By Rachel Bertsche
Photography by Ryan Lowry | February 20, 2015 | Lifestyle
From food and fashion to theater and our burgeoning tech scene, Chicago is suddenly the coolest city in the nation.
Chicago has always been a city of robust culture and rich history. But an epicenter of cool? Not necessarily. A decade ago, if an outsider were asked the coolest things about Chicago, she’d probably mention a few familiar names: Michael. Oprah. Kanye.
These days, it’s a totally different story. Today, the national buzz around our town doesn’t surround any single superstar, but the sweeping innovations taking place across major cultural industries. Chicago’s trendsetting household names aren’t even people anymore—they’re ambitious young companies (Groupon), or restaurants (Next), or stages (Steppenwolf).
Take Trunk Club, the Chicago start-up launched in 2009 as a solution for men who hate to shop. Stylists personally pick items based on an online style profile and ship them directly to consumers. Anything a customer doesn’t like, he can return. It’s a simple yet classy concept—not unlike our fair city. Fast-forward five years, and the tech/fashion player was bought by Nordstrom for $350 million. Techies in Palo Alto and fashionistas in New York couldn’t help but take notice.
Chicagoans are thinking differently, rejecting what’s comfortable for what’s bold, what’s safe for what’s unexpected. And it’s paying off. Folks who once might have shrugged off our city (those tech and fashion folks, but also filmmakers and foodies) are flocking here, and as a result, one thing cannot be denied: Chicago has never been so cool.
Here, Michigan Avenue takes a look at four cultural spheres where Chicago is chicer than ever: tech, cuisine, fashion, and theater. Meet the people who are making waves, find the hottest epicenters in the city, and memorize the up-and-coming names that everyone will be talking about next year. ?????
Our burgeoning start-up scene has made us the Silicon Valley of the Midwest.
There was a time when Chicago was just a city that entrepreneurs and venture capitalists flew over en route from Silicon Valley to the East Coast and back again. But as tech companies like Groupon, GrubHub, and Trunk Club sprouted up, attention slowly started to shift. Now, instead of fleeing to Palo Alto, techies with big ideas are setting up shop at incubators like 1871 or applying for funding through VC firms like FireStarter. The results are impressive: a fleet of groundbreaking companies that are changing the way we do everything from order for delivery to share on Instagram. Today, innovative ideas, a collaborative community, and hungry entrepreneurs looking for the Next Big Thing have come together to make Chicago a tech destination in its own right.
Caralynn Nowinski, executive director and COO, UI Labs
The executive director of research hub UI Labs, Caralynn Nowinski, thinks Chicago’s emergence in the tech scene is long overdue. “There’s a recognition among the communities—start-up, civic, university, and corporate—that if we don’t break down barriers between us, we’re never going to make the difference that puts us where we should be,” says the Bucktown resident. UI Labs’ Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) was announced by President Obama in February 2014 after being selected by the Pentagon and is tasked with giving new life to the national manufacturing economy. It’s one of only four national public-private innovation institutes and will operate out of a 94,000-square-foot space on Goose Island.
Chicago's role in the tech world: “As the heart of the Midwest, it’s extra important for us to make sure technology is not an elite community but something that’s accessible to everyone from school kids through grandmothers.”
On big data: “Everything that’s cool right now is about data. It’s going to help us make better decisions about how we run our businesses and how we run our lives.”
Why Chicagoans make great techies: “At the end of the day, we’re a bunch of scrappy entrepreneurs who know how to get things done and make things real.”
The coolest Chicago start-up: “Inventables has made the tools and accessories accessible for everyday people to make things, from 3-D printing to woodwork.”
