Food is comfort. And my guess is, a lot of Chicagoans will wake up Wednesday morning and want nothing more than to drop their faces into a plate of warm solace and briefly forget the travesty unfolding in Washington.
Luckily, it’s Chicago Restaurant Week.
The event, now in its 11th year, paradoxically runs two weeks, and focuses on the new and the hip. I’m not much help there. I never want to go to a new restaurant. I prefer the same old restaurants. New places tend to be split between those I can’t get into and those I’m sorry that I did.
So allow me to share my top seven Chicago restaurants — I tried to do a Top 10, but couldn’t jam them in, so plucked out my favorites from the suburbs. (Sorry Prairie Grass; apologies Psistaria). In alphabetical order, so no feelings are hurt though that might be inevitable, since I’m including a downside for each, lest this devolve into press-agentry.
Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co., 2121 N. Clark: Can you love a restaurant just for its salad and bread? That’s the main meal when my family rush here to celebrate being all together again. The Mediterranean bread, a warm disk of Parmesan-dusted freshness overflowing the plate. Poppyseed dressing. This one of two restaurants I go to knowing we’ll have to wait 45 minutes to get in. Downside: the “pot pie pizza,” a cheesy, overturned bowl of glop.
Gene & Georgetti, 500 N. Franklin: The best steak in a city of steakhouses. Gibson’s and Chicago Cut have fancier rooms, but Gene’s is The Only Place. Sinatra was a fan. Some men eat here every day. I first met Barack Obama at Gene’s. The waiters are like friars, solemnly going about a holy ritual. Downside: some tell me they dislike the decor, which does resemble your mad uncle’s basement rumpus room.
Harry Caray’s, 33 W. Kinzie: A quaint Dutch revival building hiding a museum of sports memorabilia assembled by Grant DePorter, who plays the media like an accordion. This is the restaurant where I send strangers eating their first meal in Chicago. It’s just fun, with energetic waitstaff and a deep bench menu. Downside: the fare is like a utility infielder hitting .268; he delivers the goods, but nobody is going to buy his jersey.
Green Street Smoked Meats, 112 N. Green: The newcomer on the list, only 3 years old, a barnish bar/cafeteria, the brainchild of master restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff, who gave the world the Donut Vault. At Green Street you take a tray and line up for a carver who measures your ribs or brisket with an electronic scale, like gold. The room is large and festive, a Texas roadhouse vibe, the ceiling alive with little lights, the alley outside gorgeous in summer, a Mulberry Street air. After eating there for the first time, I returned twice within the same week. Downside: Umm, let me get back to you on that.
Petterino’s, 150 N. Dearborn: Designed to be Chicago’s answer to New York’s theater eatery Sardi’s, as well as to spotlight Rich Melman’s personal collection of recipes from long-defunct restaurants. A basket of warm rolls and fresh bread, a cup of really good tomato soup, a big salad, and I’m ready to face whatever Eugene O’Neill stem-winder the Goodman Theatre is putting on next door. Downside: nearby government offices mean despised local politicos often show up.
RL Restaurant, 115 E. Chicago Ave.: A great space — silver-framed prints on black walls, a certain clubby deco F. Scott Fitzgerald’s parlor in heaven effect. First-rate food — you can’t go wrong with a cup of lobster bisque and a Cobb salad, or, more decadent, tomato soup and grilled cheese. Downside: you might, as I have, find yourself sitting next to George Lucas or Oprah Winfrey, which puts a guy off his appetite.
Star of Siam, 11 E. Illinois: I can’t tell if their Thai food is perfect, or I just base my expectations of what Thai food should be on decades of gobbling up SoS fare — perfect, fat strips of chicken satay, quivering plates of pad thai and, my take-it-to-the-bank favorite, a big hot mound of beef and broccoli. Downside: center tables have these awkward built-in gray carpeted benches.
That’s my list. What’s yours?