Bongo Room Hungover rock stars, early-rising soccer moms and everybody in between seem to flock to this bright, cheery spot for fancy morning cocktails and a bite or two. Among the run-of-the-mill numbers on the menu are some dishes worth the often-very-long wait. The chocolate tower French toast—no doubt the brunch menu’s pièce de résistance—is a creamy, luxurious pile of chocolate bread smothered in what is essentially melted banana crème brûlée. It’s definitely more dessert than breakfast, but sweet tooths won’t complain. 1470 N Milwaukee Ave (773-489-0690). Breakfast (Mon–Fri), brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Mon–Fri). Average main course: $10.
Café Absinthe A decade ago, it was considered daring to venture down the alley into this restaurant’s almost hidden entrance. Now that the neighborhood is fully gentrified, it’s a little harder to snag a table on weekends. What hasn’t changed is the cuisine: simple, seasonal ingredients brought together without too much fuss. Roasted beet salad is incredibly good, with frisée, mâche, toasted almonds, Manchego cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil. Duck breast is moist inside, crisp outside and comes with tasty duck confit ravioli on a bed of caramelized onions, wilted arugula and Asian mushrooms. 1954 W North Ave (773-278-4488). Dinner. Average main course: $24.
Irazú Never tried Costa Rican food? This spot is simple, authentic, cheap, supercasual and friendly—just what the doctor ordered. Start with the hearts of palm salad—tangy stalks on a bed of shredded cabbage that’s been tossed in a lime vinaigrette, along with radishes, cilantro, cucumber, pickled beets and ripe avocado. Make it a meal by adding the steak-and-beans “pepito” sandwich and sweet plantains. Bring a bottle of malbec to match, and end the meal with an oatmeal shake. 1865 N Milwaukee Ave (773-252-5687). Lunch, dinner (closed Sun). Average main course: $12.
La Pasadita It’s easy to get confused by this taco joint. First of all, there are two locations on the same block (both offer the same quality). Second of all, the tacos are extremely simple—some meat, some chopped onion, some cilantro, and that’s it. So what’s all the fuss about? Somehow—whether it’s about the juicy, tender meats or the soft tortillas or the piquant crunch of the onion—these tacos turn out to be the best in the neighborhood, and among the best in the city. 1140 N Ashland Ave (773-278-2130). Lunch, dinner. Average price: $5.
Le Bouchon Yes, it’s small and crowded, and you’ll have to wait at the bar for a bit, even with a reservation. But it’s the closest thing Chicago has to that adorable little bistro in Paris. Regulars have their never-fail favorites: the flaky, caramelly onion tart; the robust onion soup with a gluttonous amount of Gruyère; the butter-topped steak flanked by perfectly crisp frites; the hard-to-find seared veal kidneys with mustard sauce; the feeds-two duck à l’orange; and the simple profiteroles. Only snootier waiters could make for a more French experience. 1958 N Damen Ave (773-862-6600). Lunch, dinner (closed Sun). Average main course: $19.
Milk & Honey This sunny joint helps kick-start the day with baked goods and specialty coffees, but it’s the basic sandwiches gussied up with impeccable ingredients that get us in the afternoon. Our favorites: the BLT made with extra-thick bacon and the juicy, rosemary-and-thyme-encrusted roast beef. The weekend crowd can be a bitch, so be prepared to either fight your way to the front of the line or just head home with a bag of the café’s signature granola. 1920 W Division St (773-395-9434). Mon–Fri 7am–4pm; Sat 8am–5pm; Sun 8am–4pm. Average sandwich: $7.50.
Piece Two things keep this place from going the route of sports-bar-beer-bong culture: excellent house brews and expertly executed pizzas. The crispy pies hold a lot of weight, so after you choose your pizza style—red, white or New Haven–style “plain” (red sauce, no mozzarella)—start piling on the toppings. (If you’re really going New Haven–style, try one with clams and bacon.) Wash it down with a pitcher of the crisp Golden Arm, and you’ll never disparagingly say “pizza and beer joint” again. 1927 W North Ave (773-772-4422). Lunch, dinner. Average pizza: $18.
