Comedian Felonious Munk just really, really loves West Indian food. He would eat it every day if he could. Casually mention a solid place to get oxtail, and he'll drop everything and go immediately. He's not playing around. Lucky for him, Hyde Park's got all that and more. Here's what he has to say about his favorite spots in the neighborhood.
VICE: How would you describe Hyde Park to someone who's never been there?Felonious Munk: Hyde Park is what the rest of Chicago wants to be. Chicago sees itself as this diverse melting pot of culture, and Hyde Park is really that. It's probably the most diverse neighborhood in the city. Everywhere else, even when you have some diversity there's always one group that's clearly the majority, then sprinkles of other groups.
Hyde Park is truly diverse—it's like 37 percent white, 41 percent black—and it's got a high population of young people because of the University. It's also the only neighborhood I can think of in Chicago where I can find multiple kinds of ethnic food. Every other neighborhood has it's own distinct flavor based on what kind of people live there—you've got the Mexican food in Little Village and Pilsen, the Puerto Rican food in Humboldt Park, a lot of soul food down south. But you go to Hyde Park you got a health food place, a West Indian restaurant, an Arab cafe, a Mexican place, and really good Italian place all within a two-block radius on 53rd.
You would think the Chicago Loop would be where the city brings all its cultures together, but it's Hyde Park. Hyde Park is a place where anyone can feel comfortable.
What is your first memory of the neighborhood?
When I first moved here from New York, I'd go to a barber shop on 53rd and Dorchester that another comedian friend recommended to me. The first time he took me there we parked a few blocks away, and on the walk to the shop we passed all these different spots. A Whole Foods, a Jamaican restaurant, a movie theater, a cigar shop—it was just so beautiful! I remember walking down the street and thinking, this is a very cosmopolitan place.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood character?
Probably Mario Smith. Mario Smith has a radio show on WHPK, and he also works at The Promontory on Lake, which is a music venue that's also one of the best restaurants on the South Side, if you ask me. They've got things like chicken liver pate that's—I hate to say "to die for"—but it's just to die for.
But Mario! Mario works for them and he has a podcast and a radio show he does from there. Every time I've ever been to Hyde Park, no matter where I am in the neighborhood, somehow he walks by. He knows everyone in Hyde Park. There are some people who are just so affiliated with the neighborhood that you can't imagine it without them, and Mario is that person for me.
What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you on the CTA?
My wife and I got on the train one day, and my wife is beautiful. Like, I know she's just absolutely stunning, but every now and then someone else will point it out. So we're sitting on the train and there's this woman sitting there beside my wife. I don't think she initially realized that I was with her, but she was sitting there and she was complimenting her. At first it was just a normal compliment, something like "Oh, you're so pretty!" But then it started to get awkward. She kept saying it. "No, you're really, really pretty."
Then my wife leaned over to me and grabbed my hand and the woman realized I was with her. She asked me, "So are you gonna be nice to her?"
It was around then I realized something was off. I said, "Yes, I'm going to be very nice to her," and then she just immediately looked at the young man across the aisle and yells "YOUR MOTHER SHOULD SLAP YOU! YOU'RE BAD! YOU'RE BAD AND YOUR MOTHER SHOULD SLAP YOU!" We ended up getting off the train like four stops early to avoid that situation.
That's a pretty typical CTA experience.
Oh yeah, it's a normal CTA experience. People always think it must be like this on the train in New York too, but it's really a uniquely Chicago thing. I think in New York there are so many people on the train at one time, you really only get that kind of crazy late at night. But here you get that any time of the day. That was like 11 in the morning on the way to work! This happens all the time. Someone will get on and start having conversations with himself and then turn to you and say "YOU KNOW WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!" And you're like "Nope, I don't know what you're talking about. You're making it awkward, sir."But I love the CTA. I will always take the train.
What are the best places to eat/drink in Hyde Park?
The Promontory and Ja'Grill are my two favorite places. I love the Promontory because it's got a restaurant downstairs and entertainment upstairs. On certain nights there will be a DJ spinning and it makes for a nice atmosphere with an upscale crowd. Plus the bar staff is extremely nice. You can sit at the bar for 10 minutes and feel like you really know them.
Ja'Grill is a Jamaican place. You'll go in and get a drink and five minutes later you're like, You know what? I'm gonna eat, actually. This is gonna happen. I'm gonna get food. I love them so much I had them cater my wedding.
To grab a cup of coffee?
There's this artisanal very crafty coffee shop on 53rd. It's one of those places where the guy making your coffee looks like he's really enjoying making your coffee. He looks at you and asks if you want him to sprinkle some cinnamon into your coffee. He's like, "I have a fresh stick of cinnamon right here, I can just grate you some cinnamon, bro!"
This place is called Cafe 53, and they make just like the BEST coffee ever. And they have free wifi, they make ice cream—I mean they do everything on site. They even have healthy paninis. Ask for one and the guy will be like, "Yeah I got you, bro," and just make it for you.
What's the coolest shop in the neighborhood?
Probably Silver Room. All the clothes in there are so cool, so much cooler than me. Every time I go in I want everything. They sell albums, clothing, and infinity scarves, shoes, bags, and hats that someone probably made in the back room. Silver Room is great.
Where do you go when you want to be alone with your thoughts?
I go to the water. There's so much lakefront right there you can just walk along, and there are those really cool signs that say "You are beautiful." Don't they just catch you off guard? I know it's coming every time, but they still make me feel good every time I see them. Like, 'You are right, sign! I am beautiful! Thank you, inanimate object that just so happened to be there at the time I needed some reassuring words!'
Have you ever willingly ridden a Divvy Bike?
No. And I won't. I think I'm pretty cool as a human, and I've never seen anyone ride one and not look like a complete douche. I'm sure you can. Like, there's got to be some angle that you hold your neck or whatever. But no, I'm a walker. That's the thing I do. If I need to get somewhere quickly I'll catch the train. Riding a Divvy Bike would make me seem like I'm not committed enough to buy a bike, and I also want to disrupt traffic. That's what a Divvy Bike is. You know, 'I like being healthy but not enough to invest in a bike. I'll pay seven bucks to ride one every few days.' Don't do that. Just get on the train, bro.
What is an experience you've had in Hyde Park that you'd use as a metaphor for the neighborhood as a whole?
I went to see Nick Gregory perform at the Promentory. And there were people there from the ages of 21 to their early 70s. There were black people and white people, young and old, famous and not famous at all. A guy walked up to me with shock white hair and the youngest face and energy, even though you can tell that he's not that young. It was George Daniels, and he knew who I was. He said he watched me all the time on TV. I almost cried. This is a man who I was so inspired by—a legend in the world of Chicago music. And he knew who I was.
And then it hit me: Everyone in this building was on the same level. I was looking at him as an inspiration, but he was just as excited to meet me. There were so many kinds of people there: actors, musicians, these two 19- or 20-year-old activists from the Black Youth Project, people who were fighting to change the city and keep schools open. All of this was happening in one place. I look around and realize there are Asian people, Latino people, and white people all in the same room and no one felt awkward. The one thing I couldn't quite wrap my brain around when I got to Chicago was the level of segregation, but Hyde Park made me realize that it's not the people. It's just how it's always been. You can tear it down, it just takes some time.
FELONIOUS MUNK'S QUICK PICKS
Favorite bus line: 94
Favorite hot dog joint: I don't eat hotdogs. I know, it sucks. Al's? Can we go with Al's? That's a thing, right?
Worst outfit you've worn during a polar vortex: All of them. They don't work. I went to meet my wife's mom for the first time—wore a pair of jeans, a sweater, and a blazer. That's all I wore. It was 10 below zero, the windchill took it down to like -77 Fahrenheit. I thought I had asthma—I couldn't breathe.