“You’re our advertising right now,” a server joked while uncorking a bottle of wine for my dining partner and me on a recent visit to Dear Margaret, a French-Canadian restaurant near the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. We were tucked into a cubby-like space at the front of the restaurant, our table framed by a window draped with gauzy blinds facing out onto Lincoln Avenue, where passersby might be able to sneak a look at our meal. There probably wasn’t enough foot traffic at 9pm to allow for many chance glimpses, but still—I’ll happily serve as advertising for Dear Margaret, which has provided some of my favorite dining experiences of the past year or so.
Helmed by executive chef Ryan Brosseau (Le Sud; Table, Donkey and Stick) and owner Lacey Irby, Dear Margaret opened in early 2021 as a takeout-only venture, when COVID-19 closures left indoor dining off the table. I’m told Dear Margaret’s food stands up well as takeaway, but I can’t imagine eating it anywhere other than the sweet little restaurant itself. Warm and nearly always bustling, it’s the type of place that gives you a good feeling the instant you step inside, with wide-paneled wooden flooring, honeyed lighting and a smattering of homey decor befitting of its namesake—Brosseau’s grandmother, the muse behind the restaurant’s French-Canadian menu.
Brosseau also draws inspiration for the menu from his upbringing in the agricultural reaches of southern Ontario, a region not entirely unlike the Great Lakes states of the U.S., with an emphasis on seasonality and ingredients sourced from the Midwest. That translates to a selection of ever-changing delights; blink and that tomato salad you loved so much when you dined in August will be gone, replaced by an equally-appealing plate of kale, squash and thin slices of pear.
Luckily for returning diners, a few stalwarts are permanent fixtures on the menu, like the excellent fried smelts, an appetizer that finds the petite fish nestled among pickled veggies and served with herb-flecked tartar sauce and lemon wedges. Prepared in beef tallow, the smelts take on an airy, buttery quality; the pickles soften ever so slightly without losing their bite.
Another brief note of appreciation here: Despite its fundamental tilt toward richness, Brosseau’s cuisine never shies away from bracing, acidic flavors, whether in the form of briny pickles, salads slicked in extra-tart vinaigrette or neon Piparra peppers burrowed among pan-roasted sablefish. Some dishes are less memorable than others, especially among the larger plates, but I’ve yet to find any true duds among the menu’s ranks. I don’t think you will, either.
Above all, Dear Margaret holds a place in my heart because it epitomizes the sensuality of dining out—not just good food, but good food enjoyed amid warm lighting, snippets of conversation from the table next to you and the chance to linger awhile over a bottle of wine or a post-dinner coffee. Amid a stretch of years when we’ve all had too few of those experiences, I’m grateful that Dear Margaret provides a reminder of all the magic that restaurants can offer.
The vibe: Humble yet chic; an appealing marriage of high ceilings and vintage-looking furnishings.
The food: French-Canadian fare with Midwestern inflections. Dishes are arranged from small (best split between the table) to large (which can be split or eaten a la carte), plus a menu of cheese, charcuterie and house-made bread.
The drink: You can’t go wrong with the excellent list of bottles assembled by wine director Terry McNeese, though beer drinkers should check out a small-but-interesting selection of Canadian brews.
Time Out tip: Whatever time of year you visit, plan to kick off your meal with an order of fried smelts.