Congenial yet businesslike, the Canadian customs agent asks for our passports. Just as congenially, if somewhat less businesslike, we comply—we consisting of Miss Cindy, behind the wheel; her husband GLOM (Gregory, Lord of the Manor), riding shotgun; and me in the backseat, the three of us idling in GLOM's Honda at the U.S./Canadian border just west of Buffalo, New York.
"Do you have any weapons?" the agent inquires, returning our passports.
"No," Miss Cindy tells him.
"What is the purpose of your trip?"
"Baseball—we're seeing the Orioles play the Blue Jays in Toronto."
"What did you bring with you?"
"A change of underwear."
"Just my boys," Miss Cindy beams, extending her right palm toward GLOM and her left over her shoulder in my general direction.
Satisfied—and slightly amused—the agent waves us on into the Great White North.
That was two years ago, the first (and only) international leg of our annual summer pilgrimage to watch the Orioles in action on the road, both a pretext to experience another city and, not incidentally, escape usually sweltering Baltimore for a few days. In recent times, we have visited Pittsburgh (2005), Cleveland (2006), Toronto (2007), and Milwaukee/Chicago (2008). And prior to my joining the festivities, Miss Cindy and GLOM parachuted into New York (Yankee Stadium), Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, and Philadelphia twice (games at vanished Veterans Stadium and its successor, Citizens Bank Park).
Dedicated gastronomes, Miss Cindy and GLOM also use the trips to explore everything from recently launched buzz restaurants and venerable institutions to local delicacies and street vendor fare. In advance, Miss Cindy, a paralegal, harnesses her research acumen to plumb the Internet for foodie facts, chiefly via chowhound.com; nail down deals at hotels located in close proximity to each city's stadium, mostly through priceline.com; and, from sources all over the Web, compile an itinerary of sites, shops (vintage and thrift stores are de rigueur), and sundry stuff to occupy our non-baseball hours.
In sum, the road trips not only allow us to see the Orioles play outside the comfy confines of Camden Yards, but, perhaps more importantly, give us the opportunity to take in cities such as Milwaukee (where they don't play this season) and Pittsburgh that might otherwise go unappreciated. Although this season's destination remains undetermined, possibilities range from Seattle (stow the Honda and fly instead) to a recession-induced jaunt to Washington, D.C.
Here, then, are recommendations, fun factoids, and baseball-related musings on five places we've already conquered.
Home of The Toronto Blue Jays
Until Major League Baseball awards a franchise to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Japan—all hotbeds for the game—the Orioles will venture to only one international city: Toronto, whose Blue Jays play at the Rogers Centre. The hulking, boilerplate, all-sports complex is set amid a sea of downtown skyscrapers, including the elegantly gaunt CN Tower, at 1,815 feet and 5 inches the world's tallest tower and second tallest overall structure (exceeded only by the new Burj Dubai). A luxury hotel, with 70 rooms that look out on to the field, adjoins the stadium. On several occasions, couples have, somewhat infamously, shrugged off all inhibitions (and clothes) from inside their suites to perform intimately in full view of Rogers Centre fans. Not during our visit, mind you, although we were treated to 1) a gray-haired, gravelly voiced vendor named Wayne who growled, at top volume, "ICE … COLD … BEER," putting a sensuous emphasis on the last word, and, hooray, 2) an Orioles victory.
Buoyed, we caught a streetcar to the Kensington Market area, whose streets teem with a multitude of upscale vintage shops (perhaps as many as 10 in close proximity to each other), restaurants, bars, and groovier-than-thou boutiques. Exhausted from pawing through racks of clothes, we dined satisfyingly at the district's Torito Tapas Bar (276 Augusta Ave., 647-436-5874), before returning to the serviceable Marriott Toronto Bloor Yorkville (90 Bloor St. East, 416-961-8000).
The following day, my companions and I embarked on a walking/eating odyssey, beginning with deliriously good dim sum—don't ask where, exactly, because we chose spontaneously—on Dundas Street West in the heart of Chinatown. Dozens of indoor/outdoor produce vendors sell anything and everything, including mangosteens, illegal to import into the U.S at the time of our visit—which did not deter Miss Cindy from purchasing some for the return trip—but shortly thereafter un-banned by our government. That evening, in blind-man's-bluff fashion (subway/bus/taxi), we wended our way to Little India for a vegetarian meal (a variety of dosas) at the cavernous, family-style Udupi Palace (1460 Gerrard St. East, 416-405-8189), patronized almost exclusively by South Asians. Outside, Gerrard Street East, closed to traffic for a festival, throbbed with a crowd scene reminiscent of a Bollywood extravaganza.
We also didn't forget the St. Lawrence Market (92 Front St. East, 416-392-7120). A three-tiered, blocks-long public market that dates to 1803, it sells produce, meats, cheeses, bakery goods (we sampled a regional favorite, butter tarts), spices, coffees/teas, prepared foods, crafts, jewelry, and whatnot.
Home of The Pittsburgh Pirates
Similar in sensibility to Baltimore, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself over the past 25 years, shedding its rust-belt economy to emerge cleaner, perkier, and more cosmopolitan. And like our Orioles, Pittsburgh's baseball team, the Pirates, has suffered through multiple consecutive losing seasons (16, to be exact); on the plus side, the Pirates play in perhaps the nation's coziest stadium, PNC Park, just across the Allegheny River from downtown, site of our hotel, the Hilton Pittsburgh and Towers (600 Commonwealth Pl., 412-391-4600).
PNC's intimate configuration made us feel as if we were close to the on-field action, a sensation enhanced, no doubt, by the fact that we sprung for pricey seats in a section roamed by an aging Popeye the Sailor Man-looking vendor who wheezed, "Lemonade!" in an otherworldly voice. Popeye, a bobblehead giveaway, and two home runs by Orioles super-sub catcher Sal Fasano somewhat eased the pain of a late-innings bullpen collapse to the Pirates.
Our first afternoon in town, we strolled through the Strip District (Penn Ave., Smallman St., and Liberty Ave., from 11th to 33rd streets), a thriving area of restaurants, boutiques, clubs, and galleries carved out of rehabbed warehouses, once ground zero for the city's produce purveyors. Some ethnic grocers remain, notably the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. (2010-2012 Penn Ave., 412-471-8330), its shelves and cases chock-a-block with pastas, cheeses, olive oils, spices, etc.
The Strip also boasts the original 1933 location of legendary local restaurant chain Primanti Bros. (46 18th St., 412-263-2142), where, famously, sandwiches feature not only grilled meats (sausage, salami, ham, among others), but also melted cheese, slices of tomato, plus sides of fries and coleslaw, all of it shoved between two pieces of Italian bread to produce a vertically imposing, messy meal. (A longtime vegetarian, I went with a multi-cheese number.) Open 24 hours, Primanti Bros. roils at lunchtime, crammed with business folk, office workers, shop clerks, and tourists; by the time the crowd thins, the place can look as if it had just hosted a fierce food fight.
Another afternoon, we perused the Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300), located in a beautifully restored seven-story building on the city's North Shore, not far from downtown. The museum boasts more than 4,000 works (paintings, sculpture, photographs, drawings, books, even wallpaper) by Pittsburgh native Warhol, with space also devoted to temporary exhibits by other artists. On view during our visit: photographs by John Waters (he's everywhere).
Home of The Cleveland Indians
When I first visited Cleveland in the early 1980s, the city still smarted from its reputation as the "Mistake on the Lake," deservedly earned over time for various municipal mishaps, most spectacularly the 1969 fire—fueled by a floating surface slick of oil, gasoline, and flammable flotsam—that erupted on the Cuyahoga River. Since then, Cleveland has undergone something of an extreme makeover, establishing itself as a destination with the opening of architect I.M. Pei's glittering Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1995, preceded a year earlier by the debut of the agreeable, if unprepossessing, home of the Cleveland Indians, Jacobs Field (inevitably re-branded in 2008 with a lamentable corporate moniker, Progressive Field). The retro-style stadium was designed by HOK Sports, the same architectural firm that launched the retro trend with our own Camden Yards.
Mercifully, fans still call the place "The Jake," rather than, say, "The Prog." Woe, however, to anyone who attempts to enter the premises with a beverage other than a "single-serving juice box"; that means no "cans, glass, plastic beverage containers, squeeze bottles, and thermos bottles." Since we neglected to pack a peck of pomegranate juice boxes—and since diligent attendants confiscated our bottled water at the gate—we were stuck purchasing The Jake's grossly overpriced drinks. As compensation, we were awarded bobbleheads of spelling-challenged Indians' shortstop Jhonny Peralta, whose smiling, wobbly noggin still graces my bedroom dresser.
