Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Alfresco!

Our annual, invaluable guide to outdoor dining

by

comment

A Tavola

2148 W. Chicago | 773-276-7567

$$$

ITALIAN | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

The dining room at A Tavola is dimly lit and intimate, with only ten tables, though there are 12 more out on the patio. The menu is equally tiny, so strict vegetarians may have a hard time making the most of it. I went with the halibut, lightly dusted with seasoned flour and panfried, accompanied by a lemon and caper sauce—very simple, but perfectly moist and light. An appetizer of grilled portobello and sauteed oyster mushrooms stood out for its surprisingly complex flavor. There are also pasta dishes, including the best gnocchi I've ever had, swimming in sage butter and topped with fried sage leaves. I'm one who believes there are few more wonderful things you can do with food than bake it with a crisp crust of Parmesan cheese, so the polenta may have been my favorite. There was one bite left at the end of the night, and I seriously thought about having it wrapped up. —David Wilcox

Anteprima

5316 N. Clark | 773-506-9990

$$$

ITALIAN | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Owner Marty Fosse ran the front of the house at Spiaggia at one time, and while Anteprima is a far cry from that rarefied temple of la cucina Italiana, his neighborhood place has many virtues. A dozen or so antipasti lead the menu, which changes frequently. My table's orders of orecchiette with lamb sausage and dandelion greens arrived merely warm and a little gummy, but an order of spaghetti with fava beans was damn near perfect. Main dishes include a brick-grilled baby chicken, New York strip, and wood-grilled rabbit. There's a long, all-Italian wine list with plenty of quartino options and a decent selection of grappa and other digestives. Good luck scoring a table out on the lovely enclosed back patio. —Mike Sula

Athena

212 S. Halsted | 312-655-0000

$$

GREEK, MEDITERRANEAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL MIDNIGHT

At Athena you'll find old-world fare like loukaniko (homemade sausage), dolmades, lamb with artichokes in lemon sauce, and galaktobouriko, a faintly lemon-flavored custard that floats beneath several flaky layers of honey-soaked phyllo dough. The bright interior is spacious and colorful, but the big draw is the two-level outdoor garden, open spring to fall. Still, that's not what keeps at least one customer coming. Someone who's been dining here weekly since 1996, when the Tsoukalas family opened Athena, told me, "They make you feel comfortable, and that's not true of all these Greek restaurants." —Ryan Hubbard

Bad Dog Tavern

4535 N. Lincoln | 773-334-4040

$$$

BAR/LOUNGE, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2

The global-fusion-meets-contemporary-American menu at this sleek room is several cuts above bar food. An order of tempura-style green beans comes with a lime-ginger-soy dipping sauce; another successful fusion is the goat cheese wonton appetizer. There are pizzas with classic toppings, and sandwiches and salads with interesting twists, plus hearty entrees like an herb-marinated pork tenderloin served with garlic mashed potatoes. The several choices on tap include Delirium Tremens, and and there's an outdoor patio that's almost the size of the bar. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Big Star

1531 N. Damen | 773-235-4039

$

BAR/LOUNGE, MEXICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2 | cash only | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Unlike Paul Kahan's other ventures (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican), Big Star is a bar. Both food (by Justin Large, formerly of Avec) and drink (by Michael Rubel of Violet Hour) are pitched to a very agreeable price point, making the place a surefire, low-cost, high-value good time. If you're not in the mood for a well-engineered cocktail, you can slum it with a one-buck Schlitz shorty. Or if you just can't decide between a mixed drink and beer, try a michelada—Tecate in a salt-rimmed glass, with tomato juice, lime, and house-made hot sauce. Either way, pop for a five-buck platter of guacamole with chips and drop an extra buck for chiles toreados, a small bowl of peppers with flavorful heat. The queso fundido is surpassingly wonderful. High-quality pork belly, lamb, and al pastor tacos are served on fresh house-made mini tortillas that make the big flavors seem almost dainty. The downside: there are only a few tables and they're for parties of four or more, so smaller groups have to hover and pounce on just-vacated bar stools; the utilitarian patio, once a parking lot, is likewise always packed. But the carryout window is always an option. —David Hammond

Birchwood Kitchen

2211 W. North | 773-276-2100

$

AMERICAN, EUROPEAN | LUNCH: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY; DINNER: TUESDAY-FRIDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | BYO

