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Heavenly Chicago and the
Wonderful Westin River North

Our 5:45 pm flight out of JFK to Chicago was cancelled. We were the last passengers re-routed onto a plane that headed into Atlanta in a lightning storm. There we waited for more than an hour until the weather cleared and the connecting flight to Chicago took off. By the time we checked in at the Westin River North, it was 1:30 am.

The lady in the elevator gave us a sympathetic smile. "You two look like you’ve had a rough night."

"Don’t ask," was all we could reply.

"Well you’ve come to the right place," she said reassuringly. "I guarantee you’ll have a great night’s sleep."

The lady knew of what she spoke. The Westin calls the ten layer pillow-top mattress covered in 250-thread-count linens topped with a comforter of the deepest down its "Heavenly Bed." And for a couple of travelers weary from the rigors of getting there, it was heaven indeed to get under the crisp white duvet, lay our heads on a pair of plush pillows and fall into blissful, restorative sleep.

The next morning, energized, we began to take our bearings at this premier four star hotel on the banks of the Chicago River. The Westin River North actually began life some thirteen years ago as the Hotel Nikko built by the Japanese company of the same name. In 1997, it was taken over by the Westin chain which poured ten million dollars into remodeling the still relatively new property to give it a lighter, softer feel. Nevertheless, the hotel retains the Zen-like ambience of its previous existence. The softly-lit lobby is a study in tranquility. Rectangular spaces surfaced with black marble and red mahogany flow one into another, punctuated by luminescent rice paper screens, exotic plantings, and great silvery urns filled with white blossoms. Each of the 424 rooms and 17 suites continues the mood of serene luxury.

The architecture historian Joan Lindsay points out the Westin River North on her Architectural River Cruise along the Chicago River, calling the twenty story narrow rectangle in black and white "a model of elegant contemporary design." The tour by boat is perhaps the best way to see the variety and quality of Chicago’s architectural treasures. From the deck of the little ferry, the Westin River North can be seen poking out in front of a pair of circular buildings - the famed Marina City designed by Bertrand Goldberg in the mid 1960’s as a reaction against the boxy modernist look. Just beyond is the IBM Tower considered by many to be Mies van der Rohe’s greatest masterpiece, the epitome of his dictum "less is more."

The windows of rooms in the Westin River North provide equally impressive architectural views ranging from the gothic inspired Chicago Tribune Tower to the classical Jewelers Building whose domed tower was a speakeasy during the days of Prohibition. A closer look can be had from the upper and lower promenades that border the river. These were inspired by the walkways along the Seine in Paris, and strolling the banks of the Chicago River does feel like Paris especially on a summer evening when the bridges are lit from beneath in lights that cycle through different colors.

Indeed location can be said to be a major calling card of the Westin River North.

The Financial and Theater Districts, the Loop, and Marshall Field are across the bridge at North Dearborn, virtually at the hotel’s doorstep. A few blocks to the east is North Michigan Avenue, aka the "Magnificent Mile," with its upscale shops and boutiques. From there it is only a short walking distance to the recreational attractions and scenic splendors of beautiful Lake Michigan.

The neighborhood of the Westin River North is filled with dozens of restaurants from Michael Jordan’s to the famed Shaw’s Clam house, but, we discovered, one need go no further than the hotel lobby for a truly exceptional meal. Zagat’s Restaurant Guide rates the Westin’s Celebrity Café one of the area’s top restaurants, calling it "the hidden gem of Chicago." We learned as much from headwaiter John Jenkins as he led us to a table in the spacious and elegantly furnished dining room.

"The Celebrity Café has the best filet mignon you’ll find in any place in Chicago, and this is a wonderful steak town," he told us. "People will go to other places and come back saying, ‘John, you were right.’"

We put ourselves in John’s hands, and he was right - not only about the filet mignon, but also about the crisp Pinot Grigio he recommended and the Celebrity Café’s famous lobster chowder, a specialty dating back to Hotel Nikko days. Like the chowder, a good portion of the Westin's staff, including Alsatian-born chef Jean Pierre Henry, has has been with the property from around the time it opened in 1987.

"I’ve only been here for the last three years," John says, "but I understand the longevity. There is a wonderful camaraderie among the people that work here."

Beyond boosting the Westin River North, John Jenkins promotes the city he was born and raised in with unqualified enthusiasm. "When I was a kid, many of Chicago’s public places were kind of getting older," he says, "but in recent years, everything has been revitalized. It’s a much cleaner city; everyone comments on it. And it is the only major city in the world that I’m aware of where the entire lakefront or waterfront is devoted to public use: beaches, marinas, golf course, jogging trails – all open to the public.

"And have you noticed all the flowers? This summer there are more flower beds than ever before. That’s Mayor Daly’s contribution. He’s encouraging people to plant trees and shrubs on top of buildings to cool the city and reduce the ozone layer."

Once again, John was right. Flowers are omnipresent throughout Chicago, another detail that makes a visit to the "city of the big shoulders" such a delight. As was the Saturday afternoon we spent at Wrigley Field where a full stadium cheered the often hapless but nevertheless beloved Cubs to victory, the hilarious evening when we re-visited "Second City" to once again marvel at improvisational skills that defy reality, and the Sunday morning when we headed north along beautiful Lake Shore Drive all the way up to the bird sanctuary of Lincoln Park. Combined with the luxury, comfort and sublime service of the Westin River North – our trip to Chicago was in every single respect – save the flight – a heavenly experience.

The Westin River North
320 North Dearborn
Chicago, IL  60610

Phone: 312-744-1900
Fax: 312-527-2664

Architectural River Cruise: 

Chicago From the Lake, Ltd.

Phone: 312-527-1977

Second City
1616 North Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60614-6002

Phone: 312-664-4032

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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