Three local favorites, Pilsen
Pilsen is a neighborhood on the Lower West Side of Chicago. Murals of Mexican cowboys notwithstanding, Pilsen is a lot like the Wild West: only a few minutes from the Loop by train, this working-class area is thick with riches in art and historic architecture, encircled by developers and speculators in search of the next hot neighborhood, and occupied by a community that's fiercely proud of where they live.
Pilsen was originally settled by Irish and German immigrants, who came to work at the factories and stockyards nearby. Those industries attracted Czech immigrants next, and in the late 1800s, the neighborhood was named in honor of the city back home in Bohemia. The streets of Pilsen still bear their mark — weathered stone castles like St. Adalbert's and Thalia Hall loom over buildings with colorful turrets and dashes of ornamentation completely absent of the Prairie School influence found elsewhere in Chicago.
When the communities of the Near West Side were shattered and scattered by the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Pilsen's population shifted as well to absorb newcomers. With the city's once-thriving West Side Italian community mostly wiped out, the small Heart of Italy in the industrial Heart of Chicago neighborhood drew new focus as one place where it survived, remaining today as an alternative to the more heavily touristed Little Italy in the Near West.
The construction also displaced a community of Mexicans, many of whom resettled in Pilsen. Within a few years, they became the demographic majority. Never prosperous, the area had been in economic decline for several years, its fate tied to the transition of Chicago's economy away from cattle and manufacturing; poverty remains a serious issue in Pilsen today. Nevertheless, its residents have built a set of cultural institutions that far outpace many wealthier neighborhoods, crowned by the excellent National Museum of Mexican Art.
Fears of gentrification began several years ago when the Podmajersky company began converting the old warehouses of East Pilsen into cheap studios for artists from outside the community. Depending on who you ask, this was either intended to:
a) Revitalize the nearly vacant eastern half of an economically depressed neighborhood by creating spaces where exciting young artists could live, work, and exhibit, a "SoHo in Chicago";
b) Jump-start the process of gentrification that happened in Wicker Park several years earlier, driving up property values by exchanging low-income residents for wealthier ones looking to trade on that artistic "cool."
The exciting artists have arrived, and now people are waiting to see what happens. There is a sense that Pilsen could be the next big thing, but there is also a concern that few of the current residents will be there when that happens. Already, some businesses seem compelled to take sides: whether to appeal to the working-class Mexican community already here, or the affluent community that might be coming. Whatever direction Pilsen may be headed, what's there now is a neighborhood with a long history of re-inventing itself, rough in places and full of inspiration, and palpably on the edge of greatness.
Pilsen is very easy to reach by train from the Loop. The key is to know which part you'd like to visit first: the arts district in East Pilsen, which is centered at 18th and Halsted, and the commercial center in West Pilsen, which surrounds 18th and Ashland. It's a long but manageable walk between the two areas, with a quiet zone in-between.
For the arts district, take the CTA Orange Line to Halsted, which is on the border of Bridgeport, and walk a few blocks north on Halsted (the street), crossing over the river almost immediately.
For the rest, take the CTA Pink Line to 18th. (Even if you're just passing through, the astonishing murals at the 18th station are worth a look.) The Pink Line also stops in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood (Damen, Western) and then on to the Far West Side.
The streets of Pilsen don't get the same tender, loving care from snowplows as some other parts of the city, so the wind and the drifts can make walking between East and West Pilsen considerably more difficult.
- 8 Halsted runs the length of the arts district, coming from Bridgeport to the south and the Near West Side to the north. It connects with the Orange Line at the Halsted station.
- 9 Ashland will drop you at 18th and Ashland, near the taquerías and the Pink Line. It runs all night.
- 18 16th 18th runs, appropriately enough, down 18th street, connecting with the Pink Line at the 18th station.
- 49 Western runs down Western Avenue for nearly the full length of the city, passing near Pilsen and Heart of Chicago. It's an all-night route.
