Classic Chicago Restaurants

1252.jpgChicago is a city of invention. Witness its motto: The City That Works. In the kitchen it’s fond of tinkering. When experimental, deconstructionist food made the jump from Spain to the U.S., it didn’t land in New York or San Francisco, but Chicago.

Which, via the long route, explains why only a few of Chicago’s classic eateries are eligible for senior citizen status. The city’s most beloved eateries, too, are as democratic as the Daley political machine, mixing haute cuisine with basic burgers and brats. Here’s ten windy city classic restaurants that still satisfy:

Charlie Trotter’s
Top toque Charlie Trotter scours the world for the best and oddest ingredients to create multi-course menus that change daily. He is unrelenting in his quest for the best, which has kept him on top of the cuisine scene here for almost 18 years. Gastro-nauts from near and far make the trip to dine on food that looks like fine art but tastes fine. Waiters do their part with meticulous descriptions of each dish and often ushering departing diners into the kitchen for a glimpse of the inner sanctum. Whatever you do, order the wines-to-match-each-course option for the most sublime experience. Their wine cellar (photo, top) holds many fine vintages. And make a reservation months in advance. 816 W. Armitage Ave. 773/248-6228. Reservations essential. No lunch. Dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Morton’s
In a city synonymous with steak, Morton’s leads all contenders. Sure, there are steakhouses that are more celeb-packed (Gibsons) and contemporary (Keefer’s) but Morton’s scrupulously guards its turf with a market recipe that relies on beautiful, hefty steaks cooked to perfection. In a kitschy tradition, everything to be cooked for you, from gargantuan Idahos to massive slabs of beef, is brought to the table for your approval. White tablecloths, chandeliers, and well-informed, bow-tie-clad waiters create a classy feel. It’s no place for the budget conscious, but for steak lovers it’s a 16-ounce (or more) taste of heaven. 1050 N. State St. 312/266-4820. No lunch. Dinner nightly.

Lou Mitchell’s
The traffic disgorged from the railcars at neighboring Union Station initially drove diners into Lou Mitchell’s when it opened in 1923. Though the masses now make their way to Chicago via other means, the food still drives business at the diner. Shelve your calorie and cholesterol concerns here; Lou Mitchell’s heeds no modern health dictum. Come instead to rub elbows with Loop desk jockeys and blue collar Joes over high-fat breakfasts and comfort food lunches. Start the day with double-yolk eggs and homemade hash browns by the skillet (BYO Lipitor). Later, break for meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Though out-the-door waits are everyday, staffers dole out doughnut holes and Milk Duds to pacify pangs. 565 W. Jackson Blvd. 312/939-3111. Breakfast and lunch daily. No dinner.

Billy Goat Tavern
It’s a must for every frat boy in America to come to Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern and order a Coke and fries just to hear the line cooks bark, “No Coke! Pepsi!” and “No fries! Cheeps!” at the customers. The late comedian John Belushi immortalized the Goat’s linemen on Saturday Night Live for just such a routine and they still do the shtick at this subterranean hole-in-the-wall favored by reporters posted nearby at the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times. Griddle-fried “cheezborgers” are the featured chow, and people-watching the favored sport. With tongue firmly in cheek, the show put Billy Goat on Chicago’s culinary map, but it’s still hard to find. Look for a staircase heading mysteriously down off Michigan Avenue across from the Tribune Building. 430 N. Michigan Ave., lower level. 312/222-1525. Lunch and dinner daily.

Spiaggia
When you glimpse sparkling Lake Michigan lapping Oak Street Beach from one of the tables arrayed on three tiers at Spiaggia you’ll think you’re paying for the view. But you would be wrong. Refined, contemporary Italian cooking has made Spiaggia one of the city’s top eateries for 20 years. Talented chef Tony Mantuano prepares elegant, seasonally changing dishes such as veal-filled pasta with fennel pollen, roast Guinea hen with truffle sauce, or Mediterranean bass with wild arugula. Oenophiles rave over the scholarly wine list. Ensuring its hall-of-fame status, Spiaggia even operates a lower budget Cafe Spiaggia next door with similar refinement, minus the luxury ingredients. 980 N. Michigan Ave. 312/280-2750. Reservations essential. No lunch. Dinner nightly.

