Dining and food culture in Chicago

Resto 100: Chicago’s essential restaurants of 2010

African, Albany Park, American, Andersonville, Argentinian, Auburn Gresham, Avondale, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bistro, Brazilian, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Burbank, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Caribbean, Chatham, Chinatown, Chinese, Cicero, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Czech, Deli, East Garfield Park, Edgewater, Elmwood Park, Ethiopian, Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, German, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hermosa, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Indian, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Japanese, Kenwood, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lithuanian, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near North, Near South Side, Nepalese, New American, Oak Park, Pakistani, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Puerto Rican, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Roscoe Village, Sandwiches, Seafood, Soul Food, South Loop, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).

Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.

Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.

That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.

Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.

The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.

—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor Read the rest of this entry »

Coney Island Dreams: Dogged by memories, a quest ensues

Bridgeport, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Lakeview, Lincoln Square 5 Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I cried watching Kid Rock on VH1 Storytellers the other day. It wasn’t a watershed, rather more of a single rolling tear. That a greasy-haired-beer-guzzling-tattooed-fedora-wearing-skuzzy-facially-haired-dude who used to cavort with a profane dwarf named Joe C and who by his own admission is “straight out the trailer” moved me, was a surprise. But, that’s hometown pride.

For decades, outsiders have been slagging on my dingy beacon on the river, Detroit. For almost as long, they never got it right. For every wolf cry about Detroit as flaking rust belt, there were still millions of blue-collar assembly liners rolling off their shifts in chrome-trimmed Cadillacs. For every crumbling rough-patinaed high rise, there was a shiny silver recently hoisted Red Wings Stanley Cup.

For every hellfire and ash-pile of a former building shown from a helicopter camera angle on Devil’s Night, or every reported carjacking or murder, there was a kid reveling, though shivering in his moonboots, on Woodward Avenue across from the old Vernor’s factory watching a Thanksgiving parade more glorious and real than that fairy-dusted televised production dream from Macy’s in New York.

Now, though, Detroit is truly busted. The Big 3 have cut to the bone and laid off too many. You hear of foreclosures in Chicago, but in Detroit you see them in crumbling realtor signs, creeping prairie grasses and cracked porches choked with weeds. Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s Essential Restaurants 2009

African, Albany Park, Andersonville, Auburn Gresham, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Bistro, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Chinatown, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Deli, East Garfield Park, Events, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near South Side, New American, Organics, Pakistani, Palestinian, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Seafood, Senegalese, Soul Food, South Loop, South Shore, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, Wicker Park 4 Comments »
In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end.  That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way.  More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have. Read the rest of this entry »

The Breakfast Issue Guide

Andersonville, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Little Italy, Loop, Lower West Side, Pilsen, River West, Roscoe Village, South Loop, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Bongo Room (South Loop)
1152 South Wabash, (312)291-0100
Breakfast is the redheaded stepchild of cuisine. No short-order Homaro Cantu or Grant Achatz has popped up to redefine breakfast. Bongo Room is one of the only restaurants re-inventing morning nosh. The cilantro-jalapeno tortilla filled with guacamole and fluffy eggs and topped with ancho chili cream is as fat as Popeye’s forearm. Haute Eggs Benedicts are replete with duck eggs, lump crab cakes and steak. The real stars though are the Butterfinger-like pancakes dripping with toffee butter, or the chocolate-tower French toast laced with mascarpone and covered with banana-flavored crème anglaise.

Bongo Room (Wicker Park)

1470 North Milwaukee, (773)489-0690
See Sidebar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cinful: Cincinnati chili in Chi-town

Contemporary Comfort, Lincoln Square No Comments »

cinnersawningBy Michael Nagrant

“You know Jerry Springer? I’ve inhaled with him more than a few times,” says Ed, a displaced Cincinnati architect nursing a glass of red wine at the end of the bar. On my left, a barrel-chested buzz-cut man, another former Queen City native, a national guardsman about to be deployed to Afghanistan, reminisces about lazy afternoons watching Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine at Riverfront stadium. The transplanted faithful are out in force on the first Saturday night of Lincoln Square’s new Cincinnati-style chili parlor and lounge, Cinner’s.

In the center, behind the bar, back-dropped by black-and-white photos of Cincinnati Reds greats like the “old lefthander” pitcher Joe Nuxhall and front-lit by a trio of red Ikea pendant lamps, is owner Tony Plum, an itinerant restaurant-and-bar-industry vet, and of course, a Cincy boy. With a black shag of wet ringlets, a sharp aquiline nose and a wiry form, he looks a little like Tommy Lee.

Like Lee, he’s also fairly tattooed, though there’s no baroque barbed wire, fierce animals or imitation tribal markings. Plum prefers works of art. There’s Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” and Michelangelo’s “Hands of God” detail from the Sistine Chapel on his left arm, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on his left leg and Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” on his right torso, a nod to the fact that he spent the last decade as a visual artist. Plum was also a singer-songwriter fronting California bands P.S. Chambers and Karmic Book Heroes. Asked how he went from singing to slinging chili, he jokes, “I got too old for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.” Read the rest of this entry »

Eaters Up! You can beat food at the old ballpark

Bridgeport, Fast Food/Street Food, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Lakeview No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Growing up a Detroiter, there was no mustard-only hotdog religion. The only encased-meat principle that was inviolable was that you got your chili-slathered Coneys at gritty Lafayette, and not the theme-park-like American when you were downtown. With no cultural taboo to hold me back, there were days I ate ketchup on my hotdogs.

June 10, 1983, my first Detroit Tigers game, was one of those days. They played the Cleveland Indians. Dave Rozema pitched for the Tigers and Chet Lemon (a former White Soxer), famous for robbing hitters of home runs with a Michael Jordanesque vertical jump and a sure glove, hit a home run of his own, and the Tigs won 7-1.

I remember the wide-eyed moment most kids probably have of emerging through a narrow tunnel and out to the verdant expanse of grass and an azure sea of plastic seats. I remember how juiced (not like Barry Bonds, but more like in the hopped-up Sunny Delight way) I was to see Sweet Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris and his “Magnum P.I.” ‘stache in the flesh.

Thrilled as I was, what I remember most was the hotdogs. Read the rest of this entry »

Super Bowls: Forget About the Bears

Archer Heights, Bridgeport, Burbank, Contemporary Comfort, Greektown, Lincoln Park, Uptown No Comments »
Chuck's chili

Chuck's chili

By Michael Nagrant

For most of us, this year’s Super Bowl will be a doleful reminder of last year’s Bears collapse in the big game. Sitting down to watch the Giants battle the Patriots will do nothing but stir up 2007’s carnival of failure featuring Lance Briggs’ pre-season hold-out and Lamborghini hijinks, Tank Johnson’s legal woes, Brian Urlacher’s baby-mama drama and press tantrums and Rex Grossman’s ability to make ‘ole neckbeard Kyle Orton look like a promising NFL quarterback. So, why don’t you just turn off those plasma and DLP screens, skip the big game and hit the road in search of something to soothe your soul? In an effort to provide succor and to keep you warm through this January chill, I’ve compiled a list of some of Chicago’s own super bowls of soup, chili and stew to aid your journey. Read the rest of this entry »

A Boy Named Detroit: Manny’s feeds all Chicago’s children

Deli, Lower West Side No Comments »

mannyssignBy Michael Nagrant

Though he’s a native-born Chicagoan, my 8-month-old son’s middle name is Detroit. My wife and I figured if he became a rock star, he could just drop his guttural Slavic surname, and he’d have the perfect pseudonym: Grayson Detroit. We also figured once he got past the elementary school teases, future lovers would be smitten by the cool moniker. At its most basic, the name is a reminder of where he came from—or, more precisely, where I grew up. And by transitive relation, it was also about commemorating the place that launched my love for Chicago.

While it’s currently “America’s Most Dangerous City,” Detroit is also Motown, the birthplace of Seger, Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and the White Stripes. It was the antidote to my Tom Perrotta-esque suburban upbringing, an oasis of diverse cultural escape, where I could while away afternoons at the Diego Rivera murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts or watch Alan Trammell crack a bat a Tiger’s Stadium. Culinarily, it was home to great chili dogs at Lafayette Coney Island, Sicilian bakery-style pizza at Buddy’s and my first slices of baklava and saganaki in Greektown. I’d figured after I graduated from college, I’d live downtown, be part of the revitalization of the city. But, the rust belt had rusted. There were few job opportunities. Read the rest of this entry »