Miss Cindy, GLOM, and I bunked at downtown's stylishly reconfigured Hyatt Regency Cleveland Arcade (420 Superior Ave., 216-575-1234), located just blocks from the stadium, and highlighted by a vertigo-inducing indoor courtyard/atrium. From there, we ventured out late one morning for a daylong browse that began, after a ride on Rapid Transit (light rail), at the Ohio City neighborhood's West Side Market (1979 W. 25th St. and Lorain Ave., 216-664-3387), an ancient, hangar-sized building with a soaring clock tower. Here, approximately 100 vendors, indoors and outdoors, hawk produce, bakery goods, dairy products, meats, and prepared foods (imagine a combination of Lexington Market and the Sunday farmers' market under the JFX). Afterward, we quaffed specialty beers—try the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter—at the nearby Great Lakes Brewing Co. (2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404).
Suitably revived, we hopped on a bus that took us to the Lorain Avenue Antiques District (between W. 35th and W. 85th streets), where we darted in and out of a series of antiques/salvage shops, some smart and fancy, some dusty and decrepit, before we came upon a vintage store mecca: Suite Lorain (7105 Lorain Rd., 216-281-1959)—immense, multi-roomed, artfully adorned, and coursing with a staggering array of women's and men's clothing, books, records, jewelry, home furnishings, magazines, and glorious bric-a-brac. For more than an hour, each of us indulged our inner thrifter, ultimately purchasing bagfuls of priced-to-go items. (When we asked the amiable proprietress about other local vintage stores, she not only offered suggestions, but, remarkably, invited us to jump in her car and then proceeded to drive us to a clutch of competitors' shops in another neighborhood. What a woman!)
Almost without exception, we dined at undistinguished restaurants, although
Bo Loong Chinese Restaurant (3922 Saint Clair Ave., 216-391-3113), hidden amid a gritty wasteland of warehouses and workingmen's bars that probably have not changed a jot since Harry Truman occupied the White House, presented a welcome refuge after yet another Orioles loss with late-night karaoke (in Chinese!) for a mostly Asian clientele.
Home of The Milwaukee Brewers
Like many major American cities, Milwaukee, where I attended college in the early 1970s, has lost some of its quirkiness in recent decades, although it remains, like Baltimore, relatively unhomogenized. Tidy, blue-collar, and with a distinctive Eastern European population back then, it now evinces a more urbane sensibility, while as tidy as ever.
From our hotel, the Hilton Milwaukee City Center (509 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-271-7250), the three of us set off on foot soon after arriving to mosey around the Third Ward area, where former warehouses have been retrofitted to accommodate restaurants, bars, boutiques, galleries, and various shops, making a pit stop at the Hinterland Gastropub & Lounge (222 E. Erie St., 414-727-9300) for drinks and a superb cheese and olive plate. Later, dodging a sudden cloudburst, we cut short a stroll to hail a cab that took us to the Brady Street area, home of a gaggle of bars, clubs, and restaurants, including the city's renowned Zaffiro's Pizza (1724 N. Farwell Ave., 414-289-8776), whose thin-crust pizza—and oddly passive-aggressive employees—made us appreciate Matthew's back home more than ever.
Much better in every respect: Three Brothers Restaurant (2414 S. St. Clair St., 414-481-7530), which occupies a former Schlitz Brewing tavern in the city's Bay View neighborhood. Elegant (white table cloths) yet unfussy, Three Brothers serves authentic Serbian fare, notably burek, a large pastry shell filled with cheese, spinach, chicken, or beef that takes approximately one hour to prepare. After dinner, we lingered over cocktails in the Lobby Lounge of downtown's posh, ornate, and Old World-y The Pfister Hotel (424 E. Wisconsin Ave., 414-273-8222), where a tux-clad pianist performed standards.
As for baseball, a bus whisked us past the Miller Beer plant to Miller Park, on the city's outskirts, where, on a Sunday afternoon, tailgating picnics and barbecues—a Milwaukee institution—sprawled over several parking lots. Midway through the game, with a thunderstorm approaching, the stadium's retractable roof began to close gradually, creating a phenomenon not unlike an accelerated eclipse, with a long, moving shadow thrown across the playing field.
Another city, another bobblehead giveaway, this time a jiggly replica of the Polish racing sausage, one of five costumed meat-product mascots—also: hot dog, Italian sausage, bratwurst, chorizo—that participate in a Keystone Kops-esque between-innings dash at each Brewers home game. Unforgettably, in 2003, Pittsburgh Pirates first basemen Randall Simon extended his bat from the top step of the visitors' dugout to gently swat the Italian sausage as the mascots tottered past, toppling the woman encased in the costume and, in a chain reaction, also sending the hot dog, another woman, sprawling to the ground. This day, however, no mischief occurred, and to absolutely no one's surprise, the Polish sausage, on its special day, emerged the winner. So did the Brewers.
