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The Grid: Exploring the Lincoln Square neighborhood

Welcome to “The Grid,” our in-depth look at Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Today’s stop is Lincoln Square. This neighborhood is about seven miles north of downtown Chicago.  It’s known for it’s family friendly atmosphere, emphasis on locally-owned shops and wide variety of ethnic restaurants. Plus, it has popular street fests and other events throughout the year that draw locals and tourists alike including the Square Roots Music Festival and Apple Fest.

“The Grid: Lincoln Square” includes two videos with host Ji Suk Yi sharing her favorite places to eat and drink and a detailed article that includes:

  • History
  • Things to do
  • Ji’s picks for shopping
  • Where to eat and drink
  • and much more!
Learn more about the Lincoln Square neighborhood in this episode of "The Grid." | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Learn more about the Lincoln Square neighborhood in this episode of “The Grid.” | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This story on Lincoln Square is one in a series by the Sun-Times focused on the interesting people and places in Chicago’s many neighborhoods, in hopes that all will be inspired to explore our city. We have engaging videos and a comprehensive story – all curated by the Sun-Times to help provide you with the most current and meaningful information about the important and best things to do in this and each neighborhood we visit.

We’re proud to welcome Baird & Warner as presenting sponsor of “The Grid.” Leading our video adventure is Sun-Times program host, Ji Suk Yi.

Ji Explores

Ji Suk Yi explores the Lincoln Square neighborhood in this episode of the The Grid. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi explores the Lincoln Square neighborhood in this episode of the The Grid. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

It’s easy to love Lincoln Square. It’s walkable, charming, family-friendly and the people are extra nice.

Once, in summer, walking to the brown line Rockwell stop I saw a table on the sidewalk displaying baskets full of corn and tomatoes with a sign that read:  Please help yourself but leave some for others. Another time, I saw what looked like a larger bird feeder… except it was roomy enough to hold about a dozen books behind a glass cabinet door. It was a community book exchange. Vegetables and books left out for the taking! I remembered thinking: Is this Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood?

It’s a charming neighborhood. I like seeing people walking around with guitar cases leaving the Old Town School of Folk Music. There are plenty of independently owned shops to suit any number of interests. Two of my favorite shops in the city are there, Merz and Gene’s. I’m quite a bath product nut and I can spend hours exploring the European products and soaps inside Merz. (I have an allergy to synthetic fragrances so it’s where I go for natural products.) In the summer, I get a brat and beer at the rooftop beer garden of Gene’s (sorry it’s only open during summer) and that’s how I definitively know I’ve made it through winter.

The Lincoln Square neighborhood. | Sun-Times archives

The Lincoln Square neighborhood. | Sun-Times archives

There are dogs, strollers, young and old, families and single people, too. It’s diverse. Not as diverse as its neighbors in Uptown, Edgewater or Rogers Park but for a Chicago neighborhood, it does well in diversity.

My absolute favorite part about Lincoln Square is the variety of restaurants. Whatever cuisine you’re looking for, you’re bound to find one restaurant that fits the bill. It seems like a BYOB heaven to me which means you can order more appetizers and indulge in the things that matter – talking to your friends without worrying so much about the cost!

Lincoln Square isn’t a flashy neighborhood but has a lot of substance. It’s charming and there’s a real neighborly feel when you visit.

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History

A sign at Montrose and Lincoln. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

A sign at Montrose and Lincoln. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Lincoln Square’s first European settlers were mostly farmers of Swiss, German and English descent. Most of the land was prairie turned into farmland and the farmers would drive their produce down Lincoln Avenue (back then called Little Fort Road) to sell in markets in the Chicago’s downtown area.

In the early 1890s and 1900s, it experienced major growth was spurred by the installation of electric streetcars and the “L” train in 1907 (now the CTA Brown Line). City workers wanted to live close to the rail lines so housing stock grew to accommodate new commuters.

There was also a large population of farmers in the new neighborhood. Mostly the farmers grew vegetables and flowers and the neighborhood was colloquially known as “Celerytown” (there was a lot of celery!) and “Pickletown.”

“Pickletown” was in reference to the Budlong brothers’ pickle factory in 1857 (at Lincoln and Berwyn; and yes, that’s in Budlong Woods.)  They were so successful, they expanded into the flower business with the opening of Budlong Greenhouses in 1880, a 500-acre farm.

Lincoln Square is listed as one of Chicago’s community areas but is divided up to include: Ravenswood Manor, Ravenswood Gardens, Ravenswood, Bowmanville, Budlong Woods and Lincoln Square.  As in all of Chicago, the 77 official community areas are often divided into neighborhoods; that are oftentimes divided into even smaller sub-neighborhoods. Ultimately, it’s an organic changing border which can often vary depending on who you ask.

Lincoln Square Fast Facts

For my purposes I’m focusing on the heart of Lincoln Square, which includes the one way, pedestrian-friendly commercial block of Lincoln Avenue. So let’s just say the western and eastern borders are the North Branch of the Chicago River and Leavitt Avenue; and the northern and southern borders are Foster and Montrose Avenues, respectively. You might disagree but after talking with folks with varying opinions, I’ll stick to this conclusion.

Things to do

Apple Fest in Lincoln Square. | Photo courtesy of Dan Kasberger

Apple Fest in Lincoln Square. | Photo courtesy of Dan Kasberger

Old Town School of Folk Music

Have you always dreamed of playing the guitar or picking up where you left off on your lessons as a kid? My mom doesn’t hesitate reminding me of how she payed for all of my piano and violin lessons when I was a kid, only to have me not play any instrument as an adult!

Regardless of age, background or experience you can sign up for classes in a range of instruments at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square. Founded in 1957, the school moved to the Lincoln Square facility in 1994. The 43,000 square foot art deco building was the former Hild Library. It was dedicated on September 18, 1998 with a concert by Joni Mitchell and Peter Yarrow.

The school is one of the premiere institutions for the study and presentation of folk and traditional music form and offers a wide range of music, dance, theater and visual arts classes (over 700 class offerings) for people of all ages.

The school helps presents the Square Roots Festival every July. The street festival features local food, craft beer and artist and craft vendors. The street festival has over 70 bands from around the world perform on four stages. Artists include a vibrant mix of performers from local indie rockers to world music stars to Old Town School teaching artists and students.

Street Fests and other events

In addition to Square Roots, Lincoln Square is also home to a number of other popular events including the annual Apple Fest with live music an an apple pie bake-off contest; Okotober Fest and parade; weekly summer concert series on Giddings Plaza;  and a twice weekly farmers market located next to the Brown Line’s Western Avenue stop.

Dank-Haus

Lincoln Square is known for its German roots. The DANK-Haus German American Cultural Center, originally founded in 1959 as a lobbying organization, is the driving force behind preserving and promoting it German and German-American culture. DANK, which stands for Deutsch Amerikanischer National Kongress—and is interchangeable with danke, the German word for “thank-you”—offers language and cooking classes, concerts, and has a museum, art gallery and school inside its seventy-seven-thousand-square-foot building. When you call the DANK Haus, you’re greeted in the fashion you’d expect: with a boisterous “Guten tag!”

Davis Theater and Carbon Arc Bar

Lincoln Avenue near the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Lincoln Avenue near the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The longest continually operated movie theater in Chicago, The Davis Theater, was originally known as the Pershing Theater. Built in 1918, named after WWI General John J. Pershing, it showed vaudeville shows and silent films. In the 1930s, it was renamed the Davis Theater and in the 1950s, it ran German-language films. In the 1990s, it began to show new releases.

Dinner and a movie is easy with Davis Theater’s adjacent bar and restaurant Carbon Arc Bar & Board. An upgrade for the building after its $5 million renovation in 2016, the restaurant is named for the lamp used in vintage movie projectors. The menu includes items easy to transport to the theater like pizza and burgers but also includes entrees worth being the feature presentation on their own like fresh crab salad, steak medallions, salmon and pot roast.

Family Fun

The Sulzer Regional Public Library in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Sulzer Regional Public Library in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

If you’re looking for a way to entertain kids, you can take them to “Weekend Cartoons and Brunch” at the Davis Theater – children can watch cartoons in the designated theater (with or without you). There’s a direct-connect hallway (they can’t escape or get lost without going past you) to the theater so you can either join them in cartoons or enjoy brunch while they watch cartoons.

Some other options include visiting Lincoln Square’s Sulzer Library.  Open since 1985, the regional library has toddler story time; game nights; book clubs and a variety of guest speaker events. There’s also Welles Park which boasts a soft surface playground, indoor pool, activities and intramural sports for all ages.

The gazebo at Welles Park, in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The gazebo at Welles Park, in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Another spot kids will love is Timeless Toys. An urban oasis for kids since 1993, the shop has story time during the week and classic toys which keep child development and educational play in mind.

The Book Cellar is a hit with children and adults alike! The independent bookseller has story time for children and has a cafe that serves food and wine. They host a lot of events and book clubs as well. What’s better than a glass of wine and perusing book titles to find your next good read?

