Avondale has deep industrial roots and is historically known for its smoke stacks and steeples. It’s not a fancy neighborhood and is ingrained with a blue collar heritage. It’s down-to-earth, hard-scrabble and full of people with different ethnic backgrounds. For years, it was considered the neighborhood that helped build Chicago because of the brick-making plants, lumber yards and coal factories that lined Belmont Avenue.
Historically, Avondale has been a mostly Polish and Eastern European neighborhood and part of Chicago’s so-called Polish Village.
It’s also the neighborhood where Eastern European culture meets Latin American culture given the now substantial Latino population. Add to that a sprinkling of other ethnicities, artists and an influx of new residents and young families… and you’ve got a neighborhood once again on the move!
The more time you spend exploring the independent businesses and walking down its streets of modest bungalows and two flats, you’ll see the charms of the neighborhood reveal itself. Architectural details are abundant but not opulent. The diversity of the businesses, restaurants and people will broaden your palate and perhaps your viewpoint. That to me, reveals a beauty to the neighborhood that’s truly unique. The key to seeing that beauty is taking the time to look.
A little bit of Avondale history
Avondale’s proximity to the river and the railway created the perfect scenario for factories and warehouses to keep up with the production and distribution demands across the country.
Florsheim Shoes, Olson Rugs, Dad’s Root Beer, Maurice Lenell cookies and I.S. Berlin Press were a few of the larger companies that made their homes in Avondale. Along with the large industrial, construction and manufacturing plants were smaller mom-and-pop businesses contributing to the bustling neighborhood.
Initially a quiet suburb, Avondale was incorporated as part of Jefferson Township in 1850. Later it was incorporated as a village in 1869 and was eventually annexed as part of the city of Chicago in 1889.
Like the rest of the Chicago area, the initial settlers were Native Americans. Two prominent Native American trails were planked and known as the Upper and Lower Northwest Plank Roads. These later would become Elston and Milwaukee Avenues.
A great resource on Avondale is the book “Images of America: Avondale and Chicago’s Polish Village” by Jacob Kaplan, Daniel Pogorzelski, Rob Reid and Elisa Addlesperger. Full of archive images and history on the fluid boundaries of Avondale and Polish Village, it’s a good compilation.
According to Pogorzelski, the Upper Plank Road that later would become Milwaukee Avenue was particularly notorious because its wood planks were warped, and many were missing. There was also a toll to use the road despite its pitfalls. Amos Snell, the road’s owner had set up toll booths at regular intervals and one was located at Milwaukee and Belmont Avenue. Snell’s attempt to charge the city’s fire department was the final affront, the toll booths were set on fire and Snell was mysteriously murdered in 1889.
After Avondale was annexed by the city, extensive infrastructure improvements attracted new residents. Within two decades the population grew to include mostly Polish, German and Scandinavian settlers. The largest group of immigrants were the Poles, who first began to move to the area in the 1890s. By 1930, they made up 33 percent of the population (of around 48,000).
The first wave of Polish immigrants arrived in the Chicago for mostly economic reasons and the booming need for workers in the growing city. The second wave of immigrants arrived after World War II. The third wave arrived in the 1980s as political refugees from the Solidarity and Post-Solidarity movements.
Many Polish settled west of Kedzie Avenue along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor. Where Polish settlement was most visible was west of Kedzie Avenue along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor. Many settled in the Jackowo or the Waclawowo sections of “Polish patches” In Avondale. However, the larger Polish Village extended beyond the boundaries of Avondale.
The enclaves were named after the churches they surrounded. The two most important Polish churches were St. Hyacinth Basilica established in 1894 and St. Wenceslaus founded in 1912.
- Concordia Lutheran Church, in Avondale. At 125 years old this was one of the first gothic-style churches in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- The wind section at Andy’s Music, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Old Chicago Antiques in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance inside an old firehouse, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- St. Hyacinth Basilica, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Hundreds of antiques piled around at Olde Chicago Antiques, in Avondale. Most of the Antiques are sourced from Europe and some are about 400 years old. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Instruments from around the world dot almost every square inch of Andy’s Music, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Bucket o Blood Books and Records, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- People wait outside of the Addison Blue Line station in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- St. Hyacinth Basilica, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- The ornate front door of St. Hyacinth Basilica, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Instruments from around the world at Andy’s Music, in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- A view down North Milwaukee Avenue, one of the main streets that runs through Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Avondale Park in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- The Kennedy Expressway bisects Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- A cyclist rides down North Elston Avenue in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
St. Hyacinth is a classic cathedral that can seat more than 2,000 people, has imported stained glass windows and a dome measuring 3,000 square feet with more than 150 figures. They have various concerts throughout the year including an upcoming concert for peace.
