Field Guide: 5 Great Gay Chicago Destinations

Sat. July 8, 2006 12:00 AM
by Feature Column

So, maybe you are traveling to Chicago for the Gay Games. Maybe you are here for the weekend to visit your old roommate, the cute little soccer player you always had the crush on in college. Maybe you have been in Chicago for umpteen years and you are just a plain tired of the same old thing. In any event, I, Robert McDonald, co-author with Kathie Bergquist of the new book A Field Guide to Gay and Lesbian Chicago, herewith offers five suggestions for some big gay Chicago fun. The well-known Halsted strip, a.k.a. "Boystown" has its wealth of charms and attractions, but Chicago’s a world city—if you are aren’t venturing some distance away from the rainbow pylons of Halsted for at least part of your time here, the gay adventure gods will not be pleased. Let’s not upset the gay adventure gods.

1) Have brunch at Tweet.

Tweet is the restaurant side of Michelle Fire’s beloved uptown bar Big Chicks. I could just use this space rave about Chicks, its ambiance, its welcoming and varied crowd, the amazing collection of contemporary photography and outsider art on the walls, the dancing in the salon room on Friday and Saturday nights…but we were talking Tweet. The dining space is warm and intimate, and the art on the walls is worth close inspection. James Faulkner’s amazing rococo collages, reminiscent of the work of Joseph Cornell, particularly caught the eyes of my dining companion and myself. In the summer months you can also opt for eating outdoors. I recommend the back patio, with its hideaway feel and abundant summer flowers. As soon as we were seated we were served a nibble of homemade coffeecake, just enough to wake up our tummies and get us ready to inspect Tweet’s menu, with its “hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic when possible ingredients. Our second course was the fresh fruit cup. I’m sure you have had the experience of requesting a side of fresh fruit at a diner only to be presented with some anemic strawberries and tasteless hard melon, swimming in canned peach juice. This was not that fresh fruit cup. Each and every berry and melon slice was wonderfully fresh and perfectly ripe. For the main event I opted for one of the specials, the chilaquiles—and the consequent party in my mouth was such a tomatillo, corn tortilla, avocado taste sensation that I didn’t look up from my plate for a good long while. Other menu standouts include the savory tart of the day, served up with a generous side salad and fruit, and the any variety of the pancakes. I have a friend who has founded a religion based on Michelle’s biscuits and gravy, until he tried the eggs benedict and had to rethink his theology. The bottom line here is that everything is good. Special shout-out to the coffee, roasted locally by Intelligentsia. Tweet serves brunch Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m., until 3 p.m. Hint: Get there on the early side, or a tad later in the afternoon--they don’t take reservations, and I’m not the only one in the city who loves this place. Tweet is also open for dinner from Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 until 10. For dinner, you can get dinner reservations; just call them at (773) 728-5576. You’ll find Tweet at 5024 N. Sheridan Road. Check out the website, www.tweet.biz, for directions, menus, and specials.

2) Check out some queer artists and their latest work.

Tourists sometimes pass over Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in favor of her statelier, more traditional sister, the justly-lauded Art Institute. This summer the MCA offers queer visitors two reasons to put the place on their itinerary: out photographers Wolfgang Tillmans and Catherine Opie. The German-born and British-based Tillmans, gets his first American retrospective courtesy of the MCA. Tillmans, perhaps best known for his portraits of friends and acquaintances, infuses his work with a playful homoeroticism. He’s also known for his portraits of celebrities; his casual approach makes a celebrity photo seem like friend’s snapshot. (If the friend had an unerring eye for the best possible moment.) But in addition to portraiture, Tillmans photographs everything the eye can see: scenes from cars, views from airplanes, mundane articles around the house: socks, potted plants, a brown cardboard box. His latest work involves manipulating development chemicals to create abstract images that have no origin in the lens of a camera. Catherine Opie’s work has been similarly wide-ranging. Her self-portraits in the early 1990s famously showed her in leather, with "pervert" carved into her chest, or a child’s scene of home carved into her back. More recent (bloodless) work includes formal portraits of California surfer boys, posed against a blue sky and looking like Renaissance princes. The current MCA exhibition highlights her on-going project to document American cities, and consists of gorgeous black and white scenes that focus on Chicago’s classic architecture at night, as well as large color prints of the changing lakefront. Queer artists have always found a home and haven at the MCA. You can find the museum at 220 East Chicago Ave., just a skip or two off of Michigan Avenue. For more info, call 'em at 312-280-2660, or log on to www.mcachicago.org. Hurry, Wolfgang Tillman's retrospective is only up through August 13th, 2006. You can catch Catherine Opie’s "Chicago (American Cities)" through October 15th, 2006.

3) Check out the history of the leather subculture.

"Ho-hum," you might say, "Art museums. I have been to a lot of art museums." Fine. I'm pretty sure you've never been to any cultural institution quite like Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum. Founded by Chicago's Leather community, and funded by leatherfolk all over the world, this modest museum on Chicago’s north side demonstrates the depth and the cultural pull of leather. Standout holdings include artwork by erotic painter Dom "Etienne" Orejudos—his work is second only to Tom of Finland for defining and refining an iconic leatherman look. The archives portion of the museum includes art books, bondage and domination "how-to" guides, and lots of back issues of leather-interest magazines, a wet-dream for the queer studies graduate students among you. And no museum visit would be complete without a stroll through the gift shop. The Leather Archives stocks some of the most memorable Chicago souvenirs I’ve seen. Your Aunt Marion will love the handcuffs. Handily enough, you’ll find the Leather Archives only a few blocks away from one of Chicago’s best-known leather bars, Touché, at 6412 N. Clark Street. The Archives are at 6418 N. Greenview Avenue. Hours vary, call 773-761-9200 or steer your computer to www.leatherarchives.org for the complete skinny.

4) Listen to some queer tunesmiths and word-meisters.

Musician Scott Free won two Outmusic Awards in 2005. Not content to simply pursue his own musical aspirations, the hunk-arific Mr. Free continues to be a tireless promoter of queer culture with his Homolatte shows, which typically feature one writer and one musician (or band) in an evening. Homolatte is a good way to acquaint yourself with the queer café scene in Chicago, but Scott also plays host to folks from all over the dang place. A glance at a list of past Homolatte performers reads like a who’s who of contemporary homo America. I have enjoyed many a wonderful evenings at Homolatte shows. (Both as a poetry reader and enthusiastic audience member.) There’s nothing like a queer performer, performing for a mainly gay crowd, to create a wonderful buzz of comfort and excellence. A five-dollar donation is requested, but not mandatory, and all money collected goes to the artists performing that night. (And where else are you going to be so entertained for so modest an amount?) If you yourself are a budding songster or poet, the Outmusic Open Mic nights (an out-growth of Homolatte) are just the ticket for you: a supportive atmosphere, a homo vibe, and hey, maybe even a date if you're lucky. Some of the standouts on the 2006 Homolatte summer schedule include singer/songwriter Nedra Johnson, a 2006 Outmusic Award winner, and the humorous tunes of Kristin Kitco—the Chicago Tribune says she "displays several superpowers." I’m thinking they mean musically, but maybe she's telekinetic or something. Plus you might be intrigued, as I am, by the title of writer/actor Dan Bernitt's upcoming appearance, "Thanks for the Scabies, Jerkface!" For further info on Scott Free, or the Homolatte and Outmusic Open Mic schedules, get thee to www.homolatte.com.

5) Have dinner or drinks at Cornelia’s.

I know, I know, I said move away from the Halsted strip. But cabaret bar and restaurant Cornelia’s is off of the Halsted strip, by twenty feet or so—just east of Halsted on Cornelia Avenue. I am compelled to sing its praises, because although the place has been around for years, I've only recently become a devotee. Every meal I've had here has been outstanding, every stop for drinks has been stellar, and my Field Guide co-author Kathie will second that emotion. The menu leans to supper club classics: pork chops, veal, lamb chops, steak (sorry vegans, it’s not really a PETA sort of spot) and Kathie and me both love the tender and perfectly spiced brisket. On my last visit our server recommended the evening’s special, a chicken parmesan, and in spite of the huge helping I became a proud member of the Clean Plate Club. On the beverage side of things, our friendly server informed us, "We are known on the strip for our homemade infused vodkas." Watermelon, cucumber, and raspberry were among the offerings. However, I opted for an expertly-made martini, and followed that with an after dinner glass of wine, a Bonnie Dune Bianco with a lovely pear aftertaste. Every choice on the wine list comes by the bottle or by the glass, and Kathie, who knows about such things, assures me the list is impressive in its depth and selection. Cornelia’s was just the spot to be on a Sunday, while blue dusk fell over the city, and chanteuse Katherine Payne played the piano, and sang Janis Ian’s "At Seventeen." Just outside the open windows, passersby created a lively boy-watching scene. "This reminds me of Rome in the summer," said my dinner companion. But lucky for us it was right here in Chicago. You'll find Cornelia's at 748 West Cornelia Avenue. Questions? Give them a ring at 773-248-8333, or check them out at www.ilovecornelias.com.

--Robert McDonald

Buy Robert's new book A Field Guide to Gay and Lesbian Chicago at shop.chicagopride.com