The Taxi Ride Every Chicagoan Must Take

Photographed by Peter Ptschelinzew/Alamy.
Many cities are located near bodies of water, and nearly all cities have taxis — yet few combine the two to create the amazing phenomenon known as the water taxi. In the case of Wendella's Chicago Water Taxi, these yellow boats run during warm months, down the river, with stops at Michigan Avenue, LaSalle Street/Clark Street, North Avenue, and, most dramatically, to Ping Tom Park in Chinatown, where riders disembark onto a dock built as a beautiful pagoda.
Clearly, when you step off the boat in Chinatown, eating is front and center on your mind. But, this 'hood isn't the only great dining destination off of a Chicago Water Taxi stop. Far from it. There are few things more enjoyable in the city, after all, than taking the taxi down the river — past some of Chicago’s greatest architectural marvels — on the way to an afternoon or evening of culinary exploration. Unfortunately, as of press time, cold weather had delayed the opening of the Chicago Water Taxi, and its season is now expected to begin in early April. As they say, though, anticipation is half the fun.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Michigan Avenue
The Chicago Water Taxi’s Michigan Avenue location is located at the northwest corner of the DuSable Bridge, or Michigan Avenue bridge, at Trump Plaza, along the river walk. When service begins in early April, taxis will run from 6:59 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. on weekdays and 9:45 a.m. to 6:25 p.m. on weekends. Smack in the heart of everything, and just steps away from the Mag Mile, this stop offers essentially unlimited dining, shopping, and recreation options.
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Photo: Courtesy of the Langham Chicago.
The new Langham, Chicago hotel specializes in European service and hospitality, drawing inspiration from its famous namesake in London. The Langham, Chicago full-service restaurant, however, eschews its Brit roots for chef Tim Graham's inventive menu of contemporary Mediterranean fare. Located on the 35th floor of Mies Van Der Rohe's IBM building, Travelle sports a slick, modern dining room that leaves no doubt as to both its Miesian and luxury bona fides: If you don't feel like you're on a vacation here, staycations aren't for you.

Graham's menu ranges from more accessible fare, like crudo, shared plates and flatbreads, to anniversary- or proposal-worthy dining experiences, such as the market-price Seafood Elevation, featuring three courses of knock-your-socks-off items like Maine Lobster Tail. After dinner, retire to the lounge and enjoy a custom cocktail — and the stellar city views.

Travelle, 330 North Wabash Avenue (at North State Street); 312-923-7705.
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Photo: Courtesy of The Purple Pig.
The Purple Pig
How's this for a supergroup of chefs: Scott Harris (Mia Francesca), Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia), and Jimmy Bannos and Jimmy Bannos Jr. (Heaven on Seven). While it was easy to predict that The Purple Pig would be a success when the above talents came together to open it several years ago, the restaurant has arguably now reached Classic Chicago Restaurant status. The magic lies not only in the culinary wizardry of the founders, but also in the concept: Cozy, casual, and a bit off the beaten path by Michigan Avenue standards, the Purple Pig is the perfect spot to stop in after a hard day's work — or, for tourists, shopping — and enjoy a glass of wine, charcuterie, cheese, or other Mediterranean delights.

They pack 'em in tight here, which is all the better — the convivial, bustling atmosphere is part of the whole experience. Plus, if you have to wait for a table, that's just a nice excuse to enjoy one more glass of vino and a few more cheeses and antipasti at the bar.

The Purple Pig, 500 North Michigan Avenue (at Illinois Street); 312-464-1744.
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Photo: Courtesy of Trump Chicago.
When it comes to fine dining, it's hard to put more of an exclamation point on the subject than Sixteen does. Located on the, you guessed it, 16th floor of Trump Tower, the restaurant offers not only one of the most elegant dining rooms in the entire city, but, from 30-foot windows, truly spectacular views of the river and downtown. A venue like this demands cuisine nonpareil, and Executive Chef Thomas Lents delivers.

Recently awarded two Michelin stars, Lents specializes in uber-refined fare and creative concepts: His most recent "Story of Chicago"-themed menu features courses like "The Rewards of Sinclair's Jungle" (wagyu, potato croquette, black trumpet) and "The Great Fire's Rebirth" (venison, salsify, blood orange, and nasturtium). Director of restaurant Dan Pilke, meanwhile, provides diners with a genuine wine education. Which is to say: Order the 10- or 20-course tasting menu and wine pairings, sit back, and enjoy this genuinely one-of-a-kind Chicago fine dining experience.

Sixteen, 401 North Wabash Avenue (at West Kinzie Street); 312-588-8030.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
North Avenue
The Chicago Water Taxi drops passengers off on the northeastern tip of Goose Island, where there they can cross the Cherry Street Bridge to North Avenue. From there it’s a quick jaunt to Halsted Street and some of the best live theater and dining in Chicago. This is a new stop for the Chicago Water Taxi. Service is scheduled to begin here on May 23, with taxis running from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
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If you've ever visited a restaurant where every aspect of the experience exceeded your expectations, where each course seems to outdo the previous one, then you know what it’s like to dine at Balena. A collaboration between the Boka and Bristol groups, with acclaimed chef Chris Pandel at the helm, Balena offers Italian-inspired cuisine nonpareil, in chic environs from renowned design group 555.

