Location– 1958 N Damen, Damen and Armitage
In one word– Cozy
Food– The appetizers that we ordered were classic French bistro fare, moules marinieres (mussels in white wine with herbs) and escargots. For someone who had been craving simple French food, it was heaven. Plenty of fresh bread came alongside to sop up all the delicious sauces. The main courses that we had, though tasty, paled in comparison to the simple dishes that preceded them. I had a braised duck leg that was good, but it was served with too much sauce,
and I thought that the presentation could have been better. My companion had rabbit, and pretty much had the same reaction. Over all, the main courses were well prepared, as well as a pleasant diversion from the ordinary (when was the last time you had rabbit?). The appetizers were spot on, we could have been in Paris.
Drink– An ample wine list for a small neighborhood restaurant. The focus was most definitely French, as it should be, and both the glasses of white and red were great. You paid the premium for the French imports, but it definitely enhanced the overall experience.
Service– There were only 2 waiters, and at least 15 tables, maybe more. That being said, they did a great job making sure we were taken care of. We had a reservation for 7:30, and were really hungry, so we showed up at 7 and were
seated immediately. As the night went on though, the place was definitely packed. It wasn’t the sort place that you’d expected to be waited on hand and foot, and in turn, it wasn’t. The tables are packed in pretty close together in a
small space, and you have to embrace the bistro atmosphere.
Scene– If you want to be whisked away to a small bistro in (almost) Paris, than this is the place for you. The food is good, the service is ok, and the scene is cozy. Probably a great place for a third date where you want talk, drink and get to know one another. This is the sort of place, just outside of the hubbub of Wicker Park, to start the evening, but it won’t be enough to make an entire evening.
Dress– Casual, jeans with a nice shirt, a jacket would be fine.
Occasion– Craving French bistro food and atmosphere? This is the place for you. Start the evening here, and move on to more engaging venue south in Wicker Park.
Cost– Appetizers $10, Entrees under $20. Reasonably priced wine list.
If you like…, try- Kiki’s Bistro
written by ieatthis
Location – 1721 N. Damen Avenue (Damen and St. Paul)
In One Word – Solid
Food – While selecting somewhere to eat that would be within walking distance of the Map Room I’ve happily found myself at Café De Luca twice in the past two weeks. The restaurant is easy to recommend because it serves casual Italian fare with broad appeal, the menu is inexpensive, and the food is solid.
On my first visit, I enjoyed the Gnocchi with a tomato cream sauce, garnished with fresh basil and wide pieces of nutty shaved parmesan ($14), which I highly recommend. The gnocchi was tender and the sauce was creamy but not heavy. It was very satisfying; the perfect portion for a richer dish. My Trusty Sidekick built his own pizza with onions, mushrooms and fresh mozzarella ($14–$11 base price + $1/each ingredient) and our dining partner had Farfalle in pesto cream sauce with grilled chicken ($14). They could only get through about half of their portions and each raved about their selections—I can vouch that the pizza was delicious with a thin, blistered crust, and that the Farfalle pasta had a very flavorful sauce that let you taste the fresh ingredients. We enjoyed the food so much that we recommended heading over to CDL while with a larger group of friends this past weekend. On my second visit, our group started out with an order of Grilled Calamari ($9), which was served on a bed of arugula with tomato slices and a bright lemon vinaigrette. This is not your typical calamari with breaded rings and tentacles that can be very heavy and rubbery; instead, the calamari was grilled in one piece and then cut into thicker slices, which gave it a very tender texture that was more like eating a well-prepared scallop than a slice of calamari. The jury was out on this one—if you’re a breaded-calamari lover, this probably won’t scratch your itch. But, if you enjoy scallops, or if you’ve been too shy to try calamari because of the tentacles or have been turned off by a rubbery texture, consider ordering this—you’ll run into neither of these problems. For my main course I tried the Pear and Gorgonzola spinach salad and I added grilled shrimp ($15)—if you add grilled shrimp or chicken to the salad, it is definitely big enough to be an meal, especially if you’re looking for a lighter but satisfying entrée. It was served with five very large shrimp, generous chunks of salty gorgonzola cheese, slices of juicy pears, candied walnuts, and a deliciously thick balsamic-reduction dressing. All those flavors and textures together=a party in my mouth. Trusty and two friends split the Verona pizza ($12) and two salads between them—the Pear and Gorgonzola and the Caprese ($9), and another friend dominated the Venezia pizza ($12) all on his own. This was a brave man, given how large these pizzas are. The Verona and the Venezia were big hits at the table—the Verona featured goat cheese, roasted red peppers, arugula and pine nuts dressed with a touch of olive oil, and the Venezia was a basil pesto base with fresh mozzarella, chicken, and veggies. Again, the delicious thin crust was what really wowed everyone. For so little dough, CDL’s pizzas are a great deal (Groan! Oh puns.)—especially if you’re looking for a satisfying meal to share with a larger group.
Drink – CDL has a basic wine menu with inexpensive, but again solid wines. On my first visit I had a glass of pinot noir, and Trusty and our dining partner had a glass of Chianti. On my second visit, our group split a bottle of the wine special, which was a juicy Syrah Malbec. Two thumbs up for the wine special—it was a delicious wine and helped to save some cash for a glass of beer at the Map Room. (Wine before Beer and you’re in the clear.)
Service – The service is good—attentive and friendly, but very relaxed.
Scene – The décor is a little too “theme-y”; a fake ruin-wall runs through the main room and a clothes line—complete with dresses supposedly set out to dry—is strung across the ceiling. Ignore the cheesy Epcot-esque touches and focus on the more tasteful colored glass lanterns hung over the bar at various heights, as well as the hand painted designs on some of the larger wooden tables. You’ll see groups of friends enjoying conversation, and we saw what looked to be like a first date also. Unlike other restaurants in the heart of the Wicker Park/Bucktown divide, it wasn’t too crowded and we didn’t have to wait for a table either time.
Dress – I wore jeans and a casual sweater both times. The scene is very low-key, so let your after-dinner plans dictate your dress, but keep in mind that if you walk in super hot-to-trot you may stand out.
Cost – On my first visit, we split the bill three ways and paid $23 each. On my second visit with a group of five, splitting the bottle of wine brought down the cost to about $20 per person. Both times I thought that for the quality of food and wine, the price was very fair.
If you like, try … Mia Francesca, Enoteca Roma
Written by hungry yuppie
Location – 2046 N. Damen (Dickens and Damen)
In one word – Filling
Food – This is the sister to the original Toast (in Lincoln Park). Come here to fill up on brunch or lunch. I was starving, so I went big for the veggie eggs Benedict. Despite being so hungry, I barely could finish half of it. The eggs Benedict are served with cooked spinach and then are doused in hollandaise sauce. The dish is served with house potatoes. So overall, delicious. But I reached a point when it was just too much for me. Too much food, too much sauce. I think the key is to stop when you’re ahead here. My eating partners took on the chicken chutney salad. It looked very healthy…My other eating partner enjoyed the seared ahi tuna sandwich.
Drink – The coffee and tea at Toast is from Julius Meinl. I had the apple tea, which possibly was the most aromatic beverage I’ve ever ingested. Totally recommend it!
Service – So one eating partner wanted to substitute his choice of potato salad or hash as the side included with his dish with fruit. The server said no problem. With his meal came the best looking fruit cup I had ever seen. The server neglected to tell us that he would be charged a pretty penny for the fruit cup and it would NOT be included as a side as we assumed.
Scene – The place is super casual, very relaxed. You’ll see families, friends, couples, babies. It’s really quite beautiful. As long as the baby is not crying.
Dress – This is a lunch and brunch place, so no need for fancy dress. I fit right in with jeans, Uggs (it was cold!) and a long sleeved T.
Cost – For food, drink, tax and tip, I paid $15. I thought for all that food, it was a decent deal.
Location – 1576 N. Milwaukee (Milwaukee, Damen, North intersection)
In one word – Reliable
Food – If you are looking for reliable Italian cuisine, you’ll find solace at FF. I came with my eating partner for lunch and after much debate, decided to go with the gnudi. FF’s gnudi is similar to gnocchi. The pasta is made with ricotta and spinach served in a light tomato sauce. I started eating, I started enjoying, and all of a sudden, my bowl was empty! It was the perfect portion for lunch, filling me up without making me feel too stuffed. My eating partner decided to go with the insalata con uova (salad with asparagus, fried egg, parmesan and white truffle oil). She finished it off almost as quickly as I finished the gnudi. All in all, very satisfied at Francesca’s Forno.
Drink – We stuck with water. But, on Mondays right now, there is a half priced wine bottle promotion.
Service – We came at lunch on a Monday, so the place was uncharacteristically empty. No line, no wait. We were allowed to sit and chat for as long as we wanted. Beware though, this is not the norm. If you come here for brunch or dinner on the weekends, get a reservation and be prepared to wait even with that reservation. Our server was attentive and was helpful with our questions, couldn’t ask for more.
Scene – The place has a casual, rustic feel to it. It fits in with the overall vibe of that part of Wicker Park. Being near the El, this restaurant attracts shoppers from around the city as well as Wicker Park locals.
Dress – You’ll be fine in the usual Wicker Park attire – quirky t-shirt and jeans. However, you won’t be out of place if you decide to dress it up a bit.
Cost – So I paid $12 for food, tax and tip. Pretty decent in my book.
If you like, try…La Luce
Location -1865 N. Milwaukee Ave. (773) 252-5687
In one word – Bland
Food – Watch your back, bland hospital food. You’ve got some competition from Irazu.
I was cruelly disappointed when I went to Irazu with a group of six last Saturday, excited to try some tasty Costa Rican food for the first time. I think I first sensed impending disaster when the Guacamole with Chips ($6.50) arrived and it had the consistency of tooth paste. Word of mouth had led us all to Irazu to sample their burritos, not their guacamole, so even though guacamole is usually a fail-safe appetizer, we didn’t give up hope. Almost everyone in the group ordered Steak or Chicken Burritos ($5.50), except for my Trusty Sidekick who had steak tacos ($1.95 each), and me—I tried their Vegetarian Burrito ($4.95), which Irazu’s menu claims is award-winning. In my opinion, this is false advertising. There’s no kind way to say this, Irazu, but when it comes to burritos, you come up extremely short in both girth and flavor. First of all, our burritos were pretty small. When you only need one hand to pick up and eat your burrito, it is not a good sign. Secondly, there was very poor ingredient distribution—I had to hunt to find any avocados among my yellow rice. Finally, the burritos were so flavorless that our table had to keep swapping the salt and pepper shakers between the six of us so that everyone could season each bite themselves. Think that sounds ridiculous? Well, try asking for hot sauce and you’ll get the surprise of your life: hot sauce is an extra $.50. What!? Even the complimentary salsa at the table didn’t offer any relief from the blandness, as it was neither bright nor firery—only watery. Listen up, Bucktown hipsters eating at Irazu—just like you, I heart burritos. But even evil corporations like Chipotle can deliver a better, tastier burrito experience than this (GB NOTE – Some of us LOVE Chipotle, hungry yuppie, don’t hate on us).
Drink – BYOB
Irazu’s legendary Oatmeal milkshakes ($3.00) also came highly recommended, so we tried one. Don’t. Perhaps it wasn’t well mixed, but the shake separated immediately into think sludge on the top, gritty water on the bottom.
Service – The service could have been better and could have been worse. When we were seated, our waiter immediately brought us a bucket of ice for our beer. However, as the meal went on we got less attention. Water glasses were only re-filled once, and we spent about ten minutes trying to flag down someone to bring us napkins.
A couple other FYIs—it’s cash only, though there’s an ATM on site. A standard 18% gratuity is added to parties of 6 or more. Because the space is so tiny, reservations are not accepted, so expect a wait.
Scene – From the outside, Irazu looks pretty sketchy. The first thing you’ll notice—thick, iron security bars on the outside of all the windows—is anything but welcoming. The inside of the restaurant is tiny. The dining room is snug with only a handful of tables, and the décor is plain, aside from a really lovely mural painted on the main wall. That mural and some good people watching are Irazu’s best features.
Dress – Wear your best hipster wear to truly fit in with the in-crowd here. In other words, you’ll be dressed to impress in jeans and your favorite ironic graphic tee.
Cost – With tax and tip, it was $10 per person. Definitely cheap eats.
If you like, try… hospital food. Seriously.
Ok, restaurants with a similar menu and feel are El Famous, La Pasadita, Tio Luis.
p.s. Dear Readers, I appreciate the fact that Irazu came highly recommended and seems to have a large, cult-like following in Chicago. You tell me—is my review unfair? Did I just come to Irazu on an extremely off off-day?
Written by hungry yuppie
Location – 1745 W. Division (Division and Hermitage)
In one word – Kefir
Food – Lifeway Foods, producers of kefir drinks, have franchised their product as part of a “kefir boutique” cafe. Kefir is a probiotic dairy drink. Starfruit serves frozen kefir, which resembles frozen yogurt. It’s nice to enjoy a dessert that’s good for you – kefir helps both your digestion and your immune systems. Starfruit serves two flavors, original (vanilla-esque) and their flavor of the week (this week is pomegranate). You can get standard frozen kefir, parfaits or smoothies. Like its cousins, Red Mango and Pinkberry, Starfruit offers a variety of toppings for your kefir dish. I went with a swirl of the vanilla and pomegranate flavors topped with mango. The perks of Starfruit is that the small cup is still really large. AND you don’t feel sick after eating the whole thing.
Drink – I guess I could have gotten a smoothie instead of the standard soft-serve.
Service – The staff will let you try each flavor before you purchase it. I have to say that those samples were quite generous.
Scene – The place is next to yoga studio; you can tell that the customers of Starfruit are the type to really believe that their body is their temple.
Cost – I paid a $4.41 for my small sundae (soft serve with one topping). I guess if you’re not indulging too often, it is worth it.
If you like, try…Berry Chill, Red Mango (in Naperville)
Location – 1300 N. Milwaukee (Milwaukee and Paulina) and 3031 W. 111th Street (111th and Whipple)
In one word – Idealistic
Food – The premise of Veggie Bite is fast-service organic vegan food. It’s a tall order for a restaurant. My overall reaction was that the place was nice in theory, struggles in practice. The menu is filled with your usual fast food options – burger, chili dogs, Philly cheese steak, but there’s no meat or dairy in the food. My eating partner and I both went for the Supreme Wrap on the cashier’s recommendation. It was a wrap filled with seitan “chix-free nuggets,” tomatoes, cucumbers and a cucumber dressing (which tasted more like a light ranch dressing). It was filling but not fulfilling. The “chix-free nuggets” didn’t taste all that fresh to me, and there was too much sauce in the wrap.
Drink – You can get smoothies here as well as juices. I picked up some mango nectar juice, which I enjoyed.
Service – Order at the counter and then the food will be brought to your table. I appreciated that the cashier was forthright about his opinion when I asked what was the best item on the menu. Given that vegan fast food is pretty new in Chicago, it was nice to have someone give guidance on what to order.
Scene – Expect the last few hipsters remaining in Wicker Park to frequent this place. I was a little alarmed by the establishment’s decor. I was staring at posters of helpless animals with captions like “Mercy.” It was sort of like eating at an anti-animal cruelty booth while in my college student union.
Dress – You can put on the urban hipster garb or just wear what you’re already wearing. It really doesn’t matter.
Cost – For my wrap and mango drink, I spent $8.28. I guess it’s pretty reasonable given that the wrap was just a little smaller than a Chipotle burrito in size.
If you like, try…Soul Vegetarian, Karyn’s Cooked
Today my eating partner and I set forth to determine the impossible; we ventured through the city to find Chicago’s best macaroni and cheese. As my arteries are only so wide, we tested just three locations. I acknowledge that there are more locations to add into the mix, but I really believe that the restaurants below should be included when grouping the best mac in the city.
Contenders: Cafe Selmarie, Stanley’s and Handlebar
Winner of GB Mac and Cheese Crawl: Handlebar
(Smoked Gouda Mac ‘n Cheese)
Location: 2311 W. North Avenue (North and Western)
Cost: $3.50 (side dish price)
– Simplicity: In this case, less is most definitely more. Just macaroni covered with a gouda cream sauce. No breadcrumbs, no baked cheese, just the basics. This dish tasted truly homemade, helping to reiterate the fact that mac and cheese is the epitome of comfort food.
– Cheese: Smoked gouda’s taste is distinct without being overpowering. Handlebar’s gouda sauce resembles an alfredo sauce. Believe it or not, going this route makes the dish feel lighter and fresher than baking the macaroni with cheese.
– Size: It’s a side dish, not a main. I wanted more. It gave me so much love.
Second Place: Cafe Selmarie
4729 N. Lincoln (Lincoln and Lawrence)
(Macaroni and Cheese)
Cost: $9.25 (entree size)
– Complexity of Taste: So this dish uses six cheeses (gruyere, swiss, white cheddar, queso rico, pecorino romano and bleu). You can detect each of those cheese while you’re working your way through the dish. Additionally, they put leeks in. It’s more subtle than an onion, but still provides added flavor.
– Texture: Selmarie bakes bread crumbs on top of each serving, which provides the right amount of crunch. The cheese does that thing where because the cheese is warm, it’s stringy between your mouth and the plate (this is a good thing, think “Cheese-y, Cheese-y from those old Little Caeser ads).
– Bottom of the Dish: The big issue was that there was a milky oil liquid at the bottom of the dish. I understand that’s a by-product of the cheese, but it was kind of gross.
Loser: Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap
(Toasted Macaroni & Cheese)
1970 N. Lincoln (Lincoln and Armitage)
Cost: $8.95 (entree size includes 1 side)
– Portion: It’s big. Like really big.
– Side Dish: The entree comes with a side. As we were at Stanley’s, we chose their famous tater tots and were not disappointed.