There's not a cheap shortcut to be found at this ambitious sandwich shop from former Pastoral cheeseman Daniel Sirko and partner Judd Murphy (also of Pastoral). Like every new venture these days it invokes the mantra of local, seasonal, and sustainable, but here those words have real meaning, with ingredients of hot and cold sandwiches—plus a make-your-own option with house-roasted meats (turkey, ham, beef)—largely sourced in the midwest and served on Labriola and Red Hen breads. The prices reflect that commitment, with most sandwiches in the $6-$9 range, such as a goat cheese and pickled beet sandwich with walnut pesto or a tuna melt with Gruyere and roasted tomato. The additional selection of small plates, soups and sides is augmented by burgers and a weekend brunch menu with items such as croque madame, Belgian waffles, and polenta and eggs. —Mike Sula

Bistro Campagne

4518 N. Lincoln | 773-271-6100

$$$

FRENCH | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH

A reliable choice for classic French fare. The kitchen places a premium on organic ingredients; even the wine list has several bottles from sustainably farmed vineyards. The menu offers bistro standards such as French onion soup and mussels; entrees include steak frites and rotating preparations of lamb and duck. Escargots, delivered spitting hot, are prepared with a garlic-Pernod butter and a liberal dusting of bread crumbs for a sort of "snails casino" effect. Roast chicken, crispy on the outside and juicy within, was served over a bed of rich mushroom ragout and topped with a crazy blossom of fried onion. For dessert there's a creamy creme brulee, pot au chocolat, house-made ice cream and sorbet, or perhaps a seasonal tart. The cozy, Prairie-inflected dining rooms are comfortable, but the outdoor-garden seating is also popular. —Martha Bayne

The Orbit Room
  • The Orbit Room

La Bocca Della Verita

4618 N. Lincoln | 773-784-6222

$$$

ITALIAN | lunch: Saturday-Sunday; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

The decor at this reasonably priced Lincoln Square spot is homey rather than hip—and that's what its fans love about it. La Bocca is simply a casual place to get a very good Italian meal. We took the waiter's recommendation and ordered the special chicken dish of the night—lightly breaded and served with a refreshing blend of arugula and vegetables—and the duck-stuffed ravioli in a savory tomato cream sauce; both were excellent. But there's a lot more to try: close to 20 appetizers including celery-apple and fennel salads, homemade pastas, and entrees such as a whole branzino, not a fish you see very often. An appealing sidewalk cafe provides extra seating in warm weather. —Rachel Klein

Boka

1729 N. Halsted | 312-337-6070

$$$

CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

The menu of Giuseppe Tentori, a nine-year veteran of Charlie Trotter's, consistently pops with startling, enjoyable items. Scallop-stuffed squid with baby spinach, spicy pineapple, and black tapioca was one of the weirdest-looking plates I've set eyes on in a while and texturally freaky too—squishes and pops in every bite—but really tasty and fun to eat. A hyperglobal salad of Peruvian tabouli, English cucumbers, haricots verts, Greek feta, and radishes was an interesting combination of flavors, though the saffron risotto (no longer on the menu) took things too far—does anyone ever see flakes of gold leaf on a plate and think, "Mmmm, metal?" But it was sumptuous veal cheeks, topped with a dollop of excellent house-made mustard and served with broccoli hash and cauliflower-Yukon Gold potato puree, that won the day. Service was deft, knowledgeable, and unruffled despite the packed house on a Friday, and there's elegant outdoor seating. —Mike Sula

Bonsoiree Cafe & Delicacies

2728 W. Armitage | 773-486-7511

$$$

CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: sunday, TUESDAY-saturDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO

This smart BYO spot started life as a casual deli and cafe but hit its stride after introducing multicourse prix fixe dinners. The eclectically influenced contemporary American menu showcases clean, streamlined, seasonal flavors; tasting menus are now available in five, seven, and 13 courses. On Saturdays the restaurant offers an $85 six-course "underground dinner"; to get an invite, sign up on the mailing list at bon-soiree.com. On "No Menu Sundays," where the offerings are determined by what's best at the farmers' markets, a four-course tasting menu is $48, a seven-course menu $75. The enclosed patio makes for a pleasant experience. —Martha Bayne

Bourgeois Pig

738 W. Fullerton | 773-883-5282

$

AMERICAN, COFFEE SHOP | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Sixteen years old now, this charming Lincoln Park establishment might easily be mistaken for having been around even longer. Located in an old brownstone, it's true to 60s-coffeehouse form, with creaky hardwood floors, hundreds of newspapers and books lining the shelves, and a menu of homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, and baked goods posted on four huge blackboards. The extensive lineup ranges from a Great Gatsby Club (pesto, bacon, and smoked turkey) to a veggie panini with artichoke hearts and fresh spinach to a scrumptious daily quiche with a flaky, buttery crust. You can also build your own sandwich or get a half with a cup of soup or salad. The cafe expanded the patio last year. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Cafe Fresco

