Every day at 5pm, Chicagoans leave their offices in the downtown Loop and head home to their neighborhood. That’s because Chicago is a city of neighborhoods – each one distinct in its vibe, its appearance and the makeup of its residents. It’s this patchwork of communities that gives the third largest city in the U.S. its small town feel. And it’s impossible to truly know Chicago without visiting one.
So after you’ve been to the Art Institute, taken the Architectural Boat Tour and stared at your reflection in The Bean – after you’ve stood at the edge of the lake and wondered how it can look like the edge of an ocean – it’s time to head into the neighborhoods to get to know the real Chicago.
And what better neighborhood to visit than the lesbian neighborhood of Andersonville?
That’s right – I said “lesbian neighborhood.”
While many cities have an area that serves as the center of the gay men’s social scene, few can boast a neighborhood centered around gay women. Andersonville, just two miles north of Wrigley Field, is exactly that. If you have a free day in Chicago, and you’re a lady who loves ladies, this is where should you spend it.
Andersonville is easy to get to – it’s a short walk from the Berwyn stop on the El’s red line. Best of all, the commercial area is concentrated on the eight-block stretch of N. Clark Street between Foster and Bryn Mawr Avenues, which means that all of the area’s shops and restaurants are a few steps from each other.
Start with breakfast at Ann Sather. Owned by the first openly gay alderman to serve on Chicago’s City Council, this brunch spot is a favorite among Chicagoans who travel from all over the city to order the life-changing cinnamon rolls. You can order them on their own or as a “side dish” with a meal, but if you can eat two cinnamon rolls AND a meal you are part of a superior race.
You’re probably wondering why there are lingonberries on the Ann Sather menu. That’s because Andersonville was settled in the 1800s as a community of Swedish immigrants. The Swedish population moved on long ago, but the neighborhood is still laced with traces of its immigrant past. The area’s history is most evident in the blue and yellow awnings on local businesses and a Swedish-flag-emblazoned water tower that stands guard over the intersection of Foster Avenue and Clark Street. For more on the neighborhood’s early inhabitants, visit the Swedish American Museum Center.
One of the things that makes Andersonville such a lesbian hotspot is its concentration of lesbian-owned and lesbian-friendly businesses, like Women and Children First. One of the last feminist bookstores to survive the advent of Amazon, their deep selection includes LGBT-themed works and a hip rack of indie mags. Ask about their events - if you’re lucky Jeanette Winterson or Hillary Clinton might be doing a reading that night (no, seriously).
If there’s one thing lesbians love more than feminist books, it’s comfortable shoes. Alamo Shoes specializes in well-made lesbian favorites like Dansko and Teva. The façade is less than glamorous, but the old-school staff of Willy Loman look-a-likes takes customer service seriously.
You’ll need a new outfit to go with those new kicks – but why buy one when you can make one? One of the hippest (hipster-est?) spots in Andersonville, The T-Shirt Deli makes custom t-shirts while you wait. The shop is designed like an actual deli –rolled red t-shirts hang from the ceiling like sausages and completed shirts are wrapped like sandwiches and delivered to customers with a bag of chips. If you go in June, get there early - the shop will be packed with pithy gays and allies expressing their ironic pride.
If you're looking for something sexier than a t-shirt (although, for my money, there's no such thing) look no further than next door to T-Shirt Deli. Tulip, a sassy, self-described "sex toy gallery," is both women- and lesbian-friendly.
On a classier note, check out Las Manos Gallery for paintings, sculpture and photography by local artists. Owner Michelle Peterson-Albandoz’ signature Chicago skyline paintings – created in reverse on the backside of old windows – are the ultimate Chi Town souvenir.
All this shopping making you hungry? Head to Charlie’s Ale House for inspired pub food. The Buffalo Chicken Sandwich is a gift to your face and, in cold weather, the Chicken Pot Pie is like inserting a warm hug directly into your mouth. More importantly, in summer months the open front windows and sidewalk seating provide a strategic spot for girl watching.
After lunch, get an ice cream cone at George’s Ice Cream and Sweets and take it to the benches at the intersection of Clark Street & Berwyn Avenue. This intersection is ground zero of lesbian Chicago. Every Andersonville resident passes through it at some point during the day, window shopping, holding hands with her girlfriend or rushing off to play in one of the country’s largest lesbian intramural sports leagues. From here you can watch women greet each other on the street and marvel at how everyone in this neighborhood seems to know each other.
If you’re lucky, while you’re on the benches, you might even see Puppet Bike. Invented by local artist Jason Trusty, Puppet Bike is a psychedelic puppet stage built on a tricycle. While it has no official schedule, the mobile theater often parks at Clark & Berwyn, where its cast of animal puppets performs a series of surreally well-choreographed dances for delighted crowds of passersby. The puppets boogie, high-five and fight over tips handed to them by onlookers. Sound weird? It is. And I dare you not to love it.
All right, girl – enough puppets and ice cream. It’s time to go out.
If you’re wondering what to wear, the answer is: whatever makes you comfortable. The lesbian scene in Chicago is informal with a capital “jeans,” so if you’re looking for an opportunity to wear that new fleece pullover with your company’s logo on it, this is it. You can, of course, dress up but casual tends to be the rule.
Start with dinner and drinks at T’s Bar and Restaurant. The highlight of this laid-back watering hole is its spacious back room filled with women playing pool, throwing darts and lounging by the fireplace. If it’s nice out, head to the sidewalk seating area where the scene is often as lively as the bar inside. Owner Colm Treacy’s culinary training shines through on the menu, which will leave you wondering why you ever settled for fries that don’t come with Garlic Mayonnaise. While heavily populated by lesbian patrons, plenty of straight neighbors also hang out at T’s, making it the perfect destination if you’re with a mixed group.
That’s true, in fact, for most businesses in the area. Unlike other gayborhoods, Andersonville is also home to straight residents of all ages who frequent the same bars, restaurants and shops as their lesbian neighbors. This easy mixing of inhabitants makes Andersonville feel less like a gay vacuum and more like real life. Or, at least, what real life should be.
If dancing is your thing, grab your crew and head to Stargaze. The décor in this gritty lesbian dive will remind you why it’s gay men, and not lesbians, who are known for their taste. But who needs taste when there are cheap drinks? Take yours to the dance floor or grab a seat at the bar and strike up a conversation. Chicagoans are known for their open nature, making it easy to turn strangers into friends.
When you’re all dived-out, head to super-sleek Joie de Vine for an end-of-the-night drink. This wine bar’s exposed brick and sexy electronic music provide the perfect atmosphere for recapping your evening with friends...or sealing the deal with the lady you picked up at Stargaze. If you’re feeling fancy (you are), order the champagne mixed with pomegranate juice.
So there it is – your perfect lesbian day in Chicago. After spending twenty-four hours in an area outside the Loop, you can travel home confident that you have experienced the real Chicago.
And when your friends ask what you thought of the city you can sigh wisely and reply, “City? No, no, no. See, Chicago is all about the neighborhoods...”