Best of the South Side: Hyde Park

To speak of Hyde Park is to inevitably talk about the University of Chicago. As the University’s home for the last 115 years, Hyde Park bears all the influence of having a major intellectual and cultural institution in its midst, and that influence from this brainy school is very particular: There are more bookstores per capita in Hyde Park than in any other neighborhood in Chicago. The relationship between the neighborhood and the school has not always been pleasant, especially during an urban renewal effort in the ‘50s and ‘60s that destroyed homes and leveled–quite literally–the club scene on 55th Street. Today, however, Hyde Park is at the forefront of the South Side’s renaissance. While Bronzeville rebounds and Bridgeport explodes, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago are pooling their resources to make this the intellectual and cultural heart of the city.

Hyde Park

Best Hangover Cure
Writing this entry was delayed several hours by Salonica; an hour-and-a-half spent eating dinner, and another spent in peaceful digestion. In fact, most any Salonica meal is well followed by a period of rest, since the cooks intimately know the meaning of “well-fed,” and their dishes pose a stiff challenge to even the fastest metabolisms. Salonica specializes in typical Greek diner-style items like moussaka, pasticcio, and spinach pie, and also offers sandwiches and breakfast items. Their soups are excellent, especially the legendary egg lemon orzo soup. Dishes fall squarely into the category of comfort food with their focus on rich, carnally satisfying ingredients prepared simply and honestly. Such decadence is best on weekend mornings, when Salonica is packed with the pious after worship and pale, sunken-eyed youths recovering from the previous evening’s abuses. A cup of Salonica coffee and a bite of saganaki can instantly clear one’s liver and kidneys of any toxin and ready one’s mind for the day’s work. Dinner specials at Salonica cost about $7 or $8 and include an entrée, soup or salad, drink, and dessert. Evening Salonica meals go well with a bottle of wine, especially cheap wine. 1440 E. 57th St. Sunday-Saturday, 7am-10pm. (773)752-3899. (Dave McQuown)

Best Restaurant in Which to Break Veganism
Ribs N’ Bibs
If you’re a hipster from Los Angeles or New York City, you probably consider Hyde Park a major step down. There are no nearby places to see shows, no Trader Joe’s, and the nearest vegan pancakes are a Red Line trip away. Others of your kind on the North Side probably think you’re from a bad neighborhood and wonder how you manage to focus on your studies amidst the constant gang warfare. For you enlightened folks with alternative diets, the best Hyde Park restaurants are east on 55th where Korean, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Thai foods abound. However, such ethnic variations on pan-fried vegetables grow old quickly, leaving one craving more violent flavors. The restaurants on the other end of town, along the western 53rd Street corridor, have a much different character. On one’s first visit, your sensibilities may be confused and offended by the strange words you notice on the storefronts: “fried chicken,” “ribs,” “Jamaican jerk.” Yet, this is the culinary heart of Hyde Park; a garden of flavor obscure to vegetarians and vegans. If, someday, you wish to return to the world of meat, Ribs ‘n’ Bibs has you covered–I speak from personal experience. When it’s finally time to take that morbid plunge, saunter over to Ribs ‘n’ Bibs and order the Ranch Owner’s Smorgasboard, a delicious menagerie of meats that will slow your heart to a crawl. A combination of ribs, fried chicken, and sausage allows a former vegetarian to “play the field” and try a bit of everything he or she has been missing. Ribs ‘n’ Bibs has become a South Side institution over its more than forty years of business and the inside walls are covered with signed photographs of notable fans–from newscasters to politicians–and letters of thanks. For the college student, Ribs ‘n’ Bibs is important because it’s one of the only restaurants in Hyde Park that is open past midnight. On such late night visits, try the Gunslinger Sausage Sandwich. 5300 S. Dorchester Ave. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-12am; Friday-Saturday, 11am-1am. (773)493-0400. (Dave McQuown)

Best Place Where Learning is Fun Again
Museum of Science and Industry
Never mind that this Chicago staple is housed in the architectural centerpiece from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Museum of Science and Industry’s monumental superstructure, within spitting distance of the University of Chicago, houses the coolest museum we’ve ever been to. There’s the first Boeing 727 that United Airlines ever owned, the first diesel-powered train, a reproduction of a coal mine that became the template for similar exhibits at industrial museums across the country, and–oh, yeah–one of only two German U-boats ever captured during World War II. And visitors can walk through them all. The permanent exhibits are augmented when special exhibits come to town, like Body Worlds 1 and 2, in which real human bodies are preserved in ways that make anatomy cool (or gross). Then there’s the Omnimax Theater–who doesn’t like seeing movies about pharaohs on a five-story screen? 57th St. and Lakeshore Dr. Monday-Saturday, 9:30am-4pm; Sunday, 11am-4pm. (773)684-1414. (John Thompson)

