The Bristol The waits at this Bucktown spot are an indication of chef Chris Pandel’s loyal legion of fans—a group you’ll want to join after a few bites. The always-changing menu has a few standbys, like the dill-and-sea-salt monkey bread and the devastatingly delicious egg-and-ricotta-filled raviolo. But it’s Pandel’s daily specials—always made with as many local, sustainable vegetables and meats as possible—that steal the show. 2152 N Damen Ave (773-862-5555). El: Blue to Western. Bus: 50, 73, 74. Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $16.
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. Juicy chicken thighs get paired with rich polenta, beautifully seared walleye gets a lively dressing of salsa verde, and the Browntrout fish trio is made of some of the silkiest cured fish in the city. For the most part, eating simply just got a lot more exciting. 4111 N Lincoln Ave (773-472-4111). El: Brown to Irving Park. Bus: 11, 50, 80. Brunch (Sun), dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $20.
The Counter It’s deliberately unclear whether the name of this California-based chain refers to the long, bright-white counter that runs along one side of the room or the tally of possible burger combinations you’ll start keeping the minute you look at the menu. There are about 50 choices of ingredients to dress the burgers with, and all of them work, mainly because the patties—made with humanely raised beef— are well-cooked and juicy. When it comes to sides and drinks, decision making becomes much easier: Sweet-potato fries, onion strings and milkshakes are a no-brainer. 666 W Diversey Pkwy (773-935-1995). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Diversey. Bus: 22, 36, 76. Lunch, dinner. Average burger: $8.25.
Frontera Grill Since opening in ’87, Frontera Grill has been the spot for an intensely flavorful, impeccably fresh slice of Mexico, courtesy of celebrity chef and winner of Top Chef Masters Rick Bayless. With the help of chef Richard James, the menu changes often but the flavors are always full, punchy and bright. No matter the weather, the ceviche selection is always spot-on and you can expect stellar versions of Mexican classics like enchiladas, mole and flautas. 445 N Clark St (312-661-1434). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Merchandise Mart; Red to Grand. Bus: 22, 29, 36, 65. Brunch (Sat), lunch (Tue–Fri), dinner (Tue–Sat). Average main course: $15.
Lula Cafe This local favorite has one of the city’s best seasonally driven menus, so expect weekly changes that’ll keep you up to date on the latest crops. During brunch, look for the ricotta griddle cakes with rhubarb jam, sweet rhubarb and strawberry fool. At night, vie for a table to try specials like cavatelli with black mission figs, black olive, braised pork cheek, feta and cipollini agrodolce. Finish with the fried milk-chocolate cake with cocoa nib ice cream, rose-hip sabayon and crispy milk chocolate. 2537 N Kedzie Blvd (773-489-9554). El: Blue to Logan Square. Bus: 56, 74. Breakfast, brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $15.
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 are about as close to nature as it gets in the city. Even more so when you sample chef Bruce Sherman’s menu that’s concocted with as much locally grown organic food as he can get his hands on. Spring dishes include candied Chioggia and gold beets with smoked duck pastrami, slow-roasted halibut with Meyer lemon-chive butter and bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with a snap pea–carrot salad. 2610 N Cannon Dr (773-477-5845). Bus: 76, 151, 156. Brunch (Sun), lunch (Tue–Fri), dinner (Tue–Sun). Average main course: $30.