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Restaurant Tours: dining Around the Coyote

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As form follows function, restaurants follow artists. Savvy restaurateurs by the dozens set up camp in former artists' colonies such as Old Town, West Lincoln Park, and River North. Soon the neighborhoods became more famous for their restaurants than their artists, and the artists moved to less expensive pastures.

Now the hottest new restaurant area in Chicago is Wicker Park-Bucktown, which means that folks trekking through the fifth annual Around the Coyote festival can lunch or sup at some of the most interesting restaurants in town while digesting the art they've viewed. Prices are almost all low to moderate and the realm of styles is wide, with many places drawing on the neighborhood's extensive multiethnic heritage.

Most of the area is part of the community known as West Town; north of Armitage the neighborhood technically becomes Logan Square. Wicker Park and Bucktown are subneighborhoods of that larger community; their traditional boundaries have been juggled and expanded by real estate operators eager to cash in on fashion.

West Town's original settlers were German and Scandinavian, but they left no remnants as they fled the Poles, who made this the heart of Chicago's Polonia for more than half a century--though there were Ukrainian, Italian, Serbian, and Eastern European Jewish enclaves within it. Later the area became predominantly Latino--mainly Puerto Rican with some Mexican--as many Euros fled. And recently artists and yuppies--not recognized as ethnic groups by the U.S. Census Bureau--began to fill in a lot of the spaces.

Today there's still a great little Polish American diner at the confluence of Wicker Park and Bucktown, the legendary Busy Bee (1550 N. Damen, 772-4433), where you can get everything from pierogi to a hot meatloaf sandwich. There's also a nifty modern Ukrainian spot called Galan's in Ukrainian Village (2210 W. Chicago, 292-1000) whose borscht and stuffed cabbage will remind you of down-home Jewish cooking. Unfortunately Braverman's, once the city's best Jewish deli, is gone, as is Zlata's Belgrade, its most notable Serbian dining room.

The neighborhood's best restaurant, though, is a French bistro, Le Bouchon (1958 N. Damen, 862-6600). It can be difficult to get a table here without reservations, in which case you'll miss the codfish brandade and the extraordinary garlic-suffused chicken. Le Bouchon had its roots in Lincoln Park, as did another pleasant bistro down the street, Cafe du Midi (2118 N. Damen, 235-6434), where you can find puff pastry filled with leeks and an interesting bouillabaisse. You can safely ignore the nearby faux-French Merlot Joe's.

The trendiest restaurant in the area is Cafe Absinthe (1958 W. North, 278-4488). You can see the area's peak of glitz-chic here--and, almost coincidentally, it has a good contemporary menu. A skip away is the cafe cum record store Earwax (1564 N. Milwaukee, 772-4019), which is fine for a sandwich and will give you a sense of what the neighborhood's like when the crowds aren't here.

Of course, there's a wide range of Italian eateries. Avanti Populo (1616 N. Damen, 772-7100), with its wonderfully detailed decor, mixes hearty country fare with lighter, contemporary dishes, such as a delicate wild mushroom ravioli. Be sure to sit in the lovely garden. Babaluci (2152 N. Damen, 486-5300), though noisy, is a fine little trattoria featuring wonderful calamari and a terrific tricolor rotini with four cheeses. My one experience at Buona Fortuna, at 1540 N. Milwaukee, was less than good fortune.

For your basic Chicago-style Italian, try either of two essential red-sauce restaurants: Club Lucky (1824 W. Wabansia, 227-2300), a prototype so perfect it could be in a movie, is justifiably popular for its hearty pastas and chicken dishes, while Leona's (1936 W. Augusta, 292-4300), on the site of a former dairy, is this neighborhood's outpost of the north-side empire, featuring hefty pizzas and a special shop devoted to garlic products.

The most exotic of the neighborhood's Latino restaurants is Rinconcito Sudamericano (1954 W. Armitage, 489-3126), offering the many magical potato dishes and seafoods of Peru. Lydia's Cafe (1704 N. Damen, 235-7252) is basically Puerto Rican, an amiable spot located in the back of a small grocery that features good black beans and other standards. Well-prepared traditional Mexican dishes are served at Tecalitlan (1814 W. Chicago, 384-4285), in a pleasant dining room adjacent to the take-out section where you enter. The Mexican seafood at Costa Azul (821 N. Ashland, 243-9244) ranges from the enormous shellfish cocktails to the lusty, garlic-glazed snapper.

Frida's (2143 N. Damen, 337-4327), a cool, tasteful room dedicated to Frida Kahlo, carries Mexican fare to contemporary crosscultural heights with delights such as shark steak with orange sauce and blackened catfish with cilantro linguini. Bareo (1856 W. North, 862-5500), owned by the perspicacious patrone of Babaluci, does other fanciful twists on standard Mexican in a casual, brightly muraled room where the day's specials are on display and a guitarist provides pleasant background sounds.

One more refugee from Lincoln Park is Mel Markon, whose Dixie Que (2001 W. Fullerton, 252-5600) is a hymn to the southern diner, offering various zesty barbecues and a menu of gulf-style seafood. Then there are the eclectic, all-American offerings of the Northside Cafe (1635 N. Damen, 384-3555), whose salads, burgers, chili, and other specials make its garden one of the neighborhood's most popular spots. It's run by a French Algerian who also owns Avanti Populo. Talk about real American.

And while on the subject of all-American, one cannot overlook the neighborhood's juicy answer to the Gold Coast: Wicker Park Dogs (1589 N. Milwaukee, 384-8505), at the virtual epicenter of Around the Coyote.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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