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The Grid: 10 hidden gems in the Northcenter neighborhood

There’s a fabulous stretch of Lincoln Avenue, just south of Montrose, that I found myself frequenting over the years.

Initially drawn to the Korean restaurant Cho Sun Ok, I soon discovered the joys of a freshly brewed pint at Half Acre, burgers at Bad Apple, and Monday night 25-cent wings at Wild Goose Bar.

The often overlooked neighborhood –– Northcenter –– is south of Lincoln Square, though its borders are debatable, sometimes blending into Ravenswood.

Office supplies, books, colored pencils are on display for purchase inside Bari Zaki Studio. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Office supplies, books, colored pencils are on display for purchase inside Bari Zaki Studio. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

According to the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce,  however,the neighborhood’s borders are Montrose (north), Addison (south), California (west) and to the east, Clark (north of Irving Park) and Ashland (south of Irving Park). (Undoubtedly, the residents of Ravenswood (and its chamber) might disagree especially with the Clark, north of Irving Park distinction.)

So what’s the difference between North Center and Northcenter?

“North Center, the official city of Chicago-designated community area, which also includes parts of other neighborhoods is two words,” said Northcenter Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Lindsay Eanet. “But Northcenter, the neighborhood, within the community area, is one word.”

It’s true. North Center, one of the city’s 77 designated community areas, encompasses parts of Bricktown, Roscoe Village, Ravenswood and West Lake View.

I asked some locals about the one-word versus two-word distinction, and most had not heard of it but agreed, it’s a clever idea.

Ultimately, the borders in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods seem to ebb and flow with time, determined by residents, business owners, real estate trends and chambers who would like to include the best businesses around them.

To keep my life easier, I’ll just go with what the chamber’s one-word Northcenter, but geographically I’ll play it safe and use the intersection of Irving Park Road, Lincoln and Damen Avenues as a hub, and work my way out from there.

Ji Suk Yi with Halfacre co-founder Maurizio Fiori and General Manager Sara Taylor. | Brian Rich for the Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi with Half Acre co-founder Maurizio Fiori and General Manager Sara Taylor. | Brian Rich for the Sun-Times

There are some advantages to Northcenter not having as much notoriety as some of its North Side neighbors. Many of the businesses are sought-after destination points rather than accidental discoveries stumbled upon by customers.

I’ve seen a line of people waiting outside, in the cold, at Cho Sun Ok, and The Globe Pub packed full of soccer fans on game nights.

“We’re a nice pocket, in between lots of stuff. We’re accessible to a lot of neighborhoods,” said Long Room owner Jason Burrell. “The fact that we’re overlooked kind of helps us in ways. It doesn’t explode over here. When people show up, they don’t leave. They come here with purpose.”

A view of the bar at Timber Lanes. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

A view of the bar at Timber Lanes. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Northcenter, which hosts Ribfest in June, has many hidden gems.

“We’re a performance arts hub and not a lot people know about that. Strawdog Theatre Company recently moved to the neighborhood. We have Bughouse, Corn Productions and Laugh Out Loud that all do improv. We have, of course, Martyr’s, which is an incredible concert venue. There’s a lot of ‘live lit’ and story telling too,” said Eanet. “You don’t have to go downtown to have a really nice and affordable night of entertainment. You can just stay in Northcenter.”

Here’s my top 10 list of what to check out in Northcenter:

1. Celebrate German history

The Von Steuben Parade, celebrating German culture and the German general who volunteered for George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, steps off at Lincoln and Irving Park every September. If you want to celebrate German-style year round then I’d highly recommend both Laschet’s Inn and Resi’s Bierstube. Laschet’s was founded in 1971.

The many varieties of beer available on tap at Laschets Inn. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun Times

The many varieties of beer available on tap at Laschets Inn. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun Times

While now operated by its third owners, it maintains its Old World charm and authentic German recipes. Resi’s Bierstube, established in 1973, also serves German fare and is currently run by the original founders. Both places have a great German beer selection. They’re near each other, so I’d recommend a stop at both locations.

2. Make like the Dude from the “The Big Lebowski”

If you’re a fan of the cult classic film, you’ll find Timber Lanes Bowling Alley charming. There are only eight wooden lanes and reserved league times, so it’s important to call ahead. You’ll also have to sharpen your math skills by keeping score without the aid of electronic scoreboards. There are plenty of other old school touches, down to the very lived-in, musty smells (especially back by the ball rooms). Hold your breath back there! Buy a pitcher of beer at the bar (it’s made from wood from a bowling lane) and order pizza or some other food delivery since it’s BYO food.

Ji Suk Yi and Timber Lanes owner Bob Kuhn. | Brian Rich for the Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi and Timber Lanes owner Bob Kuhn. | Brian Rich for the Sun-Times

3. See a show

Martyrs‘ showcases nationally famous bands without ever losing its commitment to local talent. Owner Ray Quinn signed the lease on an old post office building in October 1994, and with the help of friends and family, started the music venue. The stage is home to all genres of music from rock, blues, folk and jazz to hip-hop and world music. Martyrs’ also serves pizza, empanadas and quesadillas.

4. Dust off your old guitar

After seeing a show at Martyrs’, you’ll inevitably be inspired to dust off the guitar you bought years ago. Take it to Chicago Fret Works for a tune-up.

Chicago Fret Works technician Joe Swierupski was the first employee hired more than seven years ago at the shop. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Chicago Fret Works technician Joe Swierupski was the first employee hired more than seven years ago at the shop. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Co-owners Dan Wolf and Steve Baker remember being met with a lot of skepticism from friends and family when they decided to set up shop in 2008. Would there be enough guitars to keep them in business? Over a decade later, their staff and company have grown to service professional musicians (a regular is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy) to amateurs and hobbyists. They repair, restore and care for guitars, banjos, mandolins, basses and amplifiers.

Chicago Fret Works technician Gregory Martin works on a guitar | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Chicago Fret Works technician Gregory Martin works on a guitar | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

5. Drink cider at the Northman

Opened in 2016 as the city’s first cider-focused bar, The Northman continues to wow me. The selection, from draft to bottle, is extensive. The flavor of ciders range from funky, dry, sweeter and acidic, and some can be easily mistaken for champagne or wine. The friendly and knowledgeable bartenders can find a cider that will work for your tastes. The visual showstopper is the Spanish cider, Trabanco Sidra Natural, poured from a tap close to the ceiling –– a decanting method used to aerate the cider before serving.

Northman General Manager and Spirits Director Ambrosia Borowski. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Northman general manager/spirits director Ambrosia Borowski. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

6. Drink a fresh pint at Half Acre

Since 2008, Half Acre Beer Company has helped put this stretch of Lincoln Avenue on the map. Halfacre  is among the first businesses to kickstart Chicago’s craft brew scene. which that has proliferated. While Half Acre now has a second location, the original taproom is still a cherished destination for craft beer aficionados. I recommend that along with the beer, you order Halfacre’s nachos, which feature the most delicious “science cheese.” The weekly special burrito and “truck stop fries” are also a must-have.

7. Beer and Biscuits — all day long at Long Room and the Biscuit Man

Ever crave a fresh biscuit and a beer in a casual, no-fuss, neighborhood setting? Opened in 2000, the Long Room showcases a 60-foot bar  focused on a rotating selection of the best craft beer. They also have full coffee service that starts at 8 a.m. and a policy of no televisions. So naturally, it’s the perfect place to have a conversation.

Long Room owner Jason Burrell (center) and bartenders Nick Staton (left) and AJ Beck. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Long Room owner Jason Burrell (center) and bartenders Nick Staton (left) and AJ Beck. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Attached to the bar is an in-house kitchen. The Biscuit Man was the brainchild of Chef Zeeshan Shah. The menu offers biscuits, biscuit sandwiches, salads and rice bowls, with a focus on locally sourced ingredients and housemade sauces. Best-sellers include the fried chicken biscuit sandwich and burger.

