The fact that you can come as you are, wearing anything from your finest duds to your most threadbare concert tee, makes this, the paragon of Chicago indie-owned restaurants, a “midscale” dining destination. But any compromises you make with your fashion choices won’t prevent you from sampling the decidedly upscale fare. While he focuses on his other projects, such as Avec and a new gastropub in the Fulton Market district, executive chef Paul Kahan has ceded the day-to-day execution of his food philosophy of pork, pork and more pork to chef de cuisine Mike Sheerin. Sheerin has brought a bit of inventive whimsy to the menu, including pairing smoked grapes with wild venison and hibiscus-flavored jus with pork belly. 619 W Randolph St, 312-715-0708.
Last year saw many new—and adorable—bakeries open to fanfare, but Molly’s Cupcakes in Lincoln Park is drawing the largest number of fans. Named after owner John Nickolaids’s first-grade teacher, whom he remembers fondly for bringing cupcakes to class on students’ birthdays, the café sports swings for seats, board games, a kitschy decor and, of course, loads of cupcakes. If none of the freshly baked varieties, such as vanilla filled with luscious lemon curd or chocolate topped with ganache, suit your fancy, create your own delectable combination by selecting your favorite cake, frosting and toppings. 2536 N Clark St, 773-883-7220.
Large, wide booths, dark wood tables and chairs, and a blinking red sign outside give Fat Cat the vibe of an old-school supper club, but the menu reads like one from a classic bar and grill—with a twist. A burger gets a goofy topping of Velveeta cheese and black-bean dip comes with layers of pico de gallo and cheddar cheese on top (“south of the border meets mid-west potluck” explains the menu). The drink menu works the same high-low concept, with selections ranging from Miller to Unibroue. 4840 N Broadway, 773-506-3100.
While a great fried-chicken batter is quite an accomplishment, it takes more than being finger-licking good to win soul-food lovers’ hearts. Sixty years as a community fixture, political arena and postchurch gathering spot seems to have done the trick (in addition to that damn good chicken). From the Louisiana gumbo to the open-faced roast beef sammies, the homestyle fare at Army & Lou’s has become a Chicago fixture. 422 E 75th St, 773-483-3100.
Thumbing his nose at the foie-gras ban (he got fined for serving the “Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage”) and bringing inventive culinary-school chops to the humble hot dog, owner Doug Sohn is the punk-rock provocateur of encased meat. Sohn does it his way, closing at 4pm every day, taking impromptu holidays, piping in a soundtrack of the Dead Kennedys and dunking french fries in duck fat. But while Sohn follows his muse, he doesn’t limit your choices—there are always 20-plus sausages available, ranging from a basic Windy City salad dog to citrus-Burgundy pork sausage topped with sun-dried tomato mustard and blue cheese drizzled with honey. 3324 N California Ave, 773-279-9550.
As general manager, sommelier and chief mixologist for Nacional 27, Seger is Chicago’s culinary triple threat. His libations, like heirloom-tomato and thyme–infused batidas and strawberry balsamic mojitos, are as stylish as his Savile Row duds. He’s the ultimate craftsman, banishing harsh bar mixers in favor of housemade cocktail bitters, freshly squeezed juices and custom liquors, including tobacco-infused Maker’s Mark. His smoky, sweet and savory signature, El Corazon, a passion fruit–pomegranate margarita with a salt and Tellicherry peppercorn rim and a Del Maguey mezcal float, is as balanced as Mary Lou Retton. 325 W Huron St, 312-664-2727.
Only a Kerry Wood heater away from Wrigley, this is the perfect place to endure one more year in a century of Cubs futility with the companionship of fellow suffering fans, see up-and-coming bands (Phish, Dave Matthews and No Doubt all played here), overpay for an Old Style and score great odds for a late-night hook-up. In the off-season, the 80 plasma TVs and five giant projection screens that flank the cavernous space never go cold, as there’s plenty of NFL and college football action to keep you warm during those frigid Wrigleyville winters. 1059 W Addison St, 773-327-1662.
Chalk one up for democracy. It may not be the oldest, the swankiest or the hippest meat market in town, but unlike at other storied local spots, everyone chowing down on cow here—from the fanny pack–clad tourists to the corporate expense–account set—is treated like a celebrity. White-jacketed waiters work a time-honored shtick of allowing wide-eyed diners to choose from a selection of raw filets or mutant-sized lobster tails from a tray brought tableside. Regulars know to order a to-go box along with their entrees—these suckers are big. 1028 N Rush St, 312-266-8999.
“Pass the Purell, it’s dinner time.” Our readers love to get their hands dirty at Addis Abeba. This Ethiopian gem—which relocated to Evanston after 15 years in Wrigleyville—offers a delightfully intimate dining experience. Communal to the core, the restaurant serves entire parties off the same oversized platter, each stewlike entrée oozing into the next. Eschewing cutlery in favor of spongy injera bread for scooping up morsels preserves authenticity—as does the menu, which features dishes inherited from the owner’s mother. Wash down the pudgy, lentil-stuffed sambosas, yellow split peas sauteed with mushrooms and cardamom-seasoned tartar with delicate honey wine. 1322 Chicago Ave, Evanston, 847-328-5411.
Attempting to accommodate both whiskey-swigging bar-huggers and haute-cuisine enthusiasts in the pages of one menu is madness. Doubly so when attempting to do it from a Michigan Avenue address. It’s no wonder it took a couple of nutty Irishmen—that would be Billy and William Lawless, the father-and-son team behind the Grafton (which they no longer own) and Irish Oak—to pull it off. Running the gamut from a fanciful smoked-haddock cake dressed with a delicate crème fraîche to the requisite parcel of newspaper-wrapped fish and chips, the inventive menu ups the ante on Irish fare. 24 S Michigan Ave, 312-372-4243.
It’s ironic that the only conventional aspect of this restaurant—its jacket requirement—would score Alinea an Eat Out Award. What elevates Alinea to a dining destination unlike any other in Chicago (or the world, for that matter)? We can thank the sum of its many unique parts: designer Martin Kastner’s sculptural tableware, sommelier Joe Catterson’s unfailingly accurate wine pairings and chef Grant Achatz’s norm-shattering dishes, such as black-truffle ravioli served alongside a smoldering oak branch to impart extra earthiness. 1723 N Halsted St, 312-867-0110.
In the almost ten years since Sushi Wabi has been open, sushi restaurants of varying prices and styles have popped up all over the city. But this small, sleek space hasn’t lost its appeal. The 20-seat sushi bar allows diners to watch the masters at work while they artfully prepare maki and nigiri. Presentation is king at this scene-y restaurant, so opt for the show-stoppers such as the Tarantula roll (soft-shell crab, fresh crab, cucumber, avocado and red tobiko), which snakes across the wooden block on which it’s served. 842 W Randolph St, 312-563-1224.
Hotel dining usually means rubbery shrimp cocktail and steak dripping in cloying béarnaise sauce, but executive chef Christophe David has established this North Mag Mile kitchen as a bulwark against nostalgic gastronomy. The French-born and -trained chef boldly jettisons his homeland’s typical dishes laden with cream and butter in favor of a summertime brew of frothy watermelon soup with lobster-encrusted croutons, or slow-cooked bass with celery noodles. But while you can take the chef out of France, you can’t take the French out of the chef: His Parmesan-and-butter–infused risotto and burgundy-truffle crème brûlée are as calorically astronomical as the dining room’s Dale Chihuly chandeliers are pricey. 800 N Michigan Ave, 312-239-4030.
“Save room for dessert” has never been a wiser adage than when Mindy Segal’s sweets are on the line. The chef-owner of HotChocolate does things with sugar, flour and chocolate that persuade even the most die-hard Atkins adherents to say “just this once.” The namesake drink comes in multiple strengths depending on the level of chocolate intensity desired. Her Chocolate #1 dish includes both salty flavors, in the form of homemade pretzels and salted caramel ice cream, and bitter, in a dark-chocolate soufflé cake. Decadent as Segal’s creations are, we’ve never had trouble finishing one. 1747 N Damen Ave, 773-489-1747.
Who says brunch has to be a greasy, carb-laden affair that leaves you feeling sluggish (and in desperate need of Tums)? Certainly not Helen and Michael Cameron, longtime owners of Lakeview’s beloved Uncommon Ground. Teeming with sustainable, local and seasonal fare, the new location has dramatically raised the bar for Edgewater breakfasters with dishes such as whole-wheat banana pancakes with organic goji syrup and a lumberjack-worthy bacon-cheddar melt. Not content with merely improving upon the stuffy old eggs Benny, the restaurant also turns up the wattage on early-morning libations with a blood-orange Bellini and bacon Bloody Mary. 1401 W Devon Ave, 773-465-9801.
Contemporary coolness kissed with classic touches makes this West Loop spot hot. Chef Kendal Duque’s pork rillette (meat preserved in its own fat) hearkens to a refrigeration-free era, while his method for scooping the tender hunks of porky perfection, a stained-glass–like pane of bacon pistachio brittle, is pure new millennium. Likewise, the dining room, filled with rustic wood and industrial brick accented by crystal chandeliers wrapped in gray translucent hoods, embodies both a ’20s speakeasy and a cutting-edge downtown lounge. 123 N Jefferson St, 312-441-1920.
SIX GEESE A-POURING We’d institute a “draft” at Goose Island. Hey oh!
Photo: Martha Williams
Best Local Brewery Goose Island
Other nominees: Flossmoor Station, Half Acre, Piece, Rock Bottom, Three Floyds, Two Brothers
Getting bigger has only made Goose better. Though such stalwarts as rich, malty Honkers and hoppy India Pale Ale are as ubiquitous as Bud and Miller on local taps, the Hall family has avoided diluting the quality of their pours. Smaller-volume brews, such as their Belgian abbey–style Pere Jacques and funky-smelling Matilda, compete head-to-head with ales from Belgian breweries. At the brewpub level, creativity and one-off batches still reign alongside some of the best brewpub eats around, including the stinky, gut-busting Stilton burger and the flaky battered walleye fish and chips. 1800 N Clybourn Ave, 312-915-0071; 3535 N Clark St, 773-832-9040.
Chorizo-stuffed dates, cauliflower and garlic crostini, and red pepper and tomato–braised cod are just three of the delectable small plates that have people hooked on Avec. The space is cramped, the noise unbearable and the no-reservation policy frustrating, but the food is just too good to stay away. The wine list offers selections from all over the Mediterranean, and many are available by the glass or carafe—perfect for those who want a single drink with a quick bite instead of an entire bottle. Our only complaint about the food? When small plates are this delicious, we wish they were just a little bit larger. 615 W Randolph St, 312-377-2002.
Best TV Chef Rick Bayless
Other nominees: Gale Gand, Dale Levitski, Art Smith
Levitski may have better hair for television, but it’s Frontera Grill/Topolobampo/Frontera Fresco chef Rick Bayless, and his PBS show, Mexico—One Plate at a Time, who is nearest to readers’ hearts. In today’s TV landscape, when so many cooking shows rely on a gimmick, Bayless’s no-frills approach to regional Mexican cuisine is refreshing. Like the food he serves at his three restaurants, he’s unpretentious and effortlessly interesting.
It might be our readers’ favorite neighborhood joint, but droves from across the city flock to Hopleaf, too. Come prepared to make tough decisions, because 45 beer selections are on draft (including the city’s largest selection of Belgian offerings), and the list of bottled brews runs 13 pages. Luckily, the menu stands up to the food, with options such as the CB&J, a pan-fried sandwich made with cashew butter, fig preserves and Morbier cheese; and rabbit legs braised in beer. 5148 N Clark St, 773-334-9851.