New Midwest Spots to Eat, Drink, Play and Stay
Hot off the minds of Midwest travel writers: a fresh look at where to eat, drink, play and stay around the region.
Eat & Drink
Sugar and Spice Chicago
Mauricio Parra learned to make churros, the cinnamon-sugared fried dough treats sold across Mexico, from his sister-in law's "churro guy," a street vendor who sells in front of a Catholic church in Guadalajara. Now Parra and his wife and son are passing the love along at Churro Parlor, where you can order fresh churros with coatings and dipping sauces like Fruity Pebbles, rainbow sprinkles, Mexican chocolate ganache, dulce de leche and guava compote. Wash them down with iced horchata espresso or a classic café con leche. "We want you to feel like you're walking into a colorful little hole-in-the-wall place in Mexico City," says Parra of his shops in the Lakeview neighborhood and Glenview. Bring an appetite (and your phone for the 'gram): The churros are 2 feet long.
A Better Brew Madison, Wisconsin
When Alex Lozano couldn't find coffee in Madison, Wisconsin, that held up to his expectations, the Colombia native took matters (or rather, beans) into his own hands. He started Quimbaya Colombian Coffee LLC last year to import coffee directly from Latin American growers to Midwesterners' mugs. He sources beans from farms in Colombia run by old family friends who have been growing coffee for three generations, dating to the 1950s. "I might be new in the business, but I'm not new to coffee," says Lozano. "I've been drinking coffee since I can remember." Quimbaya offers dark or light roast, ground or whole bean, along with "pocket coffee," a portable pour-over brew method that can be used in the kitchen or while camping. Just add hot water. Everything is available via nationwide shipping-or home delivery if you live in Madison.
Take It to the Streets Indianapolis
Marcos Cesar Perera-Blasco, an Argentinian whose love for food borders on obsession, never planned to start a restaurant. But once he started cooking for friends, he couldn't stop. The result: Che Chori on Indianapolis' west side. The menu specializes in street food (or "walking food"), with dishes like choripán (Argentina's comfort-food equivalent of the hot dog), milanesa (beef or chicken schnitzel) sandwiches on baguettes, empanadas, and chimichurri sauce. "I want the consumer to taste the real flavors of Argentinian cuisine," says Perera-Blasco. "I love connecting with people this way."
Tough Bunch Minneapolis
Helmed by veteran winemakers Aaron and Ashley Schram, Axebridge Wine Company recently opened in a modern industrial spot in Minneapolis' North Loop. The Schrams ferment their wine on-site using mostly cold-hardy local grapes. Aaron hopes the hip, high-profile location will elevate the visibility of Minnesota's wine scene. Axebridge offerings currently span reds, whites and rosés, and Aaron hints that a batch of "highly experimental sparklers" is coming soon.
I Can't Believe It's Not Wheat Grand Rapids, Michigan
When Jessica Stricklen went gluten-free, she thought she'd have to say goodbye to good beer. Instead, she teamed up with brewer Sebastian Henao Van Bommel to open Brewery Nyx, Michigan's first gluten-free brewery. Located in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, the hop house brews gluten-free IPAs, pilsners and stouts. The most important thing to the Nyx team? Great flavors, without the off-putting aftertaste characteristic of some gluten-free beers. According to the duo, their products (like a coconut porter) hold their own against the real deal. "We're really excited to repatriate the gluten-free craft beer drinkers," Stricklen says. "We're hoping that all of our hard efforts can be enjoyed by everybody."
Food Hall Mania Milwaukee
Even a pandemic can't put asunder the food hall trend. Take Milwaukee, which has four already: Crossroads Collective, Sherman Phoenix and the city's OG food hall, Milwaukee Public Market-plus Mequon Public Market in the suburbs. Three more will open soon: North Avenue Market, Flour and Feed, and 3rd Street Market Hall. Vendor concepts span soul food, vegan fare and speakeasies. "These food halls show how much Milwaukee has been built around communities," says Chris Harris-Wimsatt, owner of North Avenue Market. "They center around supporting local business."
You Get a Mural! Chicago
Oprah Winfrey has always felt larger than life-and now the talk show host, actor and philanthropist really is, showcased as part of a mural on the side of the new Porte apartment complex in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. The site is just blocks from Harpo Studios, home of The Oprah Winfrey Show until 2011. Stretching about 300 feet long and 26 feet high, Winfrey's striking profile is one of the largest stand-alone murals in the city.
Frida Kahlo's World Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Eclectic, evocative, enigmatic-it's hard to muster the proper words to describe Frida Kahlo's prolific work. So it was a big disappointment for Kahlo fans last June when the pandemic postponed a blockbuster exhibit at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in the western Chicago suburbs. But good news: The show is back on, and open through September 6.
The iconic Mexican surrealist, who suffered crippling back pain from a bus accident, famously said she "painted her reality." This show aims to re-create that world. Anchored in 26 original artworks by Kahlo, Frida Kahlo: Timeless includes a garden of lush indigenous plants, a model of the artist's home, myriad photographs and a multimedia timeline with replicas of objects from her life. (Beyond the museum walls, local businesses are getting in on the action too, decorating shops and hosting community events.)
"You get a lot more context," says Diana Martinez, the exhibition's executive director. "One thing that was important was for people to understand Mexico a little better. We wanted that warmth and that full experience." And, she adds, "Frida suffered greatly and spent a lot of time alone. She's like the perfect person to celebrate this emergence with, because she overcame all this great adversity."
Bucket List Biking Terre Haute, Indiana
Jump your bike into a lake-on purpose-at Griffin Bike Park. An old mine property that covers more than 300 acres, the park offers 18 miles of trails and accommodates all skill levels, from 3-year-olds on balance bikes to expert level riders. The park honors Dale R. Griffin, a sergeant in the U.S. Army who gave his life in 2009 while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. Visitors can ride the Warrior Trail, an accessible path, in honor of Griffin.
Life Is a Byway Wisconsin
They won't be giving any acceptance speeches, but two Wisconsin roads recently received upgraded scenic byway status, which is sort of the asphalt version of getting an Academy Award. But those aren't the only two winners: A third road was designated as an All-American Road. So queue up that road trip playlist you've been prepping for the past year and roll down your windows on one of these routes: Wisconsin Lake Superior Scenic Byway offers 70 miles of fishing villages, orchards and shoreline caves. Door County Coastal Byway delivers vistas of bays, escarpments and dense forests, plus three state parks. And the Great River Road traces the Mighty Mississippi 250 miles through Wisconsin, linking towns like La Crosse, Maiden Rock and Pepin.
Minigolf, Big Fun St. Paul
One part kitschy roadside attraction, two parts savvy nonprofit arts community, Can Can Wonderland is retro-gaudy-in a clever way. Housed in an old can-making warehouse, the arcade-restaurant-bar-and-minigolf is a playground for all ages. It's also Minnesota's first arts-based public benefit corporation, with profits reinvested in growing Wonderland's fan-generated, artist-executed golfscape. And what does that look like? An evolving grab bag of whatever people can dream of. One hole looks like a grandmother's overstuffed living room. Another has a furry pink mastodon. And a third features a Ferris wheel that takes your ball to the top of a giant slide. Add to the fun with a boozy milkshake.
Bookmark This, Indianapolis
Experience Kurt Vonnegut's Indianapolis with Bookmark Indy, a newly launched website that highlights Indianapolis' literary hot spots. The self-guided experience is akin to an interactive museum special-check the website, visit the sites, and learn the stories behind locales frequented by Kurt Vonnegut, Booth Tarkington, John Green and others. Paired with immersive audio and video performances by contemporary local artists, the app turns a new page on old-school literary haunts. Points of interest on the tour include Central State Hospital, Garfield Park, and Shortridge High School, which produced some of the most noteworthy writers of the past century. And creative prompts even encourage you to leave your own mark.
Adult Summer Camp Elkhorn, Wisconsin
The retro gift that keeps on giving, Camp Wandawega has been a darling of national magazines the past few years (this one included). The historic Wisconsin camp is a perfect marriage of hip and rustic, with a streak of Wes Anderson. "We went hard on the details," says founder Tereasa Surratt. "We wanted to hearken to the Dirty Dancing camp era." Drop your bags in an A-frame, treehouse, tepee or cabin before visiting the Rathskeller, a Prohibition-Era bar (that even has a trapdoor). Recent additions include a canteen with free waffles, a mess hall refurbished from an old Girl Scout camp, a dining hall serving up chef-powered dishes for private events and a 1940s teardrop trailer with s'mores supplies.
Bigger than the Bag Fort Wayne, Indiana
A partnership between Provenance hotels and Vera Bradley cofounder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, The Bradley aims to showcase the region's creativity, comfort and hospitality. Fort Wayne is Baekgaard's hometown (and remains the home base for her massive bags-and-more empire), and she wanted a place to bring people together. The hotel includes 124 rooms, nine designer suites and a rooftop bar. Pair a stay with a visit to the Vera Bradley store in town, or slate it on your calendar next spring, timed to the brand's beloved annual outlet sale.
Grand-er Hotel Mackinac Island, Michigan
The Grand Hotel needs no introduction, but we have to start somewhere. A fixture on car-free Mackinac Island since the 19th century, the lavish hotel played host to Thomas Edison and Mark Twain, was named the Best Historic Hotel by USA Today, and boasts the world's longest porch. The setting transports guests to a pre-screen time when "Where did I put my dinner gloves?" would be a normal thing to say.
But this summer, the Grand Hotel is getting a face-lift-at least, some of it is. Celebrity designer Vern Yip (you know him from shows on TLC and HGTV) is bringing his signature modern-meets traditional look to the Esther Williams Swimming Pool, pool house, cabanas and some meeting spaces. Nearly all of Yip's interior design elements are expertly conceived and manufactured in the U.S. But fans of the hotel's classic decor shouldn't get too anxious. This will still be the same Grand Hotel you know and love, with much of the vibrant look remaining.
Swooning and Crooning Oak Brook, Illinois
Newly renovated, The Drake Oak Brook touts itself as "glamour rediscovered." But "Frank Sinatra slept here" also works. Legend holds that Ol' Blue Eyes always flew a helicopter to stay at the hotel when playing in Chicago. Other famous guests have included Rock Hudson and Prince Charles. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have played the golf course. Now part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, the hotel exudes extravagance-chic martini glasses, Saturday high teas, leather chairs, in-room spa treatments and speakeasy vibes. Use it as a launch pad for exploring nearby Morton Arboretum.
Aren't You Fancy Chicago
If dressing up for a chic drink in a hotel bar is your jam, two Chicago spots are offering sophisticated, artsy nights out. The Allegro Royal Sonesta Hotel hosts live jazz-and-art performances, where musicians and artists improvise creative works in response to each other. At the Aqua Tower, the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel shows off local sculptors, painters and photographers from the River North neighborhood in a permanent gallery. An app offers a guided walk through it.