Best of the South Side 2009: Hyde Park and Kenwood

Hyde Park can sometimes seem like its own little world. In fact, it hosted one near the beginning of its existence: The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which attracted over 20 million people in six months, was held on the Midway Plaisance and in Jackson Park. Meanwhile, at the western end of the Midway, the nascent University of Chicago had just completed its first year of classes. Over the next 60 years, the rest of the neighborhood grew up around the expanding university and the hotels, transportation network, and neoclassical museum left behind by the World’s Fair. In the 1950s, two more events changed the course of the neighborhood forever: urban renewal and integration. Disturbed by the level of crime that came with Hyde Park’s status as a South Side entertainment destination, the University, in cooperation with the city and the federal government, managed to level almost all of the bars, nightclubs, and music venues that formerly lined 55th Street. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents united in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference to try to ease the transition to a racially diverse neighborhood. From the looks of today’s Hyde Park, they seem to have succeeded: Where racial succession, riots, and gang warfare devastated other South Side neighborhoods, Hyde Park is a stable, tight-knit community that was ranked the third most diverse neighborhood in the city by a 2008 DePaul study. North of Hyde Park Boulevard lies Kenwood, a neighborhood whose leafy southern half, south of 47th Street, includes mansions and celebrities (Louis Farrakhan, Barack Obama) that are often grouped with Hyde Park.

best art complex
Hyde Park Art Center
Billed as the “oldest alternative exhibition space in the City,” the Hyde Park Art Center provides the Hyde Park-Kenwood community with innovative exhibitions, exciting programming, and art classes for all levels. Founded in 1939, it recently celebrated its 70th anniversary with a 70-day series of events and exhibitions that ranged from a kimchi-making party to artists’ talks and poetry readings. In the 1960s, HPAC was the main venue for exhibitions by the Chicago Imagists, perhaps the most prominent art movement the city has produced. Today HPAC hosts about six exhibitions at a time, many of which are accompanied by lectures, readings, musical performances, and open house events. On the south side of the building is one of the two locations of Istria Cafe, a neighborhood coffeeshop known for its gelato and ample comfortable seating. HPAC has been led by Executive Director Chuck Thurow for the last ten years, during which time it found its first permanent home in a former army warehouse; at the end of this year he will be replaced by former HPAC Director of Development Kate Lorenz. 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)324-5520. (Leah Reisman)

best collision of cultures
Rajun Cajun
The fact that Rajun Cajun serves a highly unusual mix of Indian and soul food is not why you should go there. You should go there because its food, regardless of national origin, is delicious. For about $10, you can get an Indian combo dinner (the butter chicken is an old standby) that includes a vegetable dish, a paratha, and a samosa. Pair it with a corn muffin or two and you’ve got a meal that will keep you warm through the cold winter. (Like many local restaurants, Rajun Cajun will deliver within Hyde Park for a small charge, helping you avoid both freezing to death and starving.) Alternatively you could go the Southern route, with a fried chicken dinner and some sweet potatoes or macaroni and cheese. Throw in a samosa on the side and it’s still multicultural. But more importantly, delicious. 1459 E. 53rd St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-9:30pm; Sunday, noon-8:30pm. (773)955-1145 (Sam Feldman)

best breakfast
Though open all day, cafeteria-style Valois is busiest at breakfast-time. Don’t be intimidated by the line: the kitchen is run like an assembly line and the disparate elements of a meal are quickly assembled on each tray, ensuring their warmth as you settle down to eat them. As the awning entreats you, “SEE YOUR FOOD.” Dishes like hash browns, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and bacon are large, cheap, and satisfying, and murals of Hyde Park landmarks provide a cheery backdrop against which to eat at whatever pace you’d like. For a real cross-section of Hyde Park, wander into Valois on a Saturday morning: you’ll see retirees, white-collar types, cops, professors, students, and perhaps the President of the United States, all enjoying their food in a communal hubbub. Valois opens at 5:30am, rendering their breakfast also the perfect end to a long weekend night, especially if you’re up to walking a few extra blocks east to watch sunrise over the lake. Cash only. 1518 E. 53rd St. 5:30am-10pm. (Katy Burnett)

best neighborhood market
Zaleski & Horvath MarketCafe
Named after the owners’ grandparents, Z&H has been impressing every one of its customers since opening last fall, focusing on locally produced and quality foods, sustainability, and knowledgeable, neighborly service. After only a couple of visits, owners Tim Schau and Sam Darrigrand will be greeting you by name. The market portion isn’t cheap, but the prices match the quality. The deli menu has all-original sandwiches and panini, as well as their take on the usuals, complete with creative (but not annoying) names. The “Jamon, Jamon” sandwich contains Serrano ham, manchego cheese, quince paste, Dijon mustard, mixed greens, and roasted tomato and tastes at least as incredible as it sounds. The garlic bread soup–sautéed garlic, pancetta, and onions in chicken broth with a big piece of day-old bread–reminded me of the power of homemade chicken broth base. Make sure to grab a cup of coffee made by the famous Clover machine. The Clover 1s is a single-cup coffee brewing machine whose manufacture brags–and which I can attest–releases the subtle characteristics of each type of bean better than any other brewing method. The citrus of the Nicaraguan Flor Azul and the herbal notes of the Ethiopian Yrgacheffe are instantly apparent. Z&H managed to obtain only the fourth machine in all of Chicago before Starbucks bought the manufacturer. As Tim explained, unlike the warm staff at Z&H, no one at Starbucks can take the time to chat as the Clover 1s gurgles and slurps. 1126 E. 47th St. Monday-Friday, 7am-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-6pm. (773)538-7372. (Ellis Calvin)

best ribs institution
Ribs n’ Bibs
A Hyde Park mainstay, this barbecue joint offers minimal indoor seating and no perks, but many locals swear by it. For a cheap late-night snack (well, late for Hyde Park–Ribs n’ Bibs closes by 1am), you’ll want a Bronco Burger ($1.75) or a Texas Burger with fries and cole slaw ($4.45), or maybe a Gun-Slinger Sausage Sandwich with fries ($3.30). If you’re ready for a meal, though, check out one of their chicken and links combos, the Ranch Owner’s Smorgasbord ($16.60), or, for tough guys, the Boss ($18.60), a giant slab of sauced-up ribs with fries, slaw, and bread. Just make sure to leave your vegetarian friends at home. Ribs n’ Bibs also delivers within Hyde Park, which is key during the long winter months. 5300 S. Dorchester Ave. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11am-1am. (773)493-0400 (Sam Feldman)