The vast, predominately grassy marshland area that eventually became the city of Berwyn was originally settled as the 19th century independent communities of LaVergne, Upsala, Swedetown, and South Oak Park. The city’s identity slowly coalesced as it eventually became incorporated in 1908 to stave off being annexed into Chicago. Germans, Poles, Italians and large numbers of Czechs leaving Pilsen began flooding the city along with Cicero to the east. In the 20s and 30s, Berwyn became Chicago’s fastest growing suburb as the central section rapidly filled in with two story bungalows. Though there was another brief post WWII population surge, the city’s population leveled off in the subsequent decades. In recent years Berwyn has enjoyed increased diversity as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and especially Latino American newcomers, mostly of Mexican descent, have taken up residence. The suburb is also home to a strong LGBTQ community, ranking behind only Oak Park and Evanston for same-sex couples and marriages. With its affordable pre-war housing stock, proximity to Chicago, and eclectic local businesses, Berwyn maintains an equilibrium of urbanity, grit, and authenticity that’s well-worth beholding.
A Great Day in Berwyn (and surrounding towns)
There are several charming coffee shops to kick the day off with a good coffee and bite to eat. Decked out in Chicago mobster kitsch, Avito Caffe specializes in caffeinated Italian drinks like Cafe Nutella and La Capannina espresso, which can be nicely paired with a breakfast panino or cannoli. Part of a complex that includes a bar, performance space, and music school, Friendly Coffee Lounge provides Bridgeport Coffee brews alongside a variety of pastries, snacks, and breakfast dishes. Mission House Café is a local favorite for their excellent coffee and food options such as the breakfast burrito, French toast, and potato and chorizo plate. Housed in a restored Victorian, the non-profit café devotes all proceeds to local institutions like the Berwyn Community Kitchen as well as global outreach initiatives in developing countries, including disaster relief, fighting sex-trafficking, and providing access to housing and clean water.
Though Berwyn boasts an assortment of pre-war housing types, it’s best known for its extensive collection of historic, Chicago-style bungalows. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015, the Central Berwyn Bungalow Historic District contains over 1300 “contributing” homes, making it one of the largest historic districts in the United States. A particularly impressive stretch that showcases a wide range of substyles and design embellishments such as detailed terracotta cladding and elaborate brick patterns is on S. Oak Park Ave. between 24th and 26th. Outside the historic district, the 3000 block of Maple Ave. and 7100 block of 31st St. contain rows of pristinely maintained bungalows with clay tile roofs.
A visitor has many deserving lunch destinations to mull over in Berwyn and the surrounding area. For those looking for a quick and indulgent option, Big Guys Sausage Stand is perhaps the best in town. The classic, fast food style stand on Roosevelt Road prides itself on its quality Italian sausage, bratwurst, Polish sausage, Chicken Pierre (battered chicken strips), burgers, and hand-cut fries all made from scratch. The eatery is also noteworthy for taking aim at Indiana’s discriminatory Religious Freedom Act. To contrast the GoFundMe campaign of an Indiana pizza parlor that refused to cater gay weddings, Big Guy’s 2015 “Non Bigoted Restaurant Campaign” raised funds for an anti-bullying initiative. An additional casual option for a solid Italian sausage, Italian beef sandwich, or pizza is Tonini’s Italian Market in Berwyn’s Depot District.
Just over the border in neighboring Cicero, Freddy’s Pizza is a legendary Italian grocery and restaurant combo. At its current location for close to 50 years, the neighborhood institution has perfected homemade, regional Italian pastas, chicken dishes, salads, pizza, pastries, and gelatos. Experiencing the kinetic, old-school market and deli merits a visit alone.
Cicero is also home to several excellent Latin American eateries. Café Caribe is a friendly and vibrant spot for Puerto Rican home cooking. Popular items include the arroz con grandules (rice, pigeon peas, pork, and sofrito), tostones (fried plantains), Puerto Rican and Cuban sandwiches, and café con leche. Two outstanding Mexican options are Brasas and Indio Restaurant. While both have great tortas and tacos, Brasas is special for its tasty Mexican style burgers and Indio Restaurant for its guisados (home-made stewed or braised meat dish).
