Hot off the minds of Midwest travel writers: a fresh look at where to eat and drink, stay and play, or learn around the region.

By Kelsey Yandura
April 22, 2020
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This story from our May/June 2020 issue went to press just as coronavirus-related restrictions were implemented nationwide. Please check websites for the current status of attractions, events, restaurants and lodgings.

Eat & Drink

Crave food hall
Courtesy of Crave

Food(ie) Hall | West Lafayette, Indiana

What’s the one thing an academic and professional environment needs? A 40-foot cocktail bar, of course, plus comfort-food electives. Profs, students and really anyone who likes to eat can roll up their sleeves and get nomming at Crave, a new food hall in Purdue University’s Discovery Park District (a business and research complex with a focus on innovation). This sprawling, chef-driven space features eight unique vendors (and, um, that bar, thank you very much). Offerings include shawarma wraps, gourmet pizza, Chinese barbecue and other dishes that would put your old college in the dining hall of shame.

Daring Fine Dining | Robbinsdale, Minnesota

Knives on the ceiling. Talking staircases. Creative serving techniques. (Jamón served from a chandelier, anyone?) Arguably, there’s no one doing fine dining quite like Travail Kitchen and Amusements, a place that’s delightfully committed to living up to its name. This off-the-wall restaurant, culinary circus or whatever you want to call it started as a pop-up gastropub in Minneapolis and stayed open longer than expected. It even won Restaurant of the Year in 2019 from Eater Twin Cities.

That success prompted Travail to find a permanent location in suburban Robbinsdale. At press time, the spring opening is postponed due to the new coronavirus. But the restaurant is ready to go, with three levels of unique eating experiences and plans for a frequently rotating menu, plus the three-hour, multicourse Travail’s Signature Tasting Experience. For that $150 splurge, diners should plan to sign up in advance.

Katie Papp

Eli's Ark

Life is Sweet | Chicago

The big question: “What if gelato was also really, really cute?” Elisa Nguyen brought the answer to life at Eli’s Ark in Chicago’s Wicker Park. Masquerading as button-nosed koalas, bunnies, puppies, piggies or even unicorns, gelato cones get animal makeovers for just 50 cents extra (worth every penny). Ears are made from chocolate or waffle cookies, eyes are candy pieces, and noses are marshmallows. Prefer something less melty? Besides the 15-plus creative gelato flavors, such as horchata and avocado, Eli’s Ark also serves pastries. Enjoy macarons, mini cake slices and plenty of other goodies in the cafe, or buy some for the road.

Dan Good Eats | Milwaukee

First came DanDan. Then EsterEv. Fauntleroy makes it a dinner trifecta from chef duo Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite, who were named James Beard semifinalists in 2019.

The beloved Milwaukee restaurateurs reclaimed Coquette Cafe, an old French restaurant in the Historic Third Ward, to launch their take on a modern-casual French experience. A golden chandelier above the wood-and-metal bar adds a touch of luxury around the building’s original bank vault, while a pop-art mural and a soundtrack of ’70s classics infuse the dining space with rock ’n’ roll style.

On the Fauntleroy menu, scallops feature celery root, walnuts, brown butter and pear. A vegan cauliflower fritter entree tastes anything but token. And fried Brussels sprouts with lemon thyme gastrique pack a flavor bomb that proves why this trendy green isn’t going to wilt anytime soon.

Indy Alternative | Indianapolis

The plot has thickened for “dinner and a movie” in Indianapolis—especially for dedicated film and food buffs. Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, a new art-house cinema, serves up thoughtful flicks, special events and some marquee culinary cred.

The theater’s restaurant is the creation of acclaimed chef Abbi Merriss of Bluebeard, and the movie screenings are selected by local guest curators and programmers. The film crew plans to showcase small-budget, big-idea flicks that speak to local cultural tastes and social issues.