8. Take a class (bookbinding, drawing or knitting)

Bari Zaki Studio, founded in 2015, is the brainchild of professional bookbinder and box maker Bari Zaki.

Her father was a printer and often brought home leftover print samples and paper, which sparked her love for the craft. The studio is delightful, full of blank books, elaborate keepsake boxes, colored pens and pencils, note cards and assorted office supplies. Zaki also offers bookbinding, box making, calligraphy and drawing classes.

Bari Zaki (left), owner of Bari Zaki Studio, works on a project. Zaki has over 30 years experience in European and Japanese bookbinding techniques. She also creates custom boxes and portfolios. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Bari Zaki (left), owner of Bari Zaki Studio, works on a project. Zaki has over 30 years of experience in European and Japanese bookbinding techniques. She also creates custom boxes and portfolios. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Nearby Bari Zaki Studio you’ll find Knit 1. The shop offers beginning to intermediary classes. Some classes are specifically project-focused and participants end up with a scarf or sweater. The studio also has crochet classes. The boutique has every type of yarn imaginable in assorted styles and colors for those looking for high quality, natural fiber yarn.

Natural fiber yarn varieties at Knit 1 boutique. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Hundreds of natural fiber yarn varieties are available at Knit 1 boutique. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

9. Do some shopping (from appliances to unique shoes)

Northcenter is home to one of the city’s oldest appliance stores. Cole’s Appliance & Furniture Co. has been selling refrigerators and sofas since Abe Krasney opened the business in 1946. After three generations, the Krasney family has maintained old-fashioned values and the same charming vintage neon sidewalk sign. Cole’s offers contractors, designers and custom-built upholstered and wood furniture.

The shoe boutique Traipse, which opened in 2003, is unique in that it doesn’t sell high heels. Comfort is key in the fashionable, modern and funky brands featured by owner Margaret Jung. Many of the shoes are made from environmentally sustainable materials.

Union Handmade boutique is an artist collective started by Leigh Deleonardo. Around a dozen artisans are featured in the collective wherein the emphasis is placed on handmade clothing, jewelry, hats, accessories and leather goods.

There's so much to discover at the artist collective boutique Union Handmade. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

There’s so much to discover at the artist collective boutique Union Handmade. | Ji Suk Yi for the Sun-Times

Hawthorne is a vintage furniture shopper’s dream. Shop owner Robert Rud hand selects vintage furniture finds, mixing modern, industrial and eclectic furniture and decor. He also stocks a gift emporium that includes candles, ceramics, housewares and leather accessories.

Embellish Boutique is an accessories and gift shop focusing on products from independent local and global artists. Owner Carrie Bowers has been spearheading positive change through her curated goods for over a decade. Most items have a social mission behind the brand and support meaningful causes and organizations.

10. Make dinner plans

There’s a surprising variety of restaurants in Northcenter, including the ones that drew me to the neighborhood in the first place. Bricks is great for pizza and smoked barbecue. Head over to Steingold’s for a classic lox and bagel or matzo ball soup. Looking for contemporary Irish nosh? Try Mrs. Murphy & Sons. Chicago’s oldest Chinese restaurant, Orange Garden, is on Irving Park. It’s still serving up chop suey like it did when it opened in 1932.

If you’re looking for an upper-scale dining experience head over to Kitsune. Winner of multiple “best restaurant” honors, Kitsune showcases seasonal Midwestern ingredients in its Japanese home-style cuisine. Options include either a nine- or five-course kaiseki or tasting menu that stays true to Japanese cooking techniques and flavor profiles. Chef Iliana Regan, who first came to critical acclaim with her Michelin-starred restaurant Elizabeth, delights diners in creating food that is both familiar and surprising.

If you’re looking for a casual ambiance and a surprising smattering of Asian flavors on a Latin menu, head to Dos Ricco’s. You’ll find burrito and taco varieties that include Korean kalbi beef, tempura shrimp and orange chicken. It’s fusion, which is an often much maligned word in the food world.  I say don’t take it too seriously and approach it as fun and different.

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.

This 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!