A North Side Sox Fan’s Guide to Bridgeport for Expatriate Cub Fans

Cub fans, we’ve got a lot more in common than you think.  I know what you’re feeling; the frustration, the apathy, in the late 90s, the Cubs were the hottest ticket in town while the Sox hit their nadir in my lifetime (White Flag trade in 1997, Stateway Gardens loomed over the outfield walls of the sterile, ugly pre-renovation Comiskey Park, and our championship drought had outlasted the average human lifespan).  So I know how it feels now that you don’t like your new owner, can’t figure out why your GM still has a job, have no hope that the meager collection of talent they’ve assembled has any chance to end that 102-year World Series drought, and are frustrated that your beloved ballpark has been overrun by yuppies, trixies, d-bags, and tourists.

And like you, I am not a South Sider.  I was born, raised, and still live on the North Side.  So I see Bridgeport through your eyes, not the eyes of the lifers who fanatically defend the neighborhood as if it was the Garden of Eden.  If you’ve toyed with the idea of dipping your toes in the forbidden, South Side waters but can’t bear the thought of abandoning Wrigleyville, fear not!  If you haven’t been south of Roosevelt in a couple of years, you’ve missed quite a storm of development, both in terms of livable, desirable habitats (news flash:  the projects are gone!) as well as an explosion of food, culture, and night life.

So, come on down, have a drink, and test drive a seat on the White Sox bandwagon in 2011.  And so you don’t feel lost in the Land of the Numbered Streets, here’s a quick run-down of some new favorites and old stomping grounds in U.S. Cellular Fieldville (OK, we still gotta work on the name).

Public Transportation
Obviously the Red Line is the most popular form of public transit in and out of Bridgeport, with the Sox-35th stop only about a a city block from the nearest entrance to the Cell, but there’s also an entrance and exit at the 33rd Street overpass for anyone checking out the finer establishments north of the park, however, there is no transit card kiosk there, so have your cards ready to go.  Insiders will also let you know about the Green Line, the preferred CTA alternative to the crush of people on the Red Line, especially after a game.  The 35th/Bronzeville/IIT stop on the Green Line is just northeast of State and 35th, only about 2 city blocks further than the Red Line.

Finally, for the suburban crowd, Metra has just opened its latest stop in Bronzeville, on the tracks that run just east of the Dan Ryan.  The “Lou” Jones/35th Street/Bronzeville station services the Rock Island District line, running between the LaSalle St. Station downtown and Joliet.  Best of all, Metra has announced it will run special trains on gamedays, and the cost of a ticket between downtown and the park is the same $2.25 a single-way trip on the L costs.

OK, I’m not going to pretend like Bridgeport even holds a candle to Wrigleyville in the nightlife department; Clark Street is one of the great bar rows anywhere in the Chicagoland area, but don’t dismiss our small, but growing, collection of drinking holes.  Though we lack the quantity, we make up for in quality and variety.

The best bet is Cork & Kerry at the Park (3258 S Princeton | Facebook), located just 2 blocks west of the 33rd Street Red Line exit and 2 blocks north of Gate 5, it’s a great location formerly housed by that overglorified dump, Jimbo’s.  As arguably the face of the Bridgeport drinking scene, Cork & Kerry steps up to the plate in the food department, as well, their Latino Burger was named one of Metromix’s best foods of 2010 and they tailor their menu to reflect the local cuisine of the Sox’s opponents on road trips, making it a destination the other 81 days of the year the Sox aren’t in town.  Additionally, the newest member of the Bridgeport bar scene, Bacardi at the Park (320 W 35th), just opened Thursday to the public, so while I have not stepped foot in yet, the early reviews are overwhelmingly positive.  Prices are a bit high for the neighborhood, but a food menu managed by Gibson’s, a plethora of HDTVs, and a location that literally cannot be beat, it’s at least worthy of mention.  Yeah, I know, the name is tacky as all hell, but corporate sponsorship money is money, and every cent counts when you owe your 34-year-old catcher coming off a .270/.300/.388 season approximately 98% of that $8 million, 2-year contract he signed this off-season.

Further away from the park, there are still gems to be found, such as Rocky’s (234 W 31st | Web), which has a nice beer selection, underrated menu, and probably the best beer garden in the area, even if it is just a classed-up patio.  Mitchell’s Tap (3356 S Halsted | Web) is another walk from the park, but it’s a very classic “neighborhood dive bar” kind of a joint, with an eclectic collection of regulars and a surprisingly good beer selection, you could do worse.

Finally, there’s Buffalo Wings & Rings (3434 S Halsted | Web), just down the street from Mitchell’s.  When it opened a few years ago, it was a novelty… A sports bar in Bridgeport?  What a concept!  While I give them credit for helping to usher in the recent boom of activity in the neighborhood, they still operate their business as if there’s still no competition.  Let’s just put it this way, it’s sad enough when you have to settle for a real Buffalo Wild Wings, let alone, a wannabe.

I’m always surprised to learn how few people really know about Grandstand (600 W 35th | Web), which I would compare favorably to any sports apparel store in the city.  They have a wide, Sox-centric collection of merchandise, but they also feature the Bears, Bulls, Hawks, and yes, even the Cubs.  They’re located just a few blocks west of the Cell and they have special, late hours for each Sox home game, so you have no excuse to miss this place.  Additionally, since the police shuttered the old station on Lowe and moved to their new digs on Michigan Ave., there is free parking in their old lot, directly across the street, just south of 35th Street.

As arguably the food capital of the country, any neighborhood in Chicago worth its salt has to have a few good places to grub.  Enter Nana Organic (3267 S Halsted | Web) and Polo Cafe and Catering (3322 S Morgan | Web).  Nana is the hot new joint that’s really put Bridgeport on the map.  It was recently given a Bib Gourmand Award by the prestigious Michelin Guide putting it alongside other favorite and hot Chicago eateries like Frontera Grill, The Girl and the Goat, Smoque, and Spacca Napoli.  Though it’s pricey by classic Bridgeport standards, there’s no denying its presence has had a positive impact on the community and its perception region-wide.  Polo Cafe is the local favorite, but much less heralded.  They have weird hours, only open for dinner Friday and Saturday (and even then, only until 9), so while you may never dine at this local gem, you can at least verify your street cred by dropping its name in conversation.

Stepping down from the upscale fair at Nana or Polo, you’re best bet is Zaytune (3129 S Morgan | Web), a Mediterranean grill that should be proof this is not your father’s Bridgeport.  Though it feels like it belongs in one of the ethnic enclaves on the North Side, its menu of fresh, healthy, tasty and affordable food leaves no secrets to its success.  If you’re looking for a more traditional neighborhood meal, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything topping Franco’s Ristorante (300 W 31st | Yelp), a family-owned Italian restaurant that’s been there for… I don’t even know how long.

Finally, every great neighborhood in this city has two essential ingredients… An independent coffee shop and a greasy spoon diner.  Bridgeport’s got your back, with the Bridgeport Coffee Company (3101 S Morgan | Web) and Ramova Grill (3510 S Halsted | I’m amazed they have a website).  Now, I have never been to the actual Bridgeport Coffee Co.’s shop, but I am familiar with their roasts, which appear from time to time at various delis and food marts across the city (such as Gene’s on Lincoln Ave.).  It’s good coffee with great, local-inspired names, my favorite being the Bubbly Creek Roast.  Ramova is the classic greasy spoon, the food’s cheap, the service is minimalist, but damn, it’s filling.  Bring cash, though.

Finally on our tour of Bridgeport is the neighborhood’s cultural destinations.  They’re relatively new and speak volumes to the gentrification and revitalization of the old neighborhood.  First up is the Zhou B. Art Center (1029 W 35th | Web) which features galleries, studios, event space, and a small cafe.  It’s been around since 2004, so while it’s not completely new it’s only recently been getting major publicity outside the city’s art circle.  Worth your time.

Finally, as every Chicagoan knows, there’s mostly three classes of city parks here; the jewels on the lakefront, the elegant and expansive parks on the West Side of the city connected by the Boulevard System, and then there’s the rest of the neighborhood parks that range in usability from vibrant green urban oases like Portage Park or Winnemac Park to run-down dumps like Churchill Field Park, which is basically an overgrown empty lot.  The latest craze, however, has been to restore some luster to the neighborhood green spaces, such as the city’s newest park, Adams & Sangamon in the West Loop or Stearns Quarry Park (2700 S Halsted | Web), on the site of a former limestone quarry the park is truly a gem, featuring rolling terrain, a fishing pond, wetlands, and native prairie.  Sure, it’s a hike from Sox Park, but if you need a break from urban life, Bridgeport’s got you covered, too.

So come on, south, Cub fans.  Try the Sox on for size.  We won’t bite, so long as you remember not to throw home runs balls back.

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