Stay

The Drake Oak Brook
Courtesy of The Drake Oak Brook

Fly Me to The Drake | Oak Brook, Illinois

After Chicago shows in the 1960s, Frank Sinatra hopped in a chopper for a short ride west to The Drake Oak Brook, sister property to The Drake hotel downtown. Prince Charles, Robert F. Kennedy and other celebs have stayed there too.

Travelers can now follow their lead. Newly renovated (and operating under the Marriott Autograph Collection flag), The Drake Oak Brook oozes vintage elegance. The hotel changed hands multiple times over the decades and closed in 2008 before Tely and Jim Nagle bought it in 2012. A full refresh, completed this year, adds a bevy of handcrafted touches, many inspired by Tely Nagle’s Mexican heritage. In each room, for example, you’ll find a golden bar cart and a wooden coatrack from Mexico. Other Gatsby-esque details: gold-rimmed martini glasses, marble surfaces, leather chairs and high teas scheduled each weekend.

Beaver Island Retreat, Michigan
Courtesy of Beaver Island Retreat

Turn up the Glamp | Beaver Island, Michigan

It’s camping, but with memory foam. Beaver Island Retreat’s safari-style tents just made one of Michigan’s most remote islands a lot more comfortable. Located roughly 30 miles northwest of Charlevoix, Michigan, Beaver Island is known for its incredible stargazing and quiet natural setting—surrounded by Lake Michigan. Stare at the cosmic spectacle from the privacy of your own porch (yeah, your tent has a porch) and then crawl between bamboo sheets with a glass of wine for the best night of sleep you’ve ever had while roughing it.

Lilla Nor
Courtesy of Lilla Nor

Holy A-Frame | Brook Park, Minnesota

It’s hard to tell from photos if Lilla Norr (that’s “little north” in Swedish) is a mega-dreamy Airbnb or a getaway cabin for a Scandinavian wood elf. Maybe both. About 90 minutes north of Minneapolis, this restored 1978 A-frame sits on 5 acres along the Snake River and shows off the sleek design savvy of sisters Ashley Hewitt Lemke and Jamie Hewitt Budnick, owners of Minneapolis vintage shop Arlee Park.

The duo wants the wee cabin to be an extension of their store. And it shows. Euro-vintage vibes echo through the space, including a 1970s Morsø stove and coffee and console tables made of Italian travertine.

Whether or not you can snag a coveted reservation, Lilla Norr is a must-follow on Instagram (@lillanorr_ aframe) for serene, swoon-worthy snapshots in every season.

Play

Dinos Everywhere! exhibit at Brookfield Zoo
Courtesy of Brookfield Zoo

Jurassic Park, for Real | Brookfield, Illinois

Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo has a new exhibit called Dinos Everywhere!, and the name does not exaggerate. Included with admission, the prehistoric spectacle features more than 40 wildly lifelike animatronic dinosaurs throughout the 216-acre park. The biggest dinosaur visiting the zoo? The Argentinosaurus, which was estimated to measure more than 100 feet in length and weigh up to 110 tons. The exhibit runs this summer through early fall.

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit
Courtesy of Museum of Pop Culture

Marvel Goes Midwest | Dearborn, Michigan

Superhero mania has descended upon Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Running through early September, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes is the biggest exhibition of its kind. Visitors can explore 300-plus iconic Marvel artifacts, including comics, props, costumes, immersive set pieces, soundscapes and interactive elements.

"Marvel has always been a reflection of the world outside your own window. And one of its most compelling messages has always been that anyone—regardless of race, religion or gender—can be a superhero," says Brian Crosby, creative director of Marvel Themed Entertainment.

Step into Tony Stark’s lab, pose for selfies with Black Panther, and travel through the mysterious mirror dimension of Doctor Strange to see for yourself. The exhibition offers a peek behind the curtain of your favorite characters, as well as Marvel itself, sharing how the studio became a force of pop culture.

Giants Among the Trees | Lisle, Illinois

The five massive interactive sculptures that make up Human+Nature, a new exhibit at The Morton Arboretum, will debut in June. But installing the 20- to 25-foot-tall art pieces is a lengthy process, so you may catch a glimpse of the creations if you visit the 1,700-acre property for a walk or bike ride earlier in the spring.

A statue depicting Mother Nature will welcome visitors to step inside her form among the natural plants and grasses. Other works will include unique human faces and larger-than-life arms. Each form is intended to help forge a connection between people, trees and nature. The projects mark the largest exhibition to date by artist Daniel Popper, of Cape Town, South Africa.

Venue Envy | Minneapolis

With the opening of the Fillmore, Minneapolis has a spectacular new live music destination. Located in the North Loop neighborhood, the 1,850-person, two-story concert hall was built by the folks behind Ticketmaster. The ambitious project has impressive sound systems, sparkly chandeliers and (obviously) a stacked lineup of touring acts, such as Brandi Carlile, who played the grand opening show in February. Comfy seats, bottle service and big-name artists—what else could a concertgoer ask for (well, besides free parking, which isn’t part of the deal here)? For pre- or post-show munchies, visit the in-house restaurant, Trax Burgers and Bar. Also, consider skipping the late-night drive home after dinner and a show by booking a room at the attached Element by Westin.

Thanin Viriyaki

Weird Homes Tour

Weird Homes Tour | Detroit

Texans love to say “Keep Austin Weird.” But apparently weirdness migrates. On August 8, the third-annual Weird Homes Tour hits Detroit. Founded in the famously funky Texas capital as a way to explore art in the local community, the Weird Homes Tour travels across the country and opens the doors of private homes with eccentric color schemes, offbeat textures and fearless design choices. The stops on last year’s Detroit installment spanned steampunk, high-end and mid-mod styles, and included both a flower farm and a space dubbed the Fortress of Fun.

The radically Instagrammable tour is also a mission-driven, social-impact start-up. A portion of profits are invested back into the community via organizations that fight for affordable housing and other important causes.

Lora
Courtesy of Lora

Spotlight on Stillwater | Stillwater, Minnesota

Closed since 2017, Stillwater’s historic Lift Bridge is opening for business—not quite as usual, but as a permanent trail extension for bikers, runners and walkers. The long-anticipated reopening will complete the missing link in a Loop Trail spanning the St. Croix River and connecting Stillwater and Wisconsin just east of the Twin Cities. Due to health concerns, locals called off plans to form the world’s longest human chain as part of a grand opening event in May. With linked hands, visitors and locals would have attempted to cover the entire 4.7-mile trail, including the Lift Bridge and St. Croix Crossing Bridge.

The completed project makes this sweet Twin Cities bedroom community more appealing than ever. We recommend celebrating with a getaway at one of Stillwater’s newer boutique hotels—the hip, 55-room Hotel Crosby or the stylish Lora, a pet-friendly, 40-room gem built on the property of a 19th-century brewery (above).

Only Good Seats | Shipshewana, Indiana

Formerly known as Hudson Car Museum, the $4 million Blue Gate Performing Arts Center opened early this year. With 1,500-plus seats, the new venue attracts a mix of local and national acts—like 38 Special, Clint Black and Sandi Patty—this spring and summer.

According to co-owner Phil Heyerly, the theater’s thoughtful design improves the showgoer experience at every level. “The new theater will reduce the distance from the stage to the most distant seat by a third,” he says. “And it will increase the number of patrons that can attend each concert, while greatly improving the view from each seat.”

Cancer-Fighting Biking | Everywhere

Try social distancing—on a bike, and for a good cause. Thanks to the national Great Cycle Challenge USA, you can turn pedaling into fundraising dollars for Children’s Cancer Research Fund during the full month of September (rescheduled from June, due to the new coronavirus). Sign up anytime at greatcyclechallenge.com, pick your mileage goal and find donors. The event has raised $24 million the past five years, and you can even opt for an indoor exercise bike.