Sultan’s Market Sultan’s is a good metaphor for Wicker Park’s gentrification. What was once a mom-and-pop Middle Eastern grocery with a lunch counter in the back has exploded into a jam-packed eatery in the last 15 years or so. But don’t let the charming digs or the cute boys behind the counter distract you: You’re here for the fresh salad bar, the zatter fattia (two spice-rubbed slabs of bread filled with feta cheese and hummus or baba ghanoush) and, of course, the falafel sandwich. 2057 W North Ave (773-235-3072). Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $6.
Antique Taco First of all, yes, this taco shop (from husband-and-wife team Rick and Ashley Ortiz) is as good as Big Star. But it’s not a replacement, exactly. Antique Taco is cute as a button and better for quieter, chiller nights (or any night that involves children). Crispy fish tacos with smoky cabbage and carnitas tacos sporting spicy adobo rub are winners, and the corn salad is probably the only mayo salad you’ll eat and still find sophisticated. Rosemary margaritas? You don’t need ’em. You can’t taste the rosemary too much—besides, the sheer adorableness of this place is enough to give you a buzz. 1360 N Milwaukee Ave (773-687-8697). Lunch, dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $7.
The Bento Box With just a dozen seats and four main courses, this shoebox of a restaurant seems to traffic in smallness. But slurp rice noodles in a Thai chile–scented broth, or take a bite of the complex curries or juicy bulgogi in one of the namesake bento boxes, and you’ll be hit by big Asian flavors, fresh ingredients (such as Jidori chicken) and the sense that the chef—Rick Spiros—is cooking with some real gusto. 2246 W Armitage Ave (773-278-3932). Dinner (closed Sun).
Big Star What compelled a James Beard Award–winning chef and the owners of the city’s most exclusive cocktail lounge to open a divey bar that slings Tecates and whiskey shots for $3 apiece? A stroke of absolute genius. Brutal crowds harsh the country-music mellow on weekends, but neighborhood hipsters put up with it, dropping by the takeout window to grab a couple of tacos or planting themselves at the bar for a few beers or quality cocktails. 1531 N Damen Ave (773-235-4039). Sun–Fri 11:30am–2am; Sat 11:30am–3am. Average beer: $4.
Birchwood Kitchen No matter what the weather’s like outside, it is always cheery at this café. Lunch sandwiches—wine-braised pot roast on a baguette, grilled goat cheese with curried cauliflower on sourdough—feature next-level flavor combinations. Burger nights, weekly specials and an outstanding weekend brunch are perfect excuses to drop in for every other meal, too. 2211 W North Ave (773-276-2100). Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner (Tue–Fri) (closed Mon). Average sandwich: $8.
The Bristol Waits on weekends might be a thing of the past at this Bucktown spot, which has begun accepting reservations after three years. That’s a good thing, because we have a hard time moving away from Chris Pandel’s signatures, like the salad of heirloom apples and the devastatingly delicious egg-and-ricotta-filled raviolo. It’s also rewarding to try the unusual, always-changing daily specials (marinated beef tendon salad and a cold-smoked fillet of salmon with bacon-dill dumplings recently blew us away). 2152 N Damen Ave (773-862-5555). Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $19.
Carriage House Chef Mark Steuer’s heart is buried deep along the shores of South Carolina. You can tell from his bountiful low-country boil; his picnic board piled with country ham, pimento cheese and pickled eggs; his roasted oysters; his lush crab soup; his ham-hock-and-succotash hash. Considering the first-rate cocktails and spare room, Carriage House is undoubtedly a sophisticated, urban restaurant. But Steuer’s compelling food keeps things grounded, evoking a powerful, personal sense of place. 1700 W Division St (773-384-9700). Brunch (Sat, Sun), dinner (closed Mon). Average item: $14.
