2009 Eat Out Awards Critics' Picks

We shine a light on some of 2009's best-in-shows.

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Photograph: Aaron Corey; Model: Angela McAdrian

Promo King: Rodney Alex of Juicy Wine Co.

When Rodney Alex crosses your path, you’d better have 15 minutes to spare, because the man always has something he needs to tell you. “Orange Crush waffles!” he’ll scream. “Kick-ass BLTs!” “The most insane chili dog you’ve ever tasted!” These aren’t the ravings of a guy who’s had too much muscat (not all the time, at least); these are some of the events Alex has thrown at Juicy Wine Co. Missing his “Dirty Bird” Sunday brunch, when he pairs those waffles with chicken and half-priced sparkling wine, or the “Wrath of Kahan,” when he persuaded Blackbird chef Paul Kahan to DJ for a night, is not advisable. But there’s always hope for next time, because Alex is a guy who never runs out of ideas. 694 N Milwaukee Ave, 312-492-6620.—David Tamarkin

The Please Don’t Go Award: The Charleston

Anyone who lived in Bucktown in the late ’80s or ’90s—during its precondo days when you could walk down the street without bumping into a Birkin bag or even someone who knew what the hell that is—has been to the Charleston. At this quintessential neighborhood bar, bartenders occasionally fire up a grill on the sidewalk in summer, string pluckers often provide the bar’s soundtrack, Fred the cat wanders in and out, and a handful of pool sharks are known to school unsuspecting newbies. The pool table’s gone now, and soon, the Charleston will be, too. Owner Wendy Pick has put the business up for sale. She’s hopeful the space will remain a bar, and no deal is official yet, but we can’t help but feel as if we’re losing an old friend. 2076 N Hoyne Ave, 773-489-4757.—Heather Shouse

Most Unpretentious Pretentious Bar: The Whistler

Any bar that dresses its mixologists in suit vests is begging to be called haughty. Ditto for a bar that doubles as an art gallery and performance space. Following that logic, the Whistler, which opened quietly in Logan Square this year, should be the most unbearably pompous bar in town. But no—there’s something friendly about this lofty space, a laid-back cheeriness that suggests everybody’s glad you’re there. And though you will drink high-concept cocktails here, and you will likely catch a band that’s on its way to some sort of indie notoriety, what you won’t get is pummeled with questions about indie rock that you can’t answer. Because here there are only two questions asked: “How you doing?” and “Ready for another?” 2421 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-227-3530.—David Tamarkin

The Best Way to Use Your Noodle Award: Bill Kim of Urban Belly

If and when you’re ready to invest again (think positive, people), you might want to call up Bill Kim for some advice. Apparently, the guy has a knack for predictions, and he made one of the smartest choices of his career in the past year. After leaving his post as the head chef of swanky Le Lan, this chef with a Charlie Trotter pedigree opened Urban Belly, a tiny noodle shop. In a strip mall. In Avondale. Meanwhile, the economy tanked, restaurants closed left and right, and white-tablecloth spots rolled out specials and burgers and beer lists in an attempt to survive. All the while, Kim has watched budget-conscious foodies pour into his BYOB to slurp the best ramen in town, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. 3053 N California Ave, 773-583-0500.—Heather Shouse

Biggest twits

Chefs are Twittering en masse. Some of them are good at it (Grant Achatz: “Can we distill chile peppers to extract the flavor nuances without the heat?”; Graham Elliot Bowles: “Sunbathing on the roof…not a pretty sight”). Others (unnamed celebrity chef: “It’s cold!”) need to put their keyboards down and get back to the kitchen. —David Tamarkin

The Comeback Kid: Ryan Poli of Perennial

We knew people who swore that Butter, despite its demise in 2007, was a fantastic restaurant. We weren’t quite as enthusiastic but thought its young chef, Ryan Poli, who had spent some time cooking in the avant-garde culinary belt of Spain, had potential. After Butter closed, Poli split for Scottsdale, Arizona, and it looked as if we’d never really see the kid hit his stride. Fast-forward to 2008, when Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm of BOKA lured him back to head up Perennial, a restaurant contemporary enough to let Poli play around a bit (yes, you might spot the occasional foam or wacky ingredient) but, perhaps thanks to its location an apple-toss from Green City Market, grounded enough to keep season and flavor at the forefront. Poli’s execution of pork belly is the best around, at once crispy and luscious, his airy black-truffle gnocchi defies gravity, and his sweet-salty-sticky Asian-style wings keep the whole experience from getting too la-di-da. Welcome back, chef. 1800 N Lincoln Ave, 312-981-7070.—Heather Shouse

The Urban Oasis Award: Piccolo Sogno's patio

Some people keep an eye on the weather to plan their wardrobe—we do it to plan our meals. As soon as the temperature inches up above 60, you’ll find us fork-deep in a plate of pasta in the lush retreat that is Piccolo Sogno’s patio. Not that chef Tony Priolo’s thin-crust pizzas, creamy gelato and silky slices of prosciutto aren’t tasty in winter, too, it’s just that when the breeze blows through the overhead trees just right and the twinkling white lights and flickering candles cast an amber glow, that food goes from good to transcendent. 464 N Halsted St, 312-421-0077.—Heather Shouse

The Lifetime Achievement Award: Henry Bishop (A.K.A. The Wine Sheriff)

When Henry Bishop succumbed to throat cancer March 12, the local food and drink industry wasn’t alone in its loss—the entire city lost an artistic genius who elevated our town above its brick and mortar to add to its unique soul. We could tell you of Bishop’s dry, biting wit or how he wove an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure wines and esoteric music into a career that spanned two decades and included stints at Spiaggia, Topolobampo and Salpicón. But perhaps better insight comes from one of Bishop’s own writings: “I tried to incorporate a new paradigm of descriptors for wine that transcended the clichés of fruits, vegetables and the occasional Beethoven symphony. Who said you couldn’t describe wine in terms used to discuss comic books, krautrock or ambient installation art? For me, for example, nothing describes Kaz’s old-vine Sonoma County Lenoir better than a recapitulation of a line from Ordell the gun dealer, describing an AK-47 assault rifle in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown: ‘When you absolutely, positively gotta blow away every merlot fancier at the table, accept no substitute.’”—Heather Shouse

Best Elbow Rubbing: Duchamp's outdoor communal tables

We learned to deal with them at Avec, we have no choice at Urban Belly, but we usually opt out at the Bristol if a real table’s available: Love ’em or hate ’em, communal tables are here to stay. At least Duchamp had the smarts to drag its communal tables out to the patio, where elbow-to-elbow dining seems more at home (see picnic tables and Euro beer gardens for proof). Plus, if you’re planning to steal a bite of your neighbor’s Duchamp burger, the cover of darkness can be your accomplice. 2118 N Damen Ave, 773-235-6434.—Heather Shouse

Best Place to Ogle Women: Big Chicks owned by Michelle Fire

A (male) gay bar and its adjacent restaurant seem like the last places you’d go to check out ladies (though perfectly beautiful ones have been known to hang out with queers, if only to get away from leering gazes). But anybody with eyes can’t help but gawk at Big Chicks and its next-door sister restaurant, Tweet, because the art collection here would reduce many museums to whimpers. Indeed, Michelle Fire, who serves as both owner and curator of Big Chicks, has been known to lend out parts of her collection to museums. What’s this have to do with women? Fire prefers work by women that grapples with women’s issues, so her collection is a visual cornucopia featuring the feminine mind, body and mystique. There’s no need to be shy: These are the chicks you’re supposed to stare at. 5024 N Sheridan Rd, 773-728-5511.—David Tamarkin

The Bigfoot Award: Lyle Allen

You know what they say about guys with big feet: They have big shoes to fill. That was certainly the case for Lyle Allen when he succeeded the late Abby Mandel to become the second director of Green City Market. In his first year on the job, Allen streamlined the market’s layout, making it more navigable; started a kids’ program called Club Sprout; and, most impressive, made the Green City Market a year-round affair, fulfilling the organization’s long-held goal. This summer brings more plans: programs focused on endangered vegetable and fruit varietals and community festivals showcasing the foods of Chicago neighborhoods—all of which would no doubt make Mandel, who succumbed to cancer shortly after Allen’s arrival, mighty proud. Lincoln Park, between 1750 N Clark St and Stockton Drive, chicagogreencitymarket.org.—David Tamarkin

We’d like to thank the economy

The upside of a slide in consumer spending? Restaurants are practically paying us to eat there. Gracias, credit crisis, for:$4 burgers with fries Thursdays at one sixtyblue, $15 three-course lunch Monday through Saturday at Blackbird, $16 three-course lunch daily at C-House and $18 three-course dinner Tuesdays through Sundays at Erwin.—Julia Kramer

Proof That Evolution Exists: The Coffee Studio

As recently as early 2008, it seemed as if coffeehouses were determined to carry on with their Lisa Loeb–playing, patchouli-scented ways, until we all died from some terrible disease embedded in their thrift-store couches. But then Miguel and Lee Corrina Cano opened the Coffee Studio, and with it the minds of coffeehouse doubters everywhere. Working with a specific vision—they call it “warm modern”—the couple used their design backgrounds to create a sleek and sunny space full of natural materials, clean lines—and not a single vintage fabric in sight. The result is a place for those who have gotten out of their Allen Ginsberg phase but still want to be with other like-minded people—which means those who just want to drink a good cup of coffee. 5628 N Clark St, 773-271-7881.—David Tamarkin

A Blog-o You Can Trust: The L2O Blog

Laurent Gras cures his salmon for 24 hours with a combination of three parts sea salt, one part sugar and one part ground Earl Grey tea; he then smokes it for nine hours at 60 degrees and 40 percent humidity. We know this because he’s blogged about it—and many other details of his restaurant—at l2o.typepad.com. Sometimes, Gras uses his blog to ponder the synergy between parsnip and parsley; sometimes he simply posts a photograph of rosemary croissants, which speak for themselves. His transparency about what goes on at L2O makes the blog a must-read for chefs and a fascinating detour for diners. And you’d think it might act as a substitute of sorts—a virtual L2O for people who can’t get to the restaurant. But it doesn’t work that way. As satisfying as the blog is, it only makes booking a reservation at the real L2O seem that much more urgent. 2300 N Lincoln Park West, 773-868-0002.—David Tamarkin

Recession-era reads

Sadly, some very talented chefs and food writers got laid off this year. Happily, we got addictive new additions to our Google Reader. Cases in point: Emily Nunn, a former New Yorker writer, started cookwolf.blogspot.com after getting the boot from the Chicago Tribune. Sent packing by Uncommon Ground, chef Hugh Amano began recording his cooking adventures at foodonthedole.blogspot.com. Now, if only blogging could pay the bills.—Julia Kramer

The Viagra Award for Staying Power : Club Lago

Stocks rise and fall, bacon fat goes in and out of fashion, but Club Lago, the tin-ceilinged red-sauce joint at the corner of Superior and Orleans Streets, stays the same. And to us, knowing the Nardini clan has managed to weather every storm that’s hit Chicago for the last 57 years—including a chimney that crashed down on their dining room on March 18, forcing the restaurant to close for a few months—is more comforting than any economy-boosting plan. “We may be down, but we’re not out,” Giancarlo Nardini assures us. If only we had as much faith in the stock market. 331 W Superior St, 312-337-9444.—David Tamarkin

Best Revival Act: Martial Noguier at Cafe des Architectes

A year ago, Sofitel was a fancy French hotel with a fancy-sounding restaurant that no one gave a damn about. Now, it’s a fancy French hotel with a stellar French chef at the helm of a restaurant that’s the talk of the town. A French chef with a Chicago backbone, Martial Noguier was handpicked to revive Café des Architectes, and from where we sit, he’s done quite a job, crafting a menu that is at times ambitious (duck confit with fennel puree, glazed quince and black-olive sauce), at times seemingly simple (beef tenderloin with fingerling potatoes and cognac sauce), but always impressively executed, revealing its genius in the details. Somebody give that Sofitel headhunter a raise. 20 E Chestnut St, 312-324-4000.—Heather Shouse

Thanks for the memories

Some of our favorite chefs left their posts this year:
Dean Zanella, 312 Chicago
Rick Spiros, Mantou Noodle Bar
Karen Nicolas, Soul
Michael Tsonton, copperblue
Paul Choi, Su-Ra
Jeffrey Mauro, La Pomme Rouge
Deneen Wright, Rhythm & Spice
Kim Dalton, Dodo
Peter Camphouse, Century Public House.
—Heather Shouse

Best Extra Value Meal: The Bristol

We’re not saying the Bristol is cheap. But we are saying that in a time when there’s a lot of interest in getting what you pay for, the Bristol succeeds. A hefty sandwich of grilled pork belly and fried egg, housemade pappardelle noodles in an earthy bolognese with fresh basil and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, chorizo-stuffed chicken wings on blue cheese cream with celery salad—not a one of those shared plates is more than 11 bucks. You could pocket the savings, but in reality you’ll probably do like us and order more fancy beers. 2152 N Damen Ave, 773-862-5555.—Heather Shouse



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