Next Big Things
Five tech start-ups to watch in 2015:
1. Opternative: Take an online refractive eye exam and get an email prescription in 20 minutes for $30.
2. Ampy: A wearable battery pack powered by the energy you exert from exercise.
3. Raise: Buy discounted gift cards or sell your unwanted or unused cards online.
4. Rocketmiles: Earn up to 5,000 airline miles every night by booking at select hotels.
5. Zealous Good: Connect with local charities that need your unwanted stuff.
Epicenters of Cool
Four local spots where the industry action is:
1. Bow Truss Coffee Roasters: Where River North techies take their midday coffee break. 406 N. Wells St., 312-222-1306
2. The Green Door Tavern: Start-up teams in the official jeans-and-hoodie tech uniform dig into burgers at this River North grill. 678 N. Orleans St., 312-664-5496
3. La Colombe: Bring your laptop to this coffee shop to fit in with West Loop techies getting their caffeine fix. 955 W. Randolph St., 312-733-0707
4. University Technology Park at IIT: A South Side incubator for life-science business start-ups. 3440 S. Dearborn St.
Why Chicago's Tech Scene is Having a Moment
“Chicago has a robust pipeline of early and growth-stage tech companies, and all of the pieces are in place to build a leading ecosystem from world-class university talent to engaged Fortune 500 companies to angels and venture capital funds. We have to be patient, but over the years, Chicago should emerge as one of the leading places to build a tech company in the US, if not the world.” —Kevin Willer, cofounder and partner, Chicago Ventures
Suit, Burberry ($1,995). 633 N. Michigan Ave., 312-787-2500. Dress shirt, Armani Collezioni ($325). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. Tie ($135) and pocket square ($80), Eton. Saks Fifth Avenue, SEE ABOVE. Belt, Salvatore Ferragamo ($380). Saks Fifth Avenue, SEE ABOVE. Oxfords, Christian Louboutin ($945). 58 E. Oak St., 312-337-8200. Watch and socks, Odom’s own
Jimmy Odom’s “aha” moment came during the mid-season finale of Walking Dead. “I’m lying on the couch, and my mom calls me to pick up a prescription from Walgreens,” the Flossmoor resident says. “I had to do it—it’s my mom!—but I thought, I would pay someone $10 to do this for me right now.” That moment eventually led to WeDeliver, which partners with businesses for on-demand delivery. Last summer, his team launched Locally, an app that allows consumers to order delivery online from local businesses. They started with about 50 stores—from The Goddess & Grocer to Aaron’s Apothecary—and hope to have 500 by the end of this summer.
Chicago’s appeal to investors: “Investors don’t always want to put all their money in Silicon Valley. They’re looking for diversity, and each successful Chicago venture shows that we have opportunities.”
Shopping small: “If we want local businesses to stay around, we have to spend our money with them. Locally makes that easy.”
His preferred work environment: “At WeDeliver we encourage our team to work outside the office. That allows the team to feel free while still building toward a common goal.”
Chicago techie he's got his eye on: “Corbett Drummey at Popular Pays figured out a way to monetize Instagram. I think he could build a company in Chicago that looks like a Silicon Valley company. That wasn’t possible five or 10 years ago.”
From gastronomy to mixology, Chicago’s culinary wunderkind are leading the way.
Chicago chefs like Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy are household names to gourmands everywhere, and they’ve changed the way diners interact with their food. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of food and drink, they aren’t the only reason all eyes are on Chicago. It’s also due to the professionals who’ve come up in their wake, serving unexpected dishes (Bohemian House’s spiced grilled chicken paprikash with pickled sweet peppers, kale, and Czech potato dumplings comes to mind), creative restaurant concepts (like Momotaro’s chic three-story space with an izakaya bar and authentic Japanese cuisine), and delicious drinks (Tippling Hall’s Deep Dish Manhattan—yes, please).
Jake Bickelhaupt, Chef, 42 Grams
Shirt, Giorgio Armani ($80). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. Pocket square, Isaia ($125). Saks Fifth Avenue, SEE ABOVE. Blazer, Bickelhaupt’s own
Last year, after only 10 months in business, Jake Bickelhaupt got the call most chefs dream of all their lives: His restaurant, 42 Grams, received two Michelin stars. It was the culmination of a lifelong goal for the Uptown chef. And while some might consider the prestigious accolade permission to kick back, Bickelhaupt is not of that mind. “I was the underdog, nobody knew me,” he says. “Now suddenly I’m not a rookie anymore, and people are looking to me as an example—that puts even more pressure on me as a chef.” Tickets to the intimate BYOB restaurant (which has an open kitchen, a 10-seat communal table, and eight seats at the bar) are hard to come by, especially given all the Michelin buzz. But guests who score a seat are well taken care of. “My main concern is giving guests a fun atmosphere with serious food,” Bickelhaupt says. “I want to give them an experience they never even knew could exist.” 4662 N. Broadway St.
Dream team: “My wife, Alexa, and I are the only investors in 42 Grams, and we work here every night. We’re a ma-and-pa shop.”
Role models: “Our restaurant shows that you can create something like this at a high level, and it doesn’t have to be a million-dollar buildout in Lincoln Park.”
Why Chicago's the best place to be a chef: “New Yorkers expect a more traditional approach to fine dining, so the chefs can’t be too adventurous. In Chicago you’ve got Midwest hospitality and adventurous eaters who like variety.”
The next step: “It could be exciting to expand. For now I want to keep evolving and refining who we are and what we do.”
Food Trends of 2015
Buzzworthy Chicago chefs dish on what's up next:
1. “This year is going to be the year of live-fire cooking. We’ve been cooking with fire since the dawn of time, but I think we’ll see more chefs using fire in more modern applications.” —Andrew Zimmerman, Sepia
2. “Last year was definitely the year of the pickle, and I see chefs taking it even further in 2015 by incorporating fermented products into their menus.” —Paul Virant, Perennial Virant, Vie, Vistro
3. “One of the most important ingredients of 2015 will be what’s natural—the public is interested in adding things to their meals that aren’t heavily processed.” —Spike Mendelsohn, Good Stuff Eatery
4. “We’ll see an influx of root vegetables like sunchokes, parsnips, and celery root alongside more interesting, lesser known species of mushrooms.” —Justin Ferguson, executive chef, Blue Door Farm Stand and La Storia Ristorante
Epicenters of Cool
Four food destinations that will never get old:
1. Big Star: Chefs like Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia) and Jared Van Camp (Old Town Social) have hailed this five-year-old and still sizzling Wicker Park taco joint as a favorite post-work spot for late-night eats. Go after midnight to see your favorite chefs outside the kitchen. 1531 N. Damen Ave., 773-235-4039
2. Randolph Street: The restaurant strip between Halsted and Ogden has become ground zero for the hottest new spots.
3. Soho House: This West Loop club for creatives may be members-only, but the first-floor lounge is open to the public and is quite a scene in itself. 113 N. Green St., 312-521-8000
4. Three Dots and a Dash: Mixologist extraordinaire Paul McGee may have flown the coop, but chefs and bartenders still flock to this buzzy tiki bar. 435 N. Clark St., 312-610-4220
Chicago's coolest new restaurants:
1. Monteverde: The first restaurant from Sarah Grueneberg, former chef de cuisine at Spiaggia and Top Chef runner-up, is slated to open in the West Loop this spring.
2. El Che Bar: With the chefs behind La Sirena Clandestina (Manion) and Carriage House (Steuer) at the helm, this Latin-inspired West Loop spot is sure to be delish.
3. Rural Society: Set to open this spring, Iron Chef Jose Garces’ much-anticipated Argentinean steakhouse takes up residence in the gleaming, new Loews Hotel.
Jenny Solberg, co-owner, Rhine Hall
The most noticeable recent change in Chicago’s drinking scene has been a rise in distilleries, the most exciting of which is arguably Rhine Hall, the brandy distillery owned by Jenny Solberg and her father, Charlie. Named for the ice rink in Austria where Charlie played hockey, the distillery was dreamt up by the younger Solberg while she was living in San Francisco and relishing visits to Napa wineries. So the Barrington native moved back to the Midwest to produce the apple brandy recipe her family had been perfecting since her dad’s hockey days. Solberg says the distillery has surprised a lot of drinkers. “The biggest challenge is getting over what brandy is perceived as,” she says. “But when people learn about the cocktails to drink it with, they get excited.” 2010 W. Fulton St., 312-243-4313
Art in craft: “With the whole craft cocktail movement, people are starting to look more closely at how their food and drinks are made. We believe in making something the right way, with the right ingredients, and people like to see that.”
Family affair: “I’m the youngest of five, and making brandy is something we always came back and did together when the kids went off to college.”
Favorite tipping spots: “Big Star and The Map Room.”
Expanding the brand: “We’re starting out-of-state distribution soon— first to California, then Indiana, then potentially Utah.”
The coolest local bartender: “Alex Renshaw at Drumbar—I’ve seen him use apple brandy and chalk in a cocktail. He always combines creative ingredients with quality traditional spirits.”
With up-and-coming designers and avant-garde boutiques, Chicago is raising stylish eyebrows everywhere.
Chicago has always been a fashion force, foregoing the flash of Paris and New York for a quietly chic Midwestern look, and in recent years the city has made ever more stylish strides. Along with Macy’s Chicago Fashion Incubator (a program designed to keep local talent from decamping to the coasts), fashion programs at the School of the Art Institute and Columbia College have given us cred, especially with fashion icons like SAIC fashion chair Nick Cave (whose SoundSuits have been featured in Vogue and Elle) at the helm. Style wunderkind Tavi Gevinson hails from west suburban Oak Park, and “Chicago Styled,” a recent exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, joyously celebrated Chicago’s fashion flair—and cemented the fact that the city takes the art form more seriously than ever.
Monique Hypes, cofounder, Mott 50
For Monique Hypes, Mott 50—a stylish Chicago-based line of sun-protective clothing—began with a day at the beach with friend Anne Reilly. “All of our friends were taking cover in big hats and sunglasses and reapplying sunscreen,” says the Lincoln Park resident. That was the cue for Hypes and Reilly to team up for Mott 50, which launched in 2011 and is currently sold in 150 stores nationwide, including Krista K boutique on Southport Avenue and Neopolitan Collection in Winnetka. This spring, Mott 50 will launch its first kids’ line as well as a new collection featuring spun-rayon fabric. “It’s really lightweight and breathable. We’ll have great caftans, tunics, and an oversized boyfriend shirt.”
Shady business: “One of our main missions at Mott 50 is teaching about healthy sun practices. Skin cancer is on the rise in America, and one in five Americans will get it in their lifetime—and that’s largely preventable. I’ve become so diligent about it— even when I go for a run on the lakefront, I feel so exposed if I’m not in Mott 50.”
On fashion-forward Chicago: “Chicago is pulling in world-class minds doing [great] things across all industries, and any time you have innovators and people with creative minds, good ideas will emerge. Fashion is a really important part of the arts, so I’m not surprised Chicago is becoming a fashion hub.”
Her favorite Chicago designer: “Azeeza Khan. She’s a Chicago-based designer with gorgeous pieces and unique detailing.”
Epicenters of Cool
For the coolest looks, look no further:
1. Akira: Once a single outpost in Wicker Park, this Chicago success story of edgy fashions at reasonable prices has grown to 17 locations.
2. Ikram: There’s a reason this 13,000-square-foot style mecca makes every fashion must list. The space is as beautiful as the items in it, with designers like Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaïa, and Jimmy Choo. 15 E. Huron St., 312-587-1000
3. Jayson Home: Interior designers love this outpost with its artistic mix of new and vintage home goods. 1885 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-248- 8180
4. Luxury Garage Sale: High-end consignment meets leisurely window shopping at this Old Town vintage oasis. 1658 N. Wells St., 312-291-9126
Our hearts belong to Michigan Avenue, but for the city’s most absolutely of-the-moment shopping, head west to Damen Avenue in Bucktown, where upscale brands rub elbows with the hippest boutiques. And yes, we know it’s been a popular strip for a decade, but the past year has brought a face-lift, with a new TOMS outpost and Shinola store (home to the “It” watch of the moment). Start at Damen and Willow and walk south: In the four blocks to North Avenue, shop high-end women’s clothes at Intermix, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Nanette Lepore; menswear at Gant, Steven Alan, and Scotch and Soda; kids’ threads at Peek; and accessories at Alexis Bittar and Diptyque. Indie boutiques have made way for some more name-brand retailers (Nike and Asics, to name a few), but that doesn’t lessen the fashion cred in this shopping haven. A recent addition to the block is Vintage Charm which, despite its name, actually only stocks a small collection of vintage wares. The boutique also carries lines like Tracy Reese, Jack by BB Dakota, and Yosi Samra.
