There are many ways into Bridgeport as a neighborhood, figuratively and literally. If you’re not a local, you might step off the Halsted Orange Line, make your way south and come across the sprawling, grass-filled expanse of Palmisano Park. Or you might come down from the Archer 62 bus, down to the Ling Shen Ching Tze (芝城雷藏寺) Buddhist Temple on West 31st., poke your head in, take off your shoes, and end up with a short lesson on Buddhism. On another night you might stop in for a drink at Maria’s. Or Bernice’s Tavern. Or Schaller’s Pump.
In a sense, Bridgeport is a portmanteau neighborhood, the kind of place that holds two seeming contradictions and makes them work. It’s not simply a matter of melding the old and the new. It’s also the Catholic and the Buddhist, the Democratic machine politics and the Progressive, the reputation and the reality.
A phrase that comes up more than a few times in talking about Bridgeport is “community of the future.” It was coined, legend has it, by the artistic cooperative Lumpen, which operates the Co-Prosperity Sphere exhibition space, Maria’s, and Marz Community Brewing. The phrase was originally meant to describe the once nascent, now flourishing artistic and music scene centered around Co-Pro and the Zhou B Art Center. But there’s something else that’s apt about the phrase. Bridgeport is a community that contains bits of the past tucked away in bakeries and bars, in street signs and architectural markers, church renovations, and Democratic headquarters. But it also houses pieces of the future among its art galleries, Buddhist altars, and barroom conversations. And the future looks good.
BEST GOSPEL BRUNCH: Polo Café
Dave Samber fills many roles. He is chef, owner, and innkeeper of Polo Café, and has been since 1985. But at any given moment, he’d rather be singing. Every Sunday from 10am to 2pm, Samber serves up a gospel brunch. As quaint as a New England bed and breakfast and as delicious as a three-star, Michelin-rated dining room, Samber’s brunch still maintains the spirit of Bridgeport. As the servers will tell you, though, it’s all down to him. He greets every patron like an old friend and constantly thanks his guests (and his electric organist) just for being there. He will thank you doubly for singing along with his rather impressive baritone. Hymnals are generously provided by the church down the block. The crème brûlée French toast with vodka butter sauce, the hearty breakfasts served with “procession” (two candles)—it all lives up to Samber’s oft-repeated motto: “Something different…something wonderful.” Polo Café and Catering, 3322 S. Morgan St. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11am-3pm. Dinner Friday-Saturday, 5pm-9pm. “Bloody Mary” brunch Saturday, 10am-2pm. Gospel brunch Sunday, 10am-2pm. (773)927-7656. polocafe.com (Meaghan Murphy)
BEST MOM AND POP SHOP: Bridgeport Pasty
If you ask Carrie Clark and Jay Sebastian the story behind their food truck—and now their restaurant—the short version is that it just sort of happened. A relative’s academic project on food trucks, a vacation to London, and a knack for eco-friendly auto engineering landed the couple with a four-wheeled, sustainable pasty enterprise. Due to recent changes in Chicagofood truck codes, Clark and Sebastian made the decision to move the baking end of the operation into their home kitchen. And then they decided to open the front door. The pastriesare even fresher baked in-house. The Oinkle pie, filled with apple and pork, and the Ginger Chicken are both innovative takes on traditional British recipes. As for the transition from truck to brick-and-mortar, Clark says that it’s been a rewarding and challenging process. But the family has been in the neighborhood for fifteen years already and you get the sense that, booming pasty business or not, Clark and Sebastian are the kind of people who’d open their front door to you—and offer you a pie. Bridgeport Pasty Company, 3142 S. Morgan St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-8pm. (773)254-7441. bridgeportpasty.com (Meaghan Murphy)
BEST DAYTIME WATERING HOLE: Jackalope Coffee & Tea House
