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Eat Out Awards: Critics' Picks

Awards to our favorite Chicago restaurants, bars and chefs of 2010.


Best Guilt-Free Burger: Edzo's

As good as Edzo’s original offerings were, they came with a side of guilt. Owner Eddie Lakin’s insistence on staying true to the old-school Vienna Beef shops that inspired him meant his beef—while always USDA choice and ground in-house—was neither local nor sustainable. Don’t get us wrong—we’d happily put aside our ethics a few times to get our hands on one of Edzo’s patty melts. But when Lakin introduced a Dietzler Farms’ beef option a couple of months ago, it was a game changer. Now we can eat at Edzo’s without all those industrially raised cows on our conscience. And that other kind of guilt—the kind that comes with indulging in burgers in the first place? We’ll deal with it. 1571 Sherman Ave, Evanston (847-864-3396).—David Tamarkin

Further Proof There Are Actually Top Chefs on Top Chef: Dale Levitski

Before Top Chef Masters was even a twinkle in some Bravo exec’s eye, before Stephanie Izard clinched the season-five title, there was the charming, mohawked Dale Levitski. After cooking at La Tache and Trio, in 2007 he became the first Chicagoan to compete on Top Chef. But for much of the time since then, the Chicago cheftestants (Levitski, Izard and Radhika Desai) have been on break from the kitchen. So, we wondered: How do we know the food on TV is any good? But when Levitski took over the kitchen at Sprout last fall, reinventing the restaurant with an adventurous prix fixe, he and fellow Top Chef alum Sara Nguyen put any doubts we had to rest. 1417 W Fullerton Ave (773-348-0706).—Julia Kramer


Best French Toast: Enoch’s French toast doughnuts at Nightwood

A dry center, floppy edges, slices that flatten beneath the weight of syrup and butter—this is the slippery terrain on which French toast treads. Nightwood has devised a solution: French toast made not from flimsy white bread but from yeasted doughnuts. They’re called Enoch’s doughnuts because Enoch Simpson, who spends most of his time butchering, turns into the doughnut maker on Sundays, frying three rotating varieties of about 100 doughnuts to order. While the bacon-butterscotch is his mainstay, the French toast doughnut is genius: It’s fried, soaked in custard, pan-fried again, then baked in the oven. Sort of like French toast on a spongy, rich bender. 2119 S Halsted St (312-526-3385).—Julia Kramer

The Lone Ranger Award: Troy Marcus Johnson of Chicago All Fired Up

The city’s food-truck-permit red tape is frustrating, but Johnson figured it out, acquiring a mobile-food-dispensing-vehicle license as an appendage to the restaurant license he holds for Miss Minnie’s in South Shore (used as a commissary kitchen for Chicago All Fired Up). After outfitting a fire truck with a full kitchen and attaching a smoker to a trailer hitch about a year ago, Johnson started offering Southern meals such as crispy chicken wings, lightly battered fish and shrimp, and applewood-smoked rib tips to the club crowd (call 773-708-4561 to track him down). This summer, a Park District permit will allow him to peddle his eats at 63rd Street Beach, too.—Heather Shouse


Most Pleasant Brunch Line: Ethiopian Diamond II

There’s no shortage of brunch options in this town, but few offer doro watt, those addictive, ginger-kissed chicken legs, and yesimir watt (spicy, savory lentils). Luckily, though, Ethiopian Diamond II does. And few places, if any, provide coffee as thick and strong as the stuff in these battered, rustic pots. With such unexpected offerings—and a lack of bacon and sausage—Diamond has reinvented brunch. Still, its most significant achievement is that it serves buffet food that’s good. Take that buffet away and you’d cut out the rarest brunch offering of all: instant gratification you don’t instantly regret. 7537 N Clark St (773-764-2200).—David Tamarkin

Best Reason to Buy Real Estate in Avondale: Late Bar

Perhaps we have the economic slowdown to thank for keeping Avondale from gentrifying too quickly: It’s still a predominantly working-class, mixed-ethnic neighborhood where the low rents have made it possible for inexpensive restaurants (Hot Doug’s, Urban Belly, Kuma’s) to hit it big. That was part of the appeal to Kristine Hengl and Dave Roberts, two nightlife veterans who’ve brought to this gray stretch of Belmont an unusual little 4am bar with a self-described “new wave-y, weirdo, mod culture,” and popular Saturday Planet Earth dance nights. Though Late Bar’s been open only four months, we can’t imagine Avondale without it. 3534 W Belmont Ave (773-267-5283).—Julia Kramer


Best Performance in a Supporting Role: Cilantro in the dark-chocolate crémeux at Custom House Tavern

No one’s arguing the rectangle of silky-smooth chocolate mousse is anything but the star of this dessert. But chocolate gets enough time in the spotlight. Instead, this is an award for a couple of tiny sprigs of micro-green cilantro, arranged so delicately and sparingly on the plate it wouldn’t be imprecise to call them garnishes. But when was the last time a garnish redefined an entire dish? And who knew how brilliantly cilantro and chocolate could play off each other, drawing out complementary spice and earth notes? Oh yeah, that reminds us of someone we forgot to thank: Bryce Caron, Custom House Tavern’s unconventional new pastry chef. 500 S Dearborn St (312-523-0200).—Julia Kramer

Best Microbrewery: Chicago Coffee Confederation

David Meyers started what would eventually become the Chicago Coffee Confederation by building a small roaster in his garage. “I started [roasting coffee] as fund-raisers for social justice,” he says. Meyers still roasts only two days a week, and then only about two pounds of (fair-trade, organic) coffee at a time; the other roasters in the confederation—Daniel Tucker and Michael McSherry—roast even less. The microscopic size of the operation means the roasters exert maximum control over their beans, allowing them to get as dark or light as they please. But the coolest part of the process comes after the roasting—when Meyers gets on his bicycle and drops the beans at your door.—David Tamarkin


Top Shelf Award: Sundries shelf at Great Lake

The modest rack of shelves on Great Lake’s western wall plays second fiddle to the highly coveted pizzas. But just as the pies are unlike any other in Chicago, the shelves are filled with items unique to Great Lake. These are the most gorgeous groceries in the city: chocolate bars from Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers Chocolate; colorful hard candies from Papabubble; the latest Meatpaper magazine; artisanal peanut butter from Cream-Nut; and an ever-changing selection of handcrafted note cards and stationery. Shopping these shelves doesn’t require the wait that ordering a pizza does, which proves that not everything at Great Lake has to be slow to be in good taste. 1477 W Balmoral Ave (773-334-9270).—David Tamarkin

“Trashiest” Design Ever: Alter Ego Form for Simone’s

Designers who use salvaged materials are ruthless—when a crop of good materials becomes available, it’s be first or don’t bother. The guys behind design firm Alter Ego Form don’t play that game. Instead, says principal Doc Sanjurjo, “We’ll take the stuff we see with different eyes.” But there’s nothing second-rate about Simone’s, designed with 95 percent salvaged materials—including castoffs from a high school’s chemistry lab. Now Sanjurjo and his partners are at work on Nice Slice (2210 N California Ave), a forthcoming pizza place from Simone’s owners. “We wanted to show people that we are not [just] the crazy, chaotic salvage artists,” he says. Simone’s, 960 W 18th St (312-666-8601).—David Tamarkin

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