By Brian Hieggelke
My imaginary summer postcard always features a beach and a beverage. No other season elicits such a flight of fancy, perhaps because no other season interests me much; all are just time’s obstacles to summer.
I honestly have no idea where this comes from; perhaps it’s my family’s Nordic origins run amok. I only know it’s been there as long as I can remember, and I’m too old to blame it on “The OC.” In college at the University of Chicago, my pals and I equated future success not so much with career accomplishment but with time spent on the beach, always with a cocktail, of course. Too many tales of related carnage take up space on my brain’s hard drive, whether it’s the time one guy got laid on a backyard beach we constructed for an island party, or another when dozens of us got our rights read to us by park rangers in Indiana where we’d been having an apparently illegal beach party before we were thrown out of the state. They kept our beer.
My roommate and I spent far too much time each spring waiting for beach weather. At the first sign of sunshine, we’d conspire to skip Friday classes and head to the heathen wonder of Oak Street Beach, which was then what North Avenue Beach is now. One such time, we actually went through with plans and headed north, making a pit stop to buy a bottle of Night Train for the day’s libation. The Night Train came through but the weather did not so we headed to Evanston to bother a friend of mine at Northwestern, where we somehow locked ourselves in a courtyard in the engineering building. Endless summer, postponed again.
Over the last decade, a couple of beachfront establishments have opened in Chicago tailor-made for people like me. Castaways, the bar on top of the boat-shaped beach house at North Avenue Beach, is the perfect mate for the beach it serves: packed body-to-body with the young and barely dressed throwing back beers sold in tubs while live cover bands soundtrack the sand with hits from a classic-rock songbook. The bar’s north side offers a somewhat more laidback experience with tables and food, which I’ve eaten, I think. Down on the beach, bodies line up towel to towel, except for the exhibitionistic jocks working out at the beachside gym or holding court at one of the precious volleyball nets. The whole thing is “MTV Spring Break” come to life, and when you’re in the mood for that—and who isn’t always in the mood for that?—Castaways and NAB won’t let you down.
South six blocks or so, Oak Street Beachstro serves food and cocktails in a spectacular setting on a lively but much mellower beach. Kick back in a chaise in the lounge and sip on an ice-cold beer, with the lake just yards away. You’ll swear you see palm trees. (Actually, they do have palm trees, mounted in sturdy giant wooden pots.) Food holds up well at the Beachstro, with seafood, grilled sandwiches, appetizers and salads that generally uphold the light touch the setting demands. But the frozen cocktails are the real showstoppers, including pina coladas, vodka lemonades and fruity daiquiris. Time passes pleasantly at the Beachstro where you’ll be reminded favorably of an oceanfront restaurant in Southern California.
Many years and many sunburns later, I’m still chasing the dream. I still don’t understand why, but I’ve gotten better at catching it, once in a while. Meanwhile, pass me a Mai Tai.
Castaways Bar & Grill, on the beach at 1603 North Lake Shore Drive, (773)281-1200; Oak Street Beachstro, on the beach at 1000 North Lake Shore Drive, (312)915-4100.