On a delirious weekend or groggy workday, Jackalope Coffee & Tea House will surely wake you up—whether that’s thanks to the café’s primary-colored furniture, chipper baristas, or Metropolis coffee is a little less certain. In a morning café scene dominated by breakfast burritos and cronuts, Jackalope stands out as a strictly baked-goods and sandwich spot. Amidst Rishi teas and agave lattes, the most savory morning item offered is a bacon bun, baked fresh at nearby Bridgeport Bakery. What Jackalope lacks in egg-based creations, it makes up for with paninis like the Pixie, the café’s version of a PB&J. Jackalope Coffee & Tea House, 755 W. 32nd St. Monday-Friday, 6:30am-8pm; Saturday, 7am-8pm; Sunday, 8am-7pm. Craft night Thursdays, 5pm-7pm. (312)888-3468. facebook.com/JackalopeCoffeeTeaHouse (Alexa Daugherty)
BEST PANORAMA: Palmisano Park
Affectionately dubbed “Mount Bridgeport,” Henry Palmisano Park offers perhaps the most telling panoramic of Chicago as a mosaic of neighborhoods: three faint steeples, chipped-tooth industrial facades, schoolhouse chimney stacks, sliced wind echoes from the Stevenson Expressway. Pilsen murmurs in the north, there’s a glimmer of Chinatown roofs to the northeast, and Back of the Yards hides behind a baseball field to the south. Bridgeport residences and businesses peek through peripheral greenery, and in the distance, the glinting jaw of Loop skyline rests above a blotch of trees. The park’s own history seeps through its quarry walls, dolomitic limestone boulders, and recycled timber boardwalks. A prehistoric coral reef, the site served as a limestone quarry from 1830 to 1969 and a construction debris landfill for the past few decades before becoming the nature preserve it is today, complete with prairie grasses, yellow wildflowers, and wetlands. Bring a kite, a blanket, and/or a date. Palmisano Park, 2700 S. Halsted St. (Cindy Ji)
BEST FOR SANDWICHES: Bruno’s Bakery
When you walk into Bruno’s Bakery on 33rd and Lituanica, you can tell they aren’t in it for the money. They’re in it for the bread, the Polish rye bread. In fact, the store is mostly empty. Just a delightfully weathered cash register, a fridge half-heartedly stocked with Filbert’s soda, and around thirty loaves of the most delicious rye you can get this side of the Baltic. There’s something refreshing about Bruno’s adherence to simplicity. When I asked the cashier, somewhat lamely, “So you just sell bread?” she responded with a smile and a shrug: “Yep, been here sixty years!” Why fix what isn’t broken? This bread is excellent. And if you happen to have some corned beef and sauerkraut lying around at home, you couldn’t wish for a more perfect companion. Just don’t forget the pickles. Bruno’s Bakery, 3341 S. Lituanica Ave. Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. (773)254-6376. (Meaghan Murphy)
BEST ORGANIC: Nana
You know you’re on the right track when your cappuccino is served to you in a cup the size of a small cereal bowl. Further confirmation is provided when the avocado fries you order are simply fried avocadoes doused in a savory aioli. Bridgeport’s Nana is hip, organic, and very conscious of where its food is sourced from—but not annoyingly so. It’s the kind of place where you can order a multi-colored cauliflower salad, or a burger and a beer. It’s not exactly a local greasy spoon, but the folks at Nana do have a neighborhood heart, hosting special menus for Bears games and partnering with Benton House to raise funds for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. But above all, Nana is committed to a solid dining experience with a healthy serving of environmental consciousness on the side. Nana, 3267 S. Halsted St. Breakfast and lunch daily, 9am-2:30pm. Dinner Wednesday-Sunday, 5pm-9:30pm. (312)929-2486. nanaorganic.com (Meaghan Murphy)
BEST AGENCY OF SOCIAL SERVICE : Benton House
Benton House is truly the last of its kind. Although Jane Addams and her cohort of twentieth-century benefactors would hardly recognize the Benton House of today, with its live-in co-op and community garden, the organization still works to alleviate the trials of urban poverty in a home-grown way. The settlement movement was dedicated to improving the lives of the urban poor, and in the age of the broad-brimmed Edwardian chapeau it took a maternalistic tone. These days, the folks at Benton House are more focused on their food pantry and youth programming: they run a battery of after-school options from sound engineering to robotics. The organization still operates out of the original house, a grand old brick structure with a couple centuries’ worth of history and more than a few stories within its walls. The building, its occupants say, may be haunted by “Ma Benton,” and has been featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters.” Benton House, 3052 S. Gratten Ave. (773)927-6420. bentonhouse.org (Meaghan Murphy)