Best of the South Side 2008: Hyde Park

With the success of Barack Obama has come increased scrutiny of Hyde Park such as rarely seen before. Right-wing smears have painted the public consciousness with images of Louis Farrakhan, William Ayers and ivory tower socialists run amok. Yet many cite the University of Chicago’s reverence of the Great Books, its vaulted economics program, and former professor/neocon forefather Leo Strauss as proof that the school is a bastion of traditional, conservative thought. What the debate misses entirely, however, is the cultural vibrancy of the neighborhood itself. Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, anyone can (and everyone should) take the time to get to know the neighborhood and sample the best it has to offer.

Best Cafeteria
On a Sunday morning, Valois “See your food” Cafeteria is a perfect cross-section of Hyde Park; families in their Sunday best, dreary, hung-over college students, and laid-back and hungry cops. Murals of Hyde Park cover the walls and even the ceiling. The line can be long, but use the time wisely and study the menu–once you reach the counter and hear the words “Next, please!” there’s no slowing down. The mustachioed cook at the helm shouts the orders over his shoulder in a Greek accent–“French toast with bacon!” or, “Veggie omelette!”–as you move down the counter to receive juice or coffee and pay up. Grab a table by the front windows for some excellent people-watching. Philip Roth used to claim a table near the counter to listen to the din of the busy kitchen. Breakfast is definitely the specialty here and is served until 4pm daily, but the lunch and dinner fare is first-rate too. The restaurant opens at 5:30am, making it the perfect treat after pulling a brutal all-nighter. And one last thing: it’s pronounced “Vuh-loize.” 1518 E. 53rd St. Monday-Sunday 5:30am-10pm. (773)667-0647 (Ellis Calvin)

Best Chews & Booze Combo
The Falcon Inn and Cholie’s Pizza
The Falcon Inn is the kind of bar that is lit by neon, although it would be much more pleasant if there were no lighting whatsoever. There are rarely many University of Chicago students or faculty and, unlike popular Hyde Park haunt Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, Dylan Thomas and Saul Bellow never stepped foot in here. Jimmy’s would be the best bar in Hyde Park if it weren’t for the Falcon’s cloud of South Side regulars, Video Strip Poker, and a little window that spits out Cholie’s cuisine. “The Chole Hole” sounds like an act that would be in a book entitled “The Hip Hop Guide to the Kama Sutra,” but in reality it is the holy union of the best combination since Sid and Nancy. Hyde Park has its fair share of pizza joints, but none can compare to Cholie’s. Wikitravel calls Cholie’s a “Chicago travesty.” They are so wrong. Contrary to the deep dish agony of Giordano’s, Cholie’s essentially serves cheese on a large cracker. Next time dinner is undecided, head to the Falcon and order a pitcher of Natty Ice and a large cheese pizza. Both locations at 1601 E. 53rd St. Cholie’s Pizza: 10am-11pm, every day. (773)684-8688. Falcon Inn: 12pm-2am, every day. (Tizziana Baldenebro)

Best Mexico
Maravillas is not Mexico. It may not even be as good as Mexico–I’ve never been. But it’s the closest thing you can get in Hyde Park, and for all intents and purposes, it’s like the same thing, minus the bad water and soul-crushing poverty. It’s all the Mexico you really need. Cheap burritos the size of your forearm, delicious horchatas, a variety of Mexican beers, Mexican pop music, Mexican soap operas playing on the tiny TV (admittedly, probably not Mexican) propped up in the corner. It’s like that cool diner from high school, only it’s not open 24 hours and it’s not Greek. But it is open pretty damn late (especially for Hyde Park) and it is Mexican. In fact, you could even go so far as to say it’s more Mexican than Mexico–okay, maybe not, everyone speaks English. But hey, that makes it all the better. 5211-G S. Harper Ave. Monday-Saturday 10am-11pm; Sunday 11am-10pm. (773)643-3155 (Gavin Fox)

Best Shoe Store
While Carrie Bradshaw-influenced yuppies fawned over Manolo Blahniks, the street urban elite were seeking out a pair of Jordans. And when the yuppies started going to Foot Locker to buy the same pair, sneakers went underground. Now the sneaker mania is exploding onto the global scene and Hyde Park happens to know all about it. Phli, the tiny storefront in Harper Court, is more of an altar to shoes than a shoe store. They have few kicks artfully hung from wires and brightly colored paintings of Nikes. Gideon, a store employee, wears a shirt that gleefully declares “SHOE porn.” On display is their one-of-a-kind collection of Phli-designed accessories; shoe masturbation, perhaps. Phli is a reversed acronym for I Love Hyde Park. They carry the top lines of Le Coq Sportif, Nike, K-Swiss, and pretty much a decent hook up with any other shoe company you can name, all for $50 to $100. Phli is about personal creativity, and with clientele like Common and Lupe Fiasco it’s easy to see why. Gideon called the shoes classy athletic wear. I wondered how Phli is a part of the University of Chicago scene, a decidedly un-athletic and un-fashion forward school. He said, “Nerds gotta look phli, too.” 5210 S. Harper Ave #F. Mon-Sat, 11am-7pm. Sun, 12-5pm. (Tizziana Baldenebro)