You might think it can't get better than the wood-fired oven pizza with fennel sausage, red onion, pancetta, and pecorino — for our money, drizzled in a liberal amount of chili oil. That is, until you try the otherworldly flavorful, rich hen egg tajarin with sage and brown butter. An exceptional restaurant on every level, Balena no doubt benefits from Halsted Street theater traffic, but is more than worthy of a visit on its own merits.

Balena, 1633 North Halsted Street (at West North Avenue); 312-867-3888.
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Goose Island Brew Pub
Craft beer is all the rage these days, but Goose Island Brew Pub, open since 1988, is one of the originators. Enjoy a menu of comfort-food small plates, sandwiches, and entrees, such as the Sausage Plate or Poutine, in cozy, wooden environs while taking in the selection of more than 20 beers on tap. Then, up the staycaytion ante by booking a tour of the Goose Island brewery — which includes a sampling of six beers and a souvenir pint glass. Tours, which cost $10 per person, are only available at this location on Sunday, and reservations must be made in advance.

Goose Island Brew Pub, 1800 North Clybourn Avenue (at West Willow Street); 312-915-0071.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vinci.
If you’re looking for an old-school, white-tablecloth, murals-on-the-wall Italian destination pre- or post-Steppenwolf Theatre or Royal George Theatre performance, Vinci’s your spot. Open since 1991, Vinci has seen many an acclaimed Halsted Street neighbor pop-up over the years — including some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants in Alinea, Boka, and Balena. Still, for a comforting neighborhood red-sauce spot in Lincoln Park, it’s hard to beat this charming, rustic standout.

Try the garganelli pasta with shrimp, calamari, crab, white wine, garlic, tomatoes, and basil with a nice glass of wine, and you’re guaranteed to feel better about the show, regardless of its actual merits.

Vinci, 1732 North Halsted Street, Number 1 (at West Willow Street), 312-266-1199.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Hats off to Chinatown for building its Chicago Water Taxi dock in Ping Tom Park in the form of a striking pagoda, adding considerable panache to the experience of visiting the enclave via water taxi. From the dock, it’s just a short jaunt to Wentworth Avenue and all of Chinatown’s offerings. The schedule for weekday service to Chinatown was not available as of press time, while weekend service will run from 10:20 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
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Photographed by Catrin Reyes.
Won Kow
There are far trendier restaurants in Chinatown than Won Kow — in fact, it's the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the city of Chicago! And, therein lies its greatest charm. Much around it has changed over the years, but Won Kow, with its iconic sign over Wentworth Avenue, has held fast, and is largely unchanged since its opening. Rumor has it that Al Capone once enjoyed sitting in the table in the northwest corner of the dining room, but, regardless of the veracity of that particular tail, if Won Kow's walls could talk, the stories would certainly fill volumes.

The decor, from the wooden bar to the dated mural of Hong Kong on the wall, is old-school, and guests are likely to be personally greeted by owner David Hoy. Not the nostalgic type? Try the appetizer combo platter (egg roll, BBQ rib, fried shrimp, and won ton) or Peking duck with, by downtown standards, gleefully priced cocktails, looking out onto Wentworth below. It's a great way to do Chinatown any way you cut it.

Won Kow, 2237 South Wentworth Avenue (at West 22nd Place); 312-842-7500.
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Photographed by Catrin Reyes.
Hing Kee
Strolling through Chinatown can be a confusing experience: If you don't have a destination in mind, it's tough to make a decision on where to eat based on signage alone. Cermak, Wentworth, Archer, and the Chinatown Square mall are packed with seemingly endless options. Hing Kee, however, differentiates itself admirably in a particularly important way: It offers handmade noodles and dumplings, which passersby can actually see being created in the window. The restaurant’s menu is ambitious to say the least, featuring Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese dishes — but as long as those delicious, authentic noodles or dumplings are involved, it's hard to go wrong.

Hing Kee, 2140 South Archer Avenue (at South Wentworth Avenue); 312-808-9538.
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Photographed by Catrin Reyes.
Lao You Ju
Lao You Ju wasn't the first of Tony Hu's internationally acclaimed Lao restaurants, nor, arguably, is the food superior to its most famous Chinatown counterparts, Lao Sze Chuan or Lao Shanghai. But, Lao You Ju does have one big thing going for it: It is Hu's most elegantly appointed restaurant. That is to say, when you trek from the Chicago Water Taxi stop at Ping Tom Park, this slick, contemporary space is a fantastic place for a date, or more celebratory dinner with friends. Of course, the food is vintage Hu, with an expansive menu that features everything from spectacular seafood hot woks and exotic pots to "extremely spicy fish" and boiled beef tenderloin, Chengdu-style.

Not ready for the night to be over? We recommend heading around the corner to New Three Happiness for a little karaoke. (You'll likely have to find another way home, however, as the Chicago Water Taxi makes its last weekend trip departing Chinatown at 6:30 p.m.)

Lao You Ju, 2002 South Wentworth Avenue (at South Archer Avenue); 312-225-7818.