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Between Boutique Cafe & Lounge

1324 N. Milwaukee | 773-292-0585

$$$

BAR/LOUNGE, SMALL PLATES, GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | DINNER: seven days | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, other nights till 2

Between opened in 2007 offering creative Indian fusion small plates by Radhika Desai, who went on to make a splash on Top Chef. Since last year, though, the restaurant's been focusing on a different but equally creative fusion: Peruvian-Asian dishes dreamed up by chef Jose Victorio. On one visit tilapia ceviche got a traditional Peruvian preparation: the fish, lightly "cooked" in a citrusy marinade, was topped with kernels of Andean corn and served alongside slices of sweet potato. The Asian influence comes out more strongly in plates like an ahi tuna flatbread with mango, scallion, chopped tomato, and wasabi aioli or the "mantou burgers," two spicy minipatties on Chinese steamed buns, served with fries and adobo. Victorio has also included some more traditional Peruvian dishes, like fried rice mariscos, cooked in wine and beer with shrimp, octopus, scallops, and squid. The sleeper on our visit was a twist on the coastal Peruvian dish causa: lime-infused mashed potato balls topped with smoked salmon, avocado confit, onion, tomato, and a sprig of Chinese parsley and served with jalapeño aioli-kind of like a bagel with lox with an ethereal potato dumpling in place of the bagel. —Kate Schmidt

Big Star

1531 N. Damen | 773-235-4039

$

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

Unlike Paul Kahan's other ventures (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican), Big Star is a bar. But you may have to remind yourself of that, because it's got one of the tastiest Mexican menus in Chicago. 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 ice, lime, and tomato juice. 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 (browned Chihuahua cheese and chorizo with a lush poblano underlay) is surpassingly wonderful. The tacos are fatty and salty (like bar food should be), but the pork belly and lamb are of such high quality that a little extra lard and sodium are worth it. Carved from frustums layered in-house, the tacos al pastor are crisp, riddled with golden knurls of flame-licked fat, and served on fresh, delicate, house-made minitortillas that make the big flavors seem almost dainty. The downsides: 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. Even the new patio's packed. —David Hammond

Cooper's

1232 W. Belmont | 773-929-2667

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, BARBECUE/RIBS, BURGERS, PIZZA | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: friday & saturday till 2, other nights till midnight

Cooper's changed ownership a few years ago, but the menu of fresh, seasonal fare remains. 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 to the gills 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—just one that seats 60. —Heather Kenny

Cuna

1113 W. Belmont | 312-224-8588

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, SMALL PLATES | lunch, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | closed monday | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3; SUNDAY, TUESDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2

There's a big beverage program at this bustling Lakeview barstaurant, with beers like Affligem and Half Acre Over Ale on tap, 17 wines by the glass or bottle, and cocktails ranging from a classic old-fashioned to seasonal creations like the Mark's Iced Tea, a potent blend of Maker's Mark, pomegranate liqueur, ginger ale, lemon juice, and bitters. But the real draw for foodies is chef Kendal Duque, formerly of Sepia. If you ate there you'll recognize his flatbreads, offered here with toppings like bacon, pear, and blue cheese or sausage, grapes, goat cheese, and Fontina. The new spring menu features small plates including pork rillettes, lamb shoulder with mint pasta ribbons and rosemary bread crumbs, and sea scallops with peas, carrots, and pork belly. "Big bites" range from asparagus and mushrooms with crispy polenta and a fried egg ($11) to a grilled rib eye with spring onion, roasted potatoes, and parsley-garlic sauce ($16). The closest the menu comes to typical bar food is the pork mini sandwiches with sriracha or a burger with sauteed onions and Gorgonzola accompanied by sweet-potato chips. Homey desserts take advantage of the bar—for Kilo Kai Rum in the caramel sauce beneath a walnut-laden flourless chocolate cake—but cocktails like the Cuna Cabana (rum, Three Olives chocolate vodka, cream of coconut) or Lychee Martini (Ultimat vodka with lychee juice, lychee syrup, and lychee fruit garnish) make an equally fine finale. Cuna is now open for lunch; spring specials include $1 domestic beers on Wednesdays, $3 well drinks and flatbreads on Thursdays, and a rotating $5 specialty cocktail on Fridays. —Anne Spiselman

The Gage

24 S. Michigan | 312-372-4243

$$$

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

Across the street from Millennium Park, the Gage draws swarms of tourists and suits alike, and the restored ceiling and decorative tile only amplify the din. But if you can tolerate the noise, you'll find some superb dishes. The extensive drinks list features specialty and vintage cocktails like the Champagne Charlie (champagne and Grand Marnier with a sugar cube soaked in blood-orange bitters). The one-page menu has surprising breadth without seeming scattershot: there are half a dozen steaks and burgers alongside more unusual offerings like roast saddle of elk and caramelized lobster with lemon quinoa. Save room for dessert. Brunch offerings include waffles with fruit and Chantilly cream and a traditional Irish breakfast. The kitchen's open till midnight Friday and Saturday. —Rob Christopher

In Fine Spirits

5420 N. Clark | 773-334-9463

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY TILL 11

This sleek but cozy wine bar, from the owners of the adjacent In Fine Spirits retail store, is a hot spot on an Andersonville strip known for its lambics and glogg. The ample menu of accessibly priced glasses and flights is dominated by New World wines and augmented with classic cocktails and a choice selection of craft beer. There's a rotating menu of cheese, charcuterie, "pots," flatbreads, and heftier plates like salmon poached in Unibroue 17 or seared lollipop lamb chops. And of course, should you fall for a particular juice, you can always come back when the store's open and make it your own. —Martha Bayne

Kith & Kin

1119 W. Webster | 773-472-7070

$$$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL MIDNIGHT 

The owners of Kith & Kin could've hyped their inviting Lincoln Park spot as a gastropub and earned an oxygen-depleting collective yawn. But they didn't, and a stealthy opening late last year attracted mobs to this otherwise culinarily bereft pocket of the neighborhood. Chefs David Carrier and Andrew Brochu both worked with or under Grant Achatz at one time or another—the former first at the French Laundry, then at Trio—though there's little that immediately brings to mind those fine-dining icons. Instead what you have is an attractive and affordable menu served in a room that suggests all of the comforts of neighborhood pubbery without resorting to the usual cliches clumsily adopted from the Irish or British. The menu is globally influenced—mussels, for instance, are served in a curried, slightly bitter IPA with a few pieces of grilled, almost sweet naan. There are Mexican and Italian dishes: a deeply satisfying spicy lamb neck stew is billed as pozole, though it's more like birria; a deep bowl of spaghetti carbonara uses house-made noodles. Even French Canada gets a nod, with rillette-like pork creton and the latest entry in the unfortunate high-end poutine trend, this one with a chicken gravy to ruin the perfectly good fries. The aforementioned creton is one of a number of spreadable "crocks" served with crostini and priced at $5; another contains chicken liver paté with a thick cap of butter. Any two could easily make a swell meal on their own, especially paired with a beer from the list of more than 25. That simplicity is echoed in a trio of salads and a trio of sandwiches, but the larger plates are what really sucked me in, especially a mahimahi and clam bourride redolent of fennel and a pile of fried chicken thigh confit that went down like the ghostly essence of poultry. This is the inviting, irresistible place with casually excellent food that every neighborhood deserves. —Mike Sula

Old Oak Tap

2109 W. Chicago | 773-772-0406

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH: sunday, tuesday-saturday; DINNER: seven days | saturday & sunday Brunch | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, other nights till 2 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Wondering where the older siblings of the kids at the Continental—the ones with jobs and starter homes—head when they need to cut loose? Try the Old Oak Tap, a barstaurant from the owners of the Continental and Darkroom. On a Friday night the 1,500-square-foot front patio was jammed, and every third patron seemed to be bouncing a baby between sips of Saison DuPont. The menu, created with consulting chef John Manion (Mas), is full of spiffed-up bar standards like sweet-and-spicy sriracha wings, roasted beet and goat cheese salad, and sandwiches stuffed with tilapia or five-spice pork belly. And I mean stuffed: the lump crabmeat club was an ungainly mound of crab salad with four inches of fresh ciabatta on either side and finished with chunks of bacon and avocado. It was tasty—and the accompanying fries were outstanding—but presented a serious structural challenge. Deep-fried rock shrimp glazed with chipotle aioli and a rib eye salad with romaine and avocado proved more navigable. The craft beer list showcases a lot of predictable crowd-pleasers—Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Three Floyd's Alpha King, Two Brothers Cane and Ebel—but also a couple intriguing curveballs like the Magic Hat #9 Pale Ale, a light, fruity, strangely pleasant brew I'd never tried before and liked a lot by the fourth sip. —Martha Bayne

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