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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

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,—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 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 after getting the boot from the Chicago Tribune. Sent packing by Uncommon Ground, chef Hugh Amano began recording his cooking adventures at 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