-- Bidding on the 2016 Olympics, boasting a fresh Tony awarded to local Steppenwolf Theatre and now flush with pride from sending a favorite son to the White House, Chicago is on a roll. Even the country's biggest opportunist, Donald Trump, has arrived, recently opening a towering, $1 billion condo-hotel on perhaps the city's choicest piece of real estate – riverside, just off Michigan Ave., with lake views. Trump is part of a wave of out-of-towners, including New York chef Marcus Samuelsson and the newly merged Miller-Coors beer company, new to the Windy City where a slew of new hotels, restaurants and shops gives the "City of Big Shoulders" more swagger than ever.
The BlackstoneSite of the original "smoke-filled room" of backroom politics, The Blackstone Hotel (636 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-447-0955; marriott.com) has been rescued from vacancy and restored with respect for history (gilded lobby) leavened by modern aesthetics (bold carpet and furniture in ornate common areas). The best of the hotel's comfortable 332 rooms face east across Grant Park with uninterrupted lake views. Some 1,600 works of art decorate the hotel, beginning with a montage of skyline views captured from a live roof cam broadcast behind the front desk. Book the lavish three-bedroom Presidential Suite, site of the Republican cabal that put Warren G. Harding on the ticket in 1920, to channel history. Rooms from $269.
Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago Living up to his reputation for thinking big, Donald Trump came to town, bought and destroyed an eyesore (the old Sun-Times building), and erected a modern, gleaming 92-story tower in his own name, of course — the Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago (401 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-924-7600; trumpchicagohotel.com). Fortunately for Chicago, this new condo-hotel isn't the garish Trump of Atlantic City. Word is his children – Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric – weighed in, keeping the tone opulent without evident gold leafing. Units are dressed in cool gray tones with downy beds, electric fireplaces and TVs embedded in the bathroom mirror, plus a kitchen. Not that you'll want to dine in. Sixteen, the hotel's signature restaurant, is worth the trip both for the skyline views – on par with the Tribune Tower and Wrigley Building rooftops – as well as the elegant food of chef Frank Brunacci. Staking claim as an urban resort, the hotel also boasts a 75-foot swimming pool overlooking the river, and an elaborate 11-treatment-room spa with Kate Somerville-designed treatments. Rooms from $525.
Dana Hotel and Spa Bucking the trend to corporatized boutique hotel chains, the locally-owned Dana Hotel and Spa (660 N. State St.; 312-202-6018; danahotelandspa.com) aims to keep the vibe here-and-now, down to stocking the mini-bar with Chicago-made treats from Mr. Kite's Candy & Nuts. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls separate 216 loft-look rooms – outfitted with high-end sound systems, MP3 docking stations, in-room wine selections, 300-thread-count linens and rain showerheads — from the bustling River North district outside. You don't have to venture far for fun, though. The street-level Ajasteak and the rooftop Vertigo Sky Lounge feed and water you, respectively, in style. Rooms from $229.
Affinia Chicago A prime location and personal attention distinguish the new Affinia Chicago (166 E. Superior St.; 312-787-6000; affinia.com), a link in a nascent hotel chain that counts other members in New York and D.C. A block off the Magnificent Mile, it's relatively small in scale – 215 rooms – which means the front desk has time to solicit your feedback on the juice-based welcome drink and the bellman willingly offers his tips on the best local running route. Rooms are comfortable with the now-requisite throw blankets draping the beds and flat-screen TVs, but management personalizes your experience by offering to stock your room ahead of your visit with golf putters, guitars or iPod walking tours (some free, some for a fee). Making a night in sweeter, the hotel offers room service treats from the "candy bar" of homemade goodies at the hotel's C-House restaurant, backed by chef Marcus Samuelsson. Rooms from $199.
The Publican First he did seasonal contemporary cooking at the minimalist Blackbird. Then he did Mediterranean small plates at the communal-tabled Avec. Now Chicago's beloved chef Paul Kahan is exploring his thirst for beer, European style. The Publican (845 Fulton St.; 312-733-9555), his new gastropub, looks straight out of Belgium with a beer-hall style interior, long wooden pull taps and hops aficionados packing it SRO. Oysters and pork lead a creative menu of savories that includes Iberico ham, grilled sardines, boudin blanc and homemade pork rinds. Unless you've spent shameless hours in foreign beer gardens, the vast beer menu will seem like Sanskrit. Fortunately knowledgeable servers are on hand to decipher the geuzes from the triples.
TakashiWhen Steve Wynn opened Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 with an army of celebrated chefs, Takashi Yagihashi was among them. But feeding hundreds nightly wore on the chef, who decided to downsize in a big way by opening a 50-seat shop in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood called Takashi (1952 N. Damen Ave.; 773772-6170; takashichicago.com). You can still get that careful, sophisticated and artful food that readied the chef for prime time — think kampachi (yellow tuna) topped with monkfish liver slivers and goat milk panna cotta with yuzu gelee – but you can now get it with the chef's personal attention as he circulates in the small shop. A find.
L2OChef Laurent Gras had a solid, Michelin-starred thing going at Fifth Floor in San Francisco. But he quit not just to open a restaurant in Chicago, but to move here, opening L2O (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002; l2orestaurant.com). Orbiting with the likes of Charlie Trotter's and Alinea in price, L2O isn't a daily dining destination. Three-course, prix-fixe dinners start at $110. But like others with whom he keeps economic company, Gras makes the splurge worth it by offering one-of-a-kind, exquisitely composed dishes. His specialty is seafood, which comes raw and warm, with the aid of a glossary to help you understand kinmedai is golden eye sea bream and medai, red sea bream. Boosting the restaurant's sense of special occasion, every detail is attended to, down to packing you off with take-home macaroons.
ProvinceAfter a decade of cooking Latin at Nacional 27, chef Randy Zweiban has gone solo with his first independent restaurant, Province (161 N. Jefferson St.; 312-669-9900; provincerestaurant.com). The West Loop eatery underscores the building's gold-level LEED certification with green elements including cork tables, recycled plastic menu clipboards and organic décor including petrified trees suspended from the ceiling. That same sustainable orientation follows in the menu, featuring seasonal fare in a range of styles from Spain (house-cured anchovies, rabbit confit) to Latin America (taquitos, ceviche, tortilla soup) that share a flare for bold flavors.
Mercat a la Planxa Despite its rich ethnic pockets, Chicago has never had a great Spanish restaurant. The new Mercat a la Planxa (638 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-765-0524; www.mercatchicago.com) fills that void ably with a menu that spans Iberian favorites (jamon serrano, seafood paella) as well as more daring, regionally authentic dishes (pimentos de Padron, saffron broth lobster-chicken-chorizo-rabbit stew). Tapas and pitchers of sangria make this a convivial place to dine with a group. Chicago-born chef Jose Garces proved his tapas chops with the acclaimed Amada in Philadelphia. Fans of Catalan cooking are thrilled to have him back home.
C-HouseIt's easy to dismiss the celebrity chef-branded restaurant, knowing said celeb isn't at the stove. But C-House (166 E. Superior St.; 312-523-0923; c-houserestaurant.com) disproves the skeptics. Sure, it's backed by chef Marcus Samuelsson who gained elevated status with Aquavit in New York, and he's not here regularly. But the staff he's trained upholds his standards, turning out sampler-style fare that makes for fun culinary dabbling. You could easily make a meal of the mini starters from the C Bar and mini sweets from the Candy Bar – and have a lot of fun en route – which entice the indecisive with two-bite bits of yellowtail tacos and homemade pistachio brittle, respectively.
AjasteakAsian sushi bar meets deluxe steakhouse in the hybrid Ajasteak (660 N. State St.; 312-202-6050; danahotelandspa.com). Globalizing the classic surf-and-turf concept, Ajasteak fills its menu with exotic luxuries like oysters, Kobe beef steaks and sashimi. But it has good fun messing with tradition, producing such boundary-stretching hits as salmon-mango-avocado-lemon roll, hamachi with guacamole, and corn on the cob with chili mayo. Even the drinks, such as sparkling sake sangria, cross cultures and never apologize. You gotta admire the style.
Rooftop Bars Though the season might be limited in a town that expects snow at any time between Halloween and Memorial Day, Chicago has discovered the joy of rooftop parties. A spate of new alcoholic aeries now serve cocktails with panoramic backdrops, some even with indoor, offseason quarters. Among the latter, the new Vertigo Sky Lounge (2 W. Erie St.; 312-202-6060; danahotelandspa.com) on the 26th floor of the Dana Hotel takes its cue from Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, down to showing the black and white movie on video screens. Waitresses push retro cocktail carts around the swanky lair, shaking up mojitos and martinis to order, while floor-to-ceiling windows draw your focus to the city skyline beyond. A few blocks away atop the Affinia hotel, the intimate C-View (166 E. Superior St.; 312-523-0923; www.c-houserestaurant.com) more than doubles in season when the 29th floor outdoor deck, spanned by a communal table, opens to the glory of the city lights surrounding. One chief benefit of drinking here is munching on nibbles from the menu of Marcus Samuelsson's C-House in the lobby. Finally, boasting the most elaborate rooftop in town, the second-story bar at Zed451 (739 N. Clark St., 312-266-6691, zed451.com) is a fair-weather-only affair, but the variety of booths, lounges and tables atop Astroturf plus massive platters of seafood on the menu make this the best place to go AWOL on a sunny afternoon.
Maria Pinto Boutique When Michelle Obama, wife of presidential candidate Barack Obama, began wearing clothes by Maria Pinto on the national stage, the Chicago designer became an overnight sensation after decades of toil. A former apprentice with Geoffrey Beene, Pinto is renowned for her feminine, curve-friendly dresses, wraps and evening wear created in luxurious fabrics. The new Maria Pinto Boutique (135 N Jefferson Street; 312-648-1350; www.mariapinto.com) in the West Loop is the place to shop for her look and possibly size up the city's who's who.
Mongo Home Though Chicago is renowned for its architecture, plenty of old treasures have run into the wrecking ball, spawning architectural salvage companies dealing everything from antique fireplace mantles to stained glass windows in dusty warehouse spaces that require some digging and a lot of imagination. Now two of the city's top dealers — Architectural Artifacts and Urban Remains — have gone in together on Mongo Home (1753 N. Damen Ave.; 773-486-6200), merchandising their treasures in a way that makes you see how that giant clock can become a tabletop and how those sculptural hands once used to mold rubber gloves make cool foyer accessories.
The Chicago Publishers GalleryIf you yearn to read the late, great Studs Terkel in situ, stop by the new The Chicago Publishers Gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St., 312-744-6630). The new book nook sells – and conveniences browsing with nearby armchairs — over 1,500 titles including books, magazines and journals from over 100 area publishers.
In May 2009 the Art Institute of Chicago will open its new Modern Wing with design by starchitect Renzo Piano … the Shedd Aquarium has temporarily closed its Oceanarium for a refurbishment, set to reopen the whale and dolphin attraction next summer … Steppenwolf Theatre follows up on its recent Tony by bringing Chicagoan William Petersen, star of TV's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, to the stage for Dublin Carol running November 6 to December 28 … A collection of 300 artifacts recreates The Aztec World, a show exclusive to The Field Museum that will not tour after it closes April 19 …
… in a pre-Broadway try-out, Dirty Dancing takes the Catskills coming-of-age story from screen to stage at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through January 17 (www.broadwayinchicago.com) …