck by how much more light and air there seemed to be. We felt our pulses slow as we crossed Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Heights and walked along a quiet, tree-lined block to James, a small New American restaurant. The chef, Bryan Calvert, is an alum of the Manhattan foodie temple Bouley, but here his cooking is sublimely straightforward. 

Our lunch of black kale salad, truffle fries, and burgers topped with speck fortified us for our next stop: Prospect Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, about a decade after they completed Central Park. We could see immediately why the pair called this less-touted oasis their masterpiece. The grassy, gently undulating Long Meadow is expansive but also feels completely sheltered from the busy streets beyond the park’s borders. A walk through the ravine area, with its 100-foot gorge that connects a waterfall, pools, and the lake, makes you feel like you’ve left Brooklyn for the mountains upstate. And with its thick tree canopy, the park is also home to the only remaining natural forest in Brooklyn. We spent the next few hours exploring and left through the gates at Ninth Street, which leads to the center of Park Slope. It was only 5:30, but we were trying to get a table at Talde, the cultishly popular Park Slope restaurant run by former Top Chef contestant Dale Talde. Most nights, he can be found in the open kitchen (look for his baseball cap) turning out flavorful Pan-Asian dishes like oyster-and-bacon pad thai, Korean fried chicken, and pretzel pork-and-chive dumplings. After sampling, we realized that we would have happily waited longer for food this good. 

After dinner, we called a car service for the short drive to the Old American Can Factory, a restored complex in the adjoining Gowanus neighborhood. The factory is one of the venues for Rooftop Films, an outdoor summer festival that showcases groundbreaking new movies. Looking out over the neat rows of Brooklyn brownstones and the twinkling lights of Manhattan in the distance, it seemed fitting that we began our day with one striking panorama, and were ending it with another.

Today we opted for a slower pace and started the day with brunch at The Dutch, where reservations are encouraged because pretty much every New Yorker has become obsessed with Andrew Carmellini and his modern take on American regional food. The toughest part was deciding what to order from the Southern-inflected menu: We settled on cornmeal flapjacks and scrambled eggs with smoked sable, but couldn’t resist adding a curry sugar doughnut and honey-butter biscuits. (Can you ever have too much at brunch?)

We left delightfully sated and glad that we’d planned to spend the rest of the afternoon on foot exploring shops and galleries in SoHo and the Lower East Side. We were overwhelmed (in a good way) by Intermix, a boutique clearinghouse with wares from nearly 200 American and European designers, and A Second Chance, a discriminating consignment shop known for stocking fashionista finds like Hermes bags, Chanel dresses, and Prada shoes for well-below-retail prices.

Overcome by shoppers’ exhaustion, we refueled with thick Aztec hot chocolate at the MarieBelle chocolate shop’s Cacao Bar before continuing east toward the Bowery. Once the city’s skid row, and later home to tattoo parlors, dive bars, and the infamous punk club CBGB, this thoroughfare has seen rapid gentrification in the last decade as luxury condos sprung up and the opening of the New Museum drew gallery owners to the area. Though the Sperone Westwater gallery’s graphite drawings and twisted bronze sculptures were intriguing, we were most fascinated by the room-size elevator that blends with the rest of the exhibition space—until it starts moving between floors. 

We returned to the hotel to relax before taking a taxi to Pier 11, just south of South Street Seaport, to board a ferry to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Taking a subway would have been just as easy, but we wanted to get out on the water and see the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge and the sun setting behind the Statue of Liberty. We disembarked at Williamsburg’s North Sixth pier and walked to Zenkichi, a sexy Japanese brasserie with booths so cozy and private each one comes with a buzzer to get the staff’s attention. Since we were feeling adventurous and didn’t want to think too hard, we ordered the chef’s omakase (tasting menu), which features the day’s freshest sashimi with an assortment of dishes like yellowtail with pickled cherry leaves and grilled Berkshire pork. 

The hostess called a car service to take us back to SoHo, and we asked the driver to drop us at Pegu Club, a dimly lit second-floor bar with Asian-style decor and a speakeasy feel. (The downstairs door is unmarked except for the bar’s green lion crest.) This is not a place to order wine or beer, as the mixologists—don’t call them bartenders—have elevated cocktail-concocting to an art form. We each tried the Whiskey Smash, a potent blend of rye, whiskey, simple syrup and the freshest lemon juice and mint we’ve ever tasted. Our drinks, like everything else that day, more than lived up to the hype.