Ji’s picks for shopping

Inside Genes Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Inside Genes Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Lincoln Square is one of my favorite shopping neighborhoods. Most of the businesses are independently owned which always makes me feel like the money I spend is more meaningful to the shop owners. Customer service is always outstanding because the owner is often present in the shop and there is real passion behind what’s being offered or sold. Also, as someone who doesn’t have a car it’s a very walkable commercial district.

In the heart of the pedestrian square around Giddins Plaza, there’s a lot of variety in the shops, from finding that perfect gift for the avid chef or getting workout or outdoor gear. My personal favorites include Gene’s, Merz, Planet Access where 100 percent of proceeds goes towards a good cause and my go-to for gifts is Enjoy.

Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen is a gourmet European market. Gene’s has been in Lincoln Square since 2009, but it’s roots go back to 1972 and two Polish immigrant brothers who opened a deli that boasted more than 40 types of handmade artisan sausages, fresh meats, ready to go deli foods and imported European groceries. The second floor features an extensive beer, wine and spirits selection. In the summer, the roof deck beer and wine garden is a neighborhood favorite. I go for a brat and beer and it’s one of the most quintessential Chicago bucket-list items to check off your list (over and over again).

Merz Apothecary was founded in 1875 by Ralph Merz. A pharmacist of Swiss descent, he modeled his drugstore after the European tradition which included herbal and traditional remedies in addition to western prescriptions. It passed through the Merz family for three generations. Luckily, Indian-born pharmacist named Abdul Qaiyum took on the mantle of the business and its mission.

At it’s current location since 1982, only a few miles from the original address,  Merz Apothecary continues to specialize in homeopathic medicines, vitamins, supplements and other natural products in skin care, bath and aromatherapy. Next door, is an extension of Merz which specializes in men’s grooming products (formerly Q Brothers), finer skincare product lines for men and women, hard-to-find perfumes and colognes from around the world.

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Planet Access Company Store has clothes for women and men, shoes, housewares and jewelry. I absolutely love this store! There is a range of price points from very affordable to splurge-worthy. The selection of products they carry is thoughtful, unique and high quality. The best part is that 100 percent of proceeds from the store support essential services for adults with disabilities. The shop is a social enterprise of non-profit Search, Inc.

Search, Inc. provides a wide range of flexible, personalized services to adults living with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including supported living arrangements, adult learning and employment programs, as well as medical, behavioral, therapy and home-based services. It’s truly a worthy cause and a unique approach to supporting a nonprofit!

My favorite shop to buy gifts in is Enjoy, An Urban General Store. Think fun, funky, eclectic and functional gifts for every person you know! The independent store has been open since 2005 and offers gifts for all ages (baby and children included). I love their eclectic mugs, socks and novelty calendars, notebooks and Chicago themed gifts.

Where to eat and drink

Ji with Huttenbar owner Irma Frolich (in purple) and long-time friends.| Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Lincoln Square is a great neighborhood for food enthusiasts. There’s a range of price points and cuisine offerings from all over the globe. My favorite part of the dining scene is that so much of it is BYOB which really makes it accessible to everyone.

If you’re really wanting to impress or splurge on a special occasion or date, make a reservation at the restaurants Goosefoot (30-seat intimate, contemporary multi-course tasting menu BYOB from husband and wife team) or Elizabeth (multicourse tasting menus of modernist “new gatherer” cuisine from self-taught and former underground chef). Both restaurants boast one Michelin star!

I’m a casual gal, myself and am drawn to the comforts of restaurants that I can enjoy solo at the bar or on a date. My restaurant picks in Lincoln Square that have delicious food and a good wine selection include Bistro Campagne, Due Lire, Gather and Warbler.

Since 2002, Bistro Campagne has been the French bistro for the neighborhood. It has the classics and does them well from French onion soup, mussels, steak tartar, Lyonnaise salad and steak frites. I enjoy the ratatouille gratin. There is a charming patio in summer that’s a hidden gem.

Due Lire has been open since 2010 and Owner Massimo Di Vuolo is a beloved fixture of the neighborhood. The pastas (including cocoa infused, chickpea and gnocchi) are made in-house and are inspired by Di Vuolo’s memories of Naples and family meals. Wednesday’s are half-price bottle of wine nights.

A recent go-to has been The Warbler, sister restaurant and adjacent to Gather restaurant. I enjoy sitting at the front bar and getting a glass of wine or cocktail (try the Rose Finch) and ordering from their selections under two sections: Vegetables and Salad & Grains. Their crispy cauliflower with ponzu glaze, eggplant with creamy buckwheat and shaved jalapeño, roasted broccoli with mango and toasted cashew makes you want to eat your vegetables.

For a casual all day cafe head over to Cafe Selmarie. Along with a full coffee and pastry bar they have an all day cafe menu. It’s bright and airy and in the summer you can sit on the patio which is right on Giddins Plaza near the fountain. It’s great people watching.

For breakfast, a neighborhood favorite is Pannenkoekan Cafe where you can order an authentic Dutch pancake.

For coffee and pie head over to Baker Miller under the train tracks. Their bread and pastries are all made from the very best organic, non-GMO grains that are milled in-house. You can’t get fresher or more conscientious than you’ll find pretty much anywhere! They also feature a cafe menu that features breakfast (from grits to oatmeal, avocado toast and lox plate) and lunch (soups, salads, sandwiches).

Oromo Cafe is focused on super foods and takes the time to make their own nut milks (like pistachio, almond and pecan milks). My personal favorite is the blended cold pistachio and matcha drink which features pistachio milk, matcha, frozen banana, hemp hearts, moringa leaf, spiriulina, maple syrup and vanilla. It’s not overly sweet and good for you but I order it because it’s delicious. On the hot beverage side, try a horchata and hazelnut latte.

My indulgence spot in Lincoln Square is Monti’s. The chef/owner and his wife are both from Philadelphia and love sharing their authentic Philly cheesesteak with Chicago. The amorosa rolls are shipped in from Philly and it’s worth all the calories.

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The following are my picks for Lincoln Square BYOB restaurants:

Luella’s Southern Kitchen was opened by Chef/Owner Darnell Reed in 2015. His restaurant is named after his great grandmother Luella Funches who moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1943. Southern cuisine is his passion and Reed sources the highest quality ingredients, including milling his own grits. There’s gumbo, twice brined fried chicken and she-crab soup when it’s in season. Reed just opened his second restaurant, Gospel Bird, in Bucktown.

For Filipino food, most foodie critics recommend Isla Pilipina. I love the hip, funky vibe of the restaurant. It reflects the personalities of founding owner Ray Espiritu and his business partners, siblings Sheila and Manny Manzanilla. They are young, fun and thrilled to be sharing their interpretation of their culture with their customers. Favorites include pancit (stir fried noodles with vegetables and meat), lumpia (deep fried pork and vegetable rolls), mixed adobo and sinigang (sour tamarind vegetable soup).

For Thai food I’d recommend Rainbow Thai or Spoon Thai. For Korean, food there’s Da Rae Jung (I go for naeng myun – cold buckwheat noodles) and late night spot Dancen (order the fire chicken).

For sushi head to neighborhood favorite Sushi Tokoroko.  For a banh mi head to Nhu Lan.

Jibek Jolu is Chicago’s only Kyrgyz restaurant with food that reflects Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Indian, Korean and Afghani flavors. Try the samsy (bake puff pastry filled with ground meat), lagman (hand pulled noodles with vegetables and beef), oromo (steamed pie) and manty (dumplings). You’ll find something familiar (kebab) or you can venture outside of your comfort zone and try completely unique flavors.

For drinks head to Huttenbar for authentic German and craft beers. It’s a charming bar and feels like an alpine lodge.

If you’re looking for out of the ordinary cocktails head over to cocktail lounge The Sixth. It’s somewhat upscale for the neighborhood but still casual enough to where neighbors just pop in for one after work or errands.

For an Irish pint head over to the Grafton Pub. The Irish bar feels cozy and features live music on some nights. There’s also dive bar Ricochet’s which has been a neighborhood staple for over twenty years. There’s no food but there is a jukebox and a rotating selection of craft beers.  Both charming in their own way.

One more thing

The iconic Abraham Lincoln statue in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The iconic Abraham Lincoln statue in Lincoln Square. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

One more thing…

With all of its European charm, it may feel like the pedestrian-friendly one-way block in the heart of Lincoln Square has been there since the neighborhood was founded. Actually, it wasn’t designed and constructed until the 1970s. Another crowd pleaser – the fountain adorned Giddings Plaza – wasn’t added to the square until 1999.

The Abraham Lincoln statue on the square originally stood in the middle of a traffic median triangle at the intersection of Lincoln, Lawrence and Western but proved too dangerous of a visual obstruction to drivers and was later moved. The statue cost $35,000 and was sculpted by the Utah artist Avard Fairbanks.

See you next time on The Grid!

Rubye Lane also contributed to this report.

Here's how you can follow Ji Suk Yi on social media

Here’s how you can follow Ji Suk Yi on social media

This new Sun-Times video series showcases the best of Chicago’s neighborhoods by turning a spotlight on the people, places and things that make our city one-of-a-kind. Look for a new video episode each Wednesday on the Chicago Sun-Times website. We hope you will watch, read and share all of The Grid stories!

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