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Farm-to-table and sustainable restaurants in Chicago

Chicago restaurants that cook with local, seasonal ingredients.
By David Tamarkin |

What does it mean for a restaurant to be green? For us it means the place sources its ingredients carefully, cooks more or less seasonally and if it's really going for the gold, makes efforts to have its building run efficiently. There are gobs of restaurants in Chicago that fit these qualifications; here are 15 of our favorites.

The Bristol Waits on weekends might be a thing of the past at this Bucktown spot, which has begun accepting reservations after three years. The restaurant has matured in other ways, too, from its still-strong cocktail program, now directed by Debbi Peek, to its desserts, which pastry chef Amanda Rockman is hitting out of the park. (Just try her Basque cake, and you’ll become a believer.) 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, but it’s worth it 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.

Browntrout Sean Sanders’s homey, green-minded North Center restaurant may not look like much of a destination, nor does his menu read like a list of must-haves. But don’t be fooled: The food, while on the simpler side, is rife with flavors both big and nuanced. Fresh trout is just about the only mainstay menu item, but we hope the beautifully seared walleye with salsa verde or the juicy chicken thighs with polenta make an encore appearance. Some dishes fall flat, but for the most part, eating simply just got a lot more exciting. 4111 N Lincoln Ave (773-472-4111). Brunch (Sun), dinner (closed Mon, Tue). Average main course: $21.

erwin  The namesake chef-owner here has a knack for the kind of food people want to eat, and he’s been delivering it to Chicago for almost two decades. There’s no fusion or piled-high presentations—just good, solid food. Expect seasonal soups, classic salads, pan-roasted fish and grilled meats, with standouts like wood-grilled flank steak with smoked Gouda mashed potatoes, and what’s surely in the running for the best roasted chicken in town, served with Yukon-gold potato gratin. 2925 N Halsted St (773-528-7200). Brunch (Sun), dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $18.

Frontera Grill Most chefs behind culinary empires branch to other cities, leaving the original back home to suffer. Rick Bayless kept close to the kitchen and chose to expand in other ways (packaged food line, cookbooks, TV shows). Lucky us. For two decades, this has been the spot for intensely flavorful Mexican food. We like the upscale sister Topolobampo, but Frontera offers a vibrant slice of Mexico City, a place to chow down on ceviches, earthy mole, wood-grilled steak tucked into housemade tortillas and, of course, insanely good margaritas. 445 N Clark St (312-661-1434). Brunch (Sat), lunch (Tue–Fri), dinner (Tue–Sat). Average main course: $16.

Great Lake Warning: Everything at this high-design pizzeria is tiny. The space fits one communal table and a shelf of carefully selected sundries, while the menu consists of only a few pizzas (and no, a create-your-own option isn’t one of them). Perhaps most important, owner and pizzaolo Nick Lessins is the only one who touches the pizza, and he makes them one at a time. Could it be worth the wait? Thanks to the puffy, chewy crust; the house-pulled mozzarella; layers of fresh, earthy mushrooms; and an obsessive eye for detail, the answer, if your mouth isn’t already watering, is yes. 1477 W Balmoral Ave (773-334-9270). Dinner (Wed–Sat). Average pizza: $21.

Karyn’s Cooked Karyn Calabrese is known for her 100% organic, vegan and raw cuisine (see: Karyn’s Fresh Corner). But here she turns up the heat. These dishes are still vegan and organic but appeal to those who aren’t ready for raw, with hummus, pizza, salads and entrées made with fake meats. The restaurant serves organic wines and beer and yummy Sunday brunch, with a “conscious comfort food” vibe. Remember: In addition to meatless, vegan means no dairy or refined sugar. 738 N Wells St (312-587-1050). Brunch (Sun), lunch, dinner. Average main course: $12.

Lula Cafe For more than a decade, “conscientiously sourced,” “thoughtfully prepared” and “sustainable” have been traits of food that one could fairly describe as being “so Lula.” But at this moment, Lula’s food is more than that: The gorgeously plated dishes are greater even than the sum of their very great parts. Naming specific plates is pointless—the menu will change between reading this and arriving at the restaurant. But rest assured that every dish (sliced flat iron steak with kimchi; pork loin paired with candied peanuts) is at home in the expanded, renovated space, which transformed the cramped entry and bar area into an expansive, light-filled room, the defining feature of which is a gorgeous marble bar. 2537 N Kedzie Blvd (773-489-9554). Breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $16.

MarketHouse We realize you’re not likely to rush over to the DoubleTree for dinner (deep-pocketed remodeling or not) without the promise of deliciousness, so consider this an endorsement. Executive chef Scott Walton puts out flavorful, smart, well-executed comfort classics, slightly updated with seasonal flair. For dinner, start with a four-meat meatloaf and end with butterscotch bread pudding. Or save your decadent meal of the weekend for brunch, when Walton puts out seven types of beignets and seven kinds of biscuits and gravy. 300 E Ohio St (312-224-2200). Breakfast, brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner. Average main course: $26.

North Pond Okay, so technically you’re not eating outside, but when you’re only a few feet from a pond in the middle of Lincoln Park, you’re as close to nature as it gets in the city. Even more so when you sample chef Bruce Sherman’s latest creations, concocted with as much locally grown organic food as he can get his hands on. Sherman’s ever-changing offerings have included marrow-crusted charred flat iron steak with rutabaga-langue cake and rainbow chard and French horn mushroom floating in a porcini-madeira soup—perfectly lovely reminders of the time of year in case you can’t get a window table. 2610 N Cannon Dr (773-477-5845). Brunch (Sun), dinner (Tue–Sun). Average main course: $32.

Perennial Virant Perennial Virant (PV for short) lives and dies by chef Paul Virant’s dedication to seasonal ingredients. The seasonal urgency with which he creates some of his dishes may explain why they sometimes disappoint. But make no mistake: For every miss, there’s a phenomenal success, such as a perfect rib eye, pillowy gnocchi, robust housemade sausages and basically every cocktail on the list. 1800 N Lincoln Ave (312-981-7070). Brunch (Sat, Sun), dinner. Average main course: $19.

Province Big is the key word at Randy Zweiban’s West Loop spot, a swank take on eco-modern design, where powerfully flavorful Latin touches meet elegant, American dishes. Chorizo and smoked onions join barbecued lamb, and rabbit confit is paired with a thick marcona-almond emulsion. When a dish (basic shrimp and grits; fluke ceviche) disappoints, it’s not because it’s bad but because it just can’t hold up next to the more aggressive food on the table. 161 N Jefferson St (312-669-9900). Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner (Mon–Sat). Average main course: $17.

The Publican Diners come to this megaproject from Paul Kahan and crew for three things: to sample the massive list of brews while basking in the golden-hued, beer hall–like space, to taste impeccable charcuterie and oysters from chef Brian Huston’s dinner menu or to begin their Sundays with arguably the best brunch in town. We oscillate, but currently we’re in the latter camp, and once you taste the housemade ricotta and the thick slabs of “Publican bacon” (not the strips that come with the omelette but the top-shelf stuff), you will be, too. 837 W Fulton Market (312-733-9555). Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average shared plate: $20.

Purple Pig To understand the allure of the Pig—a collaboration of chefs Jimmy Bannos (Heaven on Seven), Scott Harris (Mia Francesca’s), Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia) and Jimmy Bannos Jr.—you have to be comfortable enough that you chat up the strangers next to you and eventually steal their food. Goat-cheese-and-squash arancini come five to an order, in an earthy sage pesto so good most people close their eyes while they savor it—that’s when you swoop in and take one. Same goes for the mortadella smear, milk-braised pork shoulder and genius deep-fried deviled egg. If you share the hot brioche stuffed with ricotta and chocolate, though, you’re an idiot. 500 N Michigan Ave (312-464-1744). Lunch, dinner. Average small plate: $7.

Terzo Piano Like the rest of the Renzo Piano–designed Modern Wing, the restaurant at the Art Institute is a beautiful space: sleek, pristine and awash with light. The highlights of the hyper-seasonal menu, which is overseen by Spiaggia’s Tony Mantuano, exhibit similar simplicity and elegance. Eschew lackluster mains in favor of flatbreads (topped with creamy burrata cheese and seasonal ingredients like scapes) and heaping salads (like pea shoots and crisped prosciutto), then end with a rich, indulgent chocolate semifreddo. (Hey, we said the place was aesthetically pleasing, not ascetic.) 159 E Monroe St, Art Institute of Chicago (312-443-8650). Lunch, dinner (Thu). Average main course: $23.

XOCO Breakfast at Rick Bayless’s most casual spot yet is quiet perfection: a cup of masterfully concocted hot chocolate, a flaky egg empanada, one hell of a sugar-and-cocoa-coated churro. Lunch here is no less delicious, but it’s a frenzy: Lines extend out the door for tortas filled with fatty, crispy pork carnitas. The crowds keep up at dinner, when caldos like braised-short-rib soup and chicken stew with toothsome posole are the ideal prelude to…another churro. 449 N Clark St (312-334-3688). Breakfast, lunch, dinner (closed Sun, Mon). Average main course: $11.

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