CHICAGO — Mrs. O'Leary's cow may very well have done us all a favor when she kicked over that kerosene lamp and started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
What emerged from the holocaust is a boisterous, bustling town with roots that go deep into our country's frontier past, telling us how it was as we pushed westward, mixing Anglo culture with that of pious French trappers, stoic German toolmakers and Irish gandy dancers swinging tools made by Chicago's now-defunct Gandy Manufacturing Co.
Chicago grew steadily from a village of 4,000 in the early 19th Century to a throbbing city of almost 4 million today.
The Chicago School of Architecture, thanks to Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and others, gave the town a fine collection of buildings in warm russets and mottled grays, lined up like well-worn-but-still-rich tweed jackets in a closet.
Frank Sinatra, a New Jersey boy, called Chicago "my kind of town," and a stroll by the jazz joints of Rush Street on Saturday night, an afternoon cheering the Cubs in the sun of ancient Wrigley Field, or a ride along spectacular Lake Shore Drive should convince anyone that his song got it right.
Here to there: American, United, TWA, Continental, Republic, Jet America and Braniff will fly you. Then take the airport bus that stops at many major hotels for $6.75, a taxi for about $15-$20.
Getting around town: Madison and State streets divide the town into north-south and east-west, with The Loop and downtown at their intersections. Tickets for elevated trains, subways and buses cost 90 cents.
How long/how much? Three days minimum for a taste of what Chicago has to offer. Hotel costs are high-moderate; dining, particularly in ethnic places, is moderate, but the tab can zoom at the town's ritzier spots.
A few fast facts: Spring and fall are best times for a visit. Late summers can be real scorchers, helped a bit by breezes along the lakefront, but there's no getting away from the frostbite factor of a Chicago winter, helped not at all by winds that could cut through steel skivvies.
Moderate-cost hotels: The Richmont (162 E. Ontario; $82 double B&B, $55 weekends) is small and sprightly, a ray of sunshine just a block off Michigan Avenue with the city's best shopping. Breakfast is served in its Rue Saint Clair restaurant, a bright and Gallic place that opens onto a quiet street. Cheerful green and white are the colors here, same for the hotel.
The Allerton (701 N. Michigan; $75-$85 double, $49 weekends) has more of a big-city hotel feeling, although less-expensive rooms are on the small side. But it's dead center of the Magnificent Mile shopping jungle, just a credit-card toss from Saks, Neiman-Marcus, Tiffany, Bonwit Teller, Gucci and Burberrys.
Inn of Chicago (162 E. Ohio at Michigan; $79, $59 weekends), a member of Best Western chain, also puts you at the heart of things, gives you every comfort and convenience and, like those above, has a toll-free number for reservations.
Regional food and drink: Chicago long ago turned over its best steaks title to Omaha and Kansas City, but the kudos keep coming in for ribs, soul food and a rich mix of Italian, French, Balkan, Greek, Chinese, Czech, Polish and other spooning halls just waiting to ladle out the nourishment. Fresh Great Lakes seafood is always available, other varieties flown in still dripping. We saw a clutch of memorable imported and domestic wine lists.
Moderate-cost dining: Chicago's famous Blackhawk downtown finally folded, so owner Don Roth moved to 110 E. Pearson just beneath the Water Tower a decade ago. Busy at lunch and dinner with straightforward American fare, we were very taken with the lode of marvelous ethnic art and artifacts lining the walls, particularly the paintings from Wally Findlay Gallery.
Rue Saint Clair at Richmont Hotel has a menu that is 50-50 French and American, the former offering such toothsome morsels as smoked duck in a warm chevre sauce for $4.50, snails with three sauces at $6.95, roast veal loin Normande with a cream and Calvados topping for $14 at dinner. Up several notches in finesse and prices is L'Escargot at Hotel Allerton and at 2925 N. Halsted. Handwritten menus a la Paris, a chef from Lyon, formidable wine list, linguini with snails for $7.75, full dinners in the $20 range.
Going first-class: The Drake (140 E. Walton Place; $120-$195 double) is every inch a grand hotel in the traditional style, from warm paneling and red velvet walls in the lobby, harp music at teatime in the Palm Court, exquisite room furnishings and probably the best seafood restaurant in town, the rustic Cape Cod Room, where we put away our share of Maryland soft-shell crab, others feasting on Bookbinder's red snapper soup and pompano en papillote.
Park Hyatt (800 N. Michigan: $165-$195) combines smallness with the soft elegance of Chinese contemporary furnishings. Right on Water Tower Square, this one has weekend specials like the Drake.