- 60 Blue Island/26th runs from the Chicago/Loop through the Near West Side, Pilsen, Little Village and South Lawndale all night long.
- N62 Archer branches off to cover the same ground as the 8 Halsted while passing through the arts district. Note that the plain 62 Archer only stops within walking distance back at the Halsted Orange Line stop.
If you're traveling within the city, the wide expanses of Western Avenue are always the fastest way to reach Pilsen. Otherwise, use the I-55 exit at Damen Avenue for Pilsen, and the Canalport left exit off of I-90/94 to get to the arts district on Halsted.
Both halves of the neighborhood have annual open-doors festivals — see below.
If you're walking down 18th Street from East Pilsen, it's around Racine that you'll begin to notice the change. Stores have cheerful skeletons in their windows, and inevitably some Spanish-language dance music is bumping off in the distance. By the time you reach 18th and Blue Island, take a break to enjoy the scene. Those are the speakers of community radio WRTE  broadcasting from the corner, across the street from the Rudy Lozano Library (see Contact). Welcome to West Pilsen.
Quite a lot of artists have studios in West Pilsen, but few have regular open hours. Check at the cafes for information on exhibit openings.
- Antena, 1765 S Laflin St, ☎ +1 773 257-3534, . By appointment. Showcasing contemporary art, new media and installation projects. Openings every month. Free.
- A.P.O. Cultural Center, 1436 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 773 780-1495. Hours vary. The enormous, foreboding stone edifice of the A.P.O. Building houses some worthwhile art exhibitions and the occasional concert along with community programs (such as the pool downstairs). Exhibits are usually free and open to all, but stern old ladies will keep you from wandering elsewhere.
- CTA 18th Station, 1710 W 18th St (18th Pink Line). 4AM-1AM daily. Art and the CTA have had a troubled relationship over the years, with relentlessly awful results whenever the CTA commissions a mural for a station or subway wall. This one, however, is a gem. The youth outreach efforts of the Museum of Mexican Art (below) and other community programs have borne fruit here, creating a walk from the station house to the platforms is nothing short of awe-inspiring (albeit distracting if you're in a hurry to catch a train). $2 to ride the train, free to view if getting off/back on a train.
- National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W 19th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 738-1503, . Tu-Su 10AM-5PM. A lovely, small gallery full of vibrant colors and well-curated installations focused on understanding Mexican as well as Mexican-American history and culture through art. The museum serves as the center of the annual Day of the Dead celebration in the fall — this is a great time to visit to see all the brightly painted, skull-filled, and often humorous Ofrendas. Free.
- Prospectus Art Gallery, 1210 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 733-6132. Generally W-Sa 12-5PM. Fascinating exhibitions of traditional and contemporary Latin American art. It's a must-see when open, though it does close for long stretches between exhibits. Free.
- St. Adalbert Church, 1650 W 17th St, ☎ +1 312 226-0340. Built in 1914 for the area's Polish community, St. Adalbert's still features murals of rousing crowd favorites like Queen Jadwiga's wedding and the time Our Lady of Czestochowa beat the hell out of some invading Swedes. It now includes a shrine in honor of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos and a few other touches for the Mexican Catholics who live in the neighborhood today.
- St. Procopius Church, 1641 S Allport St, ☎ +1 312 226-7887, . This towering stone church was built in 1883 for Czech Catholics in the area. Today, it's impressively weathered and gloomy from the street, but bright and austere if you manage a peek inside. Masses are held in English, Spanish, and Croatian.
- Thalia Hall, 1215-25 W 18th St, ☎ +1 773 342-7430. This ornate former theater was built as a replica of an old opera house in Prague, and in its heyday served as the epicenter of Chicago Bohemian culture. Plays and operas were performed here, and much of the constitution of Czechoslovakia was drafted within these walls as well (at the end of World War I). Nearly a century later, after having served mainly as a residence for the local homeless, things seem to be looking up for Thalia Hall, with the swank Ristorante Al Teatro  now resident inside.
