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2009 Eat Out Awards Critics' Picks

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

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

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