After our Cleveland exploits, it was on to Chicago. Apologies to Indiana: we have driven across you probably a dozen times and never so much as visited an actual town. Someday we will explore your (I'm sure) vast wonders, Indiana. Don't give up on us.
We pulled into Chicago long after bedtime, and like the lazy souls we are, decided to stay right downtown so we wouldn't have to deal with traffic getting into the city (I experienced this morning rush hour long ago when I lived in a suburb of the city called Oak Park and I was not eager to put us through it; the stereotype of the polite Midwesterner flies out the window during Chicago's morning rush hour). Lucky for the old wallet, HotelTonight found us a super sweet deal on the Virgin Hotel downtown and let me tell you, it was POSH. Objectively posh, not just in comparison to the $39/night (not-so) Quality Inn where we stayed in Pennsylvania and had to switch rooms three times before we got one with bedding. No, the Virgin had multiple shower heads in its shower, a complementary basket of organic snacks, white noise machines and BLACKOUT SHADES. Every hotel in the world should have blackout shades, not just those plastic-backed curtains with the orange-y emanations from the parking lot seeping out around the edges. We put the kids to bed, David ran out for a pizza, we ate said pizza, I briefly felt that said pizza would kill me, we went to bed.
(A note to Chicago pizza: what even are you? Are you actually just lasagna with a crust? I understand you're a deep dish, but must the dish be so deep? Must I need to wash you down with a bottle of Pepto? Why do you try so hard, pizza?)
I guess we'd recovered from the pizza well enough that by early morning we were ready for our Great Chicago Donut Crawl. Now I will be the first to admit that eating a large quantity of donuts before 9 a.m. is neither the best way to start a day, nor the best way to honor whichever donut we'd decide was Chicago's best. But operating under time constraints, and being gluttons, we went for it anyway. We had previously narrowed our candidates for Best Chicago Donut to three:
1. Do-Rite Donuts and Coffee
2. Glazed and Infused
3. Doughnut Vault
As always, we first tested the plain glazed at each location as a barometer. In a raised glazed, I'm looking for a soft, light interior; a slightly crisp outer; a glaze with a pleasant mouthfeel; and an overall balance of sweetness. The most common donut downfalls are, for me, a gritty glaze, over-sweetness, and/or a yeasty taste in the dough from overproving.
We headed to Do-Rite first and I've gotta say, this one was my favorite. It hit no sour notes: perfectly moist, perfectly glazed, an all-around star of a donut. The old-fashioned was also really something to write home about, and avoided the weird tongue-coating I often get after eating an OF.
On to Glazed and Infused. This one is for the REAL sweet tooth—the donuts here are sugary to the max. I'll grant it had creative flavors, but so did our other two locations, and every donut we tried here was so darn sweet, the flavors were completely overwhelmed. We weren't big fans, but if you love a super-sweet donut, maybe this place would top your list.
Our last stop was the Doughnut Vault, which I felt a little eye-rolly about because all the reviews went on and on about how you have to get there early and wait 20 minutes for your donut. And I was all, PLEASE PEOPLE. I live in New York City, a place where people wait hours, overnight even, for trendy desserts. On a regular basis. If you're walking down the street in New York and you see a bunch of 20-something-looking girls standing in an absurdly long line, you can bet it's for something like a waffle cone filled with giant scoops of cookie dough, or a piece of fried chicken sandwiched between two maple donuts. Let's not even get into the cronut insanity. I don't know what it is about New Yorkers, but for people who claim to be hyper-busy all the time, they sure spend a lot of hours waiting in line for food.
Anyway, we got to Doughnut Vault in plenty of time to get our pick of donuts, with minimal wait (it was a weekday, after all). First impressions: these donuts are ridiculously huge. Face-sized. And therein lay their downfall for me, because while the flavors and textures were delicious, I couldn't escape the yeasty aftertaste of the over-proved dough. It's very possible that we got an unusual batch and that our dough was left a few minutes too long. Still, with that aftertaste it couldn't top Do-Rite's simple perfection for me. David, on the other hand, said I was crazy and cast his lot with the Vault. Go to Chicago; taste for yourself.
On our way back to the hotel, steeped in sugar and fried dough, we came across Macy's, which had its annual flower show going on. A bunch of my friends in New York had gone to the NYC flower show and I missed out due to all the infernal packing I had to do, so we ran up to check out Chicago's version.
The flower show was both very cool horticulturally and a bit creepy because, a) it was set up on a completely deserted high floor of the store, b) there was no one else there, and (mainly) c) it was carnival-themed. Actually, though, in spite of all the clowns, we were blown away by what they did with all the flowers. There were popcorn-looking flowers and cotton-candy-looking flowers and mermaid-hair-looking flowers, and Graham was totally delighted by the whole thing.
After stopping off to check out of the hotel, we headed over to Millennium Park to get our obligatory "bean" photos of Cloud Gate. Back when I lived here a million years ago, I once went to a special taping of the Oprah show in the park for which I had to sleep in the park overnight to get a spot. The show was the Olympic special (during which, I feel I should mention, the athletes walked around to show off their medals, and as I was reaching out to touch Michael Phelps' golds, I accidentally touched his pectorals instead. It was not the worst moment of my life.) and afterward, I discovered that my train pass was out of money. I hadn't taken my wallet due to the park-sleeping, couldn't get ahold of anyone I knew, and needed to be back for work in an hour. I thought I could probably get enough people to pitch in a quarter to buy me a ride, so I started approaching my fellow show-goers. I was systematically shunned, didn't get a cent, and somehow ended up sitting on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, panhandling with a Starbucks cup I'd fished from the trash. Looking back, it seems odd that I couldn't brainstorm a better solution, and I have to remember that this was back before I had a phone that could do anything but place calls, and I knew all of two people in the area. Still, it's an odd little moment from my history.
All this to say: there were some fun memories to revisit in this area of Millennium Park.
From the bean, we headed to the Shedd Aquarium, which was my favorite place in the world as a kid when I came to visit my aunt and uncle. The views of Chicago from out here are gorgeous, and we got a sunny moment to look out on the skyline and the lake. The aquarium is expensive, but top-notch, and the kids (and adults) loved it. (Also, Pro Tip! While waiting in line for tickets, we looked online for groupon-ish deals and found tickets for almost half off the regular price. We bought them on the spot, skipped up to the desk, had our tickets printed, and felt pretty darn self-satisfied for the rest of our visit.)
Aquariums in general are one of my very favorite places to take the kids; something about the swishing of the fish and the way the tanks light the kids' faces—I just find it totally mesmerizing. As a bonus, we didn't catch any sort of shows while we were there, so we didn't have to experience the moral stress of feeling simultaneously icky about trained animal shows and giddy over seeing a dolphin balance a ball on its nose. Another bonus: the completely adorable beluga whales kept popping their heads up to smile at us and made us feel like a million bucks, because if a marine mammal takes a liking to you, I kind of feel like you're golden for life.