Burger BarChef John McLean opened this burger joint after many years at Levy Restaurants. With a background in corporate eating and a penchant for calling his eateries “concepts,” we wonder: Will there one day be a Burger Bar on every corner? Possibly. And Chicago wouldn’t necessarily be worse off if there were: The fried pickles are appropriately crunchy, and burgers—whether decadently stacked with short ribs and caramelized fennel or refreshingly made up of sushi-grade tuna—are, if not incredible, at least incredibly decent. 1578 N Clybourn Ave (312-255-0055). El: Red to North/Clybourn. Bus: 8, 9, 33, 72, 132. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.
Epic BurgerOne difference between the South Loop Epic Burger and this new location, which is located in what might now be called the mall district: This place is BYOB. Aside from that—and a few pretty awesome paintings of Epic’s burgers, and some handsome natural-wood furniture—it is business as usual here. Burger patties are pressed down on the griddle to earn crisp, lacey edges; smoothies are fruity and refreshing (the Four Berry) or creamy and tangy (the Lemon Squeeze). 1000 W North Ave (312-440-9700). El: Red to North/Clybourn. Bus: 8, 9, 72. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $9.
Gemini BistroChef Jason Paskewitz is giving the people what they want at this neighborhood bistro: comforting, familiar food, mostly impeccably prepared. Steak frites arrive with a pool of marrow-rich bordelaise, the house burger is tucked into a hearty pretzel bun, and the crème brûlée is so exemplary it reminds us that the tried-and-true dessert can actually stand out. 2075 N Lincoln Ave (773-525-2522). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Armitage. Bus: 11, 73, 74. Brunch (Sun), dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $20.
Perennial VirantChef Paul Virant (of Vie in Western Springs) makes his return to the city when he takes over the Perennial space (which at press time was slated to happen at the end of May). His farm-to-table philosophy will travel with him, but here things will be a little more casual. Perhaps best of all: The restaurant soon plans to offer an ambitious brunch. 1800 N Lincoln Ave (312-981-7070). Bus: 11, 22, 36, 72, 73. Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $22.
SproutAt this cozy Lincoln Park spot, Dale Levitski is challenging diners with inventive flavor combinations. A green salad comes with shaved licorice root; a cheese course arrives as a grilled cheese sandwich; short ribs come with decadent truffle dumplings. For his new brunch, he offers items like his Thai take on shrimp and grits, but parents, take note: Brunch is adults-only. 1417 W Fullerton Ave (773-348-0706). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs), Red to Fullerton. Bus: 9, 11, 74. Dinner (closed Sun, Mon). Average tasting menu: $60.
Taco JointDuck carnitas tacos and tall margaritas. Do humans need anything more? Actually, yes: We need the birria taco, too. And come to think of it, the cochinita (pork paired with pickled onions) and barbacoa (savory braised beef) tacos are pretty necessary, too. The owners of Zocalo pared down their ambitions for this relatively small restaurant. In doing so, they greatly enhanced the experience of eating there. 1969 N Halsted St (312-951-2457). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Armitage; Red to North/Clybourn. Bus: 8, 72, 73. Lunch, dinner. Average taco: $3.
Athenian Room The theory goes like this: The first time you eat at this unassuming Greek spot, you may try the gyro salad—well-spiced slices of meat sitting atop simple greens—and you’ll think: “Not bad.” Next time, you’ll try the creamy taramasalata on warm rounds of pita, and say: “Pretty good.” But according to the cultish customer base that swears by this place, it’s on your third visit—when you order the juicy chicken kebabs, the vinegary Greek fries or the flaky spanakopita—that the spell is cast. 807 W Webster Ave (773-348-5155). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs), Red to Fullerton. Bus: 8, 11, 22, 74. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $8.
Merlo La Trattoria The team behind the Merlo mini empire has added a third to the family, this one decidedly downscale with mismatched plates, wooden tables topped with rustic runners and a menu of trattoria staples, many hailing from the family’s hometown of Bologna. Tender, chilled rabbit meat on crostini and yellowfin house-cured in EVOO are a good start, and housemade pastas are simple yet tasty, but the real accolades belong to the braised chicken legs in a forest’s worth of ’shrooms and the tremendous desserts. 1967 N Halsted St (312-951-8200). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Armitage. Bus: 8, 73. Dinner. Average main course: $13.
Red Rooster Candles provide nearly all the light in this sister restaurant to Café Bernard. Luckily you don’t need to see the meaty snails in garlic butter, or the tender beef bourguignonne on a bed of egg noodles, to know it tastes incredible. However, you will wish you had a flashlight for the shockingly inexpensive wine list—many bottles are $29 or less. 2100 N Halsted St (773-929-7660). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Armitage. Bus: 8, 73, 74. Dinner. Average main course: $16.
R.J. Grunts The James Beard Foundation’s latest Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year, Rich Melman, started his Lettuce Entertain You empire with this hamburger and salad-bar joint 40 years ago with much of the same look it has today. It’s still the only place in town to get the thick, juicy “Gruntburger,” topped with addictive fried onions and blue-cheese dressing (which we recommend with a side of wings and a spoonable milkshake). 2056 N Lincoln Park West (773-929-5363). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Armitage. Bus: 11, 22, 36, 73. Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.