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
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
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
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
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
"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
Architectural River Cruise:
Chicago From the Lake, Ltd.
1616 North Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60614-6002
Photos by Harvey Frommer
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights