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Though the menu at Isabel's in Lincoln Park is pared down to a manageable trifold and the establishment describes itself as a restaurant, the place is a diner at heart. All the trappings are there—the condiment caddies, the glass display cases, the single-serving creamers alongside your coffee. In either an homage or metareference, a print of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks hangs on the wall.
But the real proof of Isabel's diner DNA is in the clientele. On the day of our visit we bore witness to a spectrum of mankind that would have made Emma Lazarus proud. In the booth behind us a young man and woman were suffering through an awkward morning with the help of omelets and at least two rounds of mimosas. Across from me, a grizzled, black-haired woman with whom I kept inadvertently locking eyes may have hexed me and seemed to have ordered only a single glass of milk. A group of three men apparently mentored by Ditka in both style and diction made loud, off-color jokes over burgers while repeatedly calling the server "sweetie" despite the several times she told them her name. In the back of the room an elderly couple debated the existence of grasshoppers in Texas over bowls of soup and, once having established the existence of said grasshoppers, moved on to an argument over their size.
We took it all in over a selection of quintessential diner fare—blueberry pancakes, corned beef hash, and a turkey club. Here's where Isabel's distinguishes itself. The menu promises locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients (when possible), and recipes made "from scratch." Isabel's certainly delivered on the pancakes, which were light and flavorful, neither lacking nor overburdened by blueberries, and topped with pure maple syrup and vanilla-mascarpone butter. The turkey club came through too, with freshly carved, house-roasted turkey breast, crisp lettuce, and bacon on buttery toasted sourdough. The outlier was the corned beef hash, short on the corned beef and mushy, lacking any of the crispy bits that make the dish appealing. It was, however, topped off by a perfectly poached egg.
In addition to breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch, Isabel's offers a dinner menu mostly Italian in nature, with items like chicken cacciatore, linguinei with mussels, and spaghetti Bolognese. Pastas are house-made, and there's a heavily Belgian beer list (Isabel's also offers an affordable and surprisingly thoughtful wine list, sneaking in valpollicella among the expected Chianti and cab, and Soave among the pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc). These facts may seem to tip the scales in favor of Isabel's identity as a restaurant rather than diner, but my advice is to go in with diner-scale expectations and then be pleasantly surprised to have them surpassed.
Isabel's Restaurant, 501 W. Diversey, 773-281-8951, isabelsrestaurant.com