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The Thinking Outside the (Cereal) Box Award
While we can get huevos almost anywhere these days, and a breakfast of croissants and lattes can be had at 7-Eleven, the Middle Eastern breakfast has yet to enter the city’s culinary vernacular. But Al Khayameih’s morning goods aren’t just notable because they’re an anomaly; they’re also addictively delicious. Yes, the traditional lineup of foul (fava beans delicately simmered in olive oil and lemon), labneh (thick, unsweetened yogurt with mint and olive oil) and “Lebanese eggs” (spiked with parsley, lemon and traditional Lebanese spices) may not be anything like your current morning repertoire. But one visit and they soon will be. 4748 N Kedzie Ave, 773-583-0999.
Best Substitute for a Glass of Warm Milk
Doctors are quick to prescribe pills for those who toss and turn all night, but if those MDs knew about Izola’s, Ambien would go the way of the dodo. Open 24 hours a day, six days a week (owner Izola White takes Wednesdays off), the restaurant practically begs to be patronized by midnight snackers. In fact, we challenge anybody with insomnia to pile a plate with Ms. White’s corn muffins, fried catfish, candied sweet potatoes and fried chicken and not feel so satisfied that they conk out the minute they’re home. Or, for that matter, at the restaurant itself. (The benefit of that last option, of course, is that when they wake up, they can order breakfast.) 522 E 79th St, 773-846-1484.
Best Reason to Hit the Hoosier State
Three Floyds Brewpub
A menacing Viking stares you down from the bottle of the brewery’s cult-classic Dark Lord, a hefty beauty queen adorns the label of the Behemoth barley wine and a roughed-up cat smoking a cigarette marks Gumballhead, one of our favorite local wheats. If you think the guys at this tiny Indiana brewery are sending some interesting stuff to Chicago, visit their brewpub and sample your way through small-batch beers brewed just for consumption on premises. Wash down a killer Scotch egg with the tart wheat Deesko or sit back and sip the Red Tendon porter. And if two pints turn into too many, the Three Floyds guys know of a cheap motel or two between your barstool and the Skyway. 9750 Indiana Pkwy, Munster, IN, 219-922-4425.
Best Localvore Leader
Green Grocer Chicago
Unless you live in some fairy-tale neighborhood whose local market brims year-round with local produce, freshly butchered, grass-fed meat and still-warm bread, you have to expend a lot of effort to be a localvore in Chicago. That is, until Cassie Green and Gary Stephens decided to jam as many local products as they could get their hands on into their five-month-old Green Grocer Chicago. They pack a lot into their small store: Papa Lena’s veggie chips, Temptations soy ice cream, Mu Tofu tofu and tempeh, Terry’s Toffee, Metropolis Coffee, Bennison’s breads…all made right here in Chicago and all finally under one roof. 1402 W Grand Ave, 312-624-9508.
Best Room with a View
By now you’ve already heard all about Trump Tower’s 16th-floor restaurant, but allow us to join the chorus in saying the view really is spectacular: the sliver of water and horizon in the distance, the Tribune Tower so close you can almost hear reporters accepting buyouts, the Wrigley Building’s spire casting a glow into the dining room and the Chicago River Friday-night fireworks putting the whole experience into some kind of magical category. True, it all comes with a hefty price tag, but the sights make it memorable. 401 N Wabash Ave, 312-588-8030.
Most Beneficial Veggies
Not all organic tomatoes are alike. Some are grown by the thousands in Chile and flown to your local Whole Foods; others are grown in Englewood on a farm that employs low-income, previously homeless or formerly incarcerated Chicagoans. Going on its 12th year, Growing Home has trained more than 100 people and helped them secure full-time work in landscaping, food service and other industries. In our opinion, Growing Home offers an unbeatable product: great greens, zucchinis, herbs and berries, each one guaranteed to truly make you feel good. growinghomeinc.org.
Small Wonder Award
When we first heard about Great Lake—a tiny pizza shop that has only four items on the menu, boasts almost no seating and whose pizza oven is capable of cooking just one pie at a time—we estimated it would survive two weeks, tops. That was before we saw its sleek, minimalist design, or experienced how lovely an earthy mix of mushrooms tastes on its chewy, puffy crust. Now when we say we’re giving it two weeks, we’re referring not to when it’ll close, but when it’ll likely expand. 1477 W Balmoral Ave, 773-334-9270.