1202 W. Grand | 312-733-6378

$$

ITALIAN, BAR/LOUNGE | LUNCH: saturday-Sunday; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

It looks like a cozy corner bar, with its high tables, brick wall, and decorative swags of fabric, but Cafe Fresco lives up to its name, offering a mostly Italian menu better than you'll find at many neighborhood spots. We started with a signature dish, grilled calamari served with spinach, roasted red peppers, olives, and a few sticks of feta. In addition to bar fare like chicken wings and burgers, there's a lineup of midprice entrees, but we were drawn to the pastas. Gemelli Baronesa was spiked with slices of prosciutto and mushrooms and some deliciously sweet peas; pasta puttanesca was robust with olives, capers, and plenty of garlic. There's a decent beer selection and a small but potable wine list (half-price on Tuesdays); cocktails were shaken up at our table. In warm weather the enclosed back garden patio—lined with ivy-covered walls, one with a trompe l'oeil painting of the cafe—beckons. —Kate Schmidt

The Chicago Firehouse

1401 S. Michigan | 312-786-1401

$$$

AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

This sprawling three-story restaurant in a 1905 firehouse retains some of the building's original character with fire poles, tin ceiling, and firebrick walls. Huge semicircular, brass-studded red leather booths line the perimeter of the bar's dining area, while the carpeted main dining room has the feel of a suburban country club. Dishes tend to be hearty—starters include bone-in ribeye, French onion soup, and a special of prosciutto rolled with cream cheese and asparagus. Main courses take their cue from home cooking—pot roast, panfried rainbow trout, barbecued pork chops. The leafy outdoor patio seats 70. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Chief O'Neill's

3471 N. Elston | 773-583-3066

$

BAR/LOUNGE, ENGLISH/IRISH/SCOTTISH | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: FRIDAY-SATURDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2

This northwest-side pub named after Francis O'Neill, Chicago's first Irish police chief and a champion of Irish music, carries on his efforts, hosting regular jams. The entire bar—chairs, tables, bar fittings—and most of the staff was imported from Ireland, and the kitchen dishes up traditional fare: Galway Bay mussels, cheddar cheese soup with Guinness, fish-and-chips, and bangers and mash, a popular Sunday brunch and now breakfast on Saturday. The huge, festive outdoor beer garden seats 200. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Cooper's

1232 W. Belmont | 773-929-2667

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, BARBECUE/RIBS, BURGERS, PIZZA | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: THURSDAY-SATURDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL MIDNIGHT

Cooper's came under new ownership a few years ago, but the menu of fresh, seasonal fare remains unchanged. There's still a roasted beet salad with goat cheese and a duck confit mac 'n' cheese, plus barbecue and pizza along with sandwiches and burgers. The vegetable panini was stuffed with arugula, mushrooms, red pepper, and goat cheese, but the proportions were perfect, and the thin, crispy fries were some of the best I've ever had. For many the real draw of Cooper's will be the selection of about 130 beers from around the world. The large off-street patio has the feel of a back porch—one that seats 60. —Heather Kenny

La Creperie

2845 N. Clark | 773-528-9050

$

FRENCH | LUNCH: TUESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: TUESDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

This cozy family-run hideaway, easy to miss in the bustle of Clark and Diversey, has been satisfying budget-conscious diners for more than 35 years. The fare is mostly crepes—with seafood or ratatouille for dinner, banana liqueur, Grand Marnier, or Nutella for dessert, and scrambled eggs for brunch—but the menu also offers other casual French favorites such as onion soup gratinee and steak frites. There's a large, colorful garden patio, and the atmosphere is friendly and uncontrived. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Crust

2056 W. Division | 773-235-5511

$$

PIZZA | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 PM

Chef Michael Altenberg's casual flatbread-pizza joint, the city's first certified organic restaurant, is a sleek modern dining hall with bright orange molded plastic chairs and trippy Formica tables; the spacious tented back patio and sidewalk cafe add seats for another 130. The pizzas—er, flatbreads—have an airy, chewy, well-proofed crust and are topped with everything from savory silver dollars of pepperoni to a sunny-side-up egg to a take on an Alsatian Flammkuchen (caramelized onion, bacon, and caraway seeds with a bechamel sauce). All, meat included, tastes shockingly fresh; the baby greens in my Sun Salad (a tasty mix of greens and seaweed in a creamy sesame-ginger dressing) had to have had their lives cut violently short that same day. The bar offers a short but respectable wine and beer list that is mostly organic, plus a selection of cocktails with infused organic vodka. —Martha Bayne

Related Locations

Add a comment