Cafecito You don’t have to claim a bunk at the adjacent Hostel International to get your hands on one of this café’s ridiculously good Cuban sandwiches. Sure, sides of roasted eggplant, cannellini bean salad and briny artichokes are flavorful, but there’s no confusion over the star of the show: The Cubano’s crusty bread is toasted just right, its roast pork juicy, its pickles thick, and its mustard and gooey cheese plentiful. And once it’s devoured, only a potent cortadito will keep you from calling the café’s comfy couch home for the day. 26 E Congress Pkwy (312-922-2233). El: Brown, Orange, Pink, Purple (rush hrs) to Library; Red, Blue to Jackson. Breakfast, lunch, dinner (closes 6pm Sat, Sun). Average sandwich: $5.
The Gage Aggressively flavorful, rich mainstays like the Gage burger, dripping with melted onion marmalade and gobs of Camembert, keep this downtown gastropub buzzing. But chef Dirk Flanigan’s springtime offerings are good reason to venture away from those stand-bys: Take, for instance, Alaskan halibut with spring peas, roasted saddle of elk with radishes or a pork chop with green garlic. Not hungry? Sidewalk seating across from Millennium Park is the perfect place to enjoy a sparkling cocktail like the Gage ginger fizz, made with fresh ginger. 24 S Michigan Ave (312-372-4243). El: Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, Purple (rush hrs) to Madison. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $24.
Karyn’s on Green Karyn Calabrese’s third restaurant is in the former Butter space, but her takes on “chicken” legs, “crab” cakes and peanut-butter ice “cream” are all vegan. For meat abstainers, her elegant faux-meats are godsends, and her vegetable creations, such as a pizza made of thin tortillas topped with vegan cheese or pasta made from thin strips of zucchini, will please carnivores just the same. But we admit it was the fresh, fruity cocktails and alcohol-free “elixirs,” such as the punchy Clip On, that convinced us that Calabrese had taken vegan dining in Chicago to a whole new level. 130 S Green St (312-226-6155). El: Blue to UIC/Halsted. Bus: 8, 20, 126. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $12.
Mercat a la Planxa At Jose Garces’s colorful Spanish spot in the Blackstone Hotel, chef de cuisine Michael Fiorello puts out Catalan tapas: Flavorful charred octopus is tossed with green olives and confit potato, grilled flat-iron steak is marinated in a rich sauce of nora chiles, roasted garlic and honey, and cipollini onions get stuffed with Garrotxa. All in all, the food makes enough of an impact that you’ll believe Fiorello’s claim to be something very different from a “run-of-the-mill tapas bar.” At lunch, tapas are thrown out altogether: The dishes are organized into a two-course prix fixe dubbed the “Catalan Express,” a reminder that while it’s socially acceptable to eat like the Spanish, to siesta like them is not. 638 S Michigan Ave (312-765-0524). El: Green, Orange, Red to Roosevelt. Bus: 1, 3, 4. Breakfast, brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner. Average tapa: $10.
33 Club Jerry Kleiner’s new spot is just like his others: a little clubby, a lot sceney and intricately—some might say overly—designed. The menu is filled with American staples: steak, whitefish, Caesar salad. Most of it is surprisingly disappointing, but there are some high points: A crab cake arrives with a chunky avocado “salsa,” and chips are served with an addictive onion dip. And then there’s a fantastic cheeseburger; if it’s not the most satisfying lunch in these parts right now, it’s at least close. 1419 N Wells St (312-664-1419). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Sedgwick. Bus: 72, 156. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $18.