State Of The Suburbs
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State Of The Suburbs
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At Thrillist, we love big cities, but we also recognize the appeal of smaller towns with the same mix of great food, nightlife, and culture – plus a lower cost of living. That’s why we’ve partnered with the National Association of Realtors® on a content series highlighting the best suburbs of nine major cities, perfect for young urbanites who may be looking to buy a home. And when it’s time to start house hunting, check out HouseLogic.com, from NAR, for buying and selling advice to help you navigate loan options, bidding wars, and everything else it takes to close the deal. Dream home, here you come.
You may think you learned everything you needed to know about the Chicago ’burbs from watching 16 Candles 34 times. And sure, there are some idyllic, small-town, John Hughes vibes once you leave the Windy City, but that doesn’t mean it’s all boring bedroom communities once you exit city limits. We’ve selected several suburbs where there are enough art galleries, breweries, high-end restaurants, and neighborhood watering holes to convince you to expand your horizons (and real estate options) to Metra stops further afield -- and they’re affordable, to boot.

These ’burbs are are “ready, set, go” communities, as Mabel Guzman, a Chicago real estate agent and Realtor® -- a member of the National Association of Realtors® -- calls them. Millennials looking to move out of the city are generally looking for “someplace that has easy access where they can walk around, hang out, go to coffee shops,” she says. “It really has to be transit-friendly.” Basically, these suburbs are places that even Molly Ringwald wouldn’t roll her eyes at -- so you might want to take a look at them, too.
Downtown living outside the city
In recent years, Evanston has boomed into more of a small city (population: 74,000) on Lake Michigan than a “suburb” -- so if you’re not willing to give up all the hustle and bustle just yet, this is the place to go. That urban feel, plus the fact that it’s under a half hour to Chicago via the Metra UP-N, has led many younger buyers (and renters) to this ’burb for more square footage.

It helps that Evanston is home to Northwestern University, which hasn’t been doing all that bad in the sports department, lately, if you’re interested in heading to a game. (The Wildcats men’s basketball team earned its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2017, and the football team has made bowl appearances the past three seasons.) “Northwestern provides a huge economic boost to the area and offers name recognition other suburbs do not have,” Guzman says. “Also, it does attract many young people, not only students [but] also academics from all over the world.”

Thanks to the hungry college-student crowd and growing population, Evanston is no stranger to good eats, too. There’s Chicago’s beloved Hoosier Mama Pie Company, which opened their second location in Evanston. The downtown is also home to numerous fine dining restaurants, many chef-backed, like Found Kitchen. For drinks, Ward Eight (named after the Prohibition cocktail that got its name from a Chicago voting district) is a speakeasy right on the Chicago/Evanston border.

Plus, the downtown is full of high rises, if you’re not ready to give up the doorman life just yet. One unexpected perk? Many of the newer buildings also have live/work spaces if you prefer to ditch the office for a completely WFH schedule. Besides the university, the downtown is also attracting corporate employers -- firms including Accuity, Katalyst Technologies, and Acquirent have their headquarters there. So your half hour commute on the train could even be swapped for a, gasp, walk to work.
Forest Park
Oak Park’s hot neighbor
Forest Park is normally overshadowed by its much-hyped neighbor, Oak Park, the suburb long considered one of Chicago’s best thanks to its easy commute to downtown and historic roots. However, living about 8 minutes west of Oak Park will give you prime access to the same historical landmarks (like Frank Lloyd Wright homes and an Ernest Hemingway museum), without the weekend tourists parking on your block.

Like Oak Park, Forest Park is a 35-minute commute from Chicago on the CTA Blue Line. And, according to Guzman, the real estate agent and Realtor®, moving to a city that neighbors a popular suburb is a good move for millennials looking to save on the cost of their home. (The median home price in Forest Park is about half that of Oak Park.)

The main drag of Madison Street is home to lots of eclectic shops (custom guitars, anyone?) and has some of the best dining in the ’burbs, thanks to 30 restaurants and bars in about a square mile. For Italian, Gaetano’s is an old standby -- and the chef is direct from Sicily. The kitchen at The Heritage, which opened on the block in 2016, is led by two chefs, Sieger Bayer and Michael Spiewak, with ties to Chicago’s Old Town Social and Nellcote. “A lot of our guests have moved from the city to the suburbs to buy single-family homes or start families,” they say. “It’s fun seeing them migrate as we have from our previous roles in city restaurants to cooking the food we love in their new hometown.”

When you’re looking to unplug, you’ll have easy access to some prime hiking options, as Forest Park is home to a portion of the Illinois Prairie Path, a 61-mile route (it was the country’s first rails-to-trails conversion) that passes through forests and meadows. An unexpected perk? The Ferrara Candy Company factory is located in town, too -- so the air literally smells sweet.
La Grange
Kid-friendly with perks for parents
People tend to think that #millennials are a completely unique species with odd wants and desires -- but really, we’re pretty simple. Essentially, we want to be able to get to work without spending hours commuting, and if we’ve opted to have a kid or two, then we want them to go to a good school. (Some good restaurants nearby would be nice, too.) Because La Grange crosses all that off the list, it’s no surprise it’s become one of the more popular suburbs for former Chicago dwellers.

For one, La Grange is considered the most transit-friendly ’burb in the area. It’s only 25(!) minutes to Union Station on the Metra -- which is shorter than it takes some people to get there via Chicago proper. Besides the town’s two Metra stops, it has access to three highways, so anything you need is just a short drive away.

