Monday, May 2, 2011

Beers, bikes and brats: a car-free road trip

By John Greenfield

[This article also appears in Newcity magazine,]

If you’re a car-free Chicagoan, you don’t have to hit up Hertz to take a kick-ass road trip this summer. Here in the nation’s railroad hub, bicycle plus train is a powerful combo, not just for getting around the metro area but the entire Midwest.

Case in point is the bike camping trip my buddies and I took earlier this month along the Mississippi River, across Wisconsin and back using Amtrak and Metra. It was our annual Men’s Trip, a chance for the married guys to take a break from family obligations, and since most of them are serious beer snobs we planned out itinerary around brewpub visits. Late spring wind and rain made this tour a bit of a death march, but if you’d like to try the route ( it’d be a blast to ride in July sunshine.

On a Wednesday evening we loaded our touring bikes with tents and sleeping bags and hauled them aboard Amtrak’s Carl Sandburg line to Kewanee, Illinois, near the shoulder of the state. Soon we’re flying west across the prairie past dozens of white modern windmills tinted pink by the setting sun.

When we pull into Kewanee, a sign says we’re in the “Hog Capital of the World,” so down the street at the Pioneer Club I tackle a breaded pork tenderloin horseshoe sandwich. The horseshoe is a downstate Illinois specialty often called “a heart attack on a plate” – white bread, fries and a protein, drowned in cheese sauce.

Woodland Palace, Kewanee

We camp up the road at a park donated to the city by Fred Francis, an oddball inventor, artist, poet and nudist. In the morning I tour Woodland Palace, the futuristic dream home Francis built on the site in 1889, featuring wind-powered heating and cooling systems, automatic doors and many other clever gadgets. I’m most excited to see his bicycle, with a seat installed over the front wheel so he could carry his wife Jeanne to church.

Soon the six of us are pedaling northwest toward the Mississippi in gorgeous weather with the wind at our backs. We reach the Big River near Fulton, a town whose Dutch heritage is advertised by a big, old-fashioned windmill by the levee, surrounded by tulips. Continuing along the Great River Trail we get awesome views of the Mississippi, three or four miles wide in places, and pass the Thompson Correctional Center, an unused prison where Obama proposed housing prisoners from Guantanamo.

We stop for the night for in Savannah at Poopy’s, a complex offering everything a Harley rider might want: motorcycle parts and accessories, tattoo parlor, campground and a pub with a scatologically-themed menu. I shudder at the thought of a huge, hairy biker scarfing down a one-pound burger called the Big Poop, but the menu promises, “A hot cup of joe will get this bad boy sliding south.”

Conditions are a hell of a lot tougher the next day as we grind up steep river bluffs and then zoom down them on the way to Galena under leaden skies. This pretty little city, once home to Ulysses S. Grant, features dozens of perfectly preserved old buildings and lots of boutiques and knickknack shops. At Galena Brewing Company we fortify ourselves against the chilly weather with hearty grub and glasses of Uly’s Dark oatmeal stout.

Main Street, Galena

Soon we’re crossing the “Cheddar Curtain” into Wisconsin, tackling more big hills in a light rain. In the small town of Dickeyville we check out the Grotto, an epic work of outsider art next to Holy Ghost Parish church. Between 1925-1930 Father Matthias Wernerus built several massive shrines to God and America out of stone and mortar, studded with brightly colored glass, semi-precious stones, fossils, seashells, gearshift knobs and more. There are multiple statues of Jesus and the saints, plus Columbus, Washington and Honest Abe.

The stretch from Dickeyville to Potosi is the most beautiful leg of the journey. We roll along curving country roads over lush, green hills with breathtaking river views – it’s like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” Our dinner stop is the Potosi Brewery, founded in 1852, closed in 1972 and recently re-opened by a non-profit foundation – all proceeds go to charity. The beautifully restored pub serves tasty brews and classic Wisconsin fare like pan-fried walleye and beer-boiled brats. The National Brewery Museum is onsite, with fascinating exhibits of “breweriana.”

We camp at nearby Grant River Recreation Area and get poured on that night, but my tiny one-man tent keeps me snug and dry. The next day we turn east, enduring cold rain, a stiff crosswind from the north and nonstop roller coaster hills, except for a stretch along the flat-but-rugged Cheese Country Trail. Our goal is New Glarus, a charming Swiss-themed town that’s home to the New Glarus Brewing Company which refuses to sell its delicious beer outside of Wisconsin.

But by late afternoon we’re soaked and exhausted, so we decide to cut our mileage and detour to Monroe, another Swiss town that’s home to the Huber Brewing Company, which makes house beers for Chicago’s Berghoff Cafe and Billy Goat Tavern. Rather than crawl into wet tents we happily check into a Super 8, order pizzas and ease into the Jacuzzi in our bike shorts, sipping the New Glarus Fat Squirrel Ale we bought nearby.

Courthouse Square, Monroe

In the morning the north wind continues to buffet us as we pedal towards Harvard, Illinois, where we’ll catch Metra home. As usual, I’m bringing up the rear and I get separated from the group as we navigate the Beloit-Rockford metro area. After stopping for a serene picnic besides the Rock River, I take my time pedaling the last 25 miles, still battling the crosswind. A few miles from Harvard I realize that if I hustle I might be able to catch up with my buddies onboard the next train to Chicago. I shift into high gear, stand up in my pedals and sprint. I surprise myself by zooming into the station, drenched in sweat, with seconds left to drag my bike aboard.

Pioneer Club
206 North Chestnut, Kewanee, IL, (309)852-3793

Woodland Palace
Route 34, Kewanee, IL, (309)852-0511

1030 Viaduct Road, Savanna, IL, (815)273-2363

Galena Brewing Company
227 North Main Street, Galena, IL, (815)776-9917

Dickeyville Grotto
305 West Main Street, Dickeyville, WI (608)568-3119

Potosi Brewing Company
209 South Main Street, Potosi, WI (608)763-4002

Drink, don't drive, at Chicago's train-friendly pubs

by John Greenfield

[These write-ups also appeared in Time Out Chicago magazine,]

Recent surveys show that Chicago has the highest gasoline prices in the country at $4.50 per gallon. That calculates to roughly four cents per ounce, the same price as Walgreen's Big Flats beer, $2.99 for a six-pack. Factor in the dangers of drunk driving, and it makes a lot of sense to take transit to taverns and spend the money you save on gas on beer instead. Here are some suggestions for interesting, off-the-beaten-path watering holes that are adjacent or a short walk from CTA, Metra and South Shore Line stations.

CTA O'Hare Line Harlem stop

Avant Garde
5241 N. Harlem Ave., Norwood Park

Just south of the Harlem Blue Line station, this black-windowed storefront, formerly Mario’s CafĂ©, houses a surprisingly sleek Bulgarian nightspot. Blood-red walls, plush black sofas and silver banquettes, plus abstract sculptural elements suspended from the, create an ambiance worthy of the bar’s name, while stylishly-dressed, dark-eyed young women kibbutz in Bulgarian over throbbing Eurodisco. To sample the cuisine, a mix of Mediterranean and Slavic influences, try a katino meze: a mix of fried chicken, pork and beef tongue with mushrooms, onions, pickles, garlic and feta. Wash it down with a Shumensko beer ($5) or a shot of rakia, a Bulgarian brandy.

And to top it off: A spiky-haired bartender juggles bottles and glasses ala Tom Cruise in “Cocktail.”

Metra's Milwaukee District North Healy stop

The Levee
4035 W. Fullerton Ave., Kelvyn Park

A tree trimmed into the shape of a beer bottle standing beside this homey tavern is a sign you’ve found dive bar gold. The front room features a serpentine brass bar, while the walls of the lodge-like back room are decorated with antique tools and a series of Abe Lincoln prints. Teachers from nearby Kelvyn Park High stop by on Fridays for Heinekens, Coronas and free barbecue. Owner Warren Johnson is an ex-Marine who played semi-pro football with the Chicago Gladiators in the ‘70s. He shows off a scrapbook of vintage ads for gorgeous former proprietor Trudy De Ring, who performed burlesque under the stage name Radiana in the ‘30s.

And to top it off: The plush barstools are the most comfortable in the city, salvaged from skyboxes during the Soldier Field rehab.

CTA Pink Line Damen stop

Martin's Corner
2058 W. 22nd Pl., Pilsen

This family-owned tavern has operated since 1951 on a back street of Pilsen, kitty-corner from the twin spires of St. Paul’s Church – current owner Bob Martin attended the adjacent Catholic school. A mix of the neighborhood’s Latinos and Anglos come to this sports pub for cheap burgers, chicken sandwiches and chops plus daily drink specials, like $4 pints of Spaten Octoberfest. The microbrew selection is impressive, including selections by Dogfish Head, Magic Hat and Delirium Tremens, plus Southern Tier’s Mokah stout on tap. Numerous Blackhawks photographs and jerseys autographed by Paul Konerko and Joe Montana, along with free pool, makes this a comfortable hang for local superfans.

And to top it off: A photo on the wall shows an elderly Rock Marciano playfully pummeling a young Muhammad Ali.

CTA Green Line's King Drive stop

Kozy Korner
641 E. King Dr., Woodlawn

True to its name, this tavern is a relaxing oasis in rough-and-tumble Woodlawn, steps from the King Drive Green Line stop. In business since 1956, the bar features mirrors ringed with plastic roses, multiple portraits of Obama, and a large, old-fashioned lamppost in the middle of the room. Middle-aged and older men in Sox hats and Kangol caps drink bottles of MGD ($2.50) while sharply dressed ladies sip goblets of vodka and cranberry. The jukebox is well stocked with R & B dusties, and when “Honky Tonk” by James Brown comes on, women at one end of the bar start clapping along. There’s karaoke on Thursday nights with a prize for the best singer.

And to top it off: Ex-Chicago Defender gossip columnist Cliff Pierce is a regular.

South Shore Line Hegewisch stop

South Shore Inn
13611 S. Brainard Ave., Hegewisch

This shot-and-a beer joint, located across the street from a South Shore Line stop and catering to commuters and tradesmen, seems pleasantly frozen in time. The grandparents of current owner Dean Ubik bought the building in 1921 and it operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition, when “working girls” rented rooms upstairs. The tavern, last rehabbed in 1949, features sparkly gold vinyl booths and a gorgeous art deco bar with portals filled with knickknacks like antique radios and toy cowboys and Indians. Michelob, Bud Light and Amber Bock are on tap ($1.55/pint), and vintage ads for the train line and a stuffed deer head adorn the walls.

And to top it off: A collection of black-and-white family photos on the wall including pictures of Ubik’s mom’s bowling team and a local bocce league.

Mugs Bunny
13401 S. Baltimore Ave., Hegewisch
(773) 646-4560

This bare-bones dive, in operation since 1978 on Hegewisch’s main drag, probably takes the prize for Chicago’s most irresponsibly named bar. The grinning cartoon rabbit hoisting a brew on the sign threatens to lure children into a lifetime of boozing, although owner Keith Essary says he’s had no complaints. That said, this is a friendly place to sip dollar PBRs or down $5 Vegas bombs (Crown Royal, schnapps, cranberry and Red Bull) with local factory workers and police officers. The jukebox plays a mix of rock, country, punk and hip-hop, and the wood-paneled back room features darts and a Corvette pinball machine.

And to top it off: Mugs Bunny is home to one of the city’s few shuffleboard tables.

Kinfolk lounge and bicycle company, Tokyo

By John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Urban Velo magazine,]

If you want to visit Kinfolk, a cozy, atmospheric cocktail bar with vintage keirin (Japanese track racing) frames hanging from the rafters, be sure to print out a map of its exact location. In February, three weeks before the Sendai earthquake devastated northern Japan, my buddy T.C. and I visited the country for a few days. After spending an afternoon at Tokyo’s Tachikawa Velodrome, a gambling venue where old men in parkas studied racing forms and smoked as racers whizzed by in a rainbow blur, we decided to drop by Kinfolk for a drink.

Finding addresses in Tokyo is tricky, so when got to the Nakameguro neighborhood it took a lot of wandering around and asking “Keenfolk bah wa doko deska?” until we stumbled upon the tiny, second-story lounge on a quiet back street. With old-school Japanese woodwork, comfy couches, candlelight and tasty libations, it was definitely somewhere I wanted to spend some time. It’s run by Ways and Means, a collective of expats who also build custom track bikes as the Kinfolk Bicycle Company. Co-owner and bartender John Beullens filled me in on the history of the bar, Ways and Means’ current projects, and what it’s like mixing mojitos for Japanese gangsters.

Who’s involved with We Got Ways and how did you wind up opening this place?

It’s me, Ryan Carney, Maceo Eagle and Salah Mason. Me and Maceo, we’ve been friends for a long time, and Maceo grew up with Ryan and Salah in Washington State. I’m originally from Sidney, Australia, and I’ve been living in Japan since 1999. Round about that same time Maceo was coming over from New York and doing graphic design work and graffiti art. We were both skateboarding a fair bit at the time so that’s how we met.

As we got older we both stopped skateboarding and started getting into track bikes. We were buying secondhand track bikes in Japan and selling them Stateside. Maceo was coming over three or four times a year for work, doing a clothing brand over here. Every time he visited he would buy all these track bikes, as many as he could take back with him on the plane.

We’d go out to all these bike stores in the suburbs that were run by old men. At lot of them were the builders’ stores where they had all the old keirin frames that weren’t really for sale. But we’d go in and talk to them for long enough and we’d be like, “Come on, how much are the bikes going for?”

In 2008 Maceo and Ryan were visiting some builders with the idea of setting up a bicycle brand that would be designed by Maceo and Salah and made in Japan by these old men. At the same time I was getting the keys for this place. The whole time I’ve been in Japan I’ve worked at bars, cafes and restaurants and I knew from experience, having run my own bar before, that doing it by myself was really hard work. Maceo and Ryan were coming to Japan a lot so it made sense that they’d help out with the bar whenever they could.

So they still live in the U.S?

Well Ryan has been living here for the past year, year-and-a-half, and Maceo and Salah both live in the States but visit fairly frequently.

Why did you come up with the name Kinfolk?

The guys in the States came up with that. It was either that or Maceo’s old graffiti crew name which was Lit Fuse. But I thought about what it would be like for a Japanese person to say and a lot of Japanese people can’t pronounce “L” or “F.” So I was thinking Lit Fuse would be hard for them to pronounce.

I guess for a bar name Kinfolk sounds a little more welcoming than Lit Fuse. What all does Ways & Means do besides the bar and the bikes?

Salah and Maceo do web design and graphic design work. We also do a lot of tie-ins with other companies. Last year we did a project with Nike where we created a one-off bicycle for a famous Japanese messenger called Shino.

Was it a pain in the ass to open a bar in Tokyo?

No, a lot of it comes down to connections, knowing the right people and timing. Knowing the language helps because all my day-to-day administration and ordering alcohol, taxes, all that stuff’s in Japanese. So that’s probably a hassle if you don’t know Japanese but generally it’s a lot easier than setting up a bar in America, which we’re trying to do right now. We just signed a lease on a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. [They held an opening party at the space, called Kinfolk Studios, on February 25.] In New York especially there’s so much red tape involved in getting a liquor license and getting your space up to code.

What kind of frames does Kinfolk Bicycle Company make?

We make two types of frames. One is a keirin-inspired track frame. The builder we use built bikes for keirin racers for about 30 years. So he uses the same geometry that he used when he was building the bikes for keirin. The other type of frame is a custom-made, steel road frame.