Best Friend for Chefs
Freehling Pot and Pan Company
There’s not normally anything exciting about a store that sells cooking supplies–unless they sell every one imaginable. On Hyde Park’s beautiful main drag, Freehling Pot and Pan has everything a well-stocked kitchen needs, plus basters, specialized cheese graters, Cuisinart griddles, and fresh coffee beans. They still handwrite receipts here, and the friendly salespeople know everything about the kitchen. The prices may be a tad higher than at Target, but Target doesn’t stock Teflon-safe firm-grip spatulas or specialty pastry tips for making macaroons. 1365 E 53rd St. (773)643-8080. (John Thompson)

Best Four-Sided Public Space
Harper Court
It’s not so much the court as what’s in it. Founded in 1963, the not-for-profit Harper Court Foundation leases retail space to businesses at reduced rates in order to promote and maintain the economic development of Hyde Park. Today, it houses some of the most vital neighborhood resources in Hyde Park, as well as some of the coolest stores in the city. There’s the island treats from Calypso Café (the seafood cakes, fried plantains, and ropa vieja all deserve special mention), the soul food from the Dixie Kitchen, the French bistro fare from C’est Si Bon, and burritos as big as your head in Maravillas. Anyone can get essential services at Wheels and Things bike shop–where the sole proprietor is gruff but knowledgeable–or buy and sell records at the deals-aplenty Dr. Wax Records (sadly moving at the end of October). Finally, the fashionably inclined can buy high-end footwear from Alise’s or custom sneakers from Phli. And if you haven’t heard, Jerry Kleiner, the restaurateur notorious for building successful establishments in suspect markets, will be opening his latest haute cuisine creation in Harper Court near the end of September–right next to the legendary Checkerboard Lounge, the blues club that launched a thousand careers. Ooh la la. Harper Ave., between 53rd St. and 52nd St. Hours vary by store. (773) 363-8282. (John Thompson)

Best Venue to Watch a Thyestean Feast
Court Theatre
During Court Theatre’s upcoming season (the fifty-third) there will be plenty of opportunities to see revenge plays, including “Thyestes” and its Shakespearian progeny “Titus Andronicus.” If past success is any indicator for the future, then we should all be expecting revenge of the finest type (including, in the case of “Thyestes” and “Titus,” parents unsuspectingly forced to eat their own children with an extra dramatic flair). As the theater in residence at the University of Chicago, Court Theatre has been providing modern interpretations of classic plays for years, including last year’s highlight “Arcadia,” the Tom Stoppard masterpiece. Dubbed “the most consistently excellent theater company in America” by the Wall Street Journal, one of Chicago’s finest art institutions is a South Side treasure that never stops thrilling. And this new season, Court Theatre is back with a vengeance. Hide the kids. 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (773)753-4472. (John Thompson)

Best Modern Art Gallery
Renaissance Society
The fourth floor of Cobb Hall at the University of Chicago, among the half-lit seminar rooms and nondescript tile floors, is the last place you’d expect to find one of the pre-eminent art institutions in America. For over ninety years, the Renaissance Society has made sure that the vanguard of the international contemporary art scene makes its way to the Midwest. Though the Society’s history–as the first Midwest venue for artists as groundbreaking as Picasso–is legitimizing enough, consider that this season’s first exhibit comes from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, 1999 winner of the Turner Prize. He’s not showing any shorts near the bigger, fancier venues downtown, only at the Ren. Talk about cred. 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Bergman Gallery, Cobb Hall 418. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, 12pm-5pm; closed Monday. (773)702-8670. (John Thompson)

Best Bookstore
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
The flagship store for Seminary Co-op Bookstores, Inc. (with Hyde Park’s 57th Street Books and the North Side’s Newberry Library Bookstore rounding out the lineup), the Co-op is a bibliophile’s paradise. No Minotaur lurks in the store’s labyrinthine subterranean vaults in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary, but the infinite shelves of books are an adventure for anyone who wants to find that one obscure tome. Don’t think you won’t find it: the Co-op is the largest carrier of academic titles in the country, serving as the largest single customer for a number of university presses. The Co-op is also consumer-owned. You just need to buy thirty-dollar stock to become a Co-op member and you get ten percent off all subsequent purchases at any of the stores. When you decide you no longer want to be a member, sell your stock back for a full refund. As General Manager Jack Cella once told a curious University of Chicago student, “It’s the closest thing to a free lunch you can get.” 5757 S. University Ave. Monday-Friday, 8:30am-9pm; Saturday, 10am-6pm; Sunday, 12pm-6pm. (773)752-4381. (John Thompson)