2009 Eat Out Awards Readers' Choice Awards

The people have spoken-here are your faves for 2009.



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Photograph: Martha Williams; Inset, Marzena Abrahamik

Best New Bar: Angels & Kings

Other nominees Tiny Lounge, the Whistler, Bar DeVille, Vertigo
If you know only one thing about Angels & Kings, it’s probably that it’s owned by pretty-boy punker Pete Wentz. And if that, in your mind, is a good thing, then you’re bound to be a fan of this space, a rock palace of sorts where the fabrics are plush but the vibe is rebellious. (You’ll also appreciate the aesthetic of the clientele, many of whom have copped Wentz’s look with stalkerlike precision.) But even if you’ve never heard a note from Wentz and his band, Fall Out Boy, Angels & Kings can still appeal. It’s not so much a “rock club” as a “rock/club,” meaning there are DJs but no techno, a laid-back aura but no sticky floors, a cocktail list but nothing that requires a dictionary to decipher. And that—not Mr. Wentz—is why our readers came out so strong for the bar: It may be celebrity-owned, but it’s the everyman who runs the place. 710 N Clark St, 312-482-8600.—David Tamarkin

Best Beer Bar: Hopleaf

Other nominees Chicago Ale House, Clark Street Ale House, Delilah’s, Jak’s Tap, Map Room, Small Bar, Quenchers
There are great beer bars in Chicago, and then there’s Hopleaf. The nightly crowds gripping a Belgian draft or a Two Brothers brew in one hand and sopping up mussel broth with the other belie the economic shitstorm raging outside. Do beer geeks come here for the Bell’s limited releases on tap and obscure bottled European lambics, only to fall in love with chef Ben Sheagren’s perfectly executed pub grub? Or do foodies hear the call of ham and Gruyère on toasted pumpernickel bread and then get distracted by a similarly toasty Belgian? Does it matter? 5148 N Clark St, 773-334-9851.—Julia Kramer

Best New Restaurant: The Publican

Other nominees graham elliot, the Bristol, Mado, Perennial, Province, L2O
The Year of the Publican began last summer, as anticipation built surrounding Blackbird/Avec powerhouses Paul Kahan and Donnie Madia’s forthcoming pork-and-oysters emporium. And so it was that fall 2008 was marked not only by changing leaves, but by the emergence of chef de cuisine Brian Huston’s simple, serious fare—subtle, complex sausages and headcheese made in-house, classic dill-speckled crab boils and the freshest oysters, matched with an overwhelming selection of brews. Serving Sunday suppers during the cold, snowy winter, the cavernous space managed to feel warm and even homey—aided by humble, family-style platters of whole fish or tender, mint-flecked lamb. Then came spring, and with it a brunch menu to elevate the humble egg: poached in red wine, wood-fired with harissa, scrambled with pork confit. With each season as memorable as the last, the only thing left to wonder is: What will summer bring? 837 W Fulton Market, 312-733-9555.—Julia Kramer

Best New Middle Eastern: Chickpea

Other nominees Dawali, Nesh, Habibi, Byblos
Experience has taught us that when a chef says “Mama” is doing the cooking, he’s probably lying through his teeth, banking on our cultural soft spot for moms. That’s not the case at Chickpea, where Jerry Suqi’s (Sugar, La Pomme Rouge) mother, Amni Suqi, prowls the Arabic-language-movie-postered dining room like a headscarf-clad Florence Nightingale, ministering to hungry stomachs with tender malfoof (cabbage-wrapped spiced rice, lamb and garlic) or luxuriantly creamy hummus topped with charcoal-perfumed hunks of beef tenderloin. Sneak a peek at Amni’s battle-scarred forearms, occasionally welted from falafel-frying oil, and you’ll know nobody is trying to fake you out here. 2018 W Chicago Ave, 773-384-9930.—Michael Nagrant

Best Brunch: Lula Cafe

Other nominees Bongo Room, m. henry, Orange, Over Easy Café, Tweet, Vella Café, Yolk
There is nary a more iconic Logan Square scene than the hipster sprawl surrounding Lula on a Sunday morning—particularly when the sun is shining, the Ray-Bans come out in droves and Lula’s impressive seasonal menu is chock-full of farmers’-market finds. The laid-back front patio could nail this award on its own, but the scene only goes so far. It’s Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds’s fluffy omelettes (filled with constantly changing vegetables from the first stalks of asparagus to late-summer’s tomatoes) and whipped cream–topped stuffed brioche French toast that lure regulars. Anything from the rotating menu goes down that much more smoothly accompanied by a spicy black sambal (chile paste) Bloody Mary or a blackberry Bellini. 2537 N Kedzie Blvd, 773-489-9554.—Julia Kramer

Best Loop Lunch: Epic Burger

Other nominees Bionda To-Go Café, Cafecito, Chutney Joe’s, Freshii, Ufood Grill, Thai Urban Kitchen
There comes a time in every Loop worker’s life when nothing seems more fraught with complexity or more likely to end in disappointment than deciding where to go for lunch. So it’s no wonder Loopers have latched on so tightly to a place that knocks the griddle grease off burger chains without ratcheting up the price too ridiculously. Epic Burger owner David Friedman’s Slow Food–conscientiousness does it for some folks (all-natural beef, nitrate-free bacon, no trans fats), while the modish design strikes a chord with others. But for most starved lunch-seekers, the thin, lacy-edged patty tricked out with Wisconsin cheddar and an organic egg on a toasted bun is all that matters. Well, that and the fresh-cut fries and a Lemon Squeeze smoothie. 517 S State St, 312-913-1373.—Julia Kramer

Best Italian: Mia Francesca

Other nominees Anteprima, Riccardo Trattoria, Spiaggia, RoSal’s, Terragusto
Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin never ate here; no one’s been whacked in the bathroom; and the first generation, led by chef-owner Scott Harris, still runs the joint. Precisely because Mia Francesca can’t rely on mythology and nostalgia like half the multigenerational family joints down in Little Italy, it can’t rest on serving dry chicken Vesuvio, waxy salami and factory-farmed produce. Instead, it serves up well-executed trattoria classics like zingy asparagus, blue cheese and tomato salad, and simple, airy gnocchi tossed with light marinara and a chiffonade of basil. All this in a warm, wood-trimmed dining room filled with sepia-toned modern photography and blissfully devoid of checkered tablecloths and cheesy Chianti-bottle candleholders. 3311 N Clark St, 773-281-3310.—Michael Nagrant

Best New Frozen Yogurt: Berry Chill

Other nominees Wow Bao, Red Mango, YoBerri, Starfruit
Featuring more flat-screen televisions than a Rush Street sports bar, an army of spacey plastic resin chairs and tables, green and white glass-tiled walls and a touch-screen ordering system, Berry Chill is pretty much what you’d get if you dropped a Design Within Reach into a Baskin-Robbins. But the secret to the success of the undisputed king of fro-yo couture isn’t about interior design. Rather, it’s the distinctive tang of its yogurt, a deeply tart spoonful that makes you squinch up your face like Renée Zellweger, and the sweet local mix-ins—including Milk and Honey granola and Sarah’s Pastries and Candies rocky-road clusters—that keep people coming back. 635 N State St, 312-553-2445; 132 N LaSalle St, 312-553-2445; 500 W Madison St, 312-993-9644.—Michael Nagrant

Best Thai: Sticky Rice

Other nominees Kan Pou, TAC Quick Thai Kitchen, Thai Classic, Arun’s, Spoon Thai
The hallmark of a good Thai restaurant no longer rests on the basics, like pad thai, but rather a bevy of tongue-searing curries, a secret menu for Thai regulars, an abundance of fermented encased meats and a sampling of insect-laden dishes. And by that measure, Sticky Rice, with its excellent northern Thai specialties like omelette with crunchy ant eggs (khai jiaw khai mod), fried bamboo caterpillars, funky red-chile–infused northern Thai sausages and soulful pork-blood stew (ka nom jeen num ngiaw), is the Muhammad Ali of Chicago Thai joints (a.k.a. the Greatest). If you’re not so adventurous, go for the more familiar stuff, like sweet-sour tom yum, rich, peanut-perfumed chicken satay and herbaceous, sweet-and-spicy green curry—they’re just as delicious. 4018 N Western Ave, 773-588-0120.—Michael Nagrant

Best New Vegetarian: Mana Food Bar

Other nominees Ankh, the Balanced Kitchen, Life Vegan, Veggie Bite
Something was missing from the city’s dining scene, but it wasn’t until Susan Thompson and Jill Barron (Sushi Wabi, De Cero) opened Mana that it became clear what precisely that was: a hip, neighborhood eatery where meat is the last thing on your mind. A minimal, rustic space, Mana is sleeker than granola hangs like Earwax Café, but with its selection of small and large plates, the place remains more affordable than veg-friendly fine-dining spots like Green Zebra. So it’s no surprise that Mana’s meat-free (and faux-meat-free) plates like Asian-inspired bibimbap and good-for-you brown-rice-and-mushroom sliders earned cred among veg-heads and meat-lovers alike. And just because the menu showcases vegetables in their simplicity—like marinated beets or raw squash ribbons—doesn’t mean you’ll feel like an ascetic: A killer cocktail—like a frothy cucumber “sakerita”—proves that point deliciously. 1742 W Division St, 773-342-1742.—Julia Kramer

Best Tapas: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!

