BalsanThe casual sibling to the Elysian Hotel’s Ria serves every meal of the day, produces much of its own cured meats, and keeps season and creativity at the forefront to add interest to bistro classics. Soups and pastas are particularly well executed, the raw bar is reliably fresh (its oyster sampler includes both East and West Coast oysters), and the tarte flambé is an ideal pair with a pick from the impressive beer list. 11 E Walton St (312-646-1400). El: Red to Chicago. Bus: 36, 66, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 151. Breakfast, lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner. Average main course: $20.
La SardineDevotees of Wicker Park’s Le Bouchon might tell you otherwise, but the bistro essentials at this sibling spot are just as tasty as those at the home base. The setting here is much more open and airy, but the rest of the package is pretty much the same: plump mussels drenched in creamy white-wine broth, onion soup that tests even serious cheese lovers’ thresholds, juicy grilled hanger steak with bordelaise, and simple bouillabaisse jam-packed with seafood. The wine list is half price on Mondays, there’s a $25 three-course meal Tuesdays, and on Fridays oysters on the half shell are only $1 at the bar. 111 N Carpenter St (312-421-2800). Bus: 8, 9, 19, 20. Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner (closed Sun). Average main course: $22.
Mac and Min’sMark Bires and Mindy Friedler, the owners of Jerry’s Sandwiches, turned the former West Loop outpost into an ode to po’ boys, chicory coffee, gumbo and muffulettas. Shrimp and oysters are fried in a crunchy cornmeal coating for the po’ boys; on the flip side, the muffuletta is a juice bomb, layers of ham, mortadella, coppicola and salami dripping with olive relish between chewy La Farine bread. These sandwiches are meals in themselves, but a cup of the rich seafood gumbo can help kill the time before they arrive—you just have to bring one of those New Orleans–size appetites. 1045 W Madison St (312-563-1008). Bus: 8, 20. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $9.
Maude’s Liquor BarThe industry crowd that hangs out at Maude’s rarely makes it in before midnight. But the rest of us should make a point to get there earlier, when the kitchen, helmed by Alinea vet Jeff Pikus, is still open. That way we can gulp down delicious whiskey smashes; stab at shellfish towers made of oysters and other fruits de mer (fruits of the sea); nosh on butter-smooth chicken liver slathered on toast with fig marmalade; nibble on smoky slabs of pork belly, fanned over a pitch-perfect salad lyonnaise; and tear into drunken braised chicken thighs and legs. 840 W Randolph St (312-243-9712). El: Green, Pink to Clinton. Bus: 8, 20, 56. Dinner (closed Sun, Mon). Average small plate: $12.
Paris Club This bistro’s efforts at updated French fare are going in a lot of directions, from cheeky takes on croque-monsieur (as “fingers”) for Hub 51 fans to traditional steak frites and oysters on the half shell for diners who still think this is Brasserie Jo. We had the best time by leaving expectations at the door and diving into a frisée salad with lardons in every bite, an elegant seafood platter with shells of scallop-uni tartare, and the “coq au vin,” a take on the classic that pairs a braised thigh and a roasted, crisp-skinned breast. 59 W Hubbard St (312-595-0800). El: Red to Grand. Bus: 22, 29, 36, 65. Dinner. Average main course: $18.
Shaw’s Crab HouseThere’s nothing wrong with splurging on lobster or king crab and wanting to enjoy it in this institution’s formal dining room. We just prefer the freedom of getting down and dirty in the adjacent bar, where we can slurp fresh oysters, crack open crab claws and dunk our lobster tail in copious amounts of butter—all without earning a sideways glance from a stiff in a suit. The quality remains just as high (it’s all coming from the same kitchen), and there’s no pressure to splurge on wine. (All the better since we like to wash down our seafood with beer anyhow.) 21 E Hubbard St (312-527-2722). El: Red to Grand. Bus: 29, 36, 62, 65. Brunch (Sun), lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner. Average main course: $28.