We started our final day with a subway ride up to the Flatiron District, named for the area’s famously triangular turn-of-the-century building. But it was Mario Batali’s Eataly, currently the world’s largest Italian food and wine emporium, that lured us there. Tourists mob the food halls during the weekend, so we were headed straight up to Birreria, the rooftop brewery. It’s a casual spot, with bright red chairs, simple wooden tables, and a retractable glass roof that makes it feel like a greenhouse. 

The restaurant’s three house-made ales are brewed in a small room just steps from the main dining area. The creamy, full-bodied beers paired beautifully with the housemade sausages, cured meats, and artisanal Italian cheeses. We could have easily spent another hour enjoying the view of the Met Life Tower, one of the city’s early Renaissance-Revival skyscrapers. But we’d planned another outer-borough excursion to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. (We opted to book the Noguchi’s Sunday shuttle bus service from the Upper East Side.) 

The museum showcases the sculptures, furniture, and public works models of Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi, who collaborated with dancer Martha Graham and designer Charles Eames, among others. (If the Akari Light Sculptures look familiar, it’s because they’ve been widely copied by retailers like Ikea.) We loved the intimate feel of the cleverly designed museum, which is housed in a converted industrial complex that has a sculpture garden in the middle featuring Noguchi’s large-scale pieces.

We headed back to the Upper East Side, hailed a cab, and zoomed down to The Modern, the French-American restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. We settled in at the bar room, a clubby space that serves small plates of updated Alsatian fare like buckwheat spaetzle with yellowfin tuna. The museum was hosting one of its free summer concerts in the sculpture garden that night, featuring musicians from Lincoln Center. As a breeze rustled across the reflecting pond and birds chirped quietly, we waited alongside locals for the music to begin, all of us smug in our knowledge that on a warm summer night in the city, there was no lovelier place to be.

Experience Washington D.C. Like a Local

DC-Hero

Experience Washington D.C. Like a Local

December 11, 2018

Mexico native Christian Martinez knows more about American history than you do, but then that’s his job. Martinez, who is set to take his citizenship exam this spring, moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005 in pursuit of the American dream. He first worked as bartender, and then a bar manager, but, by 2007 was giving tours of his adopted city. In 2009, he became part-owner of Congressional Tours. It’s this métier, he says, that instilled his passion for this country.

“My work made me American,” Martinez says. “Everyone needs to know their history, and I’ve got a great appreciation for this country because of what I do.” This zest translates into dynamic tours that cultivate an intimate appreciation for America’s capital and surrounding areas.

Guide Bill Wadsworth (Wadsworth Limousine and Tours), agrees. Wadsworth’s tours incorporate his refined knowledge of art and architecture and their influence on America’s history. Wadsworth, a D.C. native, attributes his curiosity about his hometown to a childhood spent playing with his siblings at the Smithsonian, where their mother worked in the natural history building. As an adult, he worked for the Washington Star paper for almost 14 years, which delivered “a great window to the city and its life.”

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“The world comes to you when you live in Washington, D.C.,” he says. Wadsworth has been showing D.C. to the world for 25 years now. The challenge with a destination as diverse and significant as D.C. is staying focused. “Most people come without realizing the scale,” says Wadsworth. “There is so much to see here that you could get lost.” Allow for surprises, but don’t overload yourself. So, where to go (beyond the obvious) when in the nation’s capital? Read on.

Christian Martinez’s Must-Sees:

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: The grounds and mansion of George Washington’s farm have been restored
to what they were in 1799, the last year Washington resided there. As soon as you walk through the front gate, you feel it too—you’re back in the 18th century. Watch blacksmiths forge nails in their shop.

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA: With 25 to 35 funerals per day, Arlington might be the world’s busiest cemetery. The final resting place for those who served the United States of America, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the cemetery is among the most beautiful properties in the city (as macabre as it sounds). Catch the changing of the honor guard and John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, selected for its superlative view of the entire Washington, D.C., skyline.

Pentagon Memorial: An elegant and simple memorial honors the 184 people who perished when hijacked American Airlines Flight
77 crashed into the Pentagon in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “This was such a significant moment in history,” says Martinez. “Youngsters don’t always realize there were four planes kidnapped that day; we tend to remember the twin towers.”

United States Supreme Court: The courtroom is open on a first-come, first-served basis when oral arguments are in session (October until late June/early July). This extraordinary access is not available in many parts of the world, says Martinez. “When you see the actual courtroom and the chairs of the nine justices, you understand justice in a new and different way.”

