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Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, July 3, 2008

Twenty West Town restaurants east of Ashland

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In the Neighborhood

Twenty West Town restaurants east of Ashland

Bari Foods1120 W. Grand | 312-666-0730

$American, Italian | Breakfast: seven days; Lunch: Monday-Saturday

A grocery and deli (takeout only) on that stretch between Ashland and the Kennedy where West Grand suddenly goes Italian, Bari Foods makes a mean sandwich. On the abbreviated menu are subs stuffed with corned beef, roast beef, Italian sausage, or Italian deli meats, but a favorite is the fresh mozzarella and prosciutto sub. Available at 9 or 12 inches, the sandwich packs ultrathin slices of melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto and hunks of squeaky cheese between the halves of a loaf of French bread crisp from the ovens next door at D'Amato's Bakery, and dresses it up with shredded lettuce, onion, and tomato, with a dash of oil and Italian seasoning. The deli case includes a choice of fish salad, antipasto, and a selection of olives and other delicacies like lupini beans and hand-canned giardiniera. For an easier side dish, ask for one of the monster dill pickles or grab a bag of chips on the way to the register. —Martha Bayne

Bella Notte1374 W. Grand | 312-733-5136

$$$Italian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

Bella Notte serves classically prepared southern Italian food in equally classic old-world style. Service is professional yet casual, and the small storefront space is intimate and relaxing. Raters rave about the huge, shareable bowls of pasta—a half-order is enough to feed two ravenous eaters; a whole order is best reserved for family style dining. The menu offers primarily pasta, veal, and chicken in any number of preparations. More than a dozen pasta offerings range from simple rigatoni with vodka cream sauce to zuppa di pesce—a monstrous bowl of pasta that overflows with squid, clams, mussels, and octopus in a tangy marinara sauce. Appetizers include crispy bruschetta and steamed mussels served in either a red or white sauce. Side dishes of greens (rapini, broccoli, spinach) sauteed with olive oil and garlic are also large enough to share. Rich, creamy tiramisu is a popular dessert with Raters. The only sour note in the place is struck by the ubiquitous Sinatra tunes. —Martha Bayne

Breakfast Club1381 W. Hubbard | 312-666-2372

F 7.1 | S 7.3 | A 6.0 | $ (6 reports)Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days

The decor is unassuming, the entryway is cramped, and the tightly packed tables are not for the claustrophobic. But the food is worth the wait and close quarters. The cinnamony stuffed French toast—slabs of eggy bread layered with cream cheese and walnuts and drenched in sticky-sweet syrup—is the signature indulgence, but omelets and other breakfast staples are equally hearty and satisfying. The crowd is a mixed bag of neighborhood residents and workers from the predominantly industrial area to the south. Service is generally prompt and accommodating. Reservations not accepted Sundays. —Martha Bayne

Butterfly Sushi Bar & Thai Cuisine1156 W. Grand | 312-563-5555

$$Japanese, Thai | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Butterfly, the Thai-sushi combo in the old Saussy space, may still be finding itself, but when I last visited the staff seemed positively lost: one waitress brought us champagne flutes etched with "Saussy 2003" for the Riesling we had brought. The food wasn't quite there yet either: the paltry three shrimps in the shrimp tempura appetizer were overwhelmed by a huge pile of vegetables that had the heft of beer batter. On the other hand, the Vietnamese-tinged yom mua nam tok was a hit: tender chunks of spiced beef dusted with crushed roasted rice for a nice crunch and surrounded by fresh cucumbers, chiles, scallions, and a vibrant lime dressing. The sushi was strictly average; both the soft-shell crab maki and the special Red Dragon roll-spicy shrimp and cucumber wrapped with avocado and tuna were so loosely rolled they nearly fell apart at the touch. —Peter Margasak

Cafe Central1437 W. Chicago | 312-243-6776

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

More than 50 years old, this family-owned cafe serves an extensive menu of traditional Puerto Rican favorites and lots of seafood. Hearty home-style meals begin with specialties like mofongo (balls of mashed plantains mixed with garlic and bits of crushed pork crackling), alcapurrias (fritters made from a puree of plantains and yautia, a starchy white root related to taro, and stuffed with ground beef), and pionono (sweet plantain fritters stuffed with ground beef). Diners not full from the appetizers can move on to heaping platters of bistec encebollado (loin steak with onions), fried chicken, pork chops, and other comfort food; or jibaritos, steak or roast pork sandwiches served on plantains instead of bread. For dessert there's vanilla flan and papaya con queso or casos de guayaba con queso (papaya chunks or guava shells with cheese), and the beverage menu includes a dozen flavors of Goya juice. On weekends the cafe is crowded with families, many of whom come for specials such as bacalao guisado (codfish stew), mondongo (tripe soup), and, cuchifrito (fried pig's ears). —A. LaBan

Cafe Fresco1202 W. Grand | 312-733-6378

$$Italian | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: friday till 2; saturday, Monday-thursday till 1; Sunday till midnight | Reservations accepted for large groups only

It looks like a cozy corner bar, with its high tables, brick wall, decorative swags of fabric, and subdued nautical theme, 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—unusual, maybe, but in a good way. In addition to bar fare like chicken wings and burgers, there's a lineup of midprice entrees (tilapia, pork chops, chicken piccata and Vesuvio), but we were drawn to the pastas, several of which can be ordered with whole wheat noodles. Gemelli Baronesa was spiked with slices of prosciutto and mushrooms and some deliciously sweet peas, all in a rich (but not too rich) garlic-Romano sauce. Pasta puttanesca may have lacked anchovies, but with its olives, capers, and plenty of garlic, wasn't the wimpy version too often found. There's a decent beer selection and a small but potable wine list (half-price with an order of food on Tuesdays); cocktails, shaken at our table, were even better. On a Thursday night the atmosphere was mellow, service friendly and accommodating, and in warm weather the garden patio—enclosed by ivy-covered walls, one painted with a trompe l'oeil of the cafe—beckons. —Kate Schmidt

Coalfire1321 W. Grand | 312-226-2625

$$Pizza | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Coalfire—Chicago's first east-coast-style coal-oven pizzeria—opened to a flood of buzz and business, catching owners J. Spillane (a longtime bartender at the Matchbox) and Bill Carroll off guard. Was the frenzy warranted? It is, after all, just pizza (almost literally—besides the pies, the menu offers calzones, a few salads, and a selection of soft drinks; anything stronger is BYO for now). But as pizza goes, it's pretty great. The thin, blistered crust is sooty and crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy toward the center of the pan, with a dense, toasty flavor. The sauce, applied sparingly, is fresh and slightly sweet; toppings include buttery prosciutto, hot Calabrese salami with fennel, and a terrific spicy Italian sausage. The margherita, with ovals of melting mozzarella each topped by a sole basil leaf, was a bit bland, but the white pizza was tangy and complex, thanks to a last-minute substitution of goat cheese when the kitchen ran out of ricotta. And while in pizza, to each his own, I agreed with my friend who, four pies in, declared the simplest to be the best: sauce, cheese, one topping, perfection. Now if only someone would open a wine store next door. —Martha Bayne

D'Amato's #1 Italian and French Bakery1124 W. Grand | 312-733-5456

$Italian, French | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days; Dinner: Monday-saturday | Cash only

Loaves of all shapes and sizes fill the display windows at this long-standing Italian bakery, supplier to many area restaurants. Sesame-coated bread sticks are a specialty here; so is tomato bread, which also comes topped with olives or artichokes. Huge rounds of toast (frizelles) are sold by the bag, and there's thick pizza by the slice and a variety of tantalizing cookies, including plain or chocolate-dipped biscotti. Only open a half day—until 2 PM—on Sunday. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Flo1434 W. Chicago | 312-243-0477

F 8.1 | S 8.2 | A 8.3 | $$ (25 reports)American, Mexican/Southwestern, Breakfast| Breakfast, Lunch: Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch| Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

rrr A neighborhood favorite thanks to affordable prices, inventive but down-to-earth cuisine, and a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere. The menu offers big flavors in familiar dishes: at breakfast (which is popular here) the egg sandwich is served with roasted red peppers and spinach; stacks of buttermilk pancakes are covered with bananas and chocolate. Weekend brunch adds dishes like eggs Flo (brioche topped with smoked turkey, spinach, and poached eggs) and bolsillos (breakfast tacos with eggs and grilled veggies) to the mix. Dinner and lunch items continue in a Mexican vein—enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos—and there are small plates available from 2:30 to 5:30 PM. On Tuesday nights you can BYOB with no corkage fee. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Green Zebra1460 W. Chicago | 312-243-7100

F 9.1 | S 8.5 | A 7.5 | $$$ (26 reports)Small Plates, Vegetarian/Healthy, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch

rrr It's been four years since chef Shawn McClain transformed a dilapidated East Village storefront known to me and my neighbors as the "pigeon palace" into a sleek haven for vegetarian dining, and I'm still impressed with the number he did on the space, all cool earth tones, warm low lights, and bursts of greenery. The seasonally changing menu is currently featuring a "mushroom roll"—shiitakes with crispy potato and savoy cabbage—and hearts of palm with grapefruit, a passion fruit sorbet, and Szechuan peppercorn. Ricotta gnocchi come with eggplant caponata and nicoise olives; Parmesan risotto with sweet peas, grilled ramps, and pea tendrils. One popular dessert is chocolate cake, served with peanut butter mousse and house-made banana-malt ice cream. After-dinner options include French-press coffee and some wildly exotic teas—for example, one that according to the menu was once harvested by monkeys. —Martha Bayne

Habana Libre1440 W. Chicago | 312-243-3303

$Latin American, Cuban | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

Frying is fundamental to Cuban cuisine; at Habana Libre techniques are modified to match each foodstuff: fibrous yuca is slightly browned, chicken flash fried to crispiness, smoky croquettes bronzed, empanadas served flaky and light as tempura. Mildly spiced and satisfying, this food is clean tasting and alive. Our coctel de camarones was a saladlike mound of just-cut tomato and onion popping with perky shrimps. In ropa vieja—the best we've had in Chicago—chunks of sweet pepper infused thick, beefy threads with flavor, the slight sweetness balancing the big meaty taste. Lechon, suckling pig, was so fresh and moist we were glad to revisit it in our Cuban sandwich, where it nestled between sliced cheese and ham with pickles, pressed a la plancha, flattened on the griddle. Juicy oxtails doused with criollo sauce paired well with classic moros y cristianos, black beans and rice. Pineapple sorbet, served in a baby pineappple half, was the cutest dessert ever. Habana Libre is BYO—and $1.50 for a Cuban espresso is quite a deal. —David Hammond

Juicy Wine Company694 N. Milwaukee | 312-492-6620

$$European, Small Plates, Bar/Lounge | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3, Friday till 2, Monday-Thursday till 1 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

From the name you'd expect Juicy Wine Company to be all about the grape, but the instant you walk in the door it's clear the place is just as much about the cheese. A "retail plus" wine bar from Rodney Alex (formerly of Wicker Park's Taste), Juicy offers five "cheese experiences," a selection of cured meats, and even a butter "experience" that pairs three artisanal butters with various sea salts. Charcuterie includes salumi made by Seattle-based Armandino Batali (Mario's pop). Wines served in-house are marked up a flat $15 over the retail price, making even the swankier bottles relatively accessible. Any bottle for sale in the shop is available at this "chill-out price"; there are also a dozen reds, whites, and bubblies by the glass. Downstairs the wood-trimmed, minimalist space is split between a wine wall and deli case in the front and a low-key seating area of tables and banquettes in the rear. Upstairs is a cozy bar and lounge, complete with DJ booth and a rooftop patio. The staff is casual and helpful—Alex pressed a shaving of a rare Swiss something on us as we were halfway out the door—and in all it's a pretty pleasant (er, "chill") scene. —Martha Bayne

