Where to enjoy a wee bit of Scotland in Chicago

When you hear “Chicago”, the thought of Scotland probably doesn’t jump immediately to mind. Ireland, perhaps, and most definitely Poland.

But there’s a proud, long-standing Scottish community in Chicago, and there’s definitely ways to celebrate your heritage or love of all things Scottish in the Windy City.

Scottish immigrants have made the city their own over the years; they were particularly well-represented within the meatpacking industry that defined Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. Notable Scottish-Americans in Chicago include Robert Fergus, influential to the city’s printing industry; and Allan Pinkerton, who was the first police detective in Chicago. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was founded in Chicago in 1850, was the forerunner for organizations like the FBI and CIA.

Scottish names are scattered across the local map as well – towns with names like Inverness, Midlothian, Bannockburn, and West Dundee. In fact, at least 195 communities, neighbourhoods, districts and suburban estates in greater Chicago can trace their names to either places in Scotland, or are named for famous Scots. You can even pay homage to one of Scotland’s favorite sons, the national poet Robert Burns, at his statue in Garfield Park, on the west side of the city.

Every summer, the Illinois St. Andrew Society – also known as the Chicago Scots – hosts the Scottish Festival and Highland Games, as well as the St. Andrew’s Day Gala and Feast of the Haggis, the Kilted Classic Golf Tournament, and Burns Night0. The Chicago Scots are the oldest nonprofit in Illinois, founded in 1845. The ISAS welcomes anyone “who is Scottish by birth, heritage, or simply inclination”; membership is free, although there are also paid membership levels.

While there are various mostly-British restaurants in Chicago that may offer a few Scottish dishes, there are two restaurants that are very Scottish indeed.

The first is Balmoral Restaurant, which is not in Chicago proper, but rather, the far western suburbs, located at 40W099 Illinois Route 64, in Campton Hills. Although it’s only been open a few years, it repeatedly ranks high in local “Best of…” readers’ polls. While their menu is limited, you simply cannot go wrong dining here, with selections ranging from their Highlander’s Cock-a-Leekie Soup, to Scottish salmon, to desserts like the Raspberry Cream Cranachan. Open for dinner nightly; 2-10pm on Sundays.

The other is the cozy and charming Duke of Perth pub, located at 2913 N. Clark Street, just south of W. Oakdale Ave. (Lincoln Park/Lakeview). They’re open nightly in the evenings; they open at noon on Saturday/Sundays. Their speciality is their all-you-can-eat fish fry (with chips, of course), but you can also be adventurous with menu items like their haggis burger. This is also an outstanding place to have a wee dram or two of whisky – they have an excellent selection (not to mention some solid local regional craft brews). Don’t take my word alone for it – Whisky Magazine certified them as a “Great Whisky Bar of the World” in 2006. In the winter, settle in near their fireplace and warm yourself inside and out.

The Duke of Perth is not the only place you can get your whisky (or whiskey) on, however. A few other places to enjoy a dram:

  • Delilah’s, 2771 N. Lincoln Ave., just south of Diversey (Lincoln Park/Lakeview). This much-beloved dive bar has more than 800 varieties of whiskey from around the world, as well as a few of their own.
  • Lady Gregory’s, 5260 N. Clark St. at W. Berwyn (Andersonville). This popular Irish pub has a solid menu, with over 300 whiskeys and a variety of draft and bottle beers; and it feels more like a literary supper club, unlike a lot of stereotypical Irish pubs. (On a side note, Andersonville was recently ranked # 2 on Lonely Planet’s “49 Coolest Neighborhoods in the World” list. This lively LGBTQ+ community on Chicago’s far north side is a great place to explore!)
  • Twisted Spoke, 501 N. Ogden Ave. at W. Grand Ave. (West Loop). Whether you call them a roadhouse or a biker’s bar, the Twisted Spoke has a bar loaded with some 600 whiskeys, as well as almost two dozen draft beers, many from the Midwest, plus a wide variety of bottled beers and ciders. Unfortunately, their menu has been trimmed down considerably during the pandemic, but you can’t go wrong with their burgers (a.k.a. “tallboys”).
  • Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Ave. (Logan Square). While also known for their delicious farm-to-table fare, L&E boasts more than 400 varieties – ranging from ones you can sample for just $3/shot, up to rare and well-aged classics.
  • There are two Chicago bars which are “partner bars” for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (out of 14 in the U.S.). Sadly, both of them are temporarily closed due to the pandemic. You can still shop at Fountainhead‘s (1966 W. Montrose, Lincoln Square/Ravenswood) Market. The other, Drumbar, located atop what is now the Gale Hotel (201 E. Delaware Place, Streeterville), is indefinitely closed.