Avondale is known for being home to these two Polish churches, but an interesting history note is that the first church in the area was African-American (east of Milwaukee Avenue, near what is now the Belmont stop). “The Allen Church” was founded in the late 1880’s by John B. Dawson, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church who purchased a large tract of land in Jefferson Township (which later would become Avondale) in the years immediately following the Civil War. The church served around 20 African-American families who had settled in the area.
Where Eastern Europe meets Latin America
Avondale is now known as the neighborhood where Eastern Europe meets Latin American and Mexican culture. According to the “Encyclopedia of Chicago”, by 1990 Hispanics and Latinos accounted for 37 percent of the total population of Avondale. Restaurants and businesses reflect the growing Latino population in the neighborhood.
The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance is one organization that reflects the Latinos’ important contributions to the neighborhood. Over the past 20 years, PRAA has emerged as a primary cultural resource, offering high-quality, music and arts educational programming to 30,000 participants each year. In addition to classes the alliance has a rotating gallery exhibit in their Avondale Elbridge location.
While many Polish residents have moved to the suburbs and dispersed to other locations in the city, Avondale still maintains its Polish vibe with many authentic restaurants and businesses. In addition to the Latin American presence in the neighborhood, there are other cultural influences as well such as people from the Soviet Bloc, Asians (of note historically was a strong Filipino presence) and African-Americans.
If you’re looking for more on Avondale check out “The Avondale Neighbors Association.” A nonprofit, its goal is to preserve Avondale’s history, embrace diversity, and connect neighbors. The association has organized neighborhood clean-ups, socials, spearheaded murals and runs a local art walk called “A Day in Avondale.”
Other cool organizations and resources to check out include nonprofits “The Corner Project” (focuses on the community on Milwaukee Avenue between Kimball and Central Park and promotes actions for embracing future change by raising awareness and strengthening relationships); “Voice of the City” (local artist alliance that connects quality art experiences to the community); and Elastic Arts (fosters community, art and performance through local music concerts, exhibitions, and multi-arts performances).
If you’re a working artist or want to learn or perfect a craft, Pumping Station One is a community cooperative of artists, makers, craftsman and engineers. It fosters an environment for the exploration of the intersections between technology, art and culture. The facility has a wide variety of equipment, tools, and workshops to help you build what you envision. There are classes on electronics, programming, crafts, and any other skills that members (or guests) are willing to share.
Where to eat and drink
For Polish food, I’d recommend Staropolska. You’ll find all the usual Polish classics like pierogi, stuffed cabbage, sausage and classic soups. The ambiance is great; there’s even a fireplace perfect for winter months and Polish beer on draft.
If you’re wanting a quick service option or to pick up deli items, sausage and prepared foods to go, head to Kurowski’s Sausage Shop. Just remember the shop provides dozens of sausage options so do your research ahead of time and practice your Polish pronunciation. If you’re looking for a Polish buffet then head over to the Red Apple. It’s all you can eat with a separate price for lunch, dinner and weekend.
Tacos Tequilas is owned by two “Jorge’s” – Jorge Pizana and Jorge Manzano. It’s a colorful, friendly spot where you’ll feel comfortable on a casual date or hanging out with a group of friends for a while. The tacos and cocktails are delicious, and the menu features cuisine from various regions of Mexico. If you want to literally heat things up, order the molcajete surtido which is served in a lava stone bowl that’s set on fire! It’s a sharable bowl of skirt steak, chicken, chorizo, panela cheese, grilled cactus, onions and salsa rustica.
Barra Ñ has Argentinean eats, tropical drinks, and late night DJ’s. If you’re looking for an intimate space where you can dance, listen to live music, nosh on delicious empanadas, then this cozy corner spot is perfect for a night out.