– Oil: There’s a whole lot of oil in this dish. When you have macaroni and cheese, you expect your cholesterol to rise a bit, but Stanley’s take on mac and cheese could send you to the ER. The level of oil and grease made the dish almost unappetizing to me. I bet this dish could cure a hangover in seconds.
– Bland: They use just one cheese, cheddar (granted there’s a whole lot of cheddar in the dish). Compared to the cheese profile at Selmarie and Handlebar, the taste was a bit pedestrian.
Location – 1721 W. Division (Division and Hermitage)
In one word – Michelada
Food – The way the owners describe their place a “taco bar and rock cantina” is amazingly accurate. My eating partner and I stopped here for a late night bite. I sampled the tacos al pastor (pork). My dish was a platter full of pork with grilled vegetables. On the side I was given tortillas to make tacos (each order gives you 3-4 tacos). The food was fine, but nothing to get particularly excited about. I don’t think I would come here for a full dinner again. Instead, I might grab an fail-safe appetizer like nachos or guacamole.
Drink – So my eating partner told me about this drink called a Michelada. Maybe you’re more drink saavy than I, but this was my first foray into this beer cocktail. It feels like you’re drinking a Bloody Mary meets Margarita meets beer. It was a whole lot of flavor, more than I could handle.
Service – We were there late on a Saturday night. By that point in the night, most people were there just for drinks instead of an actual meal. Despite this, our server paid enough attention to us. I couldn’t hear most of what he said though because the restaurant was SO loud.
Scene – This place is like eating during Dia de los Muertos all year long. I stared at a bunch of skulls hanging on the wall through out the meal. Totally distracting. I stand by my opinion that Wicker Park is the new Lincoln Park. So, if you’re there late at night, expect to see at least one Trixie crying in the bathroom because she’s reading too much into the fact that her crush didn’t acknowledge her when he walked in that evening.
Dress – If you’re me, you’ll wear a comfortable cotton dress with appropriate give (because you know you’ll finish that plate of nachos). Otherwise, you can get by with some clever hipster t-shirt and jeans.
Cost – Tacos and a Michelada cost me $16. If I liked the meal more, I would have considered this a steal.
If you like, try…Uncle Julio’s Hacienda, Zapatista
Location – 1749 N. Damen (St. Paul and Damen)
In one word – Earnest
Food – Bluebird has jumped on two trendy Chicago bandwagons: 1) Small plates 2) Flatbread. While I enjoyed both trends at Bluebird, they didn’t set any sort of new culinary standard in my mind. However, I do think it’s worth trying this place. It’s quality casual place to dine. My eating partner spotted frites at a neighboring table as soon as we walked in. Ordering those was a good choice. They are served with a garlic alioli sauce and curry ketchup. This is one of those sides that you continue to eat even after your mind and stomach tell you that you are clearly full. In addition to the frites, we sampled the roasted baby beet salad. I did dig this, but I wanted there to be less frisee and more beets and cheese. Finally we shared a flatbread (which is the size of a medium pizza). The one we ordered had roasted mushrooms, fresh chevre, grilled greek sausage, shallots, garlic and watercress. The best part of it was the actual flatbread, which was described to us as a kind of Lebanese cracker bread. After eating all of that, I was full-dizzle.
Drink – Someone I know mentioned a month back that I should try Ska Beer out of Durango, CO. Crazy enough, this happened to be on special. I really did enjoy the recommendation, it was smooth, but had a nice bitterness to it. Bluebird has a ton of wines and local beers to choose from. I think this will be a good place to sample less common beverages.
Service – I thought that the service was very earnest. Our server was really sincere and invested in insuring that we enjoyed our experience at Bluebird. He talked to us about his favorite dishes and why he liked each of them. Since I wasn’t in a hurry and this was my first time dining at Bluebird, his thoughts were welcome. He also made me feel confident of my food choices. There is nothing worse than a server who judges what you order at a restaurant.
Scene – The place kind of reminded me of a less sceney avec. Same sort of bare, yet warm atmosphere. The restaurant is located at an odd cross-section of the city. It’s Wicker Park, so you have remnants of the indie hipster scene. But, it’s on that strip of Damen that looks like the Gold Coast (you know with Marc by Marc Jacobs, BCBG, etc.). As a result, you get a mix of people dining here.
Dress – Our server had jeans and a polo on. Take your cues from him. It’s a casual place, no need to breakout the fancy wear.
Cost – For my beer, shared frites, salad and flatbread, I paid $21. It was actually a lot of food for that amount. I wouldn’t scream “Bargain,” but it’s not overpriced.
If you like, try…avec