Covo Gyro Market Nothing about the decor or concept of this fast-casual gyro joint obscures its similarity to Chipotle: You stand in line, choose your vessel (pita, mini pita or salad), choose a spit-roasted meat (beef-lamb, pork, herb-rubbed chicken), then load it up with toppings (suggestion: paprika, red onion, tomato, tzatziki) and maybe add a side of skin-on (but oversalted) fries. One thing the corporate look of the place does obscure: With the carved chunks of impressively juicy meats, fresh toppings and pliant pitas, these gyros are among the best you can find in a city rife with cones of mass-produced, don’t-ask meat. 1482 N Milwaukee Ave (312-626-2660). Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $7.
Honey 1 BBQ The father and son behind this rib house know a thing or two about barbecue—they hail from a part of Arkansas where smokers are more common than microwaves. Bring a hungry crew, stake out a table in the simple but spick-and-span dining area and order up a couple of slabs of meaty, tender spareribs, a whole mess of rib tips and a plate of hot links. If you’re still hungry after the main event, juicy smoked chicken and crispy catfish should round things out. 2241 N Western Ave (773-227-5130). Lunch, dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $9.
HotChocolate Mindy Segal rehabbed her Bucktown restaurant in the spring of 2012, making it sunnier and adding a huge garage door that opens to let in warm weather. Segal—first and foremost a pastry chef—also rehabbed her approach to desserts: Now, the pastry menu consists of a seasonal cake, pudding, pie, etc., as well as a five-course dessert tasting centered around a seasonal ingredient (Segal calls this a “study”). On the savory side, little has changed. The pretzel, the burger, the mac and cheese—it’s all still there. And yes, breath easy—you can still get the brioche doughnuts, too. 1747 N Damen Ave (773-489-1747). Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Wed–Fri), dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $19.
The Savoy There are a lot of nice things about the Savoy: the exemplary service, the chunky crab cakes, the silky peanut-butter pie. But all of that is secondary to the well-sourced oysters. As is his wont, chef Brian Greene twists the condiments for those oysters, adding wasabi to the mignonette, etc., but his twists are subtle, not showy, and they accentuate the bivalve’s notes of seawater. Greene has a steady hand with the entrées as well, yet these dishes (sturgeon in a corn sauce, halibut with shishito peppers) are tasty but a little generic. That’s why we’re going to stick with a dozen oysters (and maybe a G&T) at the bar. 1408 N Milwaukee Ave (773-698-6925). Brunch (Fri-Sun), dinner. Average main course: $23.
Taxim The cozy, cushy, Byzantine-style dining room and simple (and often simply delicious) seasonal Mediterranean food at this Wicker Park Greek den are all the influence of chef-owner David Schneider. Minimal ingredients are needed for a poof of housemade phyllo filled with ramps and flanked by feta or a bowl of fresh fava beans tossed with preserved lamb, but solid execution and superb seasoning yields maximum flavors. Nice prices and a share-everything platform means more dough for sampling through the superb Greek wine list. 1558 N Milwaukee Ave (773-252-1558). Dinner. Average main course: $23.
Trenchermen What sets brothers Mike and Patrick Sheerin’s long-awaited restaurant apart from the pack? Their dishes are not mere experiments; they’re proven theories of flavor, from the preserved rhubarb and aged duck breast (genius) to the cold-smoked sturgeon and malt-powder cream (fascinating) to the lush, black olive–coated trout. Their space, a restored bathhouse in Wicker Park, is a place you just want to hang out in, perhaps because the white-glazed brick wall of the bar room makes it feel a little like being in an Art Deco pool or a vintage boat. And this is not only a dining destination but a drinking one as well, where Tona Palomino’s drinks prove, like the Sheerins’ food, to be an uncanny marriage of gumption and discretion. 2039 W North Ave (773-661-1540). Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $22.
The Wormhole To get Wicker Park excited about another coffee shop, you’d have to do something pretty crazy. Like, say, install a DeLorean in the store. Okay, Wormhole, you win. So now that this time-travel-themed coffee shop has the neighborhood’s attention, what else is going on here? A small selection of baked goods from Fritz Pastry (including doughnuts!); Cheerios and other assorted cereals; and some very serious baristas, who use beans from a variety of cult roasters and who cold-brew the strongest iced coffee that’s ever graced our parched, caffeine-starved lips. 1462 N Milwaukee Ave (773-661-2468). 7am–11pm. Average cup of coffee: $2.