Best Modernizer of the Classic Cocktail
Peter Vestinos of Sepia
To put your own spin on an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Moscow Mule, first you have to know that classic concoction inside and out. Sepia bartender Peter Vestinos is well versed in his profession’s past, and he’s graduated from mastering seemingly simple cocktails to giving a mojito a hit of earthy bitters and splash of cava, using rosemary–brown sugar syrup to sweeten a Dark ’N Stormy, and infusing bourbon with vanilla bean and coriander to add dimension to an Old Fashioned. With tricks like these, he knocks the dust off the classics and keeps us sipping into the future. Look for a new, heavily floral drink menu in late April. 123 N Jefferson St, 312-441-1920.
Best Classic-Contemporary Combo
He makes edible paper! He cooks fish in a box at your table! He serves tricked-out Styrofoam peanuts! Sure, Moto chef Homaro Cantu does a lot of crazy stuff, but how often can you afford to dine at his patience-testing West Loop science lab? A couple times a year, maybe. At the adjacent sibling spot, Otom, Cantu protégé Daryl Nash is a bit more restrained in applying his chemistry lessons, and the food succeeds because of it. While there’s still a bit of frothing, foaming and dehydrating going on, the majority of the dishes deftly dress up classics—mac and cheese gets double-smoked bacon and truffled white cheddar, braised short-rib meat is stuffed into ravioli and coupled with candied sweet potato, and its banana split is somewhat deconstructed, isolating the flavors to remind you just what makes up a classic in the first place. 951 W Fulton Mkt, 312-491-5804.
Best Way to Dessert Your Drink
Black & tan float at Paramount Room
Jon Young and chef Stephen Dunne gave Roscoe Village a dependable wine bar in Volo, but the partners long have wanted to open a beer-focused spot as well. Last year they did just that, delivering a loungey gastropub where you can play a game of pool, drink a fancy Belgian ale like the spicy, golden La Chouffe, and munch on beer-perfect eats like a Kobe burger, ale-steamed mussels, and fish and chips. For dessert, they went all the way with combining the drinking and dining experience, making ice cream out of Guinness and floating scoops of it in Abita root beer. 415 N Milwaukee Ave, 312-829-6300.
Olegario Garcia, baker at Gibsons since 1995
Garcia started at Gibsons when he was just 17. He worked as a dishwasher, but soon was promoted to doing prep work. And then to soups. And then to sauces. And, finally, in 1995, to desserts, where he’s been making Gibsons’ enormous cakes ever since. Last year, Garcia visited Gibsons sibling Luxbar to train those folks in perfecting pastries. But no matter how high up the ladder he climbs, he shows no signs of stopping. “This company has helped me grow to be a stronger person, a better person,” Garcia tells us (via a Spanish translator). “I’m going to stay as long as they want me.” 1028 N Rush St, 312-266-8999.
Best Mash-Up Menu
Between Boutique Café & Lounge
At her sultry Wicker Park small-plates spot, chef Radhika Desai nearly defies skeptics to find fault with her off-kilter menu. Stuffing shiitakes, beef and scallions into Indian batura bread? Encrusting mahi mahi with chorizo? Making a savory bread pudding out of croissants and applewood-smoked bacon? Flipping traditional Indian rosewater-scented milk into a cheesecake? Yep. She’s done it all, and with some seriously (and surprisingly) delicious results. Even if it wasn’t already her nickname, we’d still call her “Rad.” 1324 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-292-0585.
The “Pigs Just Flew” Award (Best Bar We Never Thought We’d Be Caught Dead In)
The Drawing Room at Le Passage
Dress up in six-inch heels and fishnets just to stand on Rush Street in the middle of winter? Not our thing. Neither is gawking at C-list celebrities or paying $15 for a glass of lackluster Champagne. That’s why we weren’t inclined to like Le Passage. But ever since Three Headed Productions took over the space and turned the VIP room into the Drawing Room, we’ve been hooked. It could be because the cocktails are so damn tasty, or because the menu, designed by Shawn McClain, boasts the most delicious bar food we’ve had. But the fact that those heels, fishnets and C-listers are nowhere to be seen doesn’t hurt. 937 N Rush St, 312-255-0022.
Best Kitchen Politician
Ina Pinkney, owner of comfort food restaurant Ina’s, ran for mayor last year, campaigning on a platform of brisket and coffee cake for all. It seemed like a cute little stunt—until she won 2,302 votes. Perhaps propelled by her popularity, Pinkney joined forces with restaurateur Dan Rosenthal last winter to form Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, in which businesses (mostly restaurants) band together to buy environmentally sustainable products (greener cleaning products, biodegradable coffee cups, etc). So far, about 100 businesses have participated. Professional politicians seldom come up with such useful plans. Ms. Pinkney, you have our vote. 1235 W Randolph St, 312-226-8227.
The Humble Pie Award
We like a restaurant that can admit its mistakes, so when the Bluebird stopped organizing its wine list by climate (a ridiculous practice nearly every critic in town bashed), we were impressed. But we’d hate to see this great gastropub become known for its only misstep. So, Bluebird, let us reiterate our love for you: We love your great beer selection. We love your industrial-chic decor. We love how you keep your excellent flatbreads, charcuterie and pastas so affordable. And we love your wine selection—even more now that we can actually find what we want. 1749 N Damen Ave, 773-486-2473.
Our Favorite Winos
The Girls Who Run Lush
Yes, Nancy Pelosi and Condi Rice have charted new territory for women in this country. But in the wine world, it’s still the 1920s: Women struggle to be taken seriously by the industry, which insists on putting out “wines for women”—pretty rosés with flowery labels. Thankfully, things have progressed at Lush. Though owned by the Einhorn Brothers (the gearheads behind Twisted Spoke), Lush is largely in the hands of a fantastic female staff—tough broads who know their single malts from their Super Tuscans, and who aren’t shy about teaching you a thing or two (yes, guys, even you). 2232 W Roscoe St, 773-281-8888.
Hostess with the Mostest
Toni Di Meola of Mythos
You can’t miss her. She’s the beaming, brassy, olive-skinned woman bounding toward you as you enter the Greek restaurant she runs with sibling Vicky Zervas. Zervas cooks, but Di Meola runs the show, chewing the fat with regulars, peering over diners’ shoulders to find out why they haven’t cleaned their plates and zipping between tables to check on orders, calling out in rapid-fire Greek to her sister. The lady has more tailored pantsuits than Hillary (not to mention more charm), but that’s not why we love her. She stole our hearts for giving us what many restaurants sorely lack: personality. 2030 W Montrose Ave, 773-334-2000.
Best Beverly Draw Since the South Side Irish Parade
Just as Cubs and Sox fans likely will never hold hands on the Red Line and sing “Kumbaya,” there will always be a bit of rivalry between the North and South Sides. But no matter where your allegiance lies, it’s pretty well accepted that the North Side lays claim to most of the city’s best restaurants. That’s what makes Café 103 so beloved—Beverly residents have a contemporary BYOB with delicious food to call their own, and North Siders can experience something in the ’hood other than the beer-soaked St. Pat’s parade. Chef Thomas Eckert’s lobster lasagna and tandoori arctic char are a long way from green beer. 1909 W 103rd St, 773-238-5115.
Boka acquiring Giuseppe Tentori
Trading one Giuseppe for another (as Boka did when it replaced chef Giuseppe Scurato with Giuseppe Tentori) sounds like it would be a seamless transition. But the change had repercussions for the restaurant—great ones. Whereas Scurato’s food was a bit bolder and influenced by American standards like pork chops and mashed potatoes, Tentori’s is subtler, more nuanced, owing its influence to the Mediterranean and Asia. Overall, the switch has turned Boka into a more sophisticated restaurant, and its customers (who for a while there had started to treat Boka more like a nightclub than a restaurant) seem happy to go along for the ride. 1729 N Halsted St, 312-337-6070.
Second Annual Sounds-Bad-Tastes-Good Award
Olovieh at Masouleh
If we set in front of you a brown, spreadable mash-up of chicken, potatoes, pickles and peas, would you even lift your fork to try it? We didn’t think so. But at some point our defenses were down and we ordered exactly that at Rogers Park’s newest Middle Eastern joint, Masouleh. And believe it or not, that dish, called olovieh, was the standout of the meal. Never mind that it looks like the pureed supper of a toothless retiree—it’s a rich spread with deep layers of flavors that are supremely delicious, even if you still have your choppers. 6653 N Clark St, 773-262-2227.