By Kate Silver
Every year, it’s inevitable: someone puts soap in the fountain of the brick-lined Giddings Plaza, and it spews a volcano of suds in the heart of Lincoln Square’s commercial downtown. Neighbors get annoyed by the juvenile act, but it speaks volumes about the good, clean — pun intended — family fun for which this neighborhood eight miles north of downtown is known.
That same tree-lined plaza fills with families every Thursday evening throughout the summer, as they gather for the outdoor Summer Concert Series (June 6–August 29). Kids dance, neighbors laugh and raise a glass, and the whole world seems right in this quintessential enclave; with its walkable, European-inspired streets; quirky, independently owned shops; and that everybody-knows-your-name vibe.
In the avenues surrounding Giddings Plaza, kids play basketball in front of graceful Victorian homes and charming bungalows. Throughout the summer, the green grass of Winnemac Park fills with blankets and picnic baskets, as Chicagoans soak up as much warmth as they can (an “unofficial” fireworks show put on by area residents rivals any of the city-sanctioned Fourth of July exhibitions). And beloved restaurants, bars, shops, and entertainment options give locals countless reasons to stay right here in their own backyard.
Located just 10 miles east of O’Hare International Airport, this neighborhood — filled with quirky, small-town-like charms — is worth a stop on your way in or out of town. It’s a place where neighbors help neighbors, independent businesses thrive, and hometown pride runs deep. Spend a few hours here, and you may just not want to leave either.
WHAT TO DO
You could easily fill the day wandering through the eclectic shops of Lincoln Square. Peruse the shelves or attend an author reading at the beloved Book Cellar; prepare for your next camping trip or just stock up on the latest athleisure at Uncle Dan’s; lose yourself in an Old World-style apothecary peddling salves and potions at Merz Apothecary; step back in time at Timeless Toys, where the wooden toys and puzzles aim to inspire creativity; pick up a souvenir pair of RBG socks or Chicago flag earrings at Enjoy, An Urban General Store; and swap music trivia while flipping through the vinyl stacks at Laurie’s Planet of Sound. You’ll find all of those shops, and more, along Lincoln Avenue, between Lawrence and Montrose.
For a dose of culture, check the schedule for the Old Town School of Folk Music, which is a concert venue, dance hall, and school. On some days, headliners like Lucinda Williams or Steve Earle may grace the stage; other events bring in global talents from around the world for concerts and even dance parties. A rainy day is a good excuse to take in a movie at the Davis Theater, the longest continually operating theater in Chicago. Built in 1918, the historic landmark was renovated a few years ago, integrating modern comfort with a vintage vibe — plus, better-than-average concessions, including treats from Amy’s Candy Bar and lots of local beer options.
WHERE TO EAT
Whether you’re looking for the latest fusion hot-spot, a date-night favorite or a quick taco snack, Lincoln Square and its nearby streets keeps its visitors and residents well-fed. Bayan Ko mixes the best of Cuban flavors with Filipino favorites, so you can chow down on lumpia (kind of like a Filipino spring roll) before devouring ropa vieja (Cuban beef brisket) and top it off with a bright purple ube sundae. Reservations are suggested: since opening in late 2018, locals have been raving about this tiny neighborhood spot.
A few blocks away, Bistro Campagne has been one of the neighborhood’s destinations for date nights and special occasions since it opened in 2002. The country-style French bistro starts you off with fresh, warm bread and butter before serving classics like escargot, steak frites, braised rabbit, and a decadent burger. With shimmering candles, dark wood decor, and friendly servers, a meal here feels a bit like dining in someone’s welcoming home. Another special-occasion splurge is goosefoot, a fine-dining spot right here in the neighborhood, with a French-flavored tasting menu that highlights small, artisan farms. Bonus: it’s bring-your-own-beverages, and pairing suggestions are available at the sister wine shop next door.
Taqueria El Asadero is the kind of place neighbors would like to keep mum so they can selfishly avoid lines. Well the secret’s out. This no-frills, order-at-the-counter, pay-with-cash taco shop makes an el pastor taco that could go head to head with any downtown. And if you dine in, you get complimentary hot, fresh chips and salsa while you wait. Or, for a casual, family-style, sit-down Mexican meal, families head to Garcia’s, where the inexpensive margaritas pack a punch.
While many visitors assume that all Windy City Pizza is deep-dish, locals actually veer towards thin crust more often than not, and when that thin crust can be traced back to the original pizza style out of Naples, even better. Spacca Napoli draws in pizza lovers from across the city for its bubbly-crusted, cut-it-yourself Neapolitan-style pizza. With the top-notch ingredients, you can’t go wrong keeping it simple here, like the Bufalina, a simple pie made with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di Bufala, and basil. The sauce is so bright and the cheese so creamy, the pizza hits all the right notes.
For dessert, walk off at least a few calories on your way to Amy’s Candy Bar. This whimsical sugar shack sells just about any candy you can imagine — nostalgic and novel — along with rich ice cream from Wisconsin. Those in the know head straight for the divine brownies and blondies that chef/owner Amy Hansen bakes, herself. Or pop into Café Selmarie, a popular café and bakery that serves crave-worthy cookies and cakes. Consider coming back here at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, for upscale comfort classics such as chicken pot pie, quiche, and avocado toast.
WHERE TO DRINK
Whichever buzz you’re in the mood for — alcohol or caffeine — slaking your thirst is its own kind of tourism in Lincoln Square. Huettenbar, a throwback to the neighborhood’s German roots, is an excellent place to start. While many of the vintage German businesses in the area have shuttered, this dark, mural-lined Bavarian hut soldiers on, slinging an impressive array of German beers. The bar gets especially spirited during the neighborhood’s German festivals, including German-American Oktoberfest September 6–8 and Maifest in late May.
When the weather is too nice to be inside a dark bar, locals head to the beer and wine garden on the rooftop of Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen. Sausages spit on the grill and the communal tables fill with Chicagoans proclaiming “prost!” to the warm sunshine, while it lasts.
Since 2015, The Sixth has been concocting Lincoln Square’s most Instagram-worthy cocktails. Depending on what you order, you may find your libation has a flower frozen in a block of ice, layers of color reminiscent of a Firecracker Popsicle, or it could be a flaming Tiki drink. Don’t fear the flashiness — these cocktails are just as much about substance as they are style. Plus, the dramatic presentation always makes for an easy conversation with the other bar patrons, most of whom live within walking distance.
If caffeine is your drug of choice, head to Perfect Cup, which is the quintessential neighborhood coffee shop, offering fast Wi-Fi, friendly service, a mix of comfy chairs and tables, and free refills on medium cups of coffee. For something a touch fancier, the beverage menu at newer-kid-on-the-block Oromo Café is as creative as it gets, with artful creations such as the pistachio rose latte, golden mylk latte, hibiscus Thai iced tea, lemongrass and ginger Vietnamese iced coffee, frozen chai, and more.