Bidding sayonara to Milwaukee, we headed south to Chicago, stopping en route in Racine, Wisconsin, to sample the regional pastry delicacy Danish kringle at Bendtsen's Bakery (3200 Washington Ave., 262-633-0365). Classic almond kringle recommended, and worth the slight detour.
Home of The Chicago Cubs (and Chicago White Sox)
Deviating from our usual protocol of staying at a hotel close to our destination stadium (in this case, Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs), we booked a homey suite in the Benedictine B&B (3111 S. Aberdeen St., 773-927-7424), a monastery located in Chicago's scruffy but likable Bridgeport neighborhood, once known as Hardscrabble, a mix of Latino and Chinese residents and businesses. Operated by gracious monks swathed in floor-length brown robes, the Benedictine features two spacious apartments. Ours boasted three bedrooms, a full kitchen, large bathroom, mismatched furniture, books, videocassettes, and a copy of each day's Chicago Tribune, plus an immense breakfast that put me in mind of the miracle of the fishes and the loaves: pancakes, sausage, fruit, home fries, toast, juice, and coffee. It felt as if we had plopped down in the delightful summer cottage of doting relatives.
Set in the midst of the Lakeview neighborhood, Wrigley Field—with its ivy-covered outfield fence and luminously green natural-grass playing surface; with its anti-Jumbotron scoreboard that eschews videos, advertisements, trivia games, and other noisome between-innings distractions in favor of listing the game-at-hand's essentials; with its lack of booming pop-song snippets in every nanosecond of down time; with its very quaintness—evinces a sensibility utterly different from the American ballparks, retro-style and otherwise, built in the past 40 years.
Wrigley bespeaks baseball's nearly vanished ancien régime—only Boston's Fenway Park compares—a place where an abundance of spectators dutifully keep the official score in their programs, a place where many fans, immediately after a Cubs victory, stand to sing (en masse) the team's theme song, "Go Cubs Go," before exiting. For once, when we departed a game, we did not feel compelled to disinfect ourselves from the relentless sensory pollution.
In a city aswim in great restaurants, our most satisfying meal occurred at Spoon Thai (4608 N. Western Ave., 773-769-1173). Given the paucity of vegetarian options, I ordered timidly, but omnivores Miss Cindy and GLOM dove in, and heartily endorsed the kai thawt (marinated fried chicken with tamarind dipping sauce) and naem khao thawt (deep-fried rice salad with pressed ham).
We wandered in search of entertainment after dinner, serendipitously winding up at the Bourbon Cafe (4768 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-769-3543) in nearby Lincoln Square, where we drank Bass Ale while listening to an endearingly cheesy quartet (guitar, electric keyboard, accordion, chanteuse) crank out both Serbian standards and contemporary hits. Middle-aged dames and grizzled old men—all of whom could pass for extras in a Fellini film—nodded appreciatively while wolfing down cevapi and sarma.
Another evening, we made a 360- degree turn, sipping exquisite cocktails among the smugly beautiful at the beguilingly designed The Violet Hour (1520 N. Damen Ave., 773-252-1500), bathed in otherworldly lighting, buffeted by a beyond-hipster soundtrack, and administered to by chemistry-inclined mixologists. Externally, the place does not announce itself: only a door handle, speakeasy-style.
Zigzagging again, Miss Cindy and GLOM sought out authentic Mexican food—carnitas tacos at Carnitas Uruapan (1725 W. 18th St., 312-226-2654), queso con chorizo at Nuevo Leon (1515 W. 18th St., 312-421-1517)—in Pilsen, the city's rapidly gentrifying Latino neighborhood, while I nerdily holed up reading at the mammoth central library (400 S. State St., 312-747-4500).
Finally, we spent the better part of an afternoon ambling-shopping in Wicker Park/Bucktown, making memorable stops at Reckless Records (1532 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-235-3727) and John Fluevog Shoes (1539-41 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-772-1983), before meeting a Chicagoan-gone-Baltimorean-gone-Chicagoan-again friend for a drink at the Handlebar (2311 W. North Ave., 773-384-9546), an amiable restaurant/bar that serves as headquarters for the city's cycling community, and then catching the rickety el (elevated train) to Wrigley to witness the Cubs maul the Orioles.