May Street Market1132 W. Grand | 312-421-5547

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

From the sunny hostess to the chatty server to the chef-owner himself, Tru vet Alex Cheswick, everybody at May Street Market exudes goodwill: they even send you out the door with a complimentary treat. On my last visit chilled shots of a creamy potato veloute drizzled with chive juice—a fancy-pants vichyssoise—were a fine starter. Diced root veggies were separated from a toss of mixed greens by a lusty slice of prosciutto. An entree that paired delicate panfried trout with rich braised short rib was choice, but what topped all was a ridiculously good dessert: pomegranate tart with a chocolate crumb crust and a thick layer of fondant, capped with a quivering crown of pomegranate foam and served with banana ice cream and a grilled banana slice. Current favorites on the seasonal menu include Cheswick's signature Maytag blue cheese cheesecake appetizer, a Maple Leaf Farms duck breast served with orange-scented couscous and Parmesan-roasted fennel, and some game dishes—roasted venison leg, roasted ostrich, and wild boar linguine. —Martha Bayne

Mercury Cafe1505 W. Chicago | 312-455-9924

$American, Vegetarian/Healthy | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Occupying a cavernous storefront once home to an Ark thrift store, Mercury offers a simple menu of sandwiches, soups, salads, yummy pastries including vegan baked goods, and coffee. Alexandria Kalika, who opened the cafe after several years in the trenches at Starbucks and Caribou Coffee, has given the 4,500-square-foot space a paint job and outfitted it with tables, sofas, and free WiFi. There's an open mike every other Wednesday and on the third and last Friday of the month. —Martha Bayne

Natalino's1523 W. Chicago | 312-997-3700

$$$$Italian | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Tuesday-Thursday till 1

The first thing you notice is the sign: tall and flashy, it's wildly out of scale with the surrounding block, save the equally gaudy lights of the Five Star bar down the street. Inside this old-school Italian-American joint on the booming Chicago Avenue nightlife strip, the disconnect continues. The dark, spacious bar and dining room—all man-friendly leather and taupe—seem to have beamed down directly from some well-appointed suburb. Which makes sense if you consider the restaurant's lineage: owner Michael Genovise and chef Martine Perdomo come direct from Park Ridge's Piano Piano. But despite the swanky stock decor, the food is a cut above the norm. An appetizer of thinly sliced eggplant wrapped around fluffy ricotta was surprisingly light and fresh; my plate of "Chicken Joey" was equally satisfying: three tender, lemon-drenched cuts of grilled chicken breast over a garlicky tangle of rapini, white beans, and coarsely chopped tomatoes. The vast selection of pastas includes a toothsome bowl of eight-finger cavatelli in vodka cream sauce and "Rigatoni Johnny," baked with ricotta, spinach, and pine nuts. A linguine special with shrimps and scallops wasn't exactly what the server described (where'd that asparagus come from?) but was fresh and well seasoned nonetheless. On the down side, the "Martini Salad" suffered from underripe mangos, and the most interesting bottle on the wine list was out of stock. Though I live in the neighborhood, I'm probably never going to be a regular—but the next time my parents come to visit, you may find us in a comfy corner booth. —Martha Bayne

Relax Lounge1450 W. Chicago | 312-666-6006

$$Bar/Lounge, American, Burgers | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, sunday-Friday till 2 | Reservations not accepted

The identity crisis of this late-night lounge is made manifest right up front in its ungainly name—an 11th-hour switch from the planned moniker, Pharmacy, when legal restrictions on what can actually operate under that designation threatened to scuttle an already long-delayed opening. With a green druggists' cross glowing over the door and bar specials like spiked milk shakes, Relax is striving for a soda-fountain vibe, but that's confounded both by all the framed photos of the Rolling Stones in their 70s heyday and the patterned vintage wallpaper, which screams Victorian sitting room. The kitchen, such as it is, serves baskets of burgers and fries, and burgers and fries only. But the kitchen puts out pretty good burgers: a third-pound beef patty or veggie burger on a toasty bun, your choice of cheese, and a side of hot, crisp, salty hand-cut sticks of starch. A summer menu adds options like an avocado BLT and a chicken Caesar wrap. And compared to the other "rock 'n' roll" bar on the block, the blisteringly loud Five Star, this place is an oasis of class. The kitchen's open till 2 on Saturday, 1 Sunday through Friday. —Martha Bayne

Rockstar Dogs801 N. Ashland | 312-421-2364

$American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Thursday-Saturday till 4, Monday-Wednesday till 2, Sunday till 11 | Reservations not accepted| Cash only