What’s special about keirin frames?

They’re steel, whereas a lot of bikes ridden on velodromes around the world are made of high-tech material like carbon fiber. But in Japan, as you’ve seen today, track racing is a gambling thing more than anything else, so they have regulations that the bicycles have to be built in a certain way so that no rider gets a performance advantage. Everyone’s riding a similar bike.

What’s the bar’s signature cocktail?

Our ginger-mint mojito is very popular. I used to work in this really high-end cocktail lounge where there were yakuza [Japanese Mafia] guys coming in. And this one guy would always order a mojito and specifically ask that there be ginger in the mojito. And I tried it and it was good so figured I should bring it down here when I opened this place. It goes well with Japanese ginger ale, which is really gingery, and a little bit spicy.

John Beullens

Every have any problems with the yakuza guys?

No, no, they’re fine. They don’t really pay any attention to Westerners. They’re in a whole different stratosphere. We’re not really worth their time.

So what were things like here when Tokyo hosted the Cycle Messenger World Championships?

It was crazy. There were messengers sleeping in hammocks made of tarpaulins, homeless people hammocks, in the park across the street. It was rainy season, September 2009, and it was pissing down rain. There were gangs of messengers and other cyclists riding around town from one convenience store to the next buying beer.

And then during the actual messenger world cup, which was out on Odaiba [a man-made island in Tokyo Harbor], in a big car park, that was pretty crazy too. Luckily there was a convenience store near where one of the tightest turns in the racecourse was, so everyone could just sit there and drink all day.

Where’s your favorite place to ride around Tokyo?

I really like Meiji Jingu Park which is in between the Harajuku and Roppongi districts. It’s a sporting area with baseball fields and soccer fields and tennis courts and there’s a lot of trees and roads that go around those sports facilities, so it’s really nice place to cruise around. I also like going through the Shibuya neighborhood late at night because the place is completely lit up with neon signs reflecting off the pavement. At three o’clock in the morning there’s hardly anyone around and you can just kind of fly through.

In general, how is it riding a bike around Tokyo?

It’s really safe, it’s good. Everyone’s very conscious about the fact that people are riding bikes on the street. You do have to look out for taxis but I guess you could say that about any country. The only thing is taxis here have doors that open automatically, so there could be nobody in the back of a taxi and suddenly a rear door could swing open for a passenger to get in, and you could ride into it.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at Kinfolk?

All the furnishings are hung pretty low - you’ve got to duck everywhere. So we have a lot of tall guys that hit their heads multiple times when they’re in here drinking. And the more they drink, the more they hit their heads and the less it seems to hurt.

Can you get a DUI for bicycling while intoxicated?

by John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Time Out Chicago magazine,]

Q: When I ride my bicycle home from a bar drunk, am I breaking the law? Does it fall under the same blood-alcohol-content DUI regulations as operating a motor vehicle? —Easy Rider, Logan Square

A: Crocked Chicago cyclists can’t be charged with a DUI, says Brendan Kevenides, a lawyer who specializes in bike cases and calls himself the Chicago Bicycle Advocate.

In 1995, the Illinois Appellate Court decided this issue in People v. Schaefer, upholding the dismissal of criminal charges against a drunk bicyclist. Since state law doesn’t define a bike as a “vehicle,” the court found that Illinois’s DUI statute did not give cyclists fair warning they could face harsh penalties for pickled pedaling.

Kevenides notes that cyclists can be charged with public drunkenness or disorderly conduct, but the penalties for such offenses are substantially less than those for a DUI.

Even so, Active Transportation Alliance’s Margo O’Hara says it’s “dangerous and irresponsible” to spin while sauced.

But Mark Cuneo, a manager at the bike-centric Handlebar Bar & Grill, recommends one reason to choose two wheels over four for a night of carousing. “Instead of driving home drunk or leaving your car overnight, you can always throw your bike in the trunk of a cab.”