1932 S Halsted: A lot of art in a little space
Aside from old industrial atmosphere, there isn't much to see on an average day. The recession hit the East Pilsen art scene hard, and there are only a couple of small galleries that can be visited without an appointment. However, everyone opens up for browsing for the 2nd Fridays Art Walk (free, second Friday of each month, 6-10PM). The night often winds up at Skylark (see Bars).
The building at 1932 South Halsted Street has the highest concentration of studios, but you'll need to call up for access.
- Chicago Arts District, 1821 S Halsted St, ☎ +1 312 377-4444, . This information center is located in the midst of things at 18th and Halsted, but it's generally only open to coincide with the 2nd Fridays Art Walk, so a stop to gather event cards at Kristoffer's Cafe (see Cafes) will be more informative on other days.
- EP Theater, 1820 S Halsted St (Halsted Orange Line), ☎ +1 312 850-4299, . Check website for schedule. Not easy to reach — the address says Halsted, but the entrance is behind the building, where the ramshackle exterior reveals a lovingly renovated theater space. Alone amid the row of art galleries, the EP Theater is an intimate (fifty seats), risk-taking showcase for new work by Chicago playwrights. Most shows $15.
- Harrison Park, 1824 S Wood St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 746-5491, . If you have kids in tow and they've been patient through the National Museum of Mexican Art (or they need to burn off some energy before going in), you might reward them with some monkey time right next door at Harrison Park, which has a big playlot with swings, slides, jungle gyms and more.
Events & Festivals
Don't forget the Second Fridays every month in East Pilsen.
- Mole de Mayo, 1800-1820 S Paulina, ☎ +1 312 733-2287, . 11AM-7PM. An annual mole cook-off and outdoor festival at the beginning of May. $1.
- Pilsen East Artists Open House, Halsted, around 18th and 19th (Halsted Orange Line), ☎ +1 312 738-0786, . Last weekend of September or start of October. Studios in East Pilsen open their doors for an annual weekend-long festival. Even if the art doesn't resonate with you, it's worth visiting for the chance to explore the interesting physical spaces, from century-old sunken gardens to gargantuan old warehouses.
- Pilsen Open Studios, 18th, between Leavitt and Carpenter (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 733-6132, . Second weekend of October. West Pilsen's studios open up for all to see. Local cafes and businesses get involved, and there's a free trolley on call for the route, too. A similar arts fest is often held in Little Village the same weekend.
- Fiesta del Sol, 1400 W Cermak, between Loomis and Morgan (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 666-2663, . late July or early August. Fiesta del Sol is an annual fundraising event organized by the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council that has been held annually since 1972. Over the years it has evolved from a block party into a nationally publicized event with corporate sponsorship, but the neighborhood's Hispanic community still has a strong presence. The three-day festival includes live entertainment, food, and vendor booths. Fiesta del Sol is alcohol and tobacco-free.
Pilsen is a highly underrated shopping destination, with several affordable and intriguing vintage stores on 18th. Also, the National Museum of Mexican Art has what may be the city's best gift shop.
- Irv's Bike Shop, 1725 S Racine Ave, ☎ +1 312 226-6330. M,Tu,Th,F 10AM-7PM, Sa 10AM-6PM. Pilsen is a serious bicycle neighborhood, and Irv's is a good place for repairs and accessories.
- Knee Deep Vintage, 1425 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 850-2510, . M-Th 11AM-7PM, F-Sa 11AM-9PM, Su 12PM-6PM. Wide selection of vintage apparel spanning several decades for reasonable prices.
- Liberia Girón, 1443 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 226-2086. M-Sa 9AM-8PM, Su 10AM-6PM. A good collection of Spanish-language books, magazines, newspapers, and more, with occasional author appearances.
- Ochoa Sporting Goods, 1749 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 829-9310. M-F 11AM-7PM, Sa 10AM-6PM, Su 10AM-3PM. There's Chicago-centric sports gear, too, but if you have a specific futbol jersey in mind, this is your best bet.
- Oxala, 1651 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 850-1655. M-Sa 11AM-8PM, Su 11AM-2PM. Oxala is a botanica shop, selling herbs and religious items, but they also have stylish jewelry and artwork for sale — as well as a side trade in consulte destinos, for those who can't wait to find out.
- Under the Wire, 2210 S Halsted St, ☎ +1 312 733-9350, . W-F 11AM-6PM, Sa 10AM-5PM. Intriguing jewelry and ceramics a couple blocks south of the East Pilsen galleries, worth a browse even if you're not planning to buy anything.
- Zapatillas, 1421 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 226-4040. M-F 10AM-8PM, Sa 10AM-6PM, Su 11AM-5PM. Upscale designer shoes and boots for women, with prices ranging from $50 to $500.
Open for business in Pilsen
Pilsen restaurants aren't long for variety — there are cheap Mexican taquerías and bakeries, slightly more expensive taquerías, and dirt-cheap pizza joints. But they're authentic, cheap, and really good. (The taquerías, that is, not necessarily the pizza joints.)
Equally memorable Italian restaurants can be found a little west in Heart of Chicago.
- Carnitas Uruapan, 1725 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 226-2654. M-W,F 8:30AM-5PM, Sa-Su 7AM-6PM. The best carnitas (stewed pork) around. (Kids will love the cartoon pigs on the wall as long as they don't connect them to what they're eating.) The cactus salad comes highly recommended, too, but runs out early in the day. As for the rest of the menu, well, you either want a big sheet of fried pork rinds or you don't, and nothing this guide tells you is going to change your mind one way or the other. $6.
- El Paraiso Bakery, 1156 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 733-8616. 4AM-9PM daily. Take-out only — that's because walking into El Paraiso is like entering a huge, busy kitchen, with towering stacks and tray after tray of bread, buns, and cookies of all kinds there for the taking. You'll see determined local mothers and grandmothers loading up in here, so be careful not to get in their way.
- Panaderia Tortilleria Nuevo Leon Bakery, 1634 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 243-5977. M-F 5:30AM-9PM, Sa-Su 6AM-9PM. Tasty bakery run by the Nuevo Leon family, who run the fine restaurant a block down. They serve Mexican bread, pastries, coffee, and other early morning essentials under the watchful eye of a 1986-87 Chicago Bears team poster. $1-4.
- Pizza Nova, 1842 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 666-3500. Su-Th 11AM-midnight, F-Sa 11AM-1AM. Great stuffed pizza just across the park from the Museum of Mexican Art. $5-20.
- Sabas Vega, 1808 S Ashland Ave, ☎ +1 312 666-5180. M-F 8AM-5PM, Sa-Su 6AM-5PM. Another good option for carnitas, with more seating than Uruapan. If it's cold outside, take note: they brag that their cauldron runs at 266 degrees Fahrenheit! $6.
- Tacos Palas, 1700 S Halsted St, ☎ +1 312 733-0433. 7AM-8:30PM daily. Tacos Palas is perhaps the best taquería in Pilsen, so if you don't intend to have a sit-down multi-course meal, head straight here to grab some dirt cheap, incredible tacos. $1.50-4.
- Taquería Los Comales #3, 1544 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 666-2251, . Su-Th 7:30AM-1AM, F-Sa 7AM-3AM. A local chain that's almost certainly the quickest draw among Pilsen taquerías, with food made fresh and very fast, and served by a friendly waitstaff. $5-8.
- May St. Cafe, 1146 W Cermak Rd (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 421-4442, . Tu-Th 5PM-10PM, F-Sa 5PM-11PM, Su 5PM-9PM. This recent sensation offers Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and "traditional American" fusion cuisine, served to a lively BYOB crowd. It's out of the way, but still within walking distance from the Pink Line. $12-32.
- Mundial Cocina Mestiza, 1640 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 491-9908, . 11AM-10:30PM. A lovely dining room for delicious, Mexican/Mediterranean-influenced cooking — one of the highlights of Pilsen cuisine. $12-38.
- Nightwood, 2119 S Halsted St, ☎ +1 312 526 3385, . M-Sa 5:30PM-11PM, Su 9:00AM-2:30PM. Sister to the popular Lula Cafe (in Logan Square), Nightwood has a seasonal menu featuring many local ingredients and extensive wine list. $9-25.
- Perez Restaurant, 1163 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 421-3631. M-Sa 6AM-8PM. Heaping plates of Mexican food and powerful margaritas, with outdoor seating when the weather permits. (Not to mention easy parking; hard to come by with other restaurants in the area.) Get the Lime (limon) Margarita. You won't regret it. $10-25.
- Playa Azul 1, 1514 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 421-2552. M-Th 8AM-midnight, F-Su 8AM-2AM. Family-run Mexican restaurant with high quality seafood dishes at prices no one else in the city can beat, and a mermaid emerging from the wall to bless the proceedings. $10-15.
- Restaurante Nuevo Leon, 1515 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 421-1517. 7AM-midnight daily. A nice family-run restaurant serving good, authentic Mexican food, including some excellent fish dishes as well as superb tacos. Even if you're not hungry, stop by to have a look at the gorgeously painted building. $6-14.
Heart of Chicago
These are a bit out of the way but not hard to find, and if you like Italian food & ambiance, it's definitely worth the trip. Take the Pink Line to Western, walk a few blocks blocks south and then turn right to reach the 2400 South block of Oakley.
- Bacchanalia, 2413 S Oakley (Western Pink Line), ☎ +1 773 254-6555, . M-Th 11AM-10PM, F 11AM-11PM, Sa 4-11PM, Su 3:30-9PM. A warm, old world atmosphere and a busy kitchen. $14-22.
- Bruna's Ristorante, 2424 S Oakley (Western Pink Line), ☎ +1 773 254-5550. M-Th 11AM-10PM, F-Sa 11AM-11PM, Su 1-10PM. Opened in 1933, and currently owned by an immigrant from Siena in Tuscany, who brings that influence to some of the dishes served here. $16-25.
- Ignotz Ristorante, 2421 S Oakley (Western Pink Line), ☎ +1 773 579-0300, . Tu-Th 11AM-9:30PM, F 11AM-11PM, Sa 4-11PM, Su 3-9PM. Thin-crust pizza, veal, and the straight-outta-The Sopranos exterior are the specials here. $11-24.
- La Fontanella, 2414 S Oakley (Western Pink Line), ☎ +1 773 927-5249. M-F 11:30AM-10PM, Sa-Su noon-11PM. Since 1972. Dimly lit, with traditional Italian dishes and some creations of the chef. $18-28.
- Miceli's Deli & Food Mart, 2448 S Oakley (Western Pink Line), ☎ +1 773 847-6873. M-F 8AM-4:30PM, Sa breakfast. The Sun-Times called it one of Chicago's 10 best delis. The meatballs and clams are true Italian, but people rave about the veggie sub. $4-8.
Pilsen is slowly building its nightlife options. Most of these options cater to local hipsters and artists in the area. Aside from the options listed here, a few of the restaurants listed above have bars worthy of your drinking dollar, Cuernavaca in particular. Otherwise, you might head over to the Near West Side on the 8 Halsted bus and booze it up there.
- Cafe Jumping Bean, 1439 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 455-0019. M-F 6AM-10PM, Sa-Su 8AM-8PM. Reputation has it that this is Chicago's warmest and most inviting neighborhood coffee shop. It certainly lives up to the name: tiny, and always jumping with people. $2-6.