Ones to Watch
Keep your eyes on these three up-and-coming Chicago designers:
1. Jack Cave: Nick’s not the only fashion designer in the family. His brother Jack’s home and fashion accessories are bold and unexpected— most notable the prefolded pocket squares.
2. Grace Lee-Lim: After designing her own wedding dress, this Art Institute of Chicago grad did brides everywhere a favor by creating her own line of simple, ethereal gowns.
3. Kahindo Mateene: The designer behind Modahnik may have been booted in the second episode of Project Runway’s 12th season, but her bold prints and poppy colors are big-time winners.
Aaron Comes, founder, Frederick Lynn Haberdasshere
As the founder of Frederick Lynn Haberdasshere, Aaron Comes aims to create not just a clothing line, but an entire lifestyle. Comes opened his 2,200-square-foot River North showroom in late 2013 and has been building and refining his offerings ever since. “I want people to think of it as Savile Row meets Barneys,” Comes says. To that end, Frederick Lynn’s custom suits range anywhere from $1,600 to $40,000 for an outfit made of the rare, ubersoft yarn of a vicuña. (Comes also carries home accessories.) Showroom visits are by appointment only, and the space itself feels appropriately sumptuous, complete with full bar and kitchen. Says Comes, “Typically a person who spends more, wants more. I wanted to create something personal that they couldn’t find anywhere else.” 9 E. Huron St., 312-496-3994
The complete customer: “I like to connect people with services and products they’ll want for their lifestyle—everything from custom glassware to soap, candles, and the coolest gadgets.”
His customer base: “I want to market to the private wealth in Chicago and be there if they want a more personalized experience than at Barneys.”
Coolest accessory: “I recently started carrying a Cirrus ice ball press, and it’s the item people get most excited about.”
Measuring up: “There are four types of garments: ready-made, made-to-measure, custom, and bespoke. I do custom. There are no patterns. It is completely from scratch, so there are no limitations.”
Catch the next Broadway smash here first.
Chicago has been a theatre haven for ages, but there’s no denying the scene is stronger now than ever. Eight years ago, August: Osage County premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre before heading to Broadway and collecting five Tony Awards, including one for Best Play. That, in turn, has lead to an even greater presence on The Great White Way for Steppenwolf: Airline Highway, which finished its Chicago run in February, debuts on Broadway in the spring. Add to that the fact that Chicago is the city with the most Regional Theatre Tony Awards (five) and that there are 250 theater companies in the city at any given time, and it’s clear why the local stage scene has theater lovers nationwide lining up to see what comes next.
Michael Patrick Thornton, actor/Gift Theatre artistic director
Cardigan ($649), dress shirt ($190), denim pants ($495), and Flat 6 Auto Chronograph watch ($5,750), Porsche Design. The Shops at North Bridge, 520 N. Michigan Ave., 312-321-0911
You may know Michael Patrick Thornton from L.A. drama Private Practice, but the actor is a hardcore Chicagoan. Born and raised in Jefferson Park, he is the cofounder and artistic director of The Gift Theatre in that same neighborhood. The Jeff Award winner is a director (he assistant directed August: Osage County), playwright, and improviser who’s been a staple of Chicago theater for 15 years. In his second solo show, he’s heading to Michigan Avenue’s Lookinglass Theatre for his starring role in Title and Deed, a one-man play written by Will Eno. Says Thornton, “It’s going to be fun to get back into that experience where there’s no net to catch you when you fall.”
Why the gift of theatre is different: “We’re the most intimate Equity theater in Chicago. You’re talking about only 40 seats, and that’s kind of an economic paradigm.”
Stage vs. screen: “I consider myself a theater guy, but film provides an opportunity to practice what you preach in terms of trust. Actors have all these buzzwords like ‘Take everything off your scene partner.’ With a film, it’s like, ‘OK, are you really going to stick to that when the script just changed an hour ago and we switched out locations and reversed the order of how we’re going to shoot?’”
Don't fence me in: “We set ourselves into these distinctions like ‘theater actor,’ ‘film actor,’ ‘playwright,’ ‘screenwriter,’ but it’s a bit silly. We’re all just trying to tell a story and point to what it means to be a human being on this planet.”
Favorite Chicago actors: “Keith Nagle and Cyd Blakewell. I’d follow them anywhere just to see them read the phone book.”
Epicenters of Cool
Three favorite spots for Chicago's in-the-know stage crews:
1. Four Moon Tavern: This Roscoe Village bar was opened by four local actors and draws a theater-friendly crowd. 1847 W. Roscoe St., 773-929-6666
2. The Mission Theatre: Serious and comic actors alike flock to the new home of improv vets and local favorites TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, otherwise known as TJ & Dave. 1501 N. Kingsbury St.; 773-880-0199
3. Watershed: Chicago Emmy nominee Allison Tolman (Fargo) is among the local actors who call this River North basement bar—a downtown spot that doesn’t feel like a tourist trap—a fave. 601 N. State St., 312-266-4932
Made in Chicago
Louder Than a Bomb, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, started in Chicago and is the nation’s premiere youth poetry slam. Nate Marshall, LTAB Teaching Artist and coeditor of April’s The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop, speaks to the slam poetry scene’s relevance. “When you think of art and culture in Chicago, so many of the local artists who are doing big things in other parts of the performance community started in the slam poetry scene,” he says. “Chance the Rapper frequented open mics as a student; Kristiana Colón, who won the National Latino Playwriting Award last year, started with slam poetry in high school; even Kanye West. Poetry slam was invented in Chicago, so it’s really an art form that belongs to the people here.” The 15th anniversary Louder Than a Bomb will be held March 28 at the Arie Crown Theater.
Coolest Spring Theater
Get your tickets now to these three much-anticipated productions:
1. A Wonder in My Soul: It’s 1960s Chicago in this world-premiere musical play about a feuding R&B group that reunites for a 35th-anniversary concert. Premieres April 3 at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-871-3000
2. The Herd: Tony winner John Mahoney (Frasier) stars in the US premiere of this witty drama about a British family with a disabled child, which opens April 2 at Steppenwolf. 1650 N. Halsted St., 312-335-1650
3. Sense and Sensibility: The Jane Austen classic gets the musical treatment in this world premiere from composer Paul Gordon at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. 800 East Grand Ave., 312-595-5600
Nambi E. Kelley, actress/playwright
Playwright and actress Nambi E. Kelley still pinches herself when she thinks about how far she’s come. “When I was a little girl on the South Side, downtown seemed so far away,” says Kelley, whose adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son was the Court Theatre’s best-selling show in its 60-year history. Kelley is now starring in Two Trains Running at The Goodman Theatre, where she first fell in love with her craft. “It was while watching its production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone that I thought, This is what I want to do.” With productions from Chicago to Singapore and roles opposite greats like Phylicia Rashad and the late Patrick Swayze, she’s certainly made that dream a reality.
On her Two Trains role: “Risa is a young woman who’s beautiful but scars her leg to defect the attention of men. Her journey to allow herself to love and be loved is not unlike my life.”
On life in Chicago: “I split my time between New York and Chicago, but when I’m here, I stay at my place in Rogers Park. I love to go to the beach at Loyola—that’s my thing.”
The coolest Chicago actor: “Jerod Haynes, who starred in Native Son, is fearless, and he’s all about the work. That brother is bad.”
Chicago's national rep: “Whenever I go into an audition in LA and the casting team sees I’m from Chicago, they are like, ‘Oh, yeah, we love Chicago actors.’ The integrity and the artistry...it travels well.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHUTTERSTOCK (LANDSCAPE); STYLING BY BRIAN STANZIALE/10 MGMT (THORNTON)