Then, there are the schools. For young adults with kids, living in one of the best school districts in Cook County is a definite draw. Throw in plentiful parks, like those of the Cook County Forest Preserves (prime for jogging and biking) and an indoor recreation facility with a playground (for those frigid winter days), and kids are set on the weekends, too.

The downtown and restaurant scene is no slouch, either: Palmer Place has 39 beers on tap and is known as one of the best bars in Illinois (by Thrillist, nonetheless). Steak + Vine is a laid-back steakhouse opened in 2016 by a lifelong resident and his best friend, chef Michael Wilson, formerly of Morton’s Chicago. Nicksons, which serves rustic American fare, is even Michelin recommended. Your suburb must-haves list? Check, check, and check.
A craft beer hub with river views
If Chicago was New York City, Naperville would probably be Jersey. Because just like its East Coast counterpart, it’s the butt of every joke about the Chicago suburbs (including our own) and its appeal is often overlooked. (Though, this isn’t the first time we’ve admitted it has its charms.)

While the commute to downtown Chicago is slightly longer (about an hour and 15 minutes via the Metra), being further out from the city has its perks. Think 16 miles of hiking trails (some of which will take you along Naperville’s picturesque Riverwalk) or the nearby Morton Arboretum, which bills itself as a “great outdoor museum” of trees and wildlife.

Besides the easy access to the outdoors, Naperville also is home to some well-loved breweries, like Solemn Oath. And its craft beer history actually goes back way farther than Solemn Oath’s opening in 2012. Before they came on the scene, Naperville’s last brewery was the Stenger Brewery, which closed in the 1880s. The head brewmaster there? That was Adolph Coors (yes, of that Coors).

“There's a rich beer history that few people know about here,” says Solemn Oath president John Barley. “I sought a place with beer heritage where we could build our own community at Solemn Oath from the ground up, and we've found that in Naperville.”

After Solemn Oath opened, other breweries and brewpubs came to town, like Granite City Food & Brewery. Board & Barrel serves craft whiskey, gastropub bites, and is a brew pub, too. “We're merely at the beginning of a miniature cultural renaissance in Naperville,” Barley says. He points to the opening of the high-end grocery Standard Market, as well as the Bein Trucha restaurant group bringing Mexican fine-dining eatery Quiubo (and this spring, the farm-to-table Santo Cielo) to the Water Street District as further signs that things here are about to heat up. Move here now while you still can.
Affordable & up-and-coming
Palatine is wedged between some pricey ’burbs like Arlington Heights and Barrington, but it has a much lower median home price than both. So, if you’re looking to buy a place, you’ll have easy access to those city’s bars and restaurants -- without being house poor. Plus, Palatine is about an hour to Chicago via a direct train on the Metra Union Pacific Northwest line, which makes it an accessible option for young commuters.

“A few of the suburbs that we looked in were Libertyville, Vernon Hills, Buffalo Grove, Long Grove, and we preferred Palatine most of all,” says 32-year-old teacher Andy Sturgeon, who bought a house here with his wife after living in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood for six years. A shorter commute to his job in Mundelein, a close walk to the train for her, plus a downtown scene with plenty of shops and restaurants sold the deal for them. “I do not miss the Chicago traffic,” he says. “It's not awful to visit it once in a while, but when I drive in the city now, I can't believe that I accepted that lifestyle as normal every day.”

Thanks to an effort to revamp downtown Palatine, new bars and restaurants are setting up shop: Chicago’s Mother Cluckers Kitchen just opened a second location here, and a Texas-style barbecue joint entered the scene in 2017. Some older mainstays, like Ramen Shinchan, are known throughout Chicagoland as dining destinations. You want Argentinian? How about tacos? The town has both. Plus, events like the Palatine Street Festival bring residents together, and you’re even close to hiking: the Deer Grove forest preserve access points are located within village borders.
Diverse in population & attractions
Moving to the suburbs doesn’t have to mean trading in proximity to other cultures for bland sameness -- especially not in Skokie. It once billed itself the “World’s Largest Village” thanks to its booming population (now 64,000 residents strong), and the residents there speak nearly 100 languages, in just 10 square miles. That diversity is one of the main reasons that Marcos Rivera wanted to open his Latin American restaurant Libertad in downtown Skokie and raise his family here.

“We’re close enough to the city, so you get all walks of life,” he says. “Skokie celebrates and embraces that, and the inclusion of everyone is what sets it apart from other communities.”

Libertad opened seven years ago, and when it did, Rivera says it was one of the only places like it in the village -- the first Latin-American restaurant, as well as one of the first chef-backed eateries. (Rivera’s co-founder was Chicago chef Armando Gonzalez.) Since, though, Skokie has seen an influx of more internationally flavored restaurants. At Cravelane (one of the newest additions), for example, the owner is from Transylvania, Romania, and the menu is Eastern European comfort food alongside more well-known American dishes. Then, there are time-honored options like Charcoal Oven -- which still feels like an old Chicago supper club, and has been open since 1949.

Besides the local dining, there’s plenty of shopping in Skokie; the outdoor mall Westfield Old Orchard is the place for big-name brands, and there are mom-and-pop options, too, like Aw Yeah Comics or Shred Shop for snowboarding gear. There’s plenty more than shopping to do on the weekends, including a sculpture park, nature center, and an avante garde gallery (which once gave away pieces on Facebook). And Skokie being just 50 minutes from downtown Chicago via the “L,” you’re close enough where you could spend the weekend there, too -- though with all these options, why bother?
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