Tag Archives: Chicago

The Bay Area and Chicagoland

5 Sep

Chicago Downtown, an El train passing by Monroe Street. Photo by Pi Wen

I lived in Chicago for 10 years before moving to the Bay Area, Marcus also spent a good 7 years in Chicago before moving out of the second city.

We now call the Bay Area home, but there’s a part of us that misses Chicagoland. Here’s a nostalgic look back at Chicagoland compared with the Bay Area.

Powell Station Cable Car Turnaround, San Francisco. Photo by Pi Wen

The Weather

Chicago’s winter is cold and long, its summer is hot and humid. But I  can count on wearing a tank top and shorts in the summer without needing to bring a sweater. Bay Area weather is moderate, it has its own season during a single day–morning fog that feels like spring or fall, and afternoon sun that feels like early summer, followed by a deep drop in temperature after sun down, which is akin to a late fall or early winter. No snow unless you go up to Tahoe or up north. Summer in the Bay Area is just as cool as a spring morning in Chicago. Go figure.

The Freeways

The Chicago freeways are named. The Kennedy, that’s I-90, the Edens Expressway, that’s I-94, the Eisenhower Expressway, that’s I-290, etc.  And then there are the diagonal roads like Milwaukee Ave and LincolnAve. When I first moved to Chicago from Ohio, I was always confused by the traffic reporter’s morning update “heavy traffic from the junction to the post office.” Huh?? Which junction and where’s the post office? Why don’t they just use the Interstate numbers? I finally understood that the junction is where I-90 and I-94 meet. The freeways in Chicago are well-labeled, they also give you enough warning before it splits off to another freeway or exit.

However, the freeways in the Bay Area are not so easy to navigate unless you’ve been living here for a while. I remember being lost in the loop of I-580, 980, and 880. I needed to take I-80 west, but from where I was driving, there was no sign of I-80W. I needed to know that first I had to go on I-580W, drive for a while (a long while) before seeing the I-80W sign. Then there’s the sudden merge or change of lane that can be confusing and dangerous. For example, the exit lane for Harrison and Oakland is extremely short, you basically have to move right 3 or 4 lanes if you came directly from the city and were just happily driving along in the lanes labelled Oakland downtown/Hayward.

Nonetheless, I take these confusing lane changes as a challenge, and have committed to my memory when to switch lanes (in advance) so that I can more easily make my exit.

And then there’s the food and restaurants.

The Food and Restaurants

Chicago has bustling neighborhoods that serve up ethnic food in hip restaurants or cozy cafes. Lincoln Square is akin to a little German Town, with an anchor restaurant like the Brauhaus. Bucktown boasts of an array of fun and idiosyncratic restaurants like the Bongo Room. On weekeneds, you’ll see a long line of customers out the door waiting for breakfast. The West Loop has fine dining like the Blackbird and the famous raw food restaurant, Karyn’s; and the theater district has the long standing Russian Tea Room. In Evanston, you can find one-of-a-kind restaurants like the Lucky Platter; their scones are to die for. In Rogers Park you find the bohemian Heartland Cafe, with one side a coffee shop the other side a grocery store. In Andersonville, you have Kopi, a traveler’s cafe, with a wall lined with travel books, maps, and souveniers from around the world. Andersonville also offers Reza’s, a Persian food palace. And we can’t forget glorious Ann Sather’s, a diner in the shadow of Wrigley Field.

Food in Chicagoland tends to be big and hearty, just like the hearty midwesterners. Of course there is fine cuisine, like those offered by Blackbird and Charlie Trotter’s. Food in the Bay Area is more al fresca, with an emphasis on organic, glutten free, vegan, farm fresh, and local ingredients.

One point of continuity between Chicagoland and the Bay Area is Peet’s Coffee. The original Peet’s is still in Berkeley; one of the few Peet’s outside the Bay Area is in Evanston, on Chicago Avenue. Marcus and Pi Wen both frequented the Evanston location.

Coffee is just one part of the Bay Area’s culinary splendor. From artisinal ice cream at Ici or Bi Rite, to vegan/gluten free Cafe Gratitude, the Bay Area has it all.  There’s even Zachary’s Pizza, which does Chicago-style deep dish just as well as any place in Chicagoland. Its wall is lined with authentic looking Chicago street signs: Lakeshore Drive, State Street, and Milwaukee Avenue.

The latest craze: food trucks that offer much more sophisticated fare than doughnuts and hot dogs. There are so many food trucks that they congregate regularly in Civic Center/UN Plaza for the Off the Grid festivals. Mill Valley’s own Tyler Florence, no shabby chef himself, is focusing on food trucks for his latest TV show. We went up to his shop yesterday, but sadly Tyler wasn’t there. Pi Wen was really disappointed. Once, she even dreamed of faking a failed attempt of making lasagna so she could call Food 911 and request that Tyler Florence come to her kitchen to show her how. Yeah, she’s his groupie alright.

Marcus’s year in San Francisco’s Mission District was a culinary delight, with taquerias, creperies, and Belgian fries all within easy walking distance. And that’s not even including the amazing Mission Beach Cafe on Guerrero, which offers an enormous mimosa during Sunday brunch. Coffee abounds too, all down Valencia St, from Four Barrel to Ritual and beyond. Even though the Bay Area is also home to great ingredients for home cooking, it was hard to even try with such good food so close at hand in San Francisco. Now, in Oakland, we do cook more often. But we could just as easily eat somewhere on Piedmont Avenue or up in Rockridge every night.

In sum–Chicago’s roads are better and the food is generous and diverse; Bay Area roads are horrible but the food is amazing. The people are indeed friendlier in the Midwest, and both Pi Wen and Marcus are apt to see Chicagoland–specifically Evanston–as more like home. That’s where Marcus went to college and Pi Wen became a successful professional woman. The Bay Area is wonderful but has not captured our hearts in the same way.

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