Frontera Grill
Credited with introducing Tex-Mex-loving American diners to authentic, regional Mexican food, chef Rick Bayless draws queues of devotees, both local and visiting, into Frontera Grill. The scene is casual and convivial, underscored by brightly trimmed Mexican folk art. But the food is serious. Bayless annually visits Mexico with the entire staff in tow. Servers, consequently, are encyclopedic on the food, typified by salmon in pumpkin-seed mole, pork in a pasilla-pepper sauce, and chiles rellenos. The reservation policy is tricky: the restaurant takes them in advance for parties of five or more, though smaller groups can phone the same day. The rest of us endure the two-margarita wait in happy anticipation. 445 N. Clark St. 312/661-1434. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Pizzeria Uno
How to start a fight in a bar in Chicago? Ask who’s got the best pizza. Chicagoans are mad for the deep-dish variety, which got its start at Pizzeria Uno in 1943. Today both local and out-of-town fans continue to pack the place for filling pies. Housed in a Victorian brownstone, Uno offers a slice of old Chicago in dim paneled rooms with reproduction light fixtures (Spin-off Pizzeria Due down the street handles the overflow). There’s nothing refined about the fare, which heaps sauce, a brick of shredded cheese and your choice of toppings into a two-inch-plus crust. Two slices or less is a full meal. 29 E. Ohio St. 312/321-1000. Lunch and dinner daily.

The Berghoff
Judging by the number of German restaurants that have closed in Chicago in the last decade, Old-World Teutonic fare is currently out of favor. But gemutlichkeit rules at The Berghoff, a Loop institution since 1898. Out-of-towners queue up for a table in the oak-paneled dining room for generous portions of Wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten plus a few leaner American choices. The wood-paneled barroom proudly displays Chicago liquor license No. 1, received post-Prohibition, and locals have bellied up for a frosty mug and a carved sandwich at the standing-room-only bar ever since. 17 W. Adams St. 312/427-3170. Lunch and dinner Mon. through Sat. Closed Sun.

Shaw’s Crab House and Blue Crab Lounge
Long has Shaw’s reigned as the city’s best seafood spot. But rather than rest on its laurels, the 1940s-inspired spot has managed to keep the kitchen current, turning out famed classics like silky crab cakes and buttery halibut while updating the menu with sushi, maki, and a variety of fresh tartare selections. Forty-some fresh fish and shellfish are on offer daily, and lunch is a great buy starring a lavish seafood salad and $1, one-bite desserts. The city’s chief specialist in bivalves—home to an annual oyster festival—nurtures a split personality, spanning a clubby main dining room in nautically-themed loft digs and a lively exposed-brick bar where shell shuckers work harder than the barkeeps. 21 E. Hubbard St. 312/527-2722. Lunch and dinner daily.

Ambria
Whether your concept of romance is Bogie and Bacall or Ashton and Demi, you’ll want to snuggle close to your dinner partner at Ambria. Chances are he or she is a business associate, based on the volume of expensive account business here, but even the deal goes down sweeter at Ambria, where the Art Nouveau look of deep woods and etched glass sets a sensual stage for updated French fare. The menu changes seasonally but may include blackberry-sauced venison, lobster gazpacho, and/or rosemary-infused lamb loin. If the a la carte offerings are too much to contemplate, simplify your decision with one of several multicourse dinners. The wine list is encyclopedic, but the sommelier here is one of the city’s best. 2300 N. Lincoln Park West. 773/472-5959. Dinner Mon. through Sat. No lunches. Closed Sun.

Faded Glories:

Pump Room
From Bogart to Belushi, the celebs who loved this supper club are all dead.

Signature Room at the 95th
Best place to relive your prom date, with stunning views and expensive food. BYO tux.

Gene and Georgetti
Old-school steakhouse with a kitchen on cruise control.

Riva
The “fine dining” choice dominating Navy Pier relies on views to distract from the dishes.

Rosebud
If you know someone you can get a table and eat ordinary red-sauced pasta too.

—Elaine Glusac

Photo Courtesy of Charlie Trotter’s

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