For a post meal treat, there are two treasured, classic institutions in Berwyn. Owned by four generations of the same family for over 100 years and at the current location for over 50, Vesecky’s Bakery is the last of the Czech bakeries that once lined Cermak Avenue. In addition to the delicious Czech specialties like houska (sweet braided bread), rye bread, and kolacky (doughy pastry with fruit), there’s a variety of fresh coffee cakes, pound cakes, cookies, and doughnuts to choose from. Now in its 40th year in business, Gina’s Italian Ice is a nice respite from the heat in the summer months, offering homemade Italian ice and various ice cream flavors.
If you’re seeking some afternoon outdoor recreation and green space, Proska Park is the spot. The neighborhood gem features two duck ponds, a children’s garden and play area, open lawns, running and walking paths, and a meandering creek. The park also hosts a variety of programming and events including the Berwyn Brew Fest in October.
While in Berwyn, there are a number of worthwhile excursions in the neighboring towns. In Riverside, the Quincy Street Distillery is both a quaint speakeasy style bar and locale to learn about the production of artisanal spirits. Set amid late 19th and early 20th century buildings and leafy, winding, gas lit streets laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park and Chicago’s Jackson Park and Washington Park), the craft distillery utilizes historical recipes to create their acclaimed whiskeys and gins. After a tour and tasting or just a few drinks at the bar, a stroll through the Riverside Historic District reveals homes and structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and William Le Baron Jenney.
If you're already in Riverside, just one hop farther west in Brookfield is the Ghalloping Ghost Arcade. The expansive, vintage quirk of the arcade can only be truly appreciated in person. With over 550 rare and classic video games, it is the largest in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. While welcome to the casual and novice, close to 200 world records are held by the avid regulars and destination visitors.
In the past several years, a number of new restaurant additions have broadened Berwyn’s culinary landscape. On Roosevelt, Autre Monde is lauded for its Mediterranean inspired flatbreads, pastas, and pintxos (Basque style small plates), as well as its extensively curated wine and spirits program. In the Depot District, Oliver’s offers a range of American and International dishes, with an emphasis on fresh seafood, prime cuts, and seasonal farm to table ingredients. Filling another neighborhood void, Lavergne’s Tavern provides quality, chef driven bar food and a vast beer menu.
Befitting of a community and local government that fosters and celebrates the arts, the quality of Berwyn’s late evening cultural and entertainment options punches above its weight for a small suburban city. The 16th Street Theater is not only extolled for its track record of delivering first-rate plays that reflect the increasing diversity of the area, but also for being a community oriented, Equity theater that prioritizes lower ticket prizes and fair wages for its artists. For a lively night out of mariachi followed by an eclectic DJ set, you can join the crowds packed into the bar at Lalo’s Restaurant. In the Depot District, The Outta Space is a relatively new arts venue and bar with excellent evening programming ranging from improv classes, readings, art shows, and live music. And, of course, legendary Fitzgerald’s Nightclub is a reliable institution to take in high-quality American roots music from jazz to zydeco.
The Take Away
While Berwyn’s recovery from the housing crisis has been slower than some other areas, there seems to be renewed interest and momentum for those who recognize its value. Encouragingly, the slow evolution of its identity from a fairly conservative, blue-collar outpost to a diverse, welcoming, family and artist friendly enclave has not led to great numbers of long-time residents being priced out or the city losing its gritty feel. The residents we spoke with emphasized their appreciation for Berwyn’s simultaneous affordability and charms, and consequently, the like-minded people these attributes attract. Even if this unique variety of suburban living isn’t your cup of tea, a visit to Berwyn and the surrounding towns can be a refreshing outing, full of rewarding discovery.