And finally, if you really want to wear your Scottish-Chicago pride on your sleeve (or elsewhere), visit the Scotland Shop’s Illinois Tartan page. This attractive tartan, in the colors of the Chicago flag, was created for the Illinois St. Andrews Society, and adopted as the official tartan of the State of Illinois. The Scottish Shop also occasionally visits Chicago for pop-up events, such as the Scottish Festival and Highland Games.

The official Illinois tartan available through Scotlandshop.com

Ten of my favorite Chicago places

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We all dream of visiting exciting exotic locales. My current top 10 “dream list” locations (in no particular order) are: Antarctica, Galapagos, Iceland, Azores, Alaska, Croatia, Santorini/Greek Isles; New Zealand (South Island), Bhutan. There’s countries I’ve been before that I saw very little of, and would like to spend a more leisurely time visiting, such as Australia, Japan, Nepal.

But for some of you out there, you’re dreaming of visiting the States, and Chicago is on your list for whatever reason. Maybe you fell in love with it through the movies like I did. Perhaps you like one of our sports teams, or you are a huge fan of improv comedy, you’re a serious foodie, or you love great museums.

Chicago has something for everyone, that’s for sure. So here’s ten of my favorite places around town – again, in no particular order! – and I’ll break it down into five favorite restaurants, and five favorite sites worth seeing/experiencing.

RESTAURANTS

This was a tough list, because every time I thought of a restaurant, I’d think of five more that I could easily include. So I narrowed it down to some of the places I’ve been the most frequently over the past couple years. They’re all decently priced and give you great food for your money.

  1. 90 Miles Cuban Café – Cuba has become a hot topic on American lips these days, but those in the know have been enjoying Cuban fare for many years. 90 Miles has a taste of the Caribbean in the heart of Chicago; they have three locations serving up fresh, tasty, amazing food. My favorite is their Bistec De Palomilla sandwich, but you can’t go wrong with a simple Cubano here, either. In addition to great food, they also host events like live jazz on Wednesdays, pig roast buffets on Thursday, and Flamenco nights! Their most public transportation-accessible location is their Logan Square location – 2540 West Armitage, a couple blocks’ walk from the Western stop on the Blue line L.
  2. Q BBQ – Like 90 Miles, Q BBQ also currently has three locations, although two more are in the works. Given Chicago’s history with its stockyards and the city’s intense love of meat, it’s no surprise that the barbeque business is booming all over the city, from low-key to upscale. Pick one, two, or three meats, pick your sides, and enjoy BBQ Nirvana. Big eater? Go for the Papa Q Platter. Enjoy Q’s regional sauces and influences. Q’s Lakeview location at 714 W. Diversey Pkwy. is a short stroll from the Diversey stop on the Brown and Purple L lines.
  3. Piece Brewery & Pizzeria – If you ever want to get two Chicagoans into a heated discussion, just bring up the subject of best pizza in town. If you want deep dish, I’ll send you to Lou Malnatti’s or the original Gino’s East. But if you want great pizza and some brewpub suds to wash it down, then head over to Wicker Park’s Piece, and get one of their New Haven-style (thin crust) pizzas. Go on game night and enjoy an enthusiastic crowd cheering on their hometown teams – Piece loves the local teams, and has designed cute Piece logos for each of them. And if that’s not cool enough for you, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen is a co-owner, and yes, he’s occasionally found there. 1927 W. North Ave., Blue line L to Damen.
  4. Doughnut Vault – Yes, Chicago got hit with the cupcake craze and the doughnut craze. You can get heart-stopping pastries all across the city, but few induce the fan dedication of the Doughnut Vault. Their original location at 400 N. Franklin St. is barely big enough to hold a handful of people, but in the morning, the waiting line wraps around the corner of the block. (Don’t worry, the line moves fast.) They open at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. on the weekends, and they stay open “’til sold out” – which could be 11 a.m. or it could be 3:30 p.m. They update their stock constantly via Twitter, and you can preview the week’s rotating daily special selection on their Tumblr. Personally, I love the delicious simplicity of their “Gingerbread stack” – a threesome of cinnamon-and-sugar dusted doughnuts that taste pretty much perfect. The original location proved so popular that they added a food truck, and they opened a second location at 111 N. Canal St. (across from the Ogilvie Transportation Center) which is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and has a wider daily variety of doughnuts. Brown or Purple line L to Merchandise Mart.
  5. The Little Goat Diner –  Chicago-born chef Stephanie Izard competed on Bravo’s Top Chef, and she not only won but was named fan favorite. Not long after that success, she opened her popular upscale Girl & The Goat in 2010. Its more casual sister restaurant, The Little Goat Diner (820 W. Randolph St.), opened in 2012, and has proven just as popular ever since. Go daring for breakfast and try This Little Piggy Went to China; and I love the Pork Belly Pancake under their “sammiches”. (Any of their sandwiches rule.) Their bakery opens at 6 a.m. and you can enjoy breakfast starting at 7 a.m.; they’re open until 10 p.m. most days; midnight on Friday and Saturday. Green or Pink line L to Morgan Station.

 

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SIGHTS / EXPERIENCES AROUND TOWN

You already know about the obvious tourist destinations. But what else do you do after you’ve been up in the Willis or Hancock Towers, checked out your reflection in Cloud Gate (a.k.a. “The Bean”), wandered around art museums all day, and hit the tourist scene at Navy Pier? You go check out other experiences like a local, of course.

  1. Lillstreet Art Center – Lillstreet has been making art with the community for 40 years. If you’re local or if you have plenty of time to enjoy the city, you might want to consider one of Lillstreet’s many mulit-week art classes in disciplines like ceramics, jewelcrafting, textiles, and more. Have a little less time? Lillstreet offers some one-off classes and new full day “creative retreats”. You can support local artists by checking out their galleries and gift shop; or make a difference by having a meal or picking up a pie at their on-site café, First Slice. 4401 N. Ravenswood Ave.; Brown line to Montrose. 
  2. United Center – The “UC’s” predecessor, the Chicago Stadium, was known as “the Madhouse on Madison”, a moniker that was originally carried over to the United Center. Chicago is a very serious sports city – and the UC is home to two well-decorated, much-beloved sports teams: the Chicago Bulls (NBA) and the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL). The Bulls were dominant in the 1990s for basketball during the Michael Jordan era; the Blackhawks have led the hockey world with three Stanley Cup titles in the past six seasons (2010, 2013, and 2015, above). With a seating capacity of nearly 21,000, the United Center is the second-largest arena in both the NBA and NHL; but standing room capacity regularly pushes their ticket sales to first. In addition to sports, the UC also hosts dozens of concerts, Disney on Ice, the circus, and other events throughout the year. CTA bus #19 UC Express or #20 Madison from the Loop to the United Center.
  3. The Chicago Lakefront / Lincoln Park – Chicagoans often joke that we get 4-5 months of summer and the rest is all winter, but that’s not entirely accurate. At any rate, the lakefront is never quiet; it’s the city’s backyard and its lungs – a gift to the citizens of Chicago by its master planner, Daniel H. Burnham, who insisted that “The Lakefront by right belongs to the people. Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.” Today, 25 of Chicago’s 29 miles of lakefront remain public parklands, studded with various athletic facilities (including a public golf course), 18.5 miles of trails, marinas, beaches, museums, picnic facilities, and more. In the summer, the city’s denizens fill the parks, and the lakefront path can be very busy between Belmont Harbor in the north down to the Museum Campus. On the east side of the Loop, you can enjoy Millennium Park, the new Maggie Daley Park (great for kids of all ages!), enjoy one of many music festivals held in Grant Park, or stroll by the harbor and Buckingham Fountain (pictured at top). At the Museum Campus, you can take enjoy the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium. Take in wildlife – or a concert – at Northerly Island; enjoy a Chicago Bears (NFL) football game or other major event at Soldier Field. Wander around the shops, restaurants, theater, rides, fireworks, and city views at Navy Pier. Visit the Lincoln Zoo; enjoy the Green City Market or the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Rent a Divvy bike and go for a ride – your choices for entertainment on the waterfront are endless!
  4. The Improv Scene – Chicago is called “the Second City”, but they’re second-to-none when it comes to being the birthplace of the improv comedy scene. The granddaddy of them all, Second City, has produced many of the country’s leading comedians for fifty years, and you can still take classes there – or take in many shows throughout the week. But it doesn’t stop there: check out the Improv, IO Chicago, or Zanies; take in the Chicago Improv Festival; or take the stage yourself at open mike nights at smaller comedy clubs like The Playground Theater. Pick up the free weekly The Chicago Reader to find out what’s happening around town.
  5. The Theater SceneBroadway in Chicago brings top musicals and shows to Chicago, as well as providing a fertile testing ground for new musicals. (Spamalot, among others, did test runs here before their Broadway debuts.) Experience world-class Shakespeare and other productions at the intimate Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. See well-known actors perform live in one of Steppenwolf’s powerful productions. Take in quality shows at smaller neighborhood theaters like the Raven and the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Like the improv scene, check out The Chicago Reader for the most current listings.

And one last wild card among my recommendations: Metropolis Coffee. You’ll need caffeine to keep you vibrant for all this fun! If you can’t make it up to their coffeehouse at 1039 W. Granville Ave. (Red line L to Granville), you’ll find their coffee on tap at various locations throughout the city, and you can buy their amazing coffee by the pound at Whole Foods.