Other Latin American and Mexican cuisine to check out in Avondale include:
- Cafe Tola -one of two locations in the city, known for their empanadas
- La Cocina -Mexican cuisine with special care on offering vegan options
- Taqueria Mazamitla -my friends who live in Avondale love the burritos and tacos here (cult following)
- Gorditas Loli’s -gorditas are like arepas or masa/corn pita stuffed with meat and cheese – I like the pollo en tinga but please know it’s cash only!
- El Gallos Bravo 2 -which is practically open 24 hours save for a few hours – I like their chicken flats
I’m guessing everyone knows about Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Co-owners Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp have been in Avondale since 2013. They’ve garnered national attention for their delicious, high quality food and for their commitment to the environment, local farms and giving back to the community. I’m a big fan of the corn muffins. Sometimes it’s about the simple things and they are addictive!
Plus, there’s the equally famous Kuma’s Corner for burgers and mac-n-cheese. They’ve expanded with locations in the city and suburbs but their original location opened in 2005 at the corner of Belmont and Francisco.
But… if you’re looking for another chicken spot, head to Mr. Pollo. Its speciality is Ecuadoran rotisserie chicken and it’s crispy, tender and juicy. The sides are great, and it’s easy to pop in, no pretense, just a good bird.
Head over to DMen if you’re craving a doner kebab, poutine or sauer kraut balls. The German-Turkish food mash-up originated as a food truck, but the brick and mortar location is in Avondale. They have a special for every day of the week listed on the website
Metropolitan Brewery’s taproom views of the Chicago River are as enjoyable as the beer. Open since 2017, the floor-to-ceiling windows showcase a serene view that feels very tucked away from the city. As I sat and enjoyed my beer, I watched high school rowing teams glide across the water. Dogs and children are also welcome. The brewery doesn’t serve food, but you can get food delivered or bring it in yourself. The brewery specializes in German style lagers that are easy to drink so spending an entire day in the beautiful space is even easier.
- Ji Suk Yi at Gorditas Loli’s in Avondale. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times
- Ji Suk Yi at the Avondale Coffee Club in Avondale. | Brian Rich Sun-Times
- Sobczak’s Sausage shop in Avondale. | Sun-Times Archives
- Alex Super Deli in Avondale. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
- Ji with Chef/Owner Beverly Kim of Michelin-starred Parachute in Avondale. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times
- Ji Suk Yi with Dan Miracle of Metropolis Coffee. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times
- Ji Suk Yi and Tacos Tequila in Avondale. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times
- Ji Suk Yi in Avondale. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times
- A featured dish at Tacos Tequila in Avondale. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times
Metropolis Coffee’s roastery is in the same development complex (yet to be named) as Metropolitan Brewery on Rockwell on the Chicago River. (The similarity in names was just a coincidence.) The complex is a beautifully restored former tannery, built with hopes of becoming a food-lovers, artisanal-makers hub that will draw customers from near and far. Metropolis is the anchor tenant, moving into the facility in September 2015.
Michelin-starred Parachute has received national acclaim. The seasonal menu changes, and it’s so worth frequenting on a regular basis. Husband and wife team Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim craft a Korean-inspired menu with locally sourced ingredients. Always start with the bing bread.
While you wait for your table head over to Chief O’Neill’s for a pre-dinner drink. Since 1999, the restaurant has been importing Irish beer, spirits and serving up authentic Irish food and music. On the weekends it serves an all-you-can-eat brunch.
If you’re craving Korean food and you’re in a hurry, head over to Jong Boo Market. It’s every Korean Chicago-city dwellers secret snack spot. In the back corner there’s a snack shop where you can order simple Korean fan favorites that taste as good as mama made.
Sleeping Village has 56 taps for mostly beer – but they also have wine, cider, mead and even kombucha on draft. It’s open all day, so you can grab a coffee and work on your laptop during the day. At night it’s a bar that has a concert venue with a capacity for more than 300 people.
Another bar to check out is cocktail-focused Ludlow Liquors and the Filipino-inspired food from side-kick permanent food pop-up Old Habits. If you’re looking for something really old-school head over to Podlasie Club. It’s a Polish bar that’s full of polka dancers on a Saturday night. It’s surreal because it seems as though it’s been untouched for decades and rightfully takes its premiere spot as a preserved piece of Polish Chicago dive bar history.
One more thing
Avondale was once home to the Olson Park and Waterfall Complex, a 22-acre garden and waterfall remembered by many Chicagoans as the “Bohemian Dells.”
Rubye Lane also contributed to this report.