Oak Park: churches, good food, bargains

Although a Frank Lloyd Wright fascination lures many travelers to Oak Park, Ill., this brilliant but eccentric man’s legacy is not the only reason to visit.

Next time, I’ll visit the Chicago suburb on a Sunday, so I can see the inside of more downtown churches. Their magnificence and distinctive styles were a surprise, sandwiched between the boutiques and ethnic restaurants that enrich Lake Street.

Wright’s geometrically astute Unity Temple gets the most attention because it is a National Historical Landmark, but within one block looms other dazzling houses of worship.

Walk the outdoor labyrinth at First United Church (where Ernest Hemingway was baptized); the church was built of natural rock in 1917. Then head to the 1905 Grace Episcopal Church, an English Gothic Revival with soaring carillon tower. It is adjacent to the colorful stone Calvary Memorial, a Baptist church.

Just east of this trio is the block-long and flower-filled Scoville Park; at one border is the red brick First Baptist Church. Another park boundary: Oak Park Avenue, where you’ll find the Gothic-style St. Edmunds Catholic Church, erected in 1910; stained glass windows were imported from Germany.

Flashy and well-kept Victorian houses also are abundant, especially near Wright’s former home and studio. Add Hemingway exhibits (his birthplace and a museum can be toured) to make your visit worth an overnight stay. The author lived in Oak Park for 20 years.

What else entices budget-conscious travelers?

Fuego Loco Cantina and Salseria’s margarita sampler is a generous taste of five flavors for $8.95. Sip while munching on hot tortilla chips, served complimentary with five types of salsa. Salsas arrive with descriptions of heat level and ingredients; choices include salsa del dia, the salsa of the day.

The nostalgic kick is cool at the Write Inn, an old-time hotel whose aura and furnishings whisk guests into the 1920s. Cranky elevators sleep from 10 a.m. to 8 a.m. Lace-curtained windows and white linens dress up the little hotel restaurant, which specializes in seafood and is called Hemingway’s – appropriate because it is in the author’s early childhood neighborhood. My room rate was $104 per night for a two-night stay, through Expedia.com.

Fashions Anew, a resale shop, hawks upscale women’s clothing. Price depends upon how long an item has been for sale. A red slash on a tag means 25 percent off; green means 50 percent. Not uncommon is a 75 percent off rack or two of clothing. Think fast: I almost snagged a nicely tailored Bebe shirt for $4, but another shopper politely adopted it while I hedged.

Free jazz is heard Thursday through Saturday nights at Philander’s. Look for the fine dining restaurant, with an exquisite circular and woodwork-rich bar, inside of the grand old Carleton Hotel; some of the lodging was built for the Columbian Exposition in 1892. Dessert choices include fried vanilla cheesecake.

A banana shake hits the spot at the retail outlet and ice cream parlor for Oberweis. The no-hormone milk and dairy product business, based in Aurora, Ill., is known for selling gallons of milk in glass containers and making ice cream since 1951.

Fill up on the soup/salad/bread bar at Geppetto’s for less than $10. If the minestrone isn’t on the buffet line, ask for it; our waiter fetched a bowl at no additional cost. Expect a nice combo of fresh, filling, nutritious salad ingredients – plus hot bread sticks and maybe a nibble of one kind of pizza. Stuffed crust pizzas are half-price on Saturdays. Pies also are sold by the slice.

Marion Street Cheese Market has been deemed the best place for cheese in the Chicago area. Cheese choices span the globe, including some of Wisconsin’s finest. Check out the product samplings and inventive café menu (breakfast examples: maple syrup crepes, asparagus and goat cheese quiche, Neuske’s ham and sweet potato hash).

Snack-sized muffins at Prairie Bread Kitchen are an excellent way to taste a couple of fresh-baked flavors without feeling like a glutton. This is a terrific final stop, before boarding a train to Chicago (via the Green Line) or far-west communities (Metra lines head to Geneva and beyond).

For more about things to do and see in Oak Park: www.visitoakpark.com, 888-625-7275.

For more about the churches:

Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., www.unitytemple.org, 708-848-6225.

First United Church 848 Lake St., www.firstunitedoakpark.com, 708-386-5215.

Grace Episcopal, 924 Lake St., www.graceoakpark.org, 708-386-8036.

Calvary Memorial, 931 Lake St., www.calvarymemorial.com, 708-386-3900.

First Baptist Church, 820 Ontario St., www.firstbaptistchurchofoakpark.com, 708-848-4070.

St. Edmunds Catholic Church, 188 S. Oak Park Ave., www.stedmund.org, 708-848-4417.

For more about other destinations:

Hemingway Museum, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., and Hemingway Birthplace, 339 N. Oak Park Ave.: www.hemingway.org, 708-848-2222.

Write Inn, 211 N. Oak Park Ave.: www.writeinn.com, 708-383-4800.

Fuego Loco Cantina and Salseria, 722 Lake St.: www.fuegoloco.com, 708-763-0000.

Fashions Anew, 183 S. Oak Park Ave.: 708-848-0120.

Philander’s, 1120 Pleasant St.: www.carletonhotel.com, 708-555-1234.

Oberweis, 124 N. Oak Park Ave.: www.oberweisidairy.com, 708-660-1350.

Geppetto’s, 113 N. Oak Park Ave.: www.geppettosoakpark.com, 708-386-9200.

Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 S. Marion St.: www.marionstreetcheesemarket.com, 708-725-7200.

Prairie Bread Kitchen, 103 N. Marion St.: 708-445-1234.