Exploring Andersonville, Chicago

The Andersonville Chicago neighborhood snagged a spot on Redfin’s 2015 list of “hottest neighborhoods."

Every year in October, usually the weekend before Halloween, I’d get my girls in their Halloween costumes and head over to Andersonville for the annual Trick or Treat on Clark Street. Kids and parents pop in and out of the businesses along this main commercial strip, between a few blocks south of Foster all the way up to where Ashland and Clark intersect at Gethsemane Garden Center. Generous business-owners fill candy bags, and a costume contest ups the ante on creativity (our favorite was a mom and dad dressed as chefs, carrying a pot with their baby in a lobster costume)—and it’s a jam-packed, festive testament to the cohesiveness of this far North Side neighborhood.

In this city of neighborhoods, every one of them has its own distinct character, but this tight-knit feel is definitely part of what contributed to Andersonville’s number 7 spot on Redfin’s predicted “hottest neighborhoods” in the country for 2015. A few other punchy factors: its walkability, its Locals Supporting Locals loyalty rewards program, the district’s innovative composting and recycling programs for residents, and its Sustainable Business Merit Badge program that awards business owners for successful eco-minded efforts.

It wasn’t always like this, though. After a strong start with Swedish farmers settling the area from the mid-19th century into the beginning of the 20th century, the post-World War era saw a decline of population and businesses, as families began moving to the suburbs. Then, in 1964, a push to re-energize the community and its historic Swedish roots culminated in the rededication of Andersonville by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner.

About a decade later, a cultural institution that had been percolating for some time finally came to fruition: the Swedish American Museum (5211 N. Clark St., www.swedishamericanmuseum.org), whose opening marked a highlight of the neighborhood’s resurgence and was attended by none other than the King of Sweden himself. It’s a petite museum with a big identity, telling the history of Swedish immigration to America. Its Brunk Children’s Museum is always a favorite with kids for its totally non-digital, hands-on play.

Andersonville Chicago's Swedish museum

A steady stream of young professional families and one of the city’s largest concentrations of LGBT residents have led to the diverse, progressive and locally focused neighborhood it is today. Case in point: Nearly all of its shops and restaurants are owned and operated by locals, many of whom live in Andersonville. And, for the record, these local shops are destination-worthy, notably the Women and Children First Bookstore and a slew of interior design and home accessories shops—including Baan Home, Brownstone Antiques, Cassona, Foursided custom framing, Scout and the indie indoor art bazaar of the Andersonville Galleria.

Catering to that gay and lesbian population are several popular bars and restaurants. At the national chain Hamburger Mary’s, the downstairs serves up juicy half-pounders and rich milkshakes; next door, sister Andersonville Brewing is a sports bar that concocts its own brews with names that nod to musicals (Mary Hoppins) and Chicago lore (Speakeasy Saison); upstairs, Mary’s Attic is where things get kind of wild and crazy, with nights like MaryOke, theater performances, trivia nights and more—and a crowd that got it on Out magazine’s “greatest gay bars in the world” roster. Late-night rowdiness happens at @mosphere (5355 N. Clark St.) replete with smooth-bodied dancers, DJs, fireball shot specials and the frequent drag queen sighting.

Technically in Uptown, but within throwing distance of Andersonville central is Big Chicks (5024 N. Sheridan Rd.) one of the neighborhood’s—and, really, the city’s—go-to gay and lesbian eatery where not much is over $10 (burgers are a buck on Mondays), the ’90s are venerated, pictures of voluptuous naked women fill the walls, and adjoining restaurant Tweet (both cash only) showcases rotating artwork each month and a vegan-, veggie- and organic-friendly menu. Plus, expectations are high for two more bars, with plans to open summer 2015, both of them outposts of Boystown favorites: Replay (5368 N. Clark St.) and Elixir Lounge (1507 W. Balmoral Ave.) 

Andersonville Restaurants

Bounded roughly by Ainslie north to Victoria, Magnolia west to Ravenswood, Andersonville’s main shopping and dining is focused along Clark Street, a refreshing break from chain-name sameness. In fact, residents put up quite a stink when the area’s sole Starbucks opened—and, although the coffee giant has since become part of the fabric, it’s more likely that residents will meet up for a light bite and java at The Coffee Studio (5628 N. Clark St., www.thecoffeestudio.com), Kopi A Travelers Café (5317 N. Clark St.) or First Slice Pie Café (5357 N. Ashland Ave., www.firstslice.org).

For full-on morning goodness, the Andersonville outpost of Bucktown’s famed Bongo Room (5022 N. Clark St., www.thebongoroom.com) is equally embraced here. With good reason: Its omelets are legendary, fluffy creations; its sweet-side items are dreamy concoctions (Oreo and praline flapjacks…what?). In other words, get there before it opens or be prepared to wait. Same goes for m. henry (5707 N. Clark st., www.mhenry.net), a super-cute spot open only for breakfast/brunch and lunch. Leaning toward the organic and natural, its menu ranges from health-nut dandelion, shallot, and leek omelet to indulgent brioche French toast layered with bananas, rum and raisins and drizzled with crème caramel and toasted pecans.

Many of the go-to dining destinations have called Andersonville home for years, if not decades. Check out Andies for Mediterranean (5253 N. Clark St., www.andieschicago.com); gastropub Hopleaf (5148 N. Clark St., www.hopleaf.com), raved about for its mussels and extensive beer list served in specially paired glasses; Calo Ristorante (5343 N. Clark St., www.calorestaurant.com), an old-world red-sauce Italian staple since 1963, serving barbecue ribs we swear by; and big group-favorite Ranalli’s Pizza (1512 W. Berwyn Ave., www.ranallispizza.com), a reincarnation of the original that lived in Old Town for 20 years, bringing back fond memories with its thin, stuffed, double-decker and pan-style pizzas, and panzerotti (like a calzone).

Andie's restaurant, Andersonville

Pastoral Andersonville

Locals are anticipating the opening of a new Pastoral (5212 N. Clark St., www.pastoralartisan.com), which will be the beloved artisan cheese, bread and wine shop’s largest location when it opens in summer 2015. Until then, Andersonville already boasts some nationally recognized restaurants and chefs, like Paul Fehribach of Big Jones (5347 N. Clark St., www.bigjoneschicago.com), who is a multiple-year semifinalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes award. The cuisine? Southern-inspired. Think Carolina shrimp burgers, fried green tomatoes and Gumbo Ya-Ya. The liquor list? Heavy on the bourbon and whiskey, of course. Join the Big Jones Bourbon Society, taste all 46 and get special invites, free pours and the status of Master Taster. A little more Southern flair can be found at Pork Shoppe (5721 N. Clark St., www.porkshoppechicago.com), which doesn't rest its smoked laurels on any one type of barbecue, but does a little of everything—Carolina-style pulled pork, Memphis dry-rubbed ribs, Texas beef brisket—and does it with love, from Steven Ford, Jason Heiman and Mike Schimmel, the trio that made the former Tizi Melloul such a standout in River North.

For more info, find it on www.andersonville.org where you’ll also find links to self-guided historic tours of Andersonville.