Bill Wadsworth’s Highlights:

National Gallery of Art: Forget, for a moment, that this building houses one of the greatest art collections in the world, including Ginevra de’ Benci, the only Leonardo da Vinci portrait in North America. “The gallery is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world,” says Wadsworth. It was a gift of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of Treasury during the Great Depression.

Library of Congress: The library was built in 1897 and features “the greatest neoclassical interior in the country,” says Wadsworth. “This building sums up America’s confidence as it moved into the 20th century. There’s little difference between the most beautiful opera houses in Europe and the Library of Congress,” says Wadsworth.

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U.S. Capitol: “In addition to acting as an incredible repository for American painting, the Capitol is the very core of our experiment in democracy,” says Wadsworth. Indeed, for almost 200 years, the Senate and the House of Representatives have met here. The top of the Capitol is the second-largest cast-iron dome in the world.

Washington National Cathedral: The nation’s church is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the last Gothic cathedral ever built. Construction spanned almost a century (1907-1998), and was conducted medieval style, which means there were never more than 40 people working at a time.

Experience Florence Like a Local

The Ultimate Guide to Florence

November 16, 2018

What I love most about Florence is that it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, the time period from the 14th to 17th centuries that was the crucible of modern European culture,” says Silvia Ponticelli, 49, and a charming and impressively erudite Florence native who holds a degree in art history and attended an interpreter’s school before deciding to become a professional tour guide 16 years ago. “I like to share my passions with people,” says Ponticelli, who speaks four languages (Italian, French—her mother is French— English and German) and has a wonderful sense of humor.

“A city like Florence, which has over 61 different museums and so many other extraordinary things to see and do can be a bit overwhelming. So I’m here to help craft perfect days or weeks in the city in such a way as to avoid the malady that befell the great French writer Stendhal.” 

Stendhal, the pen name of 19th century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, author of the famous novel The Red and the Black gave his name to the mild psychosomatic illness, Stendhal’s Syndrome, he experienced while visiting Florence in 1817. As he explains in another one of his books Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, following a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried and the walls are covered with frescoes by Giotto, “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul.” 

In plainer words, poor, old Stendhal was just plain floored by the aesthetic richness of Florence, a reaction Ponticelli says she’s witnessed many times. “This is why I advise people that it’s better to enjoy a smaller number of special, carefully chosen experiences than to think that you see everything during a single visit to the city. I’ve lived here all of my life and I’m still discovering new things!” she says. Here is a selection of her Florence favorites.

Favorite Work of Art 

The Michelangelo Crucifix in the Basilica di Santo Spirito. “The year 1492 was very important in Florence, because Lorenzo the Magnificent, the great statesman and patron of the arts, died. This meant Michelangelo lost his patron, which is why he moved to the Basilica di Santo Spirito, where he did anatomical studies on corpses brought to the church for funerals. The knowledge of the human body he gained is powerfully expressed by the remarkably lifelike wooden crucifix he produced while he was living at the church,” says Ponticelli.

Tip for Museum Visits

“Few people know that both the Uffizi Museum and the Accademia Gallery can be visited outside of their normal opening hours. These special hours are announced as ‘news’ on the websites of the respective museums,” she advises. 

Hidden Places

“I like to create itineraries that include a mixture of venues. So after museums and churches, I’ll take people for a walk to the Giardino Bardini, a beautiful Italian garden that just recently opened to the public. There’s a spectacular view over the city from this garden, too.”

Favorite Artisans

Lastrucci: Mosaics made with semi-precious stones. “This is a typical Florentine handicraft,” says Ponticelli. “The mosaics are made today in the same way that they were when they were chosen by Grand Duke Cosimo I to decorate the Medici chapels. These mosaics are meant to last forever. They work by commission, and what I most enjoy about visiting the studio is to see the way they work. There are only two or three apprentices in the studio, so this is a craft that may disappear one day.”

Ippogrifo: Hand-made etchings. “Etching was the first way of printing beautiful images,” explains Ponticelli. “At Ippogrifo, you see the whole process of creating an etching. First, a copper plate is coated with protective wax, then the artwork is drawn in the wax. Next the plate is immersed in acid, which consumes the exposed copper to create the etching plate. It’s an absolutely fascinating process.”

Galleria Romanelli: Bronze sculpture and statues.This studio produces statues by using the traditional lost wax technique. You can see the whole process in their atelier, where they work with molten metal. It’s very dramatic.”

Paolo Penko: Jeweler.Paolo Penko is a craftsman who is often inspired by the art of the Renaissance in his jewelry designs. He is a master goldsmith known for working in white and yellow gold together, which is part of the great jewelry making tradition of Florence.”