Back in 2015, when my boyfriend and I were planning on moving out of our apartment in Lakeview and we were going to be looking at a new place we hoped to sign a lease on in Rogers Park, I took the the red line up to Loyola to find that Rogers Park was just really Rogers Parkin’ it up for me.
It was a beautiful spring day, one of those first utterly perfect days of the year when Chicago absolutely comes alive. Blue sky and sunshine blazing overhead, the first thing I saw was an adorable cupcake truck selling treats on the corner nearest the El! Walking a few feet down the sidewalk, I brushed past a woman wearing the most gorgeous emerald green sari! A few feet beyond that, two happy-looking pups were tied up outside the Chipotle on Sheridan, greedily eyeballing everybody’s tacos! It was such a Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood moment. It was all just heart-meltingly perfect.
And yes, a few weeks later, we signed the lease on the place we’d been there to look at, and we’ve been happily ensconced there ever since.
I’ve always had an affinity for Rogers Park. As an eighteen year old, fresh out of high school, it was one of the first neighborhoods I spent any time in, before I knew much of anything at all about the different sections of Chicago. I vividly remember being taken for the first time to what I now know was the Heartland Café. I was there with one of the writers whom I was working with on an ambitious but ultimately doomed “sitcom on stage” project called Higher Grounds. (Long story for another time.) I felt cooler than cool, lunching with this professional comedian, talking about the craft of writing, dining on some sort of vaguely healthy sandwich-with-fries situation, being waited on by a gorgeous hippie-punk goddess with armfuls of tattoos. This, as far as I was concerned, was it.
And then again after college, in the no-man’s-land year I spent living in my hometown after graduating but before getting my first big-girl job, I spent endless hours driving into the city in order to hang out at a dear friend’s grad school apartment, which was, yes, just a couple buildings down from the Heartland. Rogers Park consequently became one of the main places that convinced me I didn’t know as much about Chicago as I thought I did.
Having grown up just an hour outside the city in Northwest Indiana, I was super jaded about it. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I immediately wrote the city off. “Eh,” I thought to myself. “I know Chicago. I belong in New York or London or someplace glamorous like that.” My dad had worked downtown for most of my childhood and often brought me into the city for the Taste of Chicago or to see touring productions of Broadway musicals. Of course my elementary school had frequently taken us on field trips to the museums, and in high school, my choir even performed at Soldier Field as part of the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony. I, naively, figured these experiences had shown me all there was to see in the city. But once I finally spent an appreciable amount of time in Rogers Park, I realized there was so much more to Chicago than downtown and Grant Park. My “eh” turned to an “ohhhhh….” As in “ohhhhh, there are all these neighborhoods!” I fell in love with the city, and its magic, for real at that point.
After I officially moved into my first apartment in the city, although it’s almost inconceivable to me now, I would make the long trek between the Ukrainian Village and Rogers Park on public transportation at least once a week…Chicago Avenue bus to the red line, red line up to Morse, and then back again at the end of the night…just to hang out at my friend’s apartment on Lunt watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, eating greasy Chinese food from the takeout place on Glenwood, and reveling in the freedom of being, blessedly, young and independent.
Or, as the narrator puts it in chapter 25 of Great Expectations:
“Herbert was my intimate companion and friend. I presented him with a half-share in my boat, which was the occasion of his often coming down to Hammersmith; and my possession of a half-share in his chambers often took me up to London. We used to walk between the two places at all hours. I have an affection for the road yet (though it is not so pleasant a road as it was then), formed in the impressibility of untried youth and hope.”
After over a decade spent living in various other (very charming!) parts of the city, even though I’d never actually lived in Rogers Park before myself, when my boyfriend and I signed the lease on our new place off the Loyola stop, it felt like a homecoming of sorts to me.
In that spirit, then, I’d like to present my highly biased, nostalgically informed, and personally skewed Guide to Rogers Park.
Holy shit, the lake!!! My boyfriend’s dad, who’s lived his whole life in Waterbury, Connecticut, and thus harbors a passionate, lifelong animosity for New York City, always marvels at the accessibility of the lake here in Chicago. And nowhere is it more accessible than in Rogers Park, thanks to the fact that you don’t have to cross Lake Shore Drive to get to it.
Sitting on a bench near the shore at dusk on a beautiful warm summer evening (or even a chilly autumnal one) is one of the great rewards for making it through a dreary and confining Chicago winter, and the fact that it only takes me about six minutes to walk there from my front door continually blows my mind.
Energetically, I always feel the lake as the feminine counterpart to the masculine energy of the Chicago River. Whereas the river, in all its reversed-flowing glory, divides the city and contributes, I feel, to all the many ways that Chicago is deeply, often disturbingly bifurcated, the lake holds us with a more catholic embrace.
And though yes, of course, everyone in the city flocks to the lakefront at all different times of year, the denizens of Rogers Park seem to take to it a little more avidly, thanks to their easier access to it. Between the Artists of the Wall event that paints the seawall with beautifully colored murals every year over Father’s Day weekend, the crowds that gather to watch the fireworks exploding over downtown on the Fourth of July, the families that prepare elaborate picnics and tie up hammocks between trees, and the Loyola students that get stoned and toss frisbees to each other, the beaches in Rogers Park come alive as very obvious representations of the way that so many different communities inhabit the neighborhood, so successfully.
THE ARMADILLO’S PILLOW
6753 N. Sheridan
Although there are many other bookstores in Chicago that I absolutely adore, the Armadillo’s Pillow has become my favorite for a certain kind of bibliomancy.
Mostly I mean it’s the kind of place where I always find something, usually on the jumbled front table in the main entryway, that I had no hope of ever finding or that I had no idea that I needed.
My boyfriend and I will often stop in there on a Friday or Saturday night, after dinner or before a movie, or just if we need a destination to get us out of the house for a bit. Like any self-respecting used bookstore should be, it’s soaked in the scent of incense, and they often curate a completely bonkers selection of music on the soundsystem. It’s right next door to a place that teaches kung fu, so you’ll often hear a muffled thump-thump-punch through the wall.
I eavesdropped on the most amazing conversation in there recently. A high school-aged kid, completely in earnest, came up to the clerk at the front counter and said, “I’ve never been a big reader, but I recently read one of Elie Wiesel’s books in school, and now I want to start reading a lot. Can you recommend any other stuff like that to me?” What a bookseller’s dream! I didn’t see what the kid left with, but the clerk engaged with him enthusiastically, showing him a good handful of places to start, with both fiction and nonfiction. I couldn’t stop grinning about it for hours.
NEW 400 MOVIE THEATER
6746 N. Sheridan
Apparently this four-screen movie theater dates back to 1912, and for a while in the early 2000s, its age really showed. I remember going to see Minority Report there in the summer of 2002 and literally sitting next to a bucket that was catching drips from the ceiling (let’s hope from the air conditioning). And although it’s been remodeled in recent years with a slightly nicer lobby and some slightly less rickety seating, it’s still pretty rough around the edges, which makes me love it all the more. Gorgeous temples of cinema with reclining leather seats and fancy snacks have their place, of course, but more often than not, I’d prefer to give my money to a neighborhood joint like this, where garbagey mainstream Hollywood blockbusters feel a little more appropriate, where the ambiance of the theater itself is not somehow trying to fool me into mistaking the latest superhero franchise installment for anything resembling high art. Which, in turn, actually makes whatever garbagey mainstream Hollywood blockbuster I’m there to see just that much more viscerally satisfying.
I’ve had some of my favorite recent moviegoing experiences at the New 400. It’s where I saw the Denzel Washington version of The Magnificent Seven, the John Wick sequel, the unexpectedly devastating final Wolverine movie Logan, and, of course, Get Out. We don’t currently have a TV in our home, so if I find myself in the mood to watch something, the choice is to squint at a download on my laptop or walk a few minutes over to the New 400. I just inherently love going to see movies on a big screen and am delighted to have this squalid little gem right around the corner.
6764 N. Sheridan
Don’t let the name fool you–this is more than just a cozy little coffee shop. Royal Coffee also has a pretty amazing food menu, most notably its selection of Ethiopian dishes. If you’re in the mood for tasty injera and perfectly spiced lentils, but don’t want to commit to one of those insanely huge platters that you’ll get at some of the other well-known restaurants nearby in Edgewater, Royal Coffee is the perfect, lighter compromise.
Memorably, my boyfriend and I ended up here the night of the anti-Trump protests in Chicago this past January. I’m pretty sure we were the only people in the restaurant other than the proprietor, and we all quietly watched the footage together on the television on the back wall. It felt somehow right, to be engaging with this very Chicago moment in a public yet intimate space, sustained by the goodness of local community and true diversity.
7000 N. Glenwood
The one, the only, the legendary Heartland Cafe. If you’ve lived in Chicago for any length of time, chances are you’ve been to the Heartland at some point. If you’re visiting or new to Chicago, chances are someone will suggest the Heartland to you if you’re asking for good local places to eat. It’s been a mainstay in the city for the past 35 years, and though a financial crunch almost shuttered them for good back in 2010, they eventually pulled through and kept their doors open. The next step was to hire a new executive chef in 2013 to revamp the hippie-style menu a bit, and then they further updated the physical space by bringing True Nature Foods under their roof to replace their own in-house general store.
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it–the Heartland can be a disaster. They will inexplicably be out of menu items that they should never be out of. (No tofu, at all? Huh??) The wait time for food will often be way out of proportion to the number of people in the dining room. The service can be surly, and/or non-existent. (We once went there with friends for brunch on New Year’s Day, and some of their scheduled servers flaked on coming in, so there was only one poor person, just sweating and apologizing for their entire shift, waiting on an entire roomful of famished and/or hungover customers.) They will often forget a portion of your order, especially if you want a smoothie, which is apparently made in an entirely different part of their kitchen from where the entrees are prepared. And on and on.
But, like, that’s part of the charm?
Because, make no mistake, this is a neighborhood joint. I feel like it’s supposed to give you the same kind of vibe you get with family or good friends whom you love with all your heart, who will also drive you up a wall with all their peculiar little tics.
Besides, when the Heartland is on point, their food is also some of the tastiest vegetarian fare you’re going to find anywhere (even if there are actually fewer vegetarian options on the menu than there used to be). The servers can be the fucking coolest, funniest, most helpful and attentive, endearingly weirdest folks you’ll run across. And overall, the place just feels like a true hub for the neighborhood. It’s been there long enough that it feels like an institution while implementing just enough changes to keep things fresh and forward-moving.
I’ve been pooped on by a bird on their outside patio. I’ve eaten a bison burger there as a prelude to a road trip across the country to Chelan, Washington. I’ve played music there with my band. I’ve celebrated my birthday there with my best friend and her three-month-old firstborn child. I’ve sat there, rapt, while a friend narrated the story of his incredible secret elopement in New Orleans. Now that I live within walking distance, I can never go too long without sliding in for a bite of whatever my current menu obsession happens to be. I repeatedly fall all over myself suggesting to friends who are in from out of town that I take them there for a meal. The Heartland, in the best possible way, will always be synonymous with Rogers Park to me.