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Photograph: Chris Lake

Best Bar for Grownups

THE LONG ROOM
612 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-665-4500
OK—we admit it: There are probably dozens of bars in the city and beyond that could plausibly take top honors here. But The Long Room, located on a nondescript, commercially mixed stretch of Irving Park Road near Lincoln Square (and conveniently, we think, down the block from a Popeyes), gets the nod because of its uncommon mix of qualities that adults of a certain age crave: uncrowdedness, a welcoming back patio, good beers on tap, friendly barkeeps, and a kind of lived-in authenticity. The music never gets too loud, the crowd is hip but not trendy, and it doesn't hurt that a roving tamale salesman always seems to show up at precisely the right moment.

 


Photograph: Chris Guillen

Best Bar with Dancing

LIAR'S CLUB
1665 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-665-1110
Located on the westerly fringes of Lincoln Park, Liar's Club is a classic dive bar (gnarly bathroom—check) filled sparsely during the week with a rough crowd of local mechanics and loners staring off into space. But on weekend nights the cheap drinks served by the friendly, tattooed bartenders draw a diverse and unpretentious crowd. After 10:30 p.m., the bar is colonized by a fraternal mix of hipsters from Ukrainian Village, artists from the West Loop, and perhaps a Bucktown bachelorette party. Patrons return for the generous pours and the well-edited playlists ranging from Usher to AC/DC to unnameable yet familiar eighties Europop—all of which will coax your stiffest friend to abandon his two-dollar PBR and strut onto the teeny dance floor snapping his fingers à la Michael Jackson in the "Beat It" video. A photo booth is strategically placed in the corner to remind you of how much fun you had—because, trust us, you won't remember on your own.

 

Best Beer Destination

Uptown, downtown. Two bars for beer fanatics square off.


THE HOPLEAF BAR
5148 N. Clark St.; 773-334-9851

Hopleaf has inspired a cultlike following over the last 16 years, due mostly to owner Michael Roper's beer-is-divine philosophy. His approach is exemplified by the strong and eccentric selection of 200 beers, many of which are craft offerings from little-known domestic microbreweries. You won't find TVs, loud music, light beer, mass-market brands, or any trace of a sports bar at this Andersonville spot. Roper wants your full attention on your drink and the kitchen's deservedly esteemed mussels and frites.

 

THE MAP ROOM
1949 N. Hoyne Ave.; 773-252-7636

The Map Room is a lively travel-themed bar that also happens to obsessively revere the world of beer. Here, some contemplate the globe-spanning 200-beer list and attend monthly beer school, while others stop by just to watch the game or gorge on the free catered buffets. The bartenders happily pour sample glasses, knowing full well that not everyone understands how a beer can be brewed with, say, coffee or chocolate and still taste good.

WINNER: Hopleaf, by a nose. We love The Map Room's accessible, friendly vibe, but Hopleaf's food is way better than it needs to be.

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

Best Chicago-Style Hot Dog

A fresh poppyseed bun is just the beginning. Three great ones vie for top dog.
PORTILLO'S
100 W. Ontario St.; 312-587-8910, plus many other locations.

Of our three top contenders (sorry, Hot Doug's), Portillo's won for its flavorful and juicy meat—produced by Vienna Beef to Dick Portillo's exacting and top-secret specifications (for what it's worth, we sensed touches of garlic and paprika). The toppings were the classics—sliced tomato, onion, mustard, relish, sour pickle, celery salt, and sport peppers—hugged by a warm, soft poppyseed bun.

RUNNERS-UP: Michael's Chicago Style Red Hots (1879 Second St., Highland Park; 847-432-3338). This huge fast-food emporium offers a classic version with a firm and tasty dog—just not as good as Portillo's. But the half-sour pickle can't be beat. Gene & Jude's Red Hot Stand (2720 N. River Rd., River Grove; 708-452-7634). The dog at Gene & Jude's, a charmingly bare-bones stand, does not come with tomato and pickle, just chopped onions, piccalilli (sweet relish), hot peppers, and mustard. Very good, but overshadowed by the glorious fries—sliced and cooked while you wait—that come with.

 

Best Closet Organizer

NINA LEE
Closet Works, 2000 N. Clybourn Ave.; 773-244-9700 (and other locations)
Nina Lee is everything you want from a closet consultant: She visits you in your home, takes careful notes and measurements, sketches out her ideas on the spot so you can see what she's talking about, and cranks out a 3-D rendering overnight. With backup from installation crews who leave the space cleaner than when they arrived—and low prices to boot—Lee gets the job done just the way we like it.

 

Best Comeback

STEVE STONE
When the baseball guru Steve Stone left the Cubs TV booth after the 2004 season, Chicago baseball broadcasting took a blow like a catcher getting steamrolled on a play at the plate. Then in March Chris Singleton left his awkward partnership with Ed Farmer on White Sox radio and decamped for ESPN, opening a space for Stoney. Stone's knowledge, astuteness, clarity, and self-deprecation translate swimmingly to radio, and his rapport with Farmer has Sox fans remembering the old days of Farmer and John Rooney. Stone dissects a pitch sequence or analyzes strategy in a way that somehow makes listeners feel as if they share his expertise, but, actually, he's teaching all of us. The Cubs' loss is everybody's gain.

 

Best Comic-Book Store

DARK TOWER COMICS
4835 N. Western Ave.; 773-733-4026, darktowercomics.net
In a city of thriving comic-book stores, Dark Tower Comics is a devotee's paradise. All the essentials are here: new indie and superhero comics every week, a hold list, walls of graphic novels, and thousands of back issues for only a buck each. But the store's true selling point is the blissfully unpretentious atmosphere and the loyal, talkative customers. The uninitiated and the merely curious will get excellent service from Mark Beatty, the owner: He's friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable—and Koko, his adorable dog, is always at his side behind the counter. Toys, yes, and collectibles, too, but the reason to go is the glossy funny pages adorning the stacks. Open every day but Monday.

 

Best Custom Framing

FREDERIC'S FRAME STUDIO, INC.
1230 W. Jackson Blvd.; 312-243-2950, fredericsframestudio.com
When you've ascended to the rank of art collector, FredEric's is the place to outline your masterpiece. Several big-name Chicago galleries—including Richard Gray, Thomas McCormick, and Richard Norton—regularly rely on FredEric's framing expertise. But Kathleen Tully, the framing director, insists there is no job too big or small. "We've framed works by Salvador Dalí, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as children's drawings and family photos," she says. "Sometimes people do spend more on the frame than the art." The venerable three-story West Loop shop uses only archival materials and stocks all of its antique and new moldings on-site, allowing the staff of 16 to easily show you the options for a stunning custom finish in four to six weeks. 

 

Best Dinner Party

Our all-star table of Chicago conversationalists


Illustrations: John Kenzie

We have all encountered the species: vertebrates who with no visible exertion flow from conversation to conversation, throwing off fascinating stories like sparks from a wheel, bathing the gathering in a warm and gracious ambiance. In other words, the perfect dinner party guest. We came up with a fantasy team of Chicago's best.

(1) Michael Bauer
Democratic fundraising consultant and gay activist
Style: No-holds-barred
Knowledge Bank: The social scene, gossip, intrigue
Ignition Point: Closeted gay Republicans
(5) Leo Melamed
Chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange
Style: Guru-ish
Knowledge Bank: Financial derivatives and futures markets, world history, culture
Ignition Point: Free-market interference
(2) Amy Dickinson
Advice columnist, Chicago Tribune
Style: Confiding
Knowledge Bank: Relationships, the Beltway
Ignition Point: Bad dates
(6) Hamza Walker
Artist and curator
Style: Loud and funny
Knowledge Bank: Jazz, wine, parenting, the contemporary avant-garde
Ignition Point: Politics
(3) Mark Giangreco
Sports anchor, WLS-TV
Style: Gentlemanly
Knowledge Bank: Sports, celebrities, news of the weird
Ignition Point: Messiness
(7) Laura Washington
Professor and commentator
Style: Reasoned, gossipy
Knowledge Bank: Politics, Chicago
Ignition Point: Corruption
(4) Tracy Letts
Actor, playwright, and Steppenwolf stalwart
Style: Droll
Knowledge Bank: Theatre, poetry, show-biz chatter
Ignition Point: Stupidity

(8) Lois Weisberg
City of Chicago culture czar
Style: Instant familiarity
Knowledge Bank: News, cities, George Bernard Shaw
Ignition Point: Boredom

 

Best Director

DAVID CROMER
Bleak life, death, and disappointing afterlife: In the hands of David Cromer, 43, they've become things of deep theatrical beauty. The Skokie native has spent decades percolating in Chicago theatre, and this year's string of successes has put his versatility and artