10 Things We Love About River North
With its trendy eateries, renowned art galleries, and late-night clubs, River North is one of the most popular neighborhoods in Chicago. Originally known as Smokey Hollow (drop that little piece of trivia into your next cocktail conversation), over the past 40 years, this dynamic neighborhood has morphed from a warehouse district into a place where new concepts in art, design, and cuisine are fomented. River North also has diverse housing options, from the city’s newest and most luxurious high-rises to converted lofts, affordable condos, and an enclave of mansions favored by professional athletes. The list of things we love about River North is as long as the river itself, but here are 10 that are timeless.
1. The River
Most Chicagoans know that the Chicago River once flowed into Lake Michigan before it was reversed through an incredible feat of 19th-century engineering. Today, the section of river that cuts through River North, both east-west and north-south, serves as a busy route for tourism, commerce, and recreation. Notable landmarks include the Kinzie Street Bridge, where John Cusack confided to the camera in High Fidelity, and the “corncob” Marina Towers. Book a 90-minute Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, rent a kayak, or jump on the Island Party Boat, a floating tiki bar, to truly appreciate this Chicago attraction first-hand.
Some Chicagoans poo-poo this fitness palace as a yuppie pick-up spot. Others won’t let a day pass without a visit to its posh studios. Love it or hate it (or both), no one can deny that East Bank Club has become a Chicago institution. Opened in 1980, this massive 350,000-square-foot health club revolutionized the fitness industry and introduced many an upscale patron to River North for the very first time. Today, the club has more than 10,000 members, and over the years has been the gym of choice for local celebrities, athletes and politicians, including Oprah, Derrick Rose, Richard Dent, Billie Jean King, Rahm Emanuel, Jesse Jackson, and former President Barack Obama.
3. Chicago Steakhouses
If you’re looking for an authentic Chicago steakhouse, wave a stick in River North and you’ll hit one. STK, GT Prime, Chicago Cut, Gibson’s Italia, Smith & Wollensky, and the French-inspired Bavette’s Steakhouse and Bar…take your pick. But for a true classic, head to Gene & Georgetti, which has been serving prime cuts to the who’s who since 1941. If this old-school joint under the L was good enough for the Chairman of the Board (aka Sinatra), it’s good enough for you. If new school is more your vibe, check out RPM Steak, a favorite for celebrity sightings (along with its sister restaurants RPM Italian and RPM Seafood.) Get the savory wagyu beef and leave room for the decadent desserts like the 14K Chocolate Cake that’s flecked with gold leaf.
4. More Restaurants (An Embarrassment of Riches)
Steakhouses are just the start of the culinary journey that winds through River North, offering literally hundreds of excellent options. Experience French fine dining at Brindille, owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Carrie Nahabedian. Le Select offers a French brasserie backed by the Boka Restaurant Group and award-winning chef Chris Pandel. Grab a nightcap at Bar 504. No talk of the River North dining scene would be complete without mentioning Rick Bayless and his trio of restaurants, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and the casual Xoco. In the mood for Pizza? Try Pistores Pizza & Pastry, featuring artisan pizzas like “The Roland,” a Detroit-style pie made with lemongrass sausage, Thai basil, and sriracha. Or default to the never-disappointing Pizzeria Uno and Due. If you’re an Italian beef aficionado or a fan of FX’s “The Bear”, then you certainly know about Mr. Beef On Orleans. This no-frills classic is a Chicago institution known for its Italian beef and sausage with sweet and spicy peppers and hand-cut fries. Buon Apetito!
5. The Merchandise Mart + Design
With more than 250 design showrooms, “the Mart” spans two city blocks, 25 stories, and 4.2 million gross square feet. It’s so large it used to have its own zip code, which was later adopted by surrounding blocks. Look for light projections and other video installations on the 2.5 acre façade with Art on The Mart. Wander showrooms and attend NeoCon, the largest commercial interior design event. The River North Design District also boasts a pocket of more than 25 interior design showrooms outside of the Merchandise Mart.
The River North Gallery District once proclaimed it had the largest concentration of art galleries in the country outside of Manhattan. Centered around Franklin and Superior Streets, former warehouses were transformed into artistic havens. Chicago Gallery News hosts free tours on the second Saturday of the month. Favorites include Addington Gallery, Zg Gallery, Carl Hammer Gallery which specializes in contemporary artwork, ArchiTech Gallery, which showcases architectural drawings, and Jean Albano Gallery which highlights hundreds of Chicago-centric artists. The Joel Oppenheimer Gallery uniquely focuses on the wildlife work of artist John James Audubon.
7. Live Music
With its speakeasy vibe and killer cocktail lounge, head underground to listen to live jazz while dancing the night away at The Bassment. Get old-school crooning at Redhead Piano Bar, hear live jazz over cocktails, and dinner at the Tortoise Supper Club or Andy’s Jazz Club and Restaurant. See a show at the House of Blues or hit Blue Chicago for some of the best blues in town. Prohibition-era-inspired Untitled Supper Club offers a massive whiskey selection and live entertainment or eat barbecue (like the 18-hour beef brisket or baby back ribs) while listening to country music at Bub City.
Away from Michigan Avenue, you’ll find smaller boutiques in River North. Peruse an assortment of eclectic vintage and antique hotel and estate sale offerings at P.O.S.H which sources from European flea markets and auction houses. Get a sample sale every day at Glamour Closet where designer luxury wedding gowns are resold. With two floors, more than 70,000 new and used books can be found at the independent After-Words Bookstore. Each December, the Merchandise Mart hosts a One of a Kind Show that includes accessories, home goods, artwork, and fashion for sale.
Stay up until the sun comes up, at Underground Cocktail Club, a 1920s speakeasy known for its plush surroundings and specialty cocktails. Soak in the tropical vibes and a few tiki drinks, at Three Dots and a Dash. Dance the night away at Bodega, a Mexican-inspired speakeasy meets nightclub known for its DJ-and-musician combo.
10. Boozy Brunches
After a late night out in River North, recover with a “hair of the dog” in one of the neighborhood’s many brunch spots. A great option is Beatrix, which services a brioche French Toast with a cinnamon streusel and strawberry sauce or more spicy selections like chicken tinga. Save room for the “Oh My! Caramel Pie.” There’s a gluten-free menu, freshly squeezed juices and hand-crafted cocktails like the Pineapple Habanero Margarita..Bar Cargo’s brunch buffet offers chilaquiles and house-made pizza along with breakfast classics like French toast and bacon and eggs, paired with bottomless mimosas, Bloody Marys, or domestic beers. The upscale sports bar is known for its Roman-style pizza bar. For something different, check out a Bollywood-style brunch at Bar Goa. Get traditional fare or Chef Bobby Geetha’s modern takes with the “Samosa Bomb” an activated charcoal pastry made with sweet corn and cheddar cheese. This Indian gastropub and cocktail bar is one of the few in the U.S. to serve Goan cuisine and includes many vegan and gluten-free options.