Food & Drink » Scraps

Sixteen venerable Chicago restaurants still ticking

As we look back on 40 years, we shout out some of the best food the city has to offer


Billy Goat Tavern | Gold Coast/Mag Mile/Streeterville | $
Decades after the heyday of the SNL skit, the Billy Goat is still trading on John Belushi's famous tagline, "Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger. No Pepsi, Coke. No fries, cheeps." Tourists continue to find their way into the subterranean dive under Michigan Avenue, and journalists remain among the regulars, drinking and risking heartburn against a backdrop of yellowing Royko columns and Billy Goat curse memorabilia. The cheeseburgers, flat and greasy, are probably best ordered in the form of a double, but they're helped along by raw onion and an unlimited supply of dill pickle slices. Cash only. —Kate Schmidt 430 N. Michigan, 312-222-1525, Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.

[Recommended]Czech Plaza | Berwyn | $

Zdenka Manetti and Ladislava Drozda at Czech Plaza - ERIC FUTRAN
  • Eric Futran
  • Zdenka Manetti and Ladislava Drozda at Czech Plaza
Czech Plaza delivers a lot of value with a roster of substantial old-world platters, many clocking in at under $10 for soup, entree with two sides (sauerkraut, dumplings, or salad), dessert, and coffee. The bread is quite good, full flavored with baked-today freshness. Meat is the featured player in most preparations, starting with a fabulous soup in which floats one big liver dumpling of preternatural lightness. The signature duck is superb, with crackly skin and moist, flavorful flesh (hint: forgo the gravy). Lamb shank is shaded with cinnamon and served over an earthy blend of bulgur and the beloved hobies (mushrooms). On tap, find Czechvar (the original Budweiser) as well as other eastern European brews; however, when we were there, coffee seemed the beverage of choice for most diners. If you're vegetarian, your options are rather limited, though huge, magnificent house-made fruit dumplings—packed plump with blueberry and peaches—could easily make a meal. Desserts are also fruit-filled: kolacky, strudel, tart. —David Hammond 7016 W. Cermak, Berwyn, 708-795-6555, Lunch, dinner: daily.

Daley's Restaurant | Woodlawn | $
Daley's is one of the oldest existing restaurants in the city, if not the oldest, though ask any waitress exactly how old and you'll get a different answer every time—usually something like "A long time, baby." The previous owner, Nick Kyros, says an Irishman opened the place in 1892 and ran it until his father took over in 1918; now he's turned it over to his son Michael and co-owner Nick Zar, though he still hangs around some, he says. Today the majority of his employees and customers are neighborhood folks who pack in for massive portions of mostly solid, sometimes-from-scratch soul food at practically historical prices. It's not hard to eat incredibly well, though you have to be selective. The biscuits are light and fluffy, but the mashed potatoes are instant. The chicken gumbo is tangy and thick but mined with canned green beans. One serving of smothered chicken can look like it was fed on steroids while another looks starved. The beefy, cheesy patty melt is a sure thing, as is a side of cabbage with bits of ham, and just about anything can be livened up with the bottle of spicy red pepper vinegar on each table. Nobody stays alive for more than a century without doing something right. —Mike Sula 809 E. 63rd, 773-643-6670, Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.

[Recommended]Gene & Georgetti | River North | $$$$

Like a lot of Depression-bred Chicago guys who did OK for themselves, my dad wore a pinkie ring. It came down to me when he died in 1968, but it's gone now, stolen from an apartment I lived in years ago. You'd be surprised how much I miss that clunky chunk of white gold. Losing it snapped one of the last threads connecting me to his fedora-wearing, Camels-smoking, tough-guy sensibility. Which is one reason why I revere Gene & Georgetti. Opened in 1941 and still owned by Gene's descendants, the steak house under the el at the corner of Franklin and Illinois retains the feel I imagine it had when my dad used to eat there with his pals. The pours are good. The plates are big. The food is straightforward. The people are loud and happy. The car hike is a story unto himself. And the waiters are career men I see every time I go. That's generally on a Friday night, so I can order the only-on-the-weekend prime rib with the seasoned crust. My wife takes the mussels appetizer as her main course. If they're in town, my sons generally get the filet mignon, along with a slight, time-inflected hint of their grandfather. —Tony Adler 500 N. Franklin, 312-527-3718, Lunch, dinner: Mon-Sat. Open late: Fri & Sat till midnight, Mon-Thu till 11.

