There is no shortage of love for the North Side’s Andersonville.
This is not a neighborhood suffering an identity crisis or going through growing pains; it exudes a sense of self-awareness and fierce allegiance. This personification comes directly from the residents carefully tending and ensuring that unwanted outside forces don’t encroach on their way of life.
The history of Andersonville
Andersonville’s roots descend from Swedish settlers, and the Swedish American Museum’s stalwart facade proudly displays the colors of Sweden’s blue and yellow flag. The museum boasts two gallery spaces which often highlight Swedish and Swedish American contemporary works.
- The main business area near Clark Street and Foster Avenue was once a large cherry orchard.
- At one point, there were more Swedes in Andersonville than any city other than Stockholm.
- The annual Swedish tradition of celebrating the summer solstice blossomed into Midsommarfest, which has since grown into one of Chicago’s largest street festivals.
- There are two historic districts here: The Clark Street Corridor and the residential Lakewood Balmoral section.
- The infamous wooden water tank with the bright blue and yellow Swedish flag was replaced after 90 years with a fiberglass replica.
- Rosehill Cemetery in the northwest corner of Andersonville is the city’s largest cemetery and is a favorite spot for Civil War buffs with over 300 Union Soldiers and three Confederate soldiers buried there.
There’s also a genealogy center and a very interactive Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration where children can reenact the journey many Swedes experienced when coming to America. The children’s museum is free and has open public hours listed on its website.
The day I visited the museum’s executive director, Karin Moen Abercrombie, groups of children on school trips took turns laughing and learning as they recreated the Swedish immigrant experience. As they played dress up and undertook historical tasks in an authentically detailed, replicated farm house, I couldn’t help but reflect that the story that most of us came from somewhere, at some point in our history, is an urgent lesson in our current climate.
“Many Swedes came to Chicago back in the 1800s and early 1900s, so we have a lot of Swedish history here in Chicago. When they first came here they lived farther downtown, and then after the fire, they had to move farther north because they couldn’t build wood houses down in the city. So Andersonville was sort of farmland at that point,” said Abercrombie.
The fire Abercrombie is referencing is the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the subsequent ban on wooden houses forced poor Swedes to move north to an area that was mostly cherry orchards. New Swedish immigrants moved to Andersonville and dominated the business ownership along Clark Street.
Eventually, the Depression and post-war growth and appeal of suburban life caused the neighborhood to decline. It was because of the grassroots efforts of Andersonville residents that a renewed focus and movement to embrace the neighborhood’s Swedish roots ignited its revival.
Over the years the neighborhood has changed, adapted and grown but still embraces Swedish traditions like celebrating summer solstice. The resulting street festival Midsommarfest — sponsored by the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce — is one of the largest in the city with people traveling from all over to attend. Now, the main commercial strip holds a lot of diversity and businesses from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
History and nostalgia matter in Andersonville. When a multi-generational, 88-year-old Swedish bakery closed, patrons flocked from far and wide to get the pastry from their childhood. But take heart, there’s still a lot of Swedish heritage in our “Little Sweden” of Chicago. And, besides, it’s part of Swedish tradition to be very inclusive and welcoming.
Changes happen, but Abercrombie points out: “We’re welcoming everybody. Because that’s how Sweden is, Sweden is a very open country and that’s how it is here in Andersonville. Everybody’s welcome; everybody’s part of our community.”
Where to eat and drink in Andersonville
The first time I traveled to Andersonville was for mussels and beer. No big surprise that Hopleaf was what lured me. It’s no big insider tip to tell you to go to Hopleaf. However, I would say try something new next time you go.
I recently discovered how wonderful the ham and cheese sandwich is because I usually order the cashew butter and fig jam grilled raclette cheese sandwich and get stuck in a rut, satisfying my addiction. Before the CB&J sandwich, it was always the legendary steamed mussels! (By the way, Hopleaf sells a thousand pounds of mussels a week!)
In lieu of talking about the good food, the incredible beer selection and pristine draft lines, I’ll rave about how proprietor Micheal Roper exemplifies what’s great about an Andersonville citizen. He is dedicated to making the community a better place. He and his wife Louise have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the neighborhood Helen C. Pierce school. He is opinionated, vocal and always has an honest and thoughtful answer whether it’s about beer, business or political issues.
In 2017, Hopleaf celebrated 25 years of business, no small feat for an independently run gastropub that grew from 60 seats to now 290.
“When we first opened, everyone thought we were … on the edge of a cliff. No one wanted be this far north,” said Roper. “Now, everybody wants to be here. Places like Women and Children First, and Simon’s and the Middle East Bakery, and [we] brought people here. They were curious and then they liked it. Then they decided to move here, decided to open businesses here, they send their kids to the neighborhood schools, and they walk around the neighborhood and make it a wonderful place.”
One of the oldest businesses on Clark Street is Simon’s Tavern — another institution of Andersonville. Owner Scott Martin is a character, and I’ve heard many refer to him as the honorary mayor. He is very proud of his Swedish roots (from his mother Delores) and of his neighborhood. Simon’s is known for its Swedish glögg (mulled wine) during the holidays and the glögg slushie during Midsommarfest. (You may also spot Martin dressed up as a viking during the festival if you’re lucky.)
The bar was named after its original owner Simon Lundberg in 1934. Lundberg’s son, Roy, then brought Martin into the fold by selling the bar to him in 1994. Martin doesn’t take his stewardship of Simon’s lightly.
“He gave me a great responsibility and a privilege of taking over one of Chicago’s most historic bars,” said Martin. “It is a small tight knit community, in a big city. And I think the people of the community would rather support that local business rather than that corporate entity.”
Both Roper and Martin are historians, in their own ways, and both are captivating story tellers who are kind enough to want to share their knowledge. You’ll run into them when visiting their respective bars, and it’s delightful when you do. Their sense of hospitality and “home away from home” provides an invaluable reprieve from busy city life.
Next time you see Martin ask him about how and why Simon’s was referred to as [Ebenezer Lutheran] Church!If I’m craving delicious sushi but don’t want to spend a lot, I’ll save by going to Ora Sushi which is BYO. Did you forget to buy that bottle of wine or sake? Just walk a few store fronts north to the family owned Andersonville Wine & Spirits.
If you’re craving southern cuisine head to Big Jones. Recently, I had the chicken and dumplings, and it tasted like the stuff I grew up on in North Carolina.
If Asian cuisine is more your style there’s Polygon Cafe (a casual spot serving Thai and Japanese) and Jin Ju (a sleeker, contemporary Korean restaurant).
For Mediterranean head to Middle East Bakery where there’s a deli and you can stock up on ingredients and groceries. My favorite chicken shawarma is at Taste Lebanon. (Just remember it’s cash only, but it’s worth a trip to the ATM. I never have cash on me.) One of Reza’s locations holds a prime spot on Clark Street if you’re in the mood for Persian flavors.
For traditional Swedish food head to Svea. Serving classic fare like pancakes with lingonberry and pickled herring, it’s bound to be an authentic treat. (By the way, Svea is owned by Scott Martin’s father, Tom.)
For a delicious burger and refreshing beer head to Hamburger Mary’s where you might catch a drag show (on weekends), play bingo or trivia. Mary’s Attic hosts cabaret nights and is a fun vibe where everyone can let loose and be themselves. The original Hamburger Mary’s is in San Francisco, but the one in Andersonville has a charm and character all of its own.
For nice wine and date night I’d head to Appellation and sit at the bar. If you want to get some sandwiches and head towards the beach, get them next door at Pastoral.
My absolute favorite burger is at Little Bad Wolf.
This is a restaurant outside of the main commercial strip on Clark, that serves crave-worthy food, very late into the night. I’m talking about until 2 a.m. on Saturdays and 1 a.m. on weekdays. I’m a night owl and usually the only open kitchens in the wee hours of the morning result in regrets the next day. Don’t be scared off by the variety on the menu. A place that serves tacos, baos, salads and burgers? Feels like they are doing “too much” and are unfocused but they are doing it right, because it’s all very good!
So, back to the burgers. You can go for the two or three patties and eat the giant “Bad” or “Wolf” burgers, but I always opt for the three sliders – simple, single patties with cheese and pickle and oh, so worth the calories. I usually use the third slider to bargain for tastes of others’ entrees.
The fried shrimp basket is what dreams are made of – juicy, plump, sweet fried to order shrimp. The freshly fried tortilla chips with dips (various salsas and guacamole) are fantastic which says a lot, as I’m not a chip-and-dip person unless queso is involved. When I first started going to Little Bad Wolf it would be easy to get in, but now the secret is out! Thank goodness this happening restaurant is expanding soon.
Recently, I ran into a friend who was headed to dine solo, who invited me along. He was headed to a Korean restaurant with an Italian name, Passerotto, and I really wanted to pass. (Get it, pass on Passerotto? Ok, sorry.)
Full disclosure – as a Korean American, I’m super picky about Korean food. This is because most of the time when I have Korean food, it never fulfills me. I still leave as though I’m craving or missing something. This is not to say I don’t enjoy most all derivivatives of Korean food, whether fusion or just slightly influenced. But rarely is a Korean meal outright satisfying for me in a lasting way. Maybe this results from childhood memories and comparing it the food I ate growing up.
With Passerotto, again, I was skeptical I’d be satisfied. Korean food with Italian influences? But Chef Jennifer Kim (formerly of Snaggletooth) delivered a meal that was thoroughly satisfying to the depths of my soul that evening. It was just the right balance of Italian influence without changing the Korean-ness of it; if that makes sense. I hope it does. Or, if it doesn’t, just go and send me an email expressing how I could have done it better justice.
Brunch spots abound in easily walkable Andersonville. M. Henry and Lady Gregory’s are my two favorites with outdoor seating. Additional choices include Bongo Room and Hutch – they have locations in Andersonville along with other locations in the city.
Another favorite is Taste of Heaven Bakery and Cafe. Get breakfast or stop in for dessert. I have a friend who is obsessed with the zucchini bread. Everything is baked fresh and in-house. On the subject of dessert, George’s has decadent homemade chocolates and sweet treats like chocolate dipped s’mores and rice krispies treats. They also have a traditional banana split which is always fun to photograph and share on Instagram.
Where to shop in Andersonville
The community activism that helped revitalize and preserve Swedish history is still at work protecting Andersonville’s commitment to shopping local. Often called “the shop local capital of Chicago,” the residents and neighborhood create an environment where small businesses can thrive. This ensures Andersonville has a character all its own.
It’s no accident that Andersonville is a magical, charming place. It requires vigilance and for generations folks have fought off the homogenized consequences of development by chains. A few chains like Starbucks and Potbelly have made it on the main commercial strip of Clark (which is designated as a National Commercial Historic District) but overall you would never mistake you were anywhere other than Andersonville.
Andersonville reminds me of Hogwarts. A lot of people with similar core beliefs despite belonging to different houses, Gryffindor or Slytherin, united in the fight against the relentless onslaught of conglomeration, sameness and corporate chains. Don’t get me wrong, chains have their place in society and benefits, but it makes sense Andersonville is mostly free of them. In a time when most neighborhoods have rents so high they’ve pushed out independents to only showcase chains, Andersonville wears the crown proudly of what it means to shop local.
I have my favorite independent shops and boutiques across the city, but when I need to hit a bunch of local stores for locally made goods, I know I can find just what I need along Clark Street.
My favorite for women’s clothes, candles and gifts is Milk Handmade. Open since 2012, owner Hallie Borden says the customer base and support are reliable. “Andersonville is all about small business. The community is really supportive of independent shopping. We’re independent designers, we’re about ‘made in Chicago,’ we’re about a local movement. Everyone in Andersonville gets that right away.”
Another shop I love to browse is Transistor. They sell artwork, home decor, electronics, vinyls and book. If you’re looking for that unique gift for that difficult-to-buy-for person, this is where you go.
Vanessa Kaplan of Transistor sums up living in Andersonville nicely: “We have been lucky enough to get an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants up here [in Andersonville]. It’s not all retail. It’s not all food. Everyone’s a working professional usually family-oriented, very dog friendly, very pet friendly in general, very kid friendly … It’s a good mix, I think, of business and life. Every race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, all of the above. We’re all kind of, just comfortable here. It’s not noticed; it just is.”
That comfort extends to one of the largest lesbian and gay communities in Chicago. In the 1990s, Andersonville was often referred to as “Girlstown” due to the influx of lesbian couples moving into the neighborhood. Many attribute feminist bookstore Women and Children First as the pioneer of this trend, along with several lesbian bars. As “Boytown” rents in the Lakeview neighborhood increased, more gay men also started moving to Andersonville. Many of the lesbian-centric businesses have closed, contributing, along with rising costs, to less of a “Girlstown,” but still thriving LGBTQ community.
Another favorite shop to visit whether you’re buying or just looking is Woolly Mammoth. The eclectic shop is dedicated to “odd, amusing and eclectic items resurrected from the past.” The eclectic items run the gamut from vintage taxidermy, to old medical tools, and even skeletons.
“It’s kind of a touchable museum, motionless zoo, art installation, and most things are for sale. A lot of locals like to bring their out of town visitors here. We do get a lot of tourists and I like to say we do depend on the tourists, but rely on the regulars,” said owner Adam Rust.
Just remember your manners even though you may in awe. Ask before you take pictures and touch. And remember what may be freakish or odd to you, could be normal to another. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Adam’s wife and co-owner, Skye, adds, “It’s a very walkable community. Everybody wants to be out and about. I think people are craving that retail experience that you can’t find on Amazon. And Andersonville really specializes in those one-of-a-kind shops.”
