Sunday, April 10, 2005

The House of Blues

For years, I have been nagging my husband to go to the House of Blues at Downtown Disney. Even when we were still of the species Tourista Annualus, it seemed like it would be a fun place to eat. Of course, we've had a House of Blues in downtown Chicago forever, but things seem more exciting when you do them somewhere far, far away. I read that they had a Gospel Brunch, and while I wasn't quite sure what that might be, it sounded like a unique way to spend a Sunday afternoon...a place to get uplifted in both spirit and caloric intake.

We never got around to visiting the Downtown Disney location, but this weekend we went to the one in Chicago. We have a group of friends with whom we go out for lunch or dinner ever couple of months or so. We met something like seven or eight years ago...of all places, at a dude ranch in Colorado. One of the families (a mother and son) had been going there for years. The other was a couple that enjoys horseback riding and had decided that the Rocky Mountains sounded like a nice place to ride. They had also brought their little granddaughter along, and although she was a tiny thing, she could manage a horse as well as any adult.

Myself, I had seen the ads for Lane's Guest Ranch in the Wall Street Journal for a couple of years and though it sounded like a nice place. I've owned my horse, Cochise, for close to 25 years now, and although my husband had never been on an equine before we were married (and, he confessed, never had any desire to be), my love of riding somehow rubbed off on him.

He did make it very clear that he didn't aspire to be a show rider, so he didn't want to hear my nagging about form. All he wanted to be able to do was manage to stay in the saddle and have some small modicum of control over the hooved creature's speed and general direction of travel. It didn't taken him long to master a basic level of horsemanship, and soon he was accompanying me on pleasant jaunts in the woods and canters along the lake.

He is a roller coaster buff, but I slowly but surely managed to expand his horizons. We decided that it would be nice to see the West, one state per year, by visiting various dude ranches. Because I knew of Lane's, which is in Estes Park, adjacent to Roosevelt National Forest in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, it became the first of many.

Even though we were in Boofoo, Colorado, it turned out that those other two families were also from Illinois, albeit the northern suburbs (about an hour's drive from us). We all bonded over the week of rustic fun, and we vowed that we'd keep in touch when we returned to the Land of Lincoln. Usually, those are empty words spoken among strangers whose paths have crossed briefly but will never cross again. But our little group meant it, and we starting linking up for dinner every two months or so. Now, almost a decade has passed. The granddaughter is a young lady, and our other friend's son has gone from a little boy on horseback to a young man who just got his pilot's license. And still we continue with our regular outings.

Our last outing was at a steakhouse next door to Marina City, where the House of Blue is located. HOB looked intriguing, so we decided that next time we'd do the Gospel Brunch.

I've always liked Marina City, which is located right on the Chicago River. When I was a tiny child of about two, I remember visiting someone who lived there with my mother. I wandered out on the balcony, high above the river, and stared through the railing at the twinkling lights of the city spread out like jewels below me. I was too young to have a fear of heights; instead, the perspective fascinated me. I still have the memory of feeling the bars pressed against my nose as I stared out at the beauty of the skyline. Ive always loved prints and posters of night cityscapes, and I wonder if it was spurred by that experience.

Over the years, the towers of Marina City fell into disrepair. Mismanagement and financial problems turned them into a towering tenement. But nothing in such a prime location could stay in that state for long. Now they are pricey condominiums that are restored to their former status as a coveted spot to live.

Getting to downtown Chicago involves a hair-raising drive on the Dan Ryan. Well, maybe not as hair-raising as it used to be, as drivers in Chicago have nothing on Florida tourists. For me, driving in the Windy City is much easier than in the Sunshine State. In Chicago, the driving is predictably bad. You can almost sense when someone is going to cut you off to get into a lane that's moving faster or abruptly stop in the middle of a street and abandon their vehicle because there are no parking spots. In Celebration/Orlando/Kissimmee, there is no element of predictability because the drivers are pretty much all lost tourists who have no idea what they're going to do until half a millisecond before they do it.

Traffic was surprisingly light, so we got to House of Blues with time to spare. We settled in to wait for our friends to arrive, enjoying the Folk Art decor. I will be interested to compare the Orlando location to the one in Chicago. Slowly but surely, the crowd swelled as the noon hour approached. Our friends showed up, and we banded together near the staircase, waiting for seating to begin.

I had reserved a box so we'd have our own private area. Otherwise, you are seated at long tables with large groups of people. Normally I don't mind that, but because we see each other so infrequently, we all like a chance to talk and catch up. Being in a box allowed us to do that without disturbing the people around us.

Our box was supplied with mimosas, orange juice, and coffee. Once we had settled in, we trooped downstairs to the buffet line. The choices were overwhelming; to solve my dilemma, I ended up taking a little bit of everything. There were plenty of cold salads, plus breakfast items like grits, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and waffles. There were hot items, too, with a southern flair, like godly whipped sweet potatoes and spicy fried chicken. There was a carving station with pork and beef and an area for made-to-order omlettes (I love them, but the line scared me off). Best of all, there was a table laden with the most delicious and decadent desserts, including chocolate brownies, peach cobbler, and apple brown betty. And watch out for the vanilla's spiked liberally with Jack Daniels!

I could barely maneuver my brimming plates back up the stairs. I had piled on the goodies, hoping to make only one trip. We all tucked into our meals; there are 45 minutes from when the doors open to when the entertainment starts to give you ample time to get your food and get a head start on eating. From my perch high above the food floor, I noticed that the omlette line was now non-existent. But while it was tempting, I had more than enough culinary delights to keep me busy.

The show was a high-energy rendition of gospel songs, complete with lots of hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and swaying to the beat. The time rushed by so quickly that showtime was over before I knew it (they perform for about 45 minutes, so overall it's a 90 minute experience). Afterwards, we dallied in the box, having a mimosa for the road and planning the date of our next get-together (my husband and I work our flight schedules around it; penalty-free changes are one of the things I like about Southwest Airlines). Finally, our waiter came to break the bad news that the theater had to be cleared so they could prepare for the concert that evening. Reluctantly, we headed out into a Chicago afternoon that reminded me of the glorious spring weather I'd left behind in Celebration.

As much as I miss Duloc Manor, it was nice to see our friends again and to have a fun city outing. I'd never want to live right in downtown Chicago, but I love traveling there for the excellent restaurants and theaters. But I realized that my life had come full circle when the emcee on stage asked who was from out of town. My husband started cheering wildly, and at first I looked at him as though he were crazy. I was born and bred in the Windy City! Then it dawned on me; I was once a Chicagoan who was a frequent tourist in Florida. Now I am a Floridian who happens to visit Chicago a lot. Not too shabby of a thing to be.

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