Call Evanston, Ill., a tony first-ring suburb, and you wouldn't exactly be wrong. It shares some qualities with Chicago's Far North Side and sheds a bit of the husky big-city atmosphere. It's a less-dense, polished, independent city that benefits from Northwestern University's youthfulness and cultural offerings. Its cityscape, undivided by freeways but bisected by the Chicago "L" train, is woefully uncommon in the United States. Evanston feels suspended — elevated — between Chicago and the North Shore suburbs. Call it "Midwestern continental." It's a place to appreciate the finer things.
Northwestern is the preppy private member of the Big Ten family. It has a treed, lakeside campus with lots of Gothic gray stone and Brutalist concrete alongside two exquisite architectural achievements: the Kellogg School of Management and the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts (1-847-491-7575; events.music.northwestern.edu). Both buildings have sweeping, enveloping interiors.
The on-campus Block Museum of Art (1-847-491-4000) showcases global and contemporary art. Currently open, "William Blake and the Age of Aquarius" juxtaposes the 1960s' spectacular social discord with the fey English Romantic Blake's visionary artwork. It sounds like the best anniversary commemoration of the Summer of Love yet.
Just north of the campus on the lakeshore is the handsome Grosse Point Lighthouse (1-847-328-6961) and its small attached museum. There are guided tours on summer weekends, and its beach is the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon with a book.
The famous Bahá'í House of Worship (1-847-853-2300), near the end of the "L" in neighboring Wilmette, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the country. The dramatic domed structure is adorned with ornate religious iconography and surrounded by gardens. The visitors' center details the Bahá'í faith and the building's history. Visitors are asked to wear modest attire.
Toby Jugs are for pouring ale, though the first one held the ashes of the beloved 18th-century Yorkshire sot in whose likeness it was crafted. Each one is a caricature, and Evanston's American Toby Jug Museum (1-877-862-9687) has every conceivable likeness of three centuries' worth of celebrities and history-makers, more than 8,000 in all. The sheer volume compels a visit.
Stumble & Relish is a cute shop selling mostly made-in-Evanston arts and crafts. Look for great jewelry — silverwork by MarLa Studio and Ali Mohr's colorful and inventively set semiprecious gemstones (1-872-227-0801).
"I made a really cool living room, and I said, 'Come in,' " says Louise Rosenberg of Cultivate Urban Rainforest and Gallery. She personally curates the exotic house plants — look for beautiful ferns and terrariums — and nature-showcasing home decor and furnishings and regularly hosts artists' talks and community benefits. You'll want to take something home from here (1-847-418-1289). Evanston also has a number of antique stores — the best is whimsical Secret Treasures with an impressive selection of porcelain and china (1-847-866-6889).
The American Legion Post 42 (1-847-475-9076) is the best venue in all Chicagoland for bluegrass, though it's of the traditional Appalachian, not progressive, variety. Significantly more contemporary is Evanston SPACE (1-847-492-8860), located behind an urbane pizzeria (you can bring the food in with you), with a full bar and eclectic music. Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr. and the Lumineers have played here. It's intimate, and they often sell out (evanstonspace.com).
Where to eat
Chicagoland feels especially preoccupied with brunch. At Cupitol, order house-cured gravlax with scrambled eggs and tomatoes or a pastry alongside something from the espresso, juice or cocktail bar. The afternoon and dinner menus are expansive and modish. The manager dubbed the theme "European counter service" — as I surveyed the impeccably self-assured and stylish space, I intuited, "Gay?" "Oh, so gay," he replied. My kind of place (1-847-868-8078).
Amy Thielen, the heralding champion of Midwestern cuisine, gave Edzo's Burger Shop a rave for capturing our hamburger culture between its griddled, stackable quarter-pound and chargrilled half-pound patties. It's also the place to get a loaded Chicago-style hot dog: Remember not to add ketchup (1-847-864-3396). The Amazing Kale Burger Lunch Counter's patties are made, not dressed, with the namesake green and will delight those attuned to this sort of thing (1-847-660-4330). Soulwich, especially popular with Northwestern students, serves pan-Asian sandwiches like wasabi-teriyaki or Indonesian ginger barbecue with your choice of protein (1-847-328-2222).
The Barn (1-847-868-8041), in a repurposed 1883 condensed milk company's stable, is expanding on and updating the brassy traditions of Gilded to Jazz Age fine dining with dishes like butter-poached king crab with beets and horseradish, pan-seared calf's liver in a red wine reduction, sweetbreads in brown butter and, of course, steak. The bartender recommended a Green Point: bourbon, yellow chartreuse and Punt e Mes, an Italian bitter red vermouth.
"When I pick a wine out, I want one or two dishes with which it's really going to work well," says sommelier Bob Bansberg of the Stained Glass Bistro. He recommended a Chateau Baret Pessac-Leognan ("soft tannins and a full-bodied structure, mostly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Cabernet Franc") with the rack of Australian lamb. Or a Schloss Lieser Riesling ("young mango, apricot, lemon zest and minerals, mouthwatering zesty acidity") with the tuna three ways — sashimi, pastrami spice-crusted and tartare. For dessert: Dow's 20 Year Old Tawny Port ("nice dried fruit notes, roasted nuts and a hint of mocha") and chocolate cake (1-847-864-8600). The Cellar, its sister restaurant, serves small plates and numerous beers (1-847-864-8678). They sometimes host a "tap takeover," giving four at once to a featured local craft brewery.
Where to stay
A span of chain hotels are here. For something local, try Stone Porch by the Lake (1-847-905-0133), a luxury bed-and-breakfast in an immense Tudor house — five guest rooms, each with its own en suite bath, and views of Lake Michigan over breakfast.
Evanston is just north of Chicago via Lake Shore Drive or Interstate 94. If you're arriving from Midway or O'Hare airports, ride to the Chicago Loop for Evanston-bound trains. From there, the "L" will get you there in about 50 minutes. The slightly more expensive, less frequent Metra commuter service takes about half that time.
Evanston has Divvy, Chicago's bike-sharing program. The land is flat, the path along the lakefront exceedingly pleasant.
Aaron Gettinger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.