Goodbye kitsch, hello class: River North continues transformation into modern, cosmopolitan neighborhood

A common-area space at River North’s Exhibit on Superior residential tower.

Remember the days when you could stroll past giant pizza slices, an orange-roofed Howard Johnson hotel and retro ’50s diners in Chicago’s River North neighborhood? Well, those days are ending.

High-end residential towers are replacing many of the kitchy establishments that once called River North home. It’s one more sign that this neighborhood — which still attracts the tourists, of course — is becoming more sophisticated. That’s good news for residents moving into all the new apartment towers: When they’re ready for shopping, eating or entertainment, they now have plenty of higher-end options.

Of course, there are still some remnants of River North’s kitschy past on display in this neighborhood. The Rain Forest Cafe, with its howling gorillas, giant frog and spouting elephants, still resides here. A Hooters restaurant, complete with orange short-shorts, still serves up burgers and chicken wings here, too.

But you have to wonder if these touristy, rather cheesy, chains will remain in River North for long. Land is valuable here today, and developers are eying prime parcels for even more apartment and condo towers.

Here’s a look at how River North has changed over the years, becoming a more cosmopolitan place to live:

Goodbye Howard Johnson Inn

Remember when those famous orange roofs dotted highways across America? Well, the number of Howard Johnson Inn and restaurants has plummeted in recent years. In fact, there is only one Howard Johnson restaurant remaining, in Lake George, New York.

In 2015, construction crews began demolishing the retro Howard Johnson Inn at the corner of Superior and LaSalle in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Today, the site is home to Exhibit on Superior, a 34-story luxury apartment tower that offers a mix of 298 one-, two- and three-bedroom units with rents starting at just under $1,700 a month.

A touch of Howard Johnson remains, though. The tower’s fifth-floor common area is called Howie’s as a callback to the old hotel that once sat here. This area is filled with amenities, including a fitness center, sauna, outdoor deck, pool, hot tub and cabanas.

So, you might miss the sight of that old orange roof. But know that Exhibit on Superior is a far more modern, and appropriate, structure for this evolving neighborhood.

No more sass — Ed Debevic’s leaves River North

No summer in Chicago was complete without at least one milkshake and order of wet fries from Ed Debevic’s, the 1950s-themed diner that sat at 640 N. Wells St. in River North since 1984. But in 2015, the wrecking ball leveled this restaurant, which was famous for waiters and waitresses who snapped at customers and gave them grief when they screwed up their orders.

The 22-story residential tower sixforty northwells is now rising on this site, with developer JDL now taking unit reservations for a July opening.

The new apartment tower should be a better fit for what River North is becoming, a 24/7 destination. The tower will come with a 23rd-floor rooftop oasis with private cabanas with TVs, heated outdoor pool, hot tub and, of course, stunning views of downtown Chicago.

The project’s interiors should be impressive, too, with oversized chef’s kitchens, wall-mounted ovens, stone counters, stainless-steel appliances and spa-quality bathrooms.

Yes, it’s a bit sad that Ed Debevic’s — whose posted motto was “Eat — And Get Out!” — is gone from River North. But really, it’s pretty easy to find a burger and shake in and around River North. And if you want something higher end? You now have plenty of choices in River North.

And that wealth of choices is the main reason why luxury towers such as this are now rising. River North is becoming more adult-friendly, and is now a trendy residential neighborhood.

The pizza slices are gone

The former Gino’s East restaurant at 167 W. Erie St. in River North attracted hordes of amateur photographs. That’s because the restaurant, in addition to being a Chicago pizza icon, sported gigantic (and fake, of course) slices of pizza outside its doors. The shutterbugs frequently crowded around the slices to snap shots of themselves before wolfing down a deep-dish pie.

Today, those slices, and the Gino’s East restaurant, are gone. The site is now home to Gallery On Wells, a 39-story residential tower scheduled to open this summer. The development, from Magellan Development Group and MAC Managment, will offer potential residents 44s studios, convertibles, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

The new development isn’t just replacing Gino’s East, of course. The same site was once home to the equally kitschy Planet Hollywood restaurant before the pizza legend replaced it.

Like the other new apartment and condo projects opening in River North, Gallery on Wells will come with plenty of amenities. This includes an impressive 26,000-square-foot outdoor deck with its own pool, hot tub, fire pit, barbecue grills and cabanas. For those residents who prefer their amenities to be indoor, Gallery on Wells will feature a modern fitness center, game room and sauna.

But … you can’t kill Rock ‘n Roll, or McDonald’s

There’s one touristy reminder of River North’s kitschy past, though, that might not ever disappear, the Rock ‘n Roll McDonald’s at 600 N. Clark St.

However, it should be noted that this flagship McDonald’s is far less cheesy than it once was.

Today, the two-story restaurant is rather luxurious for a McDonald’s. It still contains a rock-and-roll museum, in a separate building in its parking lot, but also boasts more comfortable seating areas, plasma TVs and soothing lighting. The menu prices here are a bit higher than at most McDonald’s to help pay for the costs of the more lavish interiors.

The old version of this restaurant — which was replaced by the current version in 2005 — was a far cheesier ode to old-time rock-and-roll.

What hasn’t changed is the popularity of this location. This is one McDonald’s that is never hurting for business, so don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon.