Some of my Favorite Restaurants
This list concentrates on restaurants relatively close to the center of Chicago that really offer something extra special to the out of town visitor (and even to natives). It is by no means complete -- you'll find a lot more good places listed in Zagat's and Chicago Magazine, but only about half of my favorites are in either of those very reliable guides!
All restaurants listed take plastic unless otherwise noted. All have good non-smoking seating, and except as noted, all have good menu choices for vegetarians.
- Frontera Grill / Topolobampo 312/661-1434 Around the corner from the Jazz Showcase at 445 N Clark is one of the most interesting restaurants in the United States. The food is best described as gourmet regional Mexican cuisine, and there are really two restaurants in one here. Frontera is a big, loud, open space occupying two storefronts, and takes reservations only for parties of 5 or more. Topolobampo is in its own storefront (but accessed from within Frontera), is much quieter, somewhat more upscale, and takes reservations. All of the food for both restaurants comes out of the same kitchen, but the menus are different. This is the sort of place where you recognize the wait staff from visits five years apart. There are almost always long waits for tables here, but a little known secret is that it's almost always possible to get a table right after the first set at the Showcase! Expect to pay at least $40 per person with wine (from an excellent list), about 20% more in Topolobampo. The food ranges from meat, fish, and seafood to excellent vegetarian. Topolobampo is all non-smoking, and there's a very good non-smoking section in Frontera.
- Salpicon 312/988-7811 This family run gourmet Mexican restaurant is just over a mile north and a few blocks west (1252 North Wells), Salpicon is inspired by Frontera, and many locals think it's better! It's also much quieter and less crowded than its model, and so far, I've never had to wait for a table. Menu and prices are comparable to Topolobampo. During one of our visits a few years ago, master chef (and jazz fan) Charlie Trotter was entertaining a visiting chef from Spain at a nearby table. Need I say more? Non-smoking, and with an excellent wine list.
- Fiesta Mexicana 4806 North Broadway 773/769-4244 (next door to the Green Mill, a popular jazz club), this is much too far to walk from the Showcase, but worth the trip This is much more down to earth Mexican, but awfully good, and very inexpensive. For the cheapest great meal in town, try a Carnitas Super Taco, a small order of guacamole, and the fine salsa and chips. Or check out the garlic shrimp, swimming in butter and margarine; the excellent mole dishes. On weekends, there's a very nice seafood soup. The Dos Equis is cold. Fiesta Mexicana is also open late (2 am most nights). There's a tiny non-smoking section. There's also a second location at 2421 N. Lincoln, a few doors from the Biograph Theater. Vegetarian choices are non-existent..
- Cafe 28 1800 West Irving Park Rd 773/528-2883 This friendly, family-run neighborhood restaurant features fine Cuban and Mexican cuisine. We especially like the steak and fish entrees, consistently excellent treatment of vegetables, and the delightful selection of appetizers. Until recently, they had no liquor license, so you had to bring your own beer or wine. Now, there's a full bar with good beers and a nice wine list,. Cafe 28 is easy to reach, next to the Irviing Park stop on the Ravenswood (Brown) elevated line. The only downside to this otherwise well run restaurant is the wildly excessive noise level -- you'll need sign language to carry on a conversation in the main dining room. The outside dining area is great during the summer. Non-smoking. Expect a check in the $25 per person range for food only. The wine list is moderately priced. And this flash -- Cafe 28 is now open for lunch!
- Pizza D.O.C. 2251 W. Lawrence 773/784-8777 This classy and comfortable neighborhood Italian restaurant features wonderful thin -crust pizza and breads, as well as a full pasta and dinner menu. The daily specials are always notable, and the hearty white bread may be the best in Chicago! Service is friendly and attentive, the decor is open and airy, and both smokers and non-smokers are very well accommodated. Expect a check in the $30/person range for a full course meal without wine. Credit cards are accepted. From the center of Chicago, take the Brown Elevated line to the Western Avenue stop, then walk one block north (to the right) to Lawrence and just over one block east. (also to the right).
- Penang 2201 S. Wentworth 312/326-6888 This new Malaysian restaurant is the only one we know of in Chicago. The cooking reflects strong Chinese, Indian, and Thai influences, but the chef is really doing his own thing here. If you're adventurous (and you should be), you can expect tastes you haven't experienced elsewhere. And don't miss the Peking duck, which is not on the menu but often featured as a special -- it's well prepared and a real bargain. The kitchen can be inconsistent, but the overall quality is good. Penang is in the heart of Chinatown, one block from the Wentworth stop on the Red Subway line, about three miles south of the Jazz Showcase. About $20 per person, with a cold Tsing Tsao beer to wash it down. Non-smoking.
- Cho Sun Ok 4200 N. Lincoln Ave 773/549-5555, 348-9409 Korean barbeque and home cooking doesn't get much better (or cheaper) than in this tiny storefront, with the same owner for at least the 20 or more years we've been visitiing it. Take a party of four or more and cook at your table. Excellent kim chee in multiple varieties and flavors (cold vegetables pickled in hot spicy brine). It's hard to pass up the Dyae gi gui (grilled strips of spicy marinated pork) -- but then there's the excellent Duk man du (Korean dumpling and rice cake in mild delicate soup), or Bi bim bap (rice topped with spicy sauce, beef, variety of vegetables and fried egg) which my wife nearly always orders. It's hard to spend more than $12 per person here without having to carry something home. No liquor license, so bring your own beer or wine. Smoking is permitted, but it's not usually a problem. The #11( Lincoln Avenue) bus, accessible from the Fullerton stop on the Red or Brown elevated line, runs right past the door. Or take the Brown Line Elevated train to the Irving Park station, then walk 1/4 mile west to Lincoln and north 1/4 mile on Lincoln.
- Red Apple 3123 N. Milwaukee Ave 773/588-5781 6474 N Milwaukee Ave 773/763-3407 http://www.redapplebuffet.com These two Polish smorgasbords may be the best food bargain in Chicago. For about $5 at lunch and $6 at dinner time, you can eat far more great Polish home cooking than any human should. The emphasis is definintely on meats and meat-based stews -- turkey, chicken, beef, and pork are the mainstays -- with potatoes, steamtable vegetables and cold vegetable salads. Except for some ok blintzes, deserts are nothing special, ordinary green salads are best eaten elsewhere. Vegetarian choices are limited to the salads. There's a good no-smoking section and a full bar. Take the Milwaukee Avenue bus from the Loop to the 3121 location, and look for the huge painted sign that looks like a red apple on the right hand side. The 6474 location is two blocks north of Devon Ave, and easier to reach from the Northwest suburbs if you're driving. Get a Yahoo map! There's free parking behind the restaurant and on the street.
- Tiffin 2536 West Devon Ave 773/338-2143 This very nice Indian restaurant serves a broad menu of both meat and vegatrian dishes. On Saturdays and Sundays there's an excellent brunch served buffet style. The food is authentically spicy, and each dish is distinctly different from the next. There are some nice Indian beers, as well as three delightlful versions Lassi, a yogurt drink made fresh to order. Most full course meals are in the $15-$20 range without beer or wine. Credit cards are accepted. Take the Brown Line Elevated train to Western Avenue, then the Western Avenue bus to Devon, and walk three blocks west (left) on Devon.
- India House 59 W Grand Ave 312/645-9500 Our current favorite Indian buffet is served at lunchtime daily. Next door to the Jazz Showcase, two blocks from the Grand Ave stop on the Red Line, one block from the #22 Clark bus. There is also an extensive menu, but the buffet is way to go. Nice people, nice attitude, good service. There's a Schaumburg location (1521 W Schaumburg Rd) that we haven't tried.
- Hop Leaf Bar 5148 N Clark (at Foster Ave) 773/334-9851 This family-run establishment began as a top quality neighborhood bar about five years ago. In 2003, an equally good restaurant opened. The bar specializes in Belgian ales -- nearly a dozen are usually on draft -- as well as another dozen or so top quality American and Canadian brews. If that isn't enough, there are scores of other good beers in bottles, and the wine selection is also quite good. The bar, a very popular nieghborhood hangout, requires an oxygen mask to contend with the tobacco smoke. Hold your breathe, and walk straight back to the restaurant, which is completely non-smoking. There, you will find a delightfully eclectic menu that focuses on Belgian cooking. The menu varies throughout the year, and there are daily soup and entree specials. The sandwiches, served on a hearty dark rye, are really special, make a fine meal. The steamed mussels are also a specialty. Both are served with a generous helping of what may be the best french fries in Chicago! Appetizers and entrees typically include at least two options each for fish, duck, chicken, beef, vegetables, and seafood. There are always three interesting salads, and for dessert, a delightful plate of gourmet cheeses, with a selection of bread, nuts, and fruit, that compliments them. This is my wife's favorite restaurant, and she doesn't even drink beer! Take the Clark bus to Foster. Hop Leaf is three doors south. From the Northwest suburbs, take the Foster/Central exit from 190 (the Kennedy expressway, go east on Foster about six miles to Clark. From the Northern suburbs, take the Cicero exit from I94, go east on Foster about five miles to Clark.
- Dorado 2301 W Foster 773/561-3780 This delightful restaurant has been open less than a year, and is already full on almost any night. The menu is Mexican, but with a decidedly French accent. The menu has good options for beef, pork, fish, seafood, and vegetables, and the more adventurous you are, the more you'll enjoy it. There's no liquor license, so BYOB if you want it. Non-smoking. The Irish bar across the street has a barely acceptable selection of beers, at moderately high prices. The Foster bus goes by the front door, the Western bus stops two blocks away. From downtown, take the Brown line to Western, then north 1/2 mile on the Western bus. Or, take the Clark bus to Foster, then the Foster bus going west. There's free parking behind the restaurant and on the street. From the Northwest suburbs, take the Foster/Central exit from 190 (the Kennedy expressway, go east on Foster about six miles to Clark. From the Northern suburbs, take the Cicero exit from I94, go east on Foster about five miles to Clark.
- Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja 1549 W Divsion Ave (at Ashland/Milwaukee Av) 773/486-6655 This family run Polish restaurant opened nearly 20 years ago in a space previously occupied by a workingmen's bar. The bar is now a lunch counter, there are a dozen or so tables, and there's no liquor license. From the outside, it still looks like a bar, and you'd pass this place 99 times out of a hundred. Lucky for us, a friend who lives in the neighborhood turned us on to it a half dozen years ago. The traditional homecooked Polish food is plentiful and cheap. There are always several very nice soups, as well as a good selection of meat-based dishes, and traditional salads (relishes, krauts, pickled vegetables, etc.). Vegetarians should look elsewhere, but meat eaters will love it! Take the Milwaukee Av or Division street buses, or the Blue Line (O'Hare) subway) -- the Division St stop is across the street! If you're driving, the restaurant is about four blocks west of the Division street exit from I90/94.
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