The (not so) Windy City & The Great Steak Hunt

Chicago. The Windy City. Chi-Town.

The backdrop to a lot of films. To name but a few:

The Untouchables – Cooley High – Sixteen Candles – Backdraft – North by Northwest – Home Alone – Road to Perdition – Public Enemies – The Fugitive – The Blues Brothers – The Color of Money – Risky Business – Batman Begins – The Dark Knight…and my favourite…Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…the temptation to wear an ‘Abe Froman Sausage King of Chicago’ tee was up there I can tell you.

Even my cinematic hero Charlie Chaplin filmed here, just once, in 1915.

But first, the journey. On all the other train trips I took lots of photos, not this one though. I don’t know why, tiredness, conversation or just generally enthralled with the scenery?

Anyway we woke up on the outskirts of Chicago and I snapped a picture of my roomette.

I had the small room to myself but the other couples all had to share this space! The chairs fold down to become a single bed. The dark area you can see in the top right of the picture is another bed that comes down, a la bunk beds, up top you are required to engage a safety strap so that you don’t fall out.

It wasn’t the best of nights, the train bounces around a bit and several times I woke up having whacked my head on the hard plastic arm rests.

Here’s a short video so you can see how much room there is in a roomette.

For one person I thought it was fine but it looked a bit cramped for two.Thankfully you don’t have to spend all your time in there. A bit further down the train is a sightseer lounge with tables, chairs and a lot of glass to enable you to see the view.

I hadn’t planned a great deal to do in Chicago, I knew we had a short amount of time and to be honest nothing grabbed me when I read the various guides on the internet. The two things I wanted to do were; see The Bean or Cloud Gate to give the official name, and go up the Sears Tower and walk on the Sky Deck.

As we left the train it was at the forefront of a few minds that we were about to walk through the station where The Untouchables filmed a famous scene, a famous scene that pays homage to a much earlier film; Battleship Potemkin.

Skip to 0:45 for the homage

Skip ahead to 6:40 for the original.

…and as it looks today.When I was there I wasn’t sure if they were the correct steps, there is an identical set to the left on the other side of this hall, but watching the clip it shows a character running out from some pillars to these steps. So I know they are the right ones as there are pillars to the right, as you can see below.And unless they flipped the shot, these are the same pillars.

I’d told a few of the group about the SkyDeck prior to arriving in Chicago, they thought I was nuts. When we moved out to the coach it was in a great spot to see the clear boxes that stick out 4 feet from the 103rd floor of the Sears Tower. The tour guide even mentioned it, and I just stood smiling while everyone else shuddered.But that’s for another blog post

We were taken to see The Bean during our city tour. Which was good as I got to see it straight away but also bad because I ticked it off my mental ‘I must see this’ list and never went back to it. The sculpture is by Brit Anish Kapoor, who also designed the Orbit sculpture that dominated the Olympic Park in London.As part of the tour we went down to the Museum Campus which offers a great view of the Chicago skyline. I think it was also our first glimpse of Lake Michigan.The city tour was supposed to be an Al Capone tour, but due to a mix up that didn’t happen. The guide tried to rescue it by showing a few sights but it was a too little too late.

Having been to Ford’s Theatre the day before, I was keen to get to the Historical Museum to see the Lincoln death bed. I took the bus most of the way but got off a bit early as I wasn’t really sure where I was.

Then I walked around the whole building trying to find the entrance! On the way around I saw this odd looking bird, I’ve no idea what it is but there were two of them.At the entrance desk I had to hand my bag in, I’m never keen on that but the guy who took it came back with a smile on his face. He had spotted my Great Rail Journeys label (we all had labels on our bags just in case they were mislaid) and was very keen to inquire about my train knowledge – which is zero. He explained that he was very into trains and had a track in his basement, when I told him we were going across the US by Amtrak, he named all the trains and said he had them on his track.

I headed upstairs to see the Lincoln exhibits and the death bed.This is the actual bed Lincoln was put on after he was shot and subsequently died upon. The picture above the bed is reputed to have been above the bed in Washington D.C. at the time of his death. The mask is a life mask not a death mask; it’s there to show the aging that took place from when he began his Presidency. The life mask (which I’ve not photographed) is also on display in the museum.

Downstairs is the meat of the museum and has a lot of great stuff about Chicago, although I took just two photos.

A Bunny Girl outfit from the 1970’s. Hugh Hefner opened the very first Playboy Club in Chicago in 1960. We saw the building on the coach tour.Secondly, a poster advertising films from Essanay Studios, 1915. Significantly it advertises Chaplin’s first two films for his new bosses. He had left Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios after only a year. He filmed His New Job in the Chicago studios but left to fulfill the remainder of his contract at the much warmer Essanay Studios in Niles California, not too far from San Francisco.

His New Job (1915)

The actress playing the stenographer at the back of the first location is Gloria Swanson; who 35 years later would deliver two of cinemas most brilliant lines, all in one film; Sunset Boulevard.

In the evening the group went to the bar of the Hancock Tower. The Tower has an observation deck but it’s cheaper to get a drink in the bar!After a drink about 7 or maybe it was 9 of us decided it would be a good idea to find a steakhouse. I’m not sure why it was suddenly decided that steak was the top choice of food in Chicago; for me it would be a deep dish pizza or hotdog but I went with majority rule.

So we piled into a couple of taxis and headed to a chain steak house that had been recommended by our city tour guide earlier in the day. Our driver was a large lady who was dumbfounded as to why we wanted to go to this chain, as it was, and I quote “like coming all the way to Chicago just to eat McDonalds”. When we arrived it was immediately obvious what she meant, this place was worse than worse. On the journey She had told us to head towards Dearborn Street to find a decent steak.

So that’s what we did, however good steak costs money and the cheapest we could find was around $40, well I was adamant that I wasn’t paying that, because when you added drinks, tax and tip it was going to be a $60 meal (that stance would be forgotten later in the trip), I wasn’t alone in that thought so we kept on walking. We walked so far uptown that we got back to the very street our hotel was on!

By now it was getting on for 9:30pm and we were very hungry. On the corner was a place called Bella Luna, we had a look at the menu and it looked good, there was a cheaper steak and various pastas. As we were looking two blokes and a young woman came out. One of the men said it was a great place, good food & a nice atmosphere. I asked him if he was a local, he said he was; that’s always a good sign in my book. But then I got suspicious, so I asked him if he was the owner!! He said no, just a regular.

We all went in and had an excellent meal, one steak & several pastas. This was the evening of Andy Murrays US Open victory, although at that time we didn’t know if he had won. When we left the hotel earlier in the evening, he had won the first set but was about to lose the second. With my imbued ‘I’m on holiday’ confidence, I went over and asked a guy at the bar (he was the second bloke outside) if he knew who had won. After a “Murray who” conversation, I was directed over to the first man we met, Frank.

Frank didn’t know but his lady friend looked it up on her ‘phone and gave me the good news. We three had a good chat about why we were looking for food, and then I explained all about the trip and he was enthused to say the least. I left the two of them and went back to out table.

I relayed the good news about Murray and we toasted his win. Later Frank came over and had a chat with the group and told us of his love for the UK and it’s people. He made his excuses and left, as he did the waitress came over and said that Frank had offered to buy us all dessert, which we gladly accepted. Frank came back in just before we left and he once again reaffirmed his love for the UK and said that if we were ever in Chicago, we should come and say hello.

I’m pretty sure he was a made man, even if he was all I know is he bought me a dessert and that’s good enough for me to say that Frank is a nice man.