Anyone who frequents the Red, Brown or Purple lines is familiar with the Belmont stop as a literal rite of passage. Travelers know they've arrived when the train pulls up to an eclectic crowd of Lincoln Park yuppies, tourists en route to Cubs' games and multi-pierced and tattooed folks touting the area's popular punk aesthetic. Gently elbow your way across the platform, taking notice of the latest military-chic fashion on display in the adjacent Belmont Army Surplus's upstairs window, and find a mecca of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs painting a colorful Belmont strip. There are dozens of places like Medusa's Circle and The Alley screaming for pedestrians' attention with flashy hot pink signs, whips and spiky dog collars intended for extracurricular activities and families of Converse sneakers catching rays in window displays. The area is just as densely packed with well-known and well-liked shops and eateries from Ann Sather and Ragstock to Clark's and the Chicago Diner. But if you're willing to venture beyond the known quantities and explore what lies behind these relatively modest storefronts, you're likely to find some palatable goodies.
Panhandler rating: You're more than likely going to face a few panhandlers but nothing unmanageable.
Safety rating: Most hours of the day and night find the main strip brightly lit and busy, with the nearby clubs and bars staying open late.
Place to be seen solo
The Gourmet Grape
Recognizing that drinking fine wine should be a full-body, social experience, The Gourmet Grape hosts a free wine tasting every Saturday afternoon from 2-6 p.m. Put on a sharp-looking outfit and acquaint yourself with new grapes and like-minded wine lovers who are there to sip, swirl, sniff and schmooze, along with the background tunes of the shop's player piano. If you're looking for a formal lesson and a heartier wine flight (more like eight or nine tastes as opposed to the Saturdays two to four), consider forking over $25 for one of the monthly two-hour courses.
Inside the shop, you'll find wines arranged by region lining the perimeter of the hardwood floors, along with a minimal selection of accessories like wine glass name tags, chardonnay balsamic vinegars, ornate martini glasses and decanters. The Gourmet Grape specializes in small distribution wines; some of the owners' favorites include an Australian Shiraz from St. Andrews, Caymus' Conundrum and Cabernet and Bogle's blend wine known as "Phantom." True to boutique-style business, the shop also takes special orders and provides custom-made gift baskets.
For the artiste
Aiko's Art Materials
For those who have tired of using watercolors or oil paints on stretched canvas, Aiko's Art Materials introduces a shop's worth of traditional Japanese tools for a potpourri of artistic endeavors. Supplying Chicagoans with Japanese arts and crafts for over fifty years now (the current location opened in 1989), the shop features over 500 types of mostly handmade Japanese papers used for such varied purposes as writing, interior decoration and book binding. The papers range from solid deep reds and purples highlighted with abstract metallic patterns or printed with images of birds and butterflies to nearly sheer, textured ivory-color sheets that can be used to make shoji (translucent Japanese screens).
Aiko's complements its paper selection with book binding cloths, brocades for scroll making and a range of inks and brushes made from wild horse, cat or sheep hair and used for calligraphy or painting. For those who appreciate but don't necessarily care to create art, the shop features posters of lithographs, woodcut prints and etchings as well as limited edition, contemporary Japanese artists' books.
Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Company
Whether you're contemplating going up a gauge with your ear-plugs, having a flame-blowing dragon permanently inked across your back or simply interested in watching others endure pain for art's sake, this tattoo and piercing parlor will satiate your desires. Established in 1973, the shop features cases full of body jewelry, from glass plugs to platinum and gold belly button rings adorned with rubies and diamonds. It even designs custom-made body jewels. While the thought of going under the needle can be daunting, the experienced professionals know how to quell any fears or hesitations. Besides, no pain, no gain, right?
Sure-bet for shopping
Whether you're buying a bouquet for your mother-in-law, a Jade plant for your bedroom or looking for a shop to do the floral arrangements for your wedding, Alice's Garden can do it all. Consistent with its minimalist façade, the shop features a limited, though impeccable, selection of plants and flowers, just enough to make you feel that you have options. The shop enhances its selection of Amaryllis, Bromeliad, Hydrangeas, cut and potted orchids and yellow Iris with ornate vase arrangements such as woven Aspidistra leaves and Lily Grass resting at the bottom of a glass. Teamed with the event agency X/A, the shop also works as a private event space, with the workshop in back transforming into a catering facility.
Sparse décor and a small space hardly indicate the extensive selection of exotic dishes for an average $8-$10 per entrée at Bolat. In addition to catfish, tilapia, chicken and beef, meat eaters will enjoy choosing between a stewed snail appetizer, goat, cow skin, oxtail and guinea fowl. Half a menu's worth of vegetarian dishes should satisfy herbivores gnawing for a change in diet, too. Besides fairly standard dishes like beef kabob, chicken pie, curried vegetables and beans with fried plantains, diners tend to favor Jollof rice (rice cooked in tomato sauce) and Bolat's soups and stews. Served with your side of choice (most popular being the pounded yam called fufu, plantain fufu or dried and powdered yam called amala), the Egusi stews, watermelon seeds cooked in tomato sauce or with spinach and spices, top the charts. Make sure to browse the list of beverages: Coconut juice, pina coladas and palm wine, a sweet treat from Nigeria definitely worth the $6, cool down a spice-laden meal.
Just because the dinner hour has passed doesn't mean you have to resort to pub grub. Bolat is ready and willing to serve Ghanaian and Nigerian cuisine until 11:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday.