As snobbish city dweller, I never thought I’d live in a su…su…su…[deep breath, spit the word out] suburb, but Oak Park just wrapped its Arts and Crafts-style self around my heart and wouldn’t let go. When it came time for us to buy a house, we looked all around, but Oak Park just pushed itself to the top position time and time again. In addition to finding a surprising affordable bungalow that we instantly identified as Our Home, we loved so much more: the progressive politics, the gorgeous architecture, the interesting local history, the very diverse population (racially, culturally, economically, you name it), the easy access into the city via the Green line, the Blue line and myriad buses. I could go on and on: the neighborhood-y feel all around, the culture, the great public schools, the phenomenal library (the main branch is in itself a reason to live in Oak Park), the bicycle friendly streets. It is not the stifling, strip mall-y environment that many think of when they hear the word “suburb.” Oak Park is the best of both worlds: the best of the suburbs (clean streets and good schools) and the best of the city (diversity and lots of cultural offerings) mashed up together. Just ten miles due west of downtown Chicago, it’s hardly in the boonies. It’s as quick and easy for me to get downtown from Oak Park than it was from our old apartment in Humboldt Park.
Of course, from a vegan point-of-view, it is always about the food. How does it rate here? Though Oak Park has no exclusively vegetarian restaurants (yet!) and it’s not exactly a vegan paradise at the present time, it is a great town to visit and explore our diverse options. You won’t go hungry. Here are just some of my favorites, thrown in with some great, independent shops and other ideas for how to spend a day in beautiful Oak Park.
Go to The Buzz Café at 905 S. Lombard for their laid-back, child-friendly environment and decent vegan options, like a tofu scramble for brunch, a tofu-veggie wrap, salad or veggie burger for lunch. Oak Park is not teeming with brunch options so be warned that there is often a long wait on weekends. After the Buzz, check out the many galleries and unique boutiques in the popular Harrison Street Art’s District. If you’re in a thrifting mood, don’t forget the Brown Elephant at 217 Harrison Street, just around the corner from the Buzz Café.
Near downtown is the Oak Park outpost of the Bleeding Heart Bakery, 1010 North Blvd. (take note that this is not North Avenue, but Boulevard, which is just north of the Green line train tracks). The Bleeding Heart Bakery, known for their “punk rock pastries” and colorful owners who often are seen on Food Network baking competitions, has a good variety of vegan goodies every day. Just down the street is Pumpkin Moon at 1028 North Blvd. a classic and fun little toy shop for goofy kids of all ages.
Around the corner is Lido’s Caffé, 122 N. Marion Street, where you can find several fruit-based, authentic sorbetto varieties of gelato. This is especially nice in the warm months when tables are set up outside and the fountain is going. Come out here on Thursday evenings in the summer when the shops are open late and entertainers wander the streets of downtown.
Also in the Marion Street shopping district is the King and I Thai restaurant, 105 N. Marion, full of delicious choices. Just down the street from King and I is Ten Thousand Villages, at 121 N. Marion, a Fair Trade, non-profit shop with lovely and affordable gifts from around the world. Supporting Ten Thousand Villages means that indigenous artisans and producers are paid a living wage and have an opportunity to get off the sweatshop or itinerant work treadmill. In addition to beautiful jewelry and gifts, there are toys, fair trade coffee, chocolates and more sold here.
Marion Street also is home to Aripo’s Venezuelan Arepa House, 118 N. Marion, a place where we can get cornmeal-based arepa sandwiches (which also happen to be gluten-free) in several vegan varieties. The people here are very welcoming and willing to work on adapting sandwiches for your tastes. Right next door is the sister store of Pumpkin Moon for fun-loving dog and kitty lovers (four-legged friends welcome), the adorable Scratch and Sniff at 120 N. Marion Street. In addition to dog and cat goods, you can find whimsical gifts for the home and cute things for babies.
Before venturing east, vegan personal care product lovers will enjoy many handmade and natural body care products at Olive Owl Organics, 1101 Lake Street. Paper Source at 1109 Lake Street has lots of gorgeous and unique eye candy to make crafters and old-fashioned letter writers get deeply inspired to create more handmade and personal beauty in their lives.
Craving Indian curry? Khyber Pass at 1031 Lake St. has a decent Indian buffet on the weekends (it does not hold a candle to Arya Bhavan’s buffet, but what does?) and they have well-marked vegan and vegetarian dishes. Please remember to tell the server that you do not want the tandoori chicken or a smoldering plate will automatically be delivered to your table. After dinner, check out The Book Table, an independent and robust shop at 1045 Lake St. In their most recent popular poll, The Book Table was rated as the Chicago Reader’s top bookstore in the area. All books are at least 20% off retail price.
Across the street is the casual, delicious Jerusalem Café, 1030 Lake St., with lots of tasty, inexpensive vegan Middle Eastern choices. Check them out for a weekday lunch if you have the chance and want to try their small but excellent unlimited buffet, full of baba ganoush, hummus, hot peppers and lentil soup. Yum! They also make all-fruit smoothies. (Sadly, we haven’t been able to come here much since my son determined that hummus tastes like melted bean ice cream. Whatever!) Next door, Oak Park’s movie theater, the classic Lake Theatre at 1022 N. Lake has first-run films in a clean, comfortable setting.
Next stop: Oak Park’s Avenue District, just a few blocks east on Lake Street from the downtown. All is easily accessible by the Green Line. On your way to the Avenue district, why not stop by the verdant Austin Gardens Park, 150 Forest Avenue? A pretty and serene small park, perfect for a meditative walk, it’s hard to imagine that you’re just a block away from bustling Lake Street here.
Visit Oak Park’s other Indian restaurant, Klay Oven, at 734 Lake Street for delicious food in a sumptuous setting at a great price. Their weekday vegetarian lunch menu is limited but a steal at $6.00 an entrée, which includes rice. Just down the street at Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue is our town’s beloved Scoville Park, a perfect public green space rolling out in front of our library. This is the place to chase Frisbees in the warm weather, have a picnic and watch the clouds roll past. In the summer, there are also free Sunday evening concerts here and many art and community fairs. Plus, free public restrooms are nearby with a chance to check out the beautiful Oak Park Public Library.
Create your own stir-fry at Flat Top Grill, 726 Lake Street, which is our go-to place for a tasty and filling meal out. With a wide variety of fresh, pre-chopped vegetables, vegan proteins, carbs and sauces, you go along the line and customize your meal with the exact amount of spice or broccoli to rice noodles ratio that you’d like and the people at the grill cook it. No fuss, no muss! You can also get your meals cooked in a meat-free wok with the designated white stick, or have it come with lettuce wraps and vegan roti bread if you’d like. Nom! Tip: if you sign up with their e-mail club, you will get a free stir-fry coupon for your birthday good at any of their locations. They don’t send out many messages. While in the neighborhood, check out Geppetto’s Toy Box at 730 Lake Street for a great selection of European-influenced, natural toys that encourage the imagination rather than more electronic dependence. This is the perfect place to get a unique, artisan-crafted toy for the birthday boy or girl in your life. While on the topic, the Magic Tree Bookstore around the corner at 141 N. Oak Park Avenue is a great local, independent children’s bookstore for the young reading enthusiast.
Don’t forget New Pot Rice and Noodles at 727 Lake Street for a good menu of delicious vegan Thai dishes. As always with Asian food, tell your server that you are vegan to avoid fish sauce or other animal products in your meal. They understand and are happy to accommodate at New Pot. A short way up the street is Fly Bird at 719 Lake Street, an adorable, attitude-free indie boutique with an emphasis on locally made, distinctive crafts. This shop is well-curated: not an ordinary-looking tchotchke in the place.
Grape Leaves at 129 S. Oak Park Avenue is just south of the Green line train tracks and is largely considered the area’s best Middle Eastern restaurant. With generous portions, fresh, delicious and affordable food, Grape Leaves offers several vegan lunch and dinner options. I recommend the vegetarian dinner plate for a little bit – okay, a lot – of everything. Visit Oak Park Records at 179 S. Oak Park Avenue for their friendly service and impressive selection of used vinyl, compact discs and movies.
I would be remiss if I wrote a guide to Oak Park and didn’t include the awesome Economy Shop. The Economy Shop, 103 S. Grove near the Avenue District, is a three-story Victorian home converted into a well-organized resale destination just a few times a month so they stock up on great finds and all proceeds go to benefit local charities. I have found lots of treasures here and some great clothes, always in good condition. Their men’s casual department benefits the local Animal Care League dog and cat shelter.
Outside of the shopping districts, there is always Penny’s Noodles at 1130 Chicago Avenue for consistently well-prepared pan-Asian cuisine and warm service. Right across the street is the old school hardware shop, Dressel’s Hardware at 1137 Chicago Avenue. They have a good home canning supply section and lots of other goodies for the kind of experience you won’t get at a Home Depot.
Of course, Oak Park was also home to a little-known architect named Frank Lloyd Wright and a practically unheard of novelist named Ernest Hemingway, so there are also walking tours and museums to see. Visit the Oak Park Convention and Visitors Bureau for more ideas for a casual or ambitious trip to our pretty little town.