- Cafe Mestizo, 1738 W 18th St (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 425-5724. 10AM-10PM daily. It's hard not to lose track of time at this welcoming, dimly-lit coffee shop. The walls are packed with work by local artists, and there's plenty of comfortable seating. Free Wi-Fi, too. $2-6.
- Efebina's Internet Cafe, 1640 S Blue Island Ave (18th Pink Line), ☎ +1 312-243-9790. M-F 9AM-9PM, Sa 9AM-5PM. Spacious and well lit coffee shop that offers a nice alternative to the often cramped Cafe Jumping Bean. You can buy a single cup of coffee or homemade soup and sit for hours using their Wi-Fi. They have a wide variety of salads and sandwiches, and plenty of couches to park yourself in. The walls double as exhibition space for local artists. $2-6.
- Kristoffer's Cafe and Bakery, 1733 S Halsted St, ☎ +1 312 829-4150, . M 7:30AM-3PM, Tu-F 7:30AM-5PM, Sa-Su 8AM-4PM. A warm, large space with a range of sandwiches, drinks, and baked goods. (They call their seven varieties of tres leches cakes a family specialty.) You'll find free Wi-Fi and event cards for every art opening in the area. Lunch $5-8.
- Paulie's Place, 1750 S Union Ave, ☎ +1 312 829-7724. M-Sa 7AM-3AM, Su 11AM-2AM. Paulie's keeps long hours to serve two crowds: second-shift workers in the early morning, and the East Pilsen art crowd at night. The beer is cheap and so are the pool tables.
- Simone's, 960 W 18th St, ☎ +1 312 666-8601, . Su-F 11:30AM-2AM, Sa 11:30AM-3AM. A recent arrival to the Pilsen bar scene, owned and operated (much to the chagrin of those from whom the ever-rising cries of gentrification originate) by a Lincoln Park-based owner. Good food (especially the Mexican-influenced Pilsen Burger), but go for the beer: while their mixed drinks cost more than Skylark and aren't nearly as strong, they have an absolutely spectacular collection of beers on tap and in cans/bottles. That, and the decor is done out in this bizarre steampunk-pinball machine theme. They have good DJs spinning on most nights and trivia nights on Tuesdays.
- Skylark, 2149 S Halsted St, ☎ +1 312 948-5275, . Su-F 4PM-2AM, Sa 4PM-3AM. Wicker Park ex-pats have made this bar their own, right at the southern edge of Pilsen and the gallery scene. From the outside, it looks like an old-man bar that's been prepped for use as a bunker during World War II, but on the inside there's an excellent selection of cheap beer, pinball, a photobooth, some of the strongest $5 mixed drinks you'll find anywhere in the city, and tater tots — oh, delicious tater tots. If you have poor taste in movies, you might be delighted to hear that Skylark was featured prominently in the 2006 movie, The Breakup.
- Lugo Hotel, 2008 S Blue Island Ave, ☎ +1 312 226-5818. A reasonably safe transient hotel offering single occupancy rooms with shared bathrooms, communal kitchen and television area. The owners take pride in the community feel (watching Bears games together on Sundays, for example). $100/$300 weekly/monthly.
Many of the local cafes offer internet access — see above.
- Rudy Lozano Library, 1805 S Loomis St (18th Street Pink Line), ☎ +1 312 746-4329. M,W noon-8PM, Tu,Th 10AM-6PM, F-Sa 9AM-5PM. Free public internet access.
Smash-and-grab robberies have been reported for cars parked in East Pilsen during the 2nd Fridays art walk, so park in a well-lit area if possible and take any valuables with you (or, better, leave them at your hotel). Many Chicago residents overstate the crime rate in Pilsen, but it still has some problems. After dark, stick with other people and be aware of your surroundings.
- The majority of Chicago's Mexican-Americans live in Little Village to the west and near Marquette Park and Back of the Yards on the Southwest Side.
- The other major gallery scenes are in River North and the West Loop, albeit with far higher rents. You'll find a gallery scene even further off the beaten path in Bridgeport.
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