Other nominees Café Marbella, Azucar!, People, Mercat a la Planxa, Café Iberico
In 1985, when Gabino Sotelino (Ambria, Mon Ami Gabi) launched this, Chicago’s first Spanish tapas bar, people thought small plates were what you put under your coffee cup. Seventeen years later, a visit to this Lincoln Park spot is still a prime culinary rite of passage for young professionals and recent Chicago transplants. Sotelino’s patatas bravas (mayo- and paprika-slathered potatoes tossed in a rustic stone bowl) inspired a new generation of tapas chefs, who now do things like hand-carving sculptural potato cylinders for their small-plates offerings. But, just as when Shannon Lawson made a bluegrass version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” all that proves is there’s nothing better than the unadulterated original. 2024 N Halsted St, 773-935-5000.—Michael Nagrant

Best Thin-Crust Pizza: Spacca Napoli

Other nominees Antica Pizzeria, Coal Fire, Great Lake, Sapore di Napoli
It’s been a good couple of years for pizza in this town, and owner Jonathan Goldsmith’s three-year-old Ravenswood venture deserves the bulk of the credit for kicking off the local Neapolitan trend. (A powerhouse in the Eat Out Awards, Spacca Napoli beat out a now-familiar round of competitors to win the Readers’ Choice Award for Best New Pizzeria in 2007.) The heart of these pies is the dough-baking process: The thin crust bubbles and chars at insane heat levels inside Spacca’s custom-built oven, maintaining a distinctive chewy—almost wet—center. Which is not to give short shrift to the toppings—from creamy buffalo mozzarella to rosemary-scented roasted potatoes to bright, bitter arugula. These pizzas will make you proud to be a thin-crust-loving Chicagoan. 1769 W Sunnyside Ave, 773-878-2420.—Julia Kramer

Best Barbecue: Smoque

Other nominees Fat Willy’s Rib Shack, Honey 1 BBQ, Honky Tonk Barbeque, Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs, Uncle John’s, Smoke Daddy
Two-and-a-half years after opening, the Old Irving Park joint that proved the North Side could master ’cue still draws a line of devotees out the door almost every night. And it’s not just to see Adrien Brody–doppelgänger Barry Sorkin’s chef-sweatpants. (Okay, maybe for a very select few it is.) No, those folks are standing in line come rain or shine, patiently toting six-packs for a higher purpose: They’re there for the tender spareribs; the chicken tinged pinkish from smoking; the spicy sausages; and the pulled pork, with its criminally delicious combination of crunchy and soft meat just waiting to be splashed with a few extra hits of barbecue sauce. If only all life decisions were as uncomplicated as whether to go with sliced or chopped brisket. 3800 N Pulaski Rd, 773-545-7427. —Julia Kramer

Best Corner Tap: Small Bar Logan Square

Other nominees G&L Fire Escape, the Charleston, Big Joe’s, Skylark, Green Eye, Falcon Inn
While the Division Street location of the soccer-watching haven (now overrun with Wicker Park fashionistas and hipsters) is like flashy footie team Manchester United, its Logan sibling, more of a low-key neighborhood dive with a great beer selection, is like the once-disappointing, but now up-and-coming Bolton Wanderers. You can sate your English Premier League football lust (the bar shows some of the games) yet still stay true to your Chicago roots by sipping one of the joint’s many local craft brews, including Two Brothers, Three Floyds and Half Acre. The only thing we take issue with? The name. Especially when the cozy summer patio opens, Small Bar’s Logan location looks plenty spacious to us. 2956 N Albany Ave, 773-509-9888.—Michael Nagrant

Best Burger: Kuma's Corner

Other nominees HotChocolate, Jury’s, That’s-A-Burger, Top Notch Beefburger, Paradise Pup
Much ink has been spilled over the bang-up heavy-metal-themed burgers at this bar-cum-biker-den, and not a drop of that ink was wasted. Who could resist the selection of microbrews, the tatted-up (yet always-friendly) servers, the sense of frenzied anticipation (even at f-ing 5pm on a Tuesday) as otherwise rational burger lovers joyfully endure crazy wait times? The Kuma’s formula is simple and effective—ten ounces of juicy beef, plus sturdy pretzel roll, plus topping mayhem (tzatziki, goat cheese, Japanese eggplant, wasabi mayo—we could go on for a while here) equals profound deliciousness. The corner hang packs ’em in for avocado-topped ten-ounce Iron Maidens, barbecue sauce–slathered Mastodons and, of course, the signature Kuma Burger: that bacon-cheddar-fried-egg mash-up by which arteries happily clog. 2900 W Belmont Ave, 773-604-8769.—Julia Kramer

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