Bagel on Damen Bagel on Damen is not so much a restaurant as an assemblage of products: Bagels are dropped off each morning from Lincolnwood’s unparalleled New York Bagel & Bialy; Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee is shipped weekly from its Brooklyn roastery; and there’s a small selection of carefully sourced specialty dry goods available as well. For NY Bagel and Stumptown devotees, the goods here may not stack up. But for the rest of us, bagel sandwiches (such as the Breakfast II: a mish-mosh bagel topped with cream cheese, an egg, bacon and avocado) are beyond comparison. 1252 N Damen Ave (773-772-2243). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Breakfast, lunch. Average main course: $7.
Birchwood Kitchen The Pastoral vets behind this cozy BYOB know the secret to making a sandwich more than just a sandwich: sourcing. That’s why they let a brunch plate of smoked salmon take its cues from creamy Zingerman’s goat cheese, and why Mint Creek Farms lamb gets sliced onto a baguette, then dipped in a sweet jus. And now that burgers have been added to the menu on weekdays—including a turkey-burger with chipotle-sage aioli and a salmon burger with pickled ginger—we’re beginning to consider the shaded back patio more as our personal backyard. 2211 W North Ave (773-276-2100). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 49, 50, 72. Lunch, dinner (closed Mon). Average sandwich: $8.
La Fonda del Gusto Lisa Lee and Jose Palomino took over this restaurant from Lee’s aunt, who operated Taqueria y Restaurant el Gusto in the same space. Now the place looks like a proper neuvo-Mexicano joint—but for the most part, the food remains in that common, corner-taqueria category. That’s not a bad thing: The queso fundido sprinkled with chorizo is decadent and satisfying, and the snapper Veracruzana-style is a well-executed, piquant dish. Anybody coming here for something completely different from what it used to be, however, should consider themselves warned that the upgrade was mostly aesthetic. 1408 N Milwaukee Ave (773-278-6100). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 56, 70, 72. Brunch (Sun, Sat), dinner. Average main course: $13.
LOKaL You’ll be forgiven for not knowing what to expect passing by LOKaL. It looks like a mod lounge but serves various European flavors; it opens daily at 9am, but it’s mostly a late-night spot. (After 10pm most nights, live music gives the place a loungy atmosphere.) If you’re a fan of anything fat, fried and creamed, though, almost everything here will make sense. Cabbage is shaped into a patty and deep fried; tender short ribs are topped with a dollop of goat-cheese cream and mashed potatoes are stuffed inside thin, delicate dough for classic pierogi. 1904 W North Ave (773-904-8113). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Breakfast, brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner. Average main course: $15.
Pannenkoeken Café If you’re going to get a pannenkoeken (crêpe-like pancake) here—and that’s what you came for, right?—it may as well be the one topped with salami and cheese. It’s more about the toppings than the pancake itself, but because the salami has a greasy, meaty punch to it, you won’t mind. The rest of the menu—eggs, bacon, waffles—is all fine, but nothing really exemplary. So beware the Dutch aspect of this place. Food of this nationality may be a novelty, but at the end of the day it’s simple, unremarkable diner food just the same. 2257 W North Ave (773-227-6600). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 49, 56, 72. Breakfast, lunch. Average main course: $8.
Redhot Ranch Sometimes you’ll see a couple of locals stroll up to the counter here and try to place an order.” Got burgers?” they’ll ask. “Tacos?” The answer is nope and nope. Whatever used to inhabit this stand-alone shack on Western clearly excelled in variety, but the new dive, Redhot Ranch, is using a different tactic: minimal selection, flawless execution. Juicy Depression dogs are served with fresh-cut fries that are crisp on the outside and pillowy inside; shrimp, available by the half or full pound, are entirely greaseless. All of it is served until 4am during the week and 5am on weekends. If the neighborhood knows what’s good for it, this place won’t be lacking for customers for long. 2072 N Western Ave (773-772-6020). El: Blue to Western. Bus: 49, 56, 73. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $3.
The Southern If Chaise Lounge was faux–Miami Beach, its transformation to the Southern has rendered it faux-rustic-whiskey-bar. Or is this faux-log-cabin? Whatever it is, it’s not the decor that will drive you here—it’s chef Cary Taylor’s Southern bar food. Fluffy hush puppies are paired with smoky trout dip, corn-bread salad is topped with fried Vidalia onions, and thin johnnycakes are served with pulled pork that drips in cider and juices. Crab cakes are fat but regulation in flavor, and a mud pie is rich but lacks complexity, so stick with the other stuff. Or stick with cocktails, which are strong enough to help you forget your surroundings. 1840 W North Ave (773-342-1840). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Brunch (Sun), dinner (Tue–Sun). Average main course: $15.
Taxim The cozy, cushy, Byzantine-style dining room. The simple (and often simply delicious) seasonal Mediterranean food. It’s all the vision of David Schneider, the chef-owner of this dim Greek den. Minimal ingredients are needed for a pouf of housemade phyllo filled with leeks and flanked by goat feta or a whole loup de mar with crackly-crisp skin alongside dandelion salad, but solid execution yields maximum flavors. Nice prices and a share-everything platform mean more dough for sampling through the superb Greek wine list. 1558 N Milwaukee Ave (773-252-1558). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Lunch (Sat, Sun), dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $22.
Tocco Bruno Abate, the dapper proprietor of Fulton Market’s Follia, is at it again. This time, he’s brought his game to Wicker Park with a dining room that could be an Alessi showroom, an affordable wine list and a menu of housemade pastas and wood-fired pizzas that tops out at 20 bucks. While we can’t recommend blowing much on main courses, we are partial to the pizzas, with consistently delicious thin crusts and toppings like silky prosciutto and fresh mozz. 1266 N Milwaukee Ave (773-687-8895). El: Blue to Division. Bus: 9, 56, 70. Dinner. Average main course: $18.