Part of that “retail experience” is getting the opportunity to talk with wonderful shop owners like this husband and wife duo. When you shop or browse in Andersonville, most of the time you’re speaking with the proprietor because they are usually always working in their place of business. There’s not a lot of budget for staff, and it’s a labor of love.
Some of the other shops I love but didn’t have a chance to highlight in my video story include vintage furniture shops Brownstone Antiques, Scout, Mercantile M, Roost and Good Deal Garage.
I have to point out Brimfield. It’s a visual feast of plaid fabrics, throws and blankets. Giant vintage canoes are displayed throughout the space. Walking in it feels like you’re entering the most hipster, beautifully appointed cabin in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie about Boy Scouts. That last sentence will make sense when you go.
Brown Elephant must get proper acknowledgement. This fabulous resale shop has everything from furniture to clothes and supports the wonderful mission by the Howard Brown Health Center. They also accept donations.
Tilly is all about vintage clothing and also sells art and some furniture.
Andersonville Galleria also deserves a visit, especially if you’re looking for a unique gift. It’s just what it sounds like – various artists housed under one roof. Variety all in one spot.
Foursided Custom Framing Gallery not only will find you the right frame for that print you’ve always meant to hang but has a variety of stationery and gifts.
An all-time fave is Martha Mae: Art Supplies and Beautiful Things shop. This shop sells artist tools, books and stationery. It truly is a delight and will brighten your day to browse the highly curated shop.
What Andersonville residents have to say
Andersonville is the second largest LGBTQ community in Chicago after Boystown in Lakeview. Jonathan Pugh and his fiance, Stephen Edwards, are founders of the Allegrezza Singers, a community chorus that celebrates diversity and supports local charitable organizations. They shared their thoughts on living in Andersonville:
“I have always felt at home here,” said Pugh. “I often tell people we live in a beautiful small town that just so happens to be in a big city. I have never, not even once, felt out of place in my community. The people of Andersonville and the area have created a neighborhood where people really are welcome, in all forms. It’s not just talk either. The area has a long history of welcoming everyone and being an inclusive haven people like us.”
“There is not a more welcoming or friendly neighborhood that I have found in the city. I think one of the reasons I love it so much is because of how welcoming it is to the LGBTQ community. Whether you are in a restaurant, bar, book store, retail, or just walking down the street, you know that you can be who you are where you are in Andersonville,” Edwards said.
Marc “Moose” Moder, who DJ’s at Midsommarfest, told us his five favorite things about Andersonville:
- It’s diverse Mayberry. I know no other neighborhood in Chicago you can walk down the street (Clark) and see 5 different friends, all hanging out, just enjoying being in such a kind and warm ‘hood.
- Upscale, but not at all. A’ville has a great selection of shopping, drinking, eating but at the same time nothing seems unaffordable or overpriced. While most areas like Bucktown have become all chains, A’ville has stayed pretty mom n pop. Anytime someone’s come in with too grand of a concept, the Swede in us sees right through it. Gone.
- Little Bad Wolf. Literally it’s all good there, but the burgers. Just their simple Little Bad Burger, beat any of the much lauded burgers in town. Melts in your mouth.
- The Gay Scene. I DJ a few regular events at Mary’s Attic and Sofo Tap. I help create an atmosphere that says, “I got you. This is your music”.
- Consistency. While there’s always movement in and out of the area, every time you come back, it always feels familiar, like home, and everyone has worked really hard to keep it that way.
Laura Austin, the community and special events manager for the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, lives in the neighborhood with her family. She shared some insider tips with us:
- You must get a picture of yourself on top of the Dala Horse on Farragut. The original exists inside the Swedish American Museum, but this replica has given many a ride.
- Avoid driving and trying to park on Clark Street during a weekend day. It’s packed. You’re best off taking the Red Line and walking over from Berwyn.
- Come have tea in the exquisite library at The Guesthouse Hotel.
- You can get locally made jeans at Dearborn Denim and get them hemmed in just 10 minutes.
- Visit Martha Mae Art Supplies and Beautiful Things for the stuff, stay for the dog. You may find the store’s namesake – a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – resting in a basket wearing fur and not just her own.
- Best place for a view and photograph of the infamous water tower is on Catalpa Street looking south.
- Visit the bathrooms at Chicago Magic Lounge. The “Alice and Wonderland” all-gender restroom that looks even crazier through the camera on your phone. (Also: the typically over -21 venue has a family matinee every Sunday at 2pm.)
- Both Ranalli’s and Lady Gregory’s have a dedicated gluten-free menu offerings and Andersonville is home to Defloured: A Gluten-Free Bakery.