[Recommended]Greek Islands | Greektown | $$
On a Friday night the joint was jumping, three deep at the bar, with a crowded foyer and a 30-minute wait even for those with reservations, but nary a soul was annoyed or antsy, confident they'd soon be tearing hunks from chewy sesame-seed bread and digging a path through garlicky skordalia and taramasalata. Appetizer specials included lightly charred grilled baby octopus and house-made gyros served with skordalia instead of the typical tzatziki. Another appetizer not to be missed is lightly fried zucchini with a side of skordalia (hell, let's face it—there isn't much that's not enhanced by skordalia). Horiatiki ("village salad"), a mix of feta, olives, peppers, and veggies with a vinegary dressing, was refreshing; cold calamari and shrimp, while flavorful, were slightly rubbery. As for entrees, I'd suggest going with the simply prepared, impeccably fresh red snapper or sea bass; lamb chops; or, for those who like to gnaw a bit, char-grilled lamb riblets. Dolmades, spinach pie, garides (baked shrimp with feta and tomato sauce over rice), and keftedes (beef and lamb meatballs stewed in tomato sauce) are good traditional choices. A side of potatoes, rice, or spaghetti comes with most dinners, as does some quite good avgolemono. Desserts include rice pudding, baklava enriched with house-imported honey, and—my favorite—house-made yogurt topped with honey and walnuts. There's an interesting wine list with a number of reasonable choices, including wines imported by the house. Service is gruff but friendly and efficient in the manner only pros can pull off. —Gary Wiviott 200 S. Halsted, 312-782-9855, Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 1, other nights till midnight.

[Recommended]Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli | University Village/Little Italy | $
Some things are never as good as they used to be. The delis of yesteryear were palaces, serving sliced meat a mile high for $1.98. Now? At Manny's the latkes are very good, light and crisp, fluffy and flavorful—you don't need a side of applesauce to enjoy. But you should have had them before! They were potato ambrosia, splendor in the grease. And these prices: $11.95 for a sandwich in a cafeteria? A strange one too: instead of paying at the end of the line like G-d intended, you pay on the way out, after you eat. But Manny's has been here since 1942, and they know what they're doing. They serve brisket, roast beef, corned beef, very lean, and pastrami, fatty in all the right places, piled high on rye. Too high! How are you supposed to eat all this? So share or get a doggie bag. What else are you going to order at a place like Manny's—a veggie burger? And look, they have all the condiments right on the table, mustard in both colors, your salt, your pepper, sugar and ketchup, a napkin holder, very useful. Years ago all the big shots ate here; now it's all hoi polloi. But you can still get a cigar at the register, a piece of candy, some gum, your choice of Tums or Rolaids. —Jeffrey Felshman 1141 S. Jefferson, 312-939-2855, Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Mon-Sat.

Margie's Candies | Logan Square | $
The legendary ice cream parlor at the intersection of Western, Milwaukee, and Armitage dishes up sundaes with enough embellishments to satisfy the most demanding sweet tooth: bananas, cherries, nuts, fluffs of whipped cream, hot fudge in a pitcher on the side. A Chicago institution since 1921, the cozy room stuffed with dolls and other knickknacks has transported more than one diner right back to grandma's house. Margie's also serves a limited menu of diner standards—burgers, fries, grilled cheese—but most patrons say skip the real food and have another dessert. —Martha Bayne 1960 N. Western, 773-384-1035, Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: every night till 11:30.

[Recommended]Myron & Phil's | Lincolnwood | $$$
In 2000, when noted jewel thief Joseph Basinski groped a female police officer at the bar in Myron and Phil's (and then sucker-punched his mistress in the parking lot), it was only the latest in the restaurant's long history of adventures with the underworld. But that's only one reason to love it. This Lincolnwood steak house is the Jewish answer to Gene & Georgetti's old-school vibe. You could make a meal in the bar alone, where stiff well-poured drinks are mitigated by quality snacks like salty garlic bread, chips and salsa, and cheese on Ritz crackers. These aren't the best steaks in town, but they're good enough for pols, wiseguys, and celebrities as varied as Jackie Mason and Jenny McCarthy (plus lots and lots of grandparents). The hospitality extends to the dining room, where fressers sit on big studded leather chairs that could have been upholstered out of Rob Halford's codpieces, and meals commence with the relish tray, an antiquated and magnanimous gesture that includes bialys, thick slices of pumpernickel, pickled tomatoes and peppers, and chopped liver. —Mike Sula 3900 W. Devon, Lincolnwood, 847-677-6663, Lunch: Tue-Fri; Dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat. Open Late: Fri & Sat till 11.

[Recommended]Podhalanka Polska Restauracja | Wicker Park/Bucktown | $$
It isn't just the knickknacks and portraits of the pope in this former tavern, a remnant of Division Street's days as the great "Polish Broadway," that remind me of my grandmother; I'll be damned if I don't sense her presence in the pungent whiff of cabbage that floats from the kitchen or the gentle tang of fermented rye flour in the zurek. That's white borscht, a smooth, creamy dill-specked soup with chunks of garlic and slices of kielbasa that has been fortifying Hunky peasants and steelworkers for generations. At Podhalanka you'll still see old-timers at the bar, warming their bones with cabbage or barley soup or fat pierogi stuffed with piquant ground pork, cabbage, or potato and cheese, but also younger folks who may or may not speak Polish working down bowls of caraway-flecked sauerkraut and heaps of smashed potatoes in gravy, accompanied by something big and meaty: a pork roll, perhaps, stuffed with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, bacon, paprika, and a few allspice berries, or uncured spareribs cooked in sauerkraut until tender. These meals are almost entirely drained of color, but they're big, inexpensive, and preceded by baskets of fresh bread and butter. —Mike Sula 1549 W. Division, 773-486-6655. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.

R.J. Grunts | Lincoln Park | $$
R.J. Grunts is where it all began (in 1971) for Rich Melman and his Lettuce Entertain You empire. He considered closing it a couple years ago, and while some are glad he didn't, others think he should have. These days getting a table usually isn't difficult, and the quiet atmosphere can be viewed as either relaxing or a sad shadow of an earlier, livelier time. The menu offers mostly burgers, sandwiches, and a large salad bar, one of Melman's innovations back in the day. Grunts is definitely not what it used to be, but thanks to its location and casual, nostalgic decor, it's still a good place to stop for a burger and a shake after a walk in Lincoln Park. —Rachel Klein 2056 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-929-5363, Lunch, dinner: daily. Sun brunch. Open late: Mon-Sat till midnight.

[Recommended]Ruby's (Edna's) Restaurant | Garfield Park | $$

Henry and Gloria Henderson with Lillie Joiner at Ruby’s - COLLEEN DURKIN
  • Colleen Durkin
  • Henry and Gloria Henderson with Lillie Joiner at Ruby’s
There was much mourning when the legendary soul-food joint Edna's closed in August 2010, after the passing of Edna Stewart—Governor Pat Quinn even declared a day in her honor. But back in December it reopened with pretty much everything except her name on the sign. Nearly all of her 15-member staff is back, chief among them longtime chef and manager Lillie Joiner, who was hired by Stewart's uncle almost 30 years ago and was trained by the exacting Edna herself. A few items have been added to the menu—chicken tenders and a turkey burger—but apart from that it remains the same, down to the brains and eggs and the American cheese-based mac I'm convinced can't be touched by any other kitchen in the city. "It's the same food"—including the famous biscuits, says Joiner. "I tell everyone I know this is Edna's. I cooked for 20 years and that's all I know. She taught me to cook it, so I have to do it the same way." —Mike Sula 3175 W. Madison, 773-638-5875. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat.

[Recommended]Sabatino's | Irving Park | $$
Tuxedo-clad hosts, strolling musicians, no-nonsense pours at the convivial bar—the old-school Italian-American appeal of Sabatino's is universal, as evidenced by the happy throngs. Warm, crusty loaves and addictive pizza bread come to the table in a blink of an eye, though go cautiously—dinners include soup (stracciatella with spinach is a favorite), salad, and a side of pasta. Terrific starters include garlicky shrimp de jonghe (a Chicago original), textbook baked clams, and bresaola, razor-thin air-cured beef with arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano. Pastas range from spaghetti with Angelo's special meat sauce to zuppa di mare, a lovely mix of lobster, scallops, shrimp, clams, calamari, and mussels in a light tomato sauce with linguine. For secondi fresh fish, simply prepared, or veal, in particular veal saltimbocca, are good choices; me, I hit the classics, chicken Vesuvio, a veal chop, or thick-cut New York strip. Flaming tableside desserts, quickly becoming a lost art, are a specialty; here are anachronistic delights like baked Alaska and cherries jubilee. The interesting wine list ranges from damn reasonable to three rings and more (the ancient cash register at the bar totes a maximum of $49.99 at a time), and that's not to mention the veteran waitstaff, complimentary valet parking, Wednesday lobster special, and sing-along piano player on weekends. —Gary Wiviott 4441 W. Irving Park, 773-283-8331, Lunch: Mon-Fri; dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 12:30, Mon-Thu till 11:30.

[Recommended]Tufano's Vernon Park Tap | University Village/Little Italy | $$
Serving the neighborhood since 1930, this bright and bustling landmark is one of the last morsels of the original Little Italy that UIC hasn't swallowed, spitting up a parking lot in its place. Many of the cliches of Italian-American red sauce joints are in evidence—autographed celeb headshots, wine in water glasses—but long-standing customer loyalties give the place a genuine feeling that the weary meatballerias on Taylor Street can't muster. Meals and wine can be ordered family style off blackboards on the walls, and though it'll never be mistaken for a Roman trattoria, if you prefer to pretend, a mound of lightly fried calamari makes a sapid antipasti, and huge pasta plates can be halved to accommodate meatier secondi like crispy lemon chicken, roasted and buried in a mountain of fried potatoes. The place can pack them in on busy nights, but warhorse waitresses keep them moving, and if you break the ice at the bar it can be one of the more convivial places around to wait for a table. Cash only. —Mike Sula 1073 W. Vernon Park, 312-733-3393. Lunch: Tue-Fri; dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat. Open Late: Fri & Sat till 11.

Twin Anchors | Old Town | $$
The neighborhood surrounding Twin Anchors was once rough around the edges, but these days the former speakeasy's customers are more likely to pack smart phones than gats. The proprietors run a tight ship, with friendly, efficient service and a staff that handles the swelling tide of weekend customers with aplomb. Despite the nautical theme, ties to local celebrities, and a proud association with Frank Sinatra, Twin Anchors is a peanuts-on-the-bar neighborhood place with a loyal clientele. Entering late on a Friday evening, we overheard an exiting customer exclaim, "It never disappoints. You always feel good when you leave." I'd tend to agree, with two caveats: don't order ribs unless you like them sweet and sloppy, and don't take any chances with the permit-only parking spaces. To the tavern's credit, nowhere on the Twin Anchors menu are the Chicago-style baby back ribs referred to as barbecue, which requires interaction with smoke and fire. Ribs here are slow baked in a "special" oven until the meat droops lifelessly in the classic Chicago fall-off-the-bone fashion. It must be said that Twin Anchors sells the hell out of these, and people seem to love the zesty sauce. My suggestion: stick to the burgers, steaks, succulent grilled shrimp, the fish fry, or the crisp, greaseless onion rings. The undecided or health obsessed can always order the zesty "SoyNatra" burger, if for no reason other than to enjoy the incongruity of Ol' Blue Eyes having a veggie burger named after him. —Gary Wiviott 1655 N. Sedgwick, 312-266-1616, Lunch: Sat-Sun; dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till midnight, Mon-Thu till 11.

The Village | Loop | $$$
This is a great place to bring out-of-towners. Go upstairs. Fake outdoor Italian village built in the 1940s. This brings joy to all. The food is adequate—huge portions, nothing memorable, nothing bad. In short, the quintessential Chicago joint. It isn't possible to be unhappy while sitting in this restaurant. Literally, no one has ever done it. That's a gift to all the people of Chicago. Oh, don't forget to notice the photos of dead opera stars in the upstairs waiting room. The upstairs bar's nice too. The basement restaurant's frightening—never go there, ever. —Ira Glass 71 W. Monroe, 312-332-7005, Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 1, Sun-Thu till midnight.

Walnut Room | Loop | $

Roberta Brown plays the piano at Walnut Room. Read more about her. - LLOYD DEGRANE
It flies under the red star now, but the Walnut Room remains much as it was during the benign reign of Marshall Field's: there may be a wine bar now, but there's no forsaking the chicken potpie. "I love to take out-of-town visitors here," says one Reader reader. "It's elegant, classy, and never fails to impress (especially older ladies)." For many it's a destination during the holidays, when there's a huge Christmas tree in the atrium and a breakfast buffet. —Kate Schmidt 111 N. State, 312-781-3125, Sun-Mon 11 AM-4 PM, Tue-Sat 11 AM-7 PM.


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