Spinach salad at Bridge House Tavern
Spinach salad at Bridge House Tavern

Bridge House Tavern | River North | $$$

Tucked down along the river by Clark Street, Bridge House Tavern has one of the finest outdoor patios in the city. It offers a view so spectacular that it’s nearly enough to distract from the lackluster food—if only the food weren’t screaming so loudly to be noticed, stacked with heavy-on-heavy ingredients like a stoner’s wildest dream. The popcorn comes dressed with honey, bacon, jalapeño, and smoked salt, and the bites we had were alternately scorched, sweet, or overly salty. The grilled cheese throws together ultrasavory and sweet; the Brie, fontina, cheddar, thick bread, and bacon didn’t stand a chance for balance against the mealy tomato and tomato jam. Even the spinach salad managed to be heavy under roasted beets, goat cheese, pecans, a fried egg, and a thickly applied strawberry vinaigrette, and the bread pudding was topped with two types of syrup and a dose of powdered sugar. The only winner of the evening arrived courtesy of outsourcing, a fine trio of charcuterie from the Butcher & Larder, best enjoyed alongside a light beer. —Emily Withrow 321 N. Clark, 312-644-0283, bridgehousetavern.com. Lunch: Mon-Fri; dinner: daily. Sat & Sun brunch. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.

Cantina No. 46 | River North | $$

The way I see it, Cantina No. 46 has two options: stifle some of the heat in the complimentary salsa, or add more flavor to the food that follows. By the time our queso arrived, I insisted that my dining partner try it again and again, to see if he could taste anything at all. We repeated the exercise with the baked shrimp empanadas. Only when the red snapper ceviche arrived did the Cantina deliver us from bland land, offering a beautifully balanced, light and citrusy bite. For the most part, the menu sits well within the Americanized Mexican safety zone, sticking to standards like tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. Where it branches out, though, it shines. The ancho-rubbed grilled skirt steak was a case in point; I had to resist the urge to peel off the outer layer of spices and eat it solo. Portobello mushroom fajitas, on the other hand, desperately needed seasoning. The drinks list includes a smattering of cocktails, with margaritas served ready to be topped off by the server’s bottle of tequila, which is carried at all times in a holster. —Emily Withrow 46 E. Superior, 312-664-0100, cantina46.com. Lunch: Sun, Tue-Sat; dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 2, Mon-Thu till midnight.

Etno Village Grill | Lincoln Park | $$

This sunny flatiron building at the intersection of Lincoln, Sheffield, and Wrightwood has been given a loving renovation by owners Mark Kwiatkowski and Jelena Karatosic, transformed by wood-stained bench seating and touches like textured pillows, decorative crockery, and houseplants in the windows. The sandwiches and burgers include creations like the Cason burger (named for chef Chris Cason, formerly of Takashi and 404 Wine Bar), with Camembert, ginger-poached pears, bacon, and Dijon. But the highlight is the cevap, skinless beef and pork sausages (there are also chicken and vegetarian versions) served on a white or wheat roll and piled at your discretion with house-made condiments from the 21 available, among them a tasty spicy ajvar, spinach-feta spread, red onion marmalade, carrot salad, tzatziki, and house-made kosher dills. There’s also a choice of eight premium cheeses, including Brickman’s horseradish cheddar and Swiss. Etno’s is BYO with a liquor license in the works; DePaul students receive a 10 percent discount. —Kate Schmidt 2580 N. Lincoln, 773-698-8069, etnogrill.com. Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Fri till 3, Sat till 4.

Fin Sushi Bar | Ravenswood | $$

Ravenswood has no shortage of sushi places, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at Fin Sushi. On a recent night the shiny BYO corner spot was filled and refilled with smiling locals and their clinking chopsticks. Owner Tai Thongthomya, whose family also owns Uptown’s Dib Sushi Bar and Thai Cuisine, borrows from its concept and menu with similarly successful results. Starters were impressive: a spicy oyster baked in a piquant mayo under an orange blanket of burst roe and a single basil leaf was sweetly, glidingly delicious, and a Chef’s Choice sashimi, although playing it safe with salmon, tuna, and yellowtail, still featured thick, unsullied slices of raw fish. As at Dib, specialty sushi rolls are eclectic: the Snow Burn combines fried plantains, jalapeños, and cilantro rolled inside a toasted, pristinely virginal superwhite tuna contrasting with heaps of black roe. Entrees include the obligatory pad thai and crazy noodles, but a solid block of slightly coarse sea bass, one of at least a dozen offerings asterisked for hotness, was actually hot, saturated by a sweet basil sauce that called less for chopsticks and more for an eager fork and thumb. BYO. —Izidora Angel 1742 W. Wilson, 773-961-7452. Lunch, dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat.

Hotdogeria | Lincoln Park | $

There’s little reason to go out of the way for the Viennas at this disturbingly named sausage shop, where dogs are dressed according to the national preference of various North and South American nation states. The toppings—maple on the Canadian, mashed potatoes on the Brazilian, bacon around the Mexican, etc—tend to overwhelm the slim tubes and steamed supermarket buns. But if you’re a student at Lincoln Park High School, it’s worth skipping across the street for the smoky split Argentinian, drizzled in garlicky chimmichurri. A burger, a few deli sandwiches, and ham and cheese sincronizadas round out the brief menu. —Mike Sula 711 W. Armitage, 773-639-2976. Tue-Sat 10 AM-8 PM.

Hoyt’s Chicago | Loop | $$$

Don’t let the minimalist interior and swanky riverside location fool you—Hotel 71’s new restaurant specializes in classic American comfort food. Chef Gabriel Kolofon’s menu makes the contrast work: the familiar flavors satisfy a traditional palate while contemporary twists distinguish Hoyt’s hearty fare from a standard bar burger or your mom’s ravioli. We started with the mac ‘n’ cheese, updated with salty prosciutto and crispy onions. The sliders—ground turkey breast, barbecued pork, and slow-cooked short rib—were messy to split, but each packed a distinct and rewarding punch. The entrees were similarly savory: the garlic-herb strip steak was cooked to a perfectly pink medium rare and the seared salmon loin, garnished with saffron aioli and crisp fennel salad, was straightforward and light. In keeping with the Americana theme, we ended the evening with the apple crumble, deliciously smoky in a skillet with a scoop of simple vanilla ice cream. The dining room was sparsely populated on a date night, but I imagine the tavern’s Loop location draws a significant professional crowd for workday lunches and after-work cocktails, and the patio was buzzing with casual diners enjoying themselves in true backyard-barbecue fashion, swilling fruity cocktails in lounge chairs and bopping along to Motown music. —Sallyann Price 71 E. Wacker, 312-346-9870, hoytschicago.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 2, other nights till midnight.

Lulu Belle’s Pancake House | Lakeview | $$

A newcomer to the Southport brunch corridor, Lulu Belle’s Pancake House advertises “Downhome Southern with a modern twist,” a concept they’ve Disneyfied: the interior is awash in primary colors, servers are clothed in country plaid, and the walls are covered with whimsical farmland murals and rusty tools. During a recent Saturday-morning brunch our food arrived within six minutes of ordering—convenient if you’re in a rush, but not exactly a harbinger of time-intensive down-home cooking. The special of the day, cheesy grits, lacked the creamy decadence of the real thing, with a thin layer of cheddar cheese plastered to the top of a bland, lumpy mass. Lulu-recommended hoecakes were dense corn flapjacks only softened (and flavored) by thick layers of butter and syrup, while mushy corned beef hash contained soft potatoes and thin, limp strips of corned beef seasoned by flecks of parsley. Lulu, if you’re reading this, please slow down, embrace true southern hospitality, and let your extensive menu deliver on its promise. —Laura Fox 3819 N. Southport, 773-975-5858, lulubellespancakehouse.com. Breakfast, lunch: daily.

Mariscos el Caribe | Albany Park | $$

The late, great Pupuseria Las Delicias was always inexplicably empty, which surely contributed to its demise. A perpetually empty seafood restaurant inspires even less confidence, and that’s the case with the South American spot that replaced it. An unnervingly large variety of shrimp, calamari, and oyster cocktails, fishy soups, and grilled, broiled and fried platillos—including the matapasiones (aka “mattress breaker”), a heaping platter of shrimp, octopus, crab, and rice dressed with onions, tomato, cilantro, and cheese—are offered to a desolate dining room nearly every night. Still, even on the slowest of those a lone server/cook was able to produce a passably fresh shrimp ceviche and a huge if overfried red snapper. BYO. —Mike Sula 3300 W. Montrose, 773-961-7226. Lunch, dinner: daily.

Northdown Cafe and Taproom | Lakeview | $

“Come for the beer, stay for the pork fries” could be the tagline for Northdown Cafe and Taproom, the new venture of sister-brother team Valeri and Adam Lucks and their partner, Tom Lee of the Map Room. Located in the space formerly occupied by Bourbon on Lincoln Avenue, Northdown combines the camaraderie of a sports bar, the geeked-out obsessiveness of the beer snob, and the locavore ethos as applied to midwestern comfort food. Those pork fries were the standout of the evening—what could have been a gloppy mess of fried spuds, barbecue pork, cheese sauce, pickled peppers, green onions, and (because one kind of pig is not enough) chopped bacon offered a mix of sweet, sour, smoky, and even spicy flavors that kept us sneaking bites even after it had gone cold. When I ordered a sandwich our server alerted me to a potential fries surfeit and highly recommended the coleslaw as a side instead. I couldn’t see the appeal of the rather bland, coarsely cut slaw beyond its texture, but the sandwich—beef short ribs braised in Old Rasputin Stout with fontina, pea shoots, and red onion jam on a perfect ciabatta—was heartiness raised to godliness. Mac ‘n’ cheese, a blank canvas that’s quickly becoming a bar-food cliche, came with a lovely crust but needed a good sprinkling of salt. The rotating selection of drafts includes ales from midwestern breweries such as Three Floyds and Founders as well as several from farther afield—such as Rodenbach Grand Cru, a beguilingly sour Belgian beer. For dessert, complete the homey vibe with a slice of pie made in-house—which could be anything from banana cream to blueberry-peach streusel. —Heather Kenny 3244 N. Lincoln, 773-697-7578, northdownchicago.com. Lunch, dinner: daily. Sat & Sun brunch. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.

Pho Lily | Uptown | $

Like many Argyle Street Viet spots, this crowded Uptown newcomer has an exhaustive menu covering the usual suspects: cold seafood salads, banh mi, rice plates, pho, and sweeter southern-style soups—such as the porky hu tieu or bun rieu, floating with pink, briny crab roe—along with the requisite sides of herbal vegetation, chiles, and bean sprouts. Same goes for the large selection of cold rice noodle dishes or bun, accompanied by grilled or fried bites, and meant to be chopsticked and dipped in spicy sweet nuoc cham. Of particular note, if only for its singularity, is the bun cha Ha Noi with grilled pork patties and roll, a variant not often seen outside the Vietnamese capital. BYO. —Mike Sula 5100 N. Broadway, 773-754-8057.Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.

Porkchop | West Loop | $$$

Its website decries “pretense and preening,” but its clientele doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, and so what happens to the irony? Located in the former La Mediterranee space on Randolph, Porkchop offers a simple, predictable bar-food menu of wings, pork belly sliders, pork chops grilled or chicken fried, salads, and sandwiches. The whiskey was good—over two dozen bourbons, scotches, and ryes, all served neat in the dimly lit, wood-trimmed space festooned with a handful of surprised-looking animal heads. But the food was uneven. A trio of andouille, duck, and boar sausage lollipops unexpectedly came breaded. An inch-and-a-half thick pork chop was nicely pink in the middle but had less flavor than the potatoes surrounding it, and, like a well-prepared, buttery rib eye, didn’t taste of the grill. A “deconstructed” whiskey root beer float just meant you had to pour the beverages in yourself. —Izidora Angel 941 W. Randolph, 312-733-9333, porkchopchicago.com. Lunch: Dinner: daily. Open late: Sat till 2:30, Mon-Fri till 1:30, Sun till midnight.

Reecee’s Cafe | Rogers Park/West Rogers Park | $

Chef-owner Clarence Robinson, a graduate of Washburne Culinary Institute, was recently featured in a New York Times story about how, despite the success of the City Colleges cooking school, Englewood, where it’s located, still can’t support restaurants other than fast-food joints. I hope Rogers Park can—Reecee’s is the third place to open in this modest storefront in a couple years, and like its predecessors is distressingly empty most of the time. It shouldn’t be, not with chef’s specials like mushroom chowder and a cheese steak sandwich with Mornay sauce; there’s also all-day breakfast and $5 “snack packs” with fries. The gumbo is dense with file powder and loaded with chicken and andouille; the filling po’boys come with a spicy house-made roasted pepper aioli. Service couldn’t be friendlier—here’s hoping the neighborhood comes around. Cash only for now. —Kate Schmidt 1343 W. Morse, 773-434-9439, reeceescafe.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.

Tolotzin Mexican Restaurant | Uptown | $$

Tucked within a slender, three-window storefront on Broadway just north of Montrose, Tolotzin is the kind of Mexican place you walk into and immediately know good things are to follow. Bright yellow walls, shiny lacquered tables, and dark chairs whose backs sprout impressive ornamental woodwork give a sense of the effort put in. It’s BYO, offering chimichangas, enchiladas, and tacos, among others, for lunch. Dinners, affordable, and with an array to choose from—combinations plates, hearty caldos, an entire page of shrimp specials—hold their own. Meats were superb across the board. One combination included a perfect taco al pastor—diced, crunchy pineapple-flavored pork; a chicken flauta on the same plate was less impressive but still generously filled with moist chicken. A beef tostada, aside from a plentiful, crispy steak, yielded a single most delicious bite: the crunchy, oily, flavor-soaked tortilla. An asado tampiqueña featured juicy skirt steak, with two whole spring onions on top, while the asado de puerco had at least half a dozen tender, slow-cooked chunks of pork drowned in a fiery red chile guajillo. The quality held up until the end: a square of freshly made, sweet flan was pure joy. —Izidora Angel 4431 N. Broadway, 773-334-4300. Lunch, dinner: seven days. Open late: every night till 11.