Nightclub impresario Dion Antic's hot dog stand is like a middle-aged rich guy with size issues, stuffing his jeans with toilet paper and trading in his sedan for a crotch rocket—all talk, no cock. It inhabits a short, narrow, angry red corridor decorated with a pair of wall-mounted guitars and a bunch of framed black-and-whites of rock stars in their native habitats. It's a restrictive cattle chute setup that's bound to inspire boozy pushfights and panicked stampedes among its intended customers. There's a useless stripper pole set up by the front door, and temporary tattoos or guitar picks are given out with each order, meant to convince the impaired that they're getting something of value for the overpriced wieners. Rockstar is using Vienna natural casing beef franks—a fine product, and each order comes with fries and a can of soda. But are they worth $6 or $7? Hell no. They're just hot dogs. Granted the toppings, named for various artists and groups, are somewhat above par—Merkt's cheese on the J. Timberlake, nicely charred jalapeños on the bacon-wrapped Los Lobos. But you can't put lipstick on a pig (unless you're Doug Sohn of Hot Doug's, to which RD will invite inevitable misguided comparisons). —Mike Sula

Swim Cafe1357 W. Chicago | 312-492-8600

$American, Breakfast, Vegetarian/Healthy | Breakfast, Lunch, dinner: seven days

Former caterer Karen Gerod serves fresh, organic foods from local and socially conscious vendors—Ineeka Tea, Naked juices and smoothies, and java from Just Coffee—and uses them in her sandwiches, salads, quiches, and sweets at this cafe awash in mild, bright shades of aqua and sea foam green. I can think of no more perfect treat for kids who've worked up an appetite across the street in the Eckhart Park pool than a PB&J on Red Hen's scrumptious chocolate bread. A tuna sandwich on pumpernickel gets a kick from capers, avocado, cucumber, and lemon, and a ham-and-Swiss panini was satisfying. By no means miss Gerod's cupcakes. She also bakes her own muffins, cookies, and scones, which she keeps diminutive by design—"small but rich" is her motto. —Susannah J. Felts

Twisted Spoke501 N. Ogden | 312-666-1500

$Bar/Lounge, American, Burgers | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3, sunday-Friday till 2, Sunday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

"Eat, Drink, Ride" is the motto at this casual joint at the corner of Grand and Ogden, but most people are just eating and drinking. The place is decorated to look like a biker hangout, with several hogs half-buried nose down in the dirt outside, an industrial metal interior, and a rust-covered facade. The menu offers bar munchies, burgers, and a dozen or so huge sandwiches—barbecued chicken, pork butt, a grilled portobello—all of which are served with equally huge handfuls of crispy fries; there are also wings, gumbo, and chicken tacos. Saturday nights after midnight the Spoke offers "Smut 'n' Eggs"—breakfast and old stag movies. Up the stairs is a rooftop patio that's surprisingly airy for a biker bar, no matter how ersatz. —Laura Levy Shatkin

West Town Tavern1329 W. Chicago | 312-666-6175

F 8.6 | S 8.0 | A 8.3 | $$ (20 reports)American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

rrr "Tavern" is a stretch—with exposed brick walls and artfully dressed floor-to-ceiling windows, this is a far cry from a corner tap. As at Zinfandel, Drew and Susan Goss's previous restaurant, the contemporary American menu emphasizes seasonal ingredients. Starters include mussels, calamari with curried arugula slaw, and a hearty antipasto plate featuring country ham, olives, oven-cured tomatos, a rich herbed goat cheese, and a savory braised white bean paste. Entrees range from pan-seared scallops atop mushroom-leek risotto to a meaty roast trout over braised artichokes and fingerling potatoes in a funky, delicious jus full of house-cured bacon to a grilled pork tenderloin with cheddar mac 'n' cheese and herbed pan juices. The wine list has many by-the-glass options, with suggested pairings listed on the menu. Freestyling with the help of an adept waitress, I matched a zippy Washington State Syrah to my fish; my friend tried the "A Thousand Flowers" blend recommended only to discover that a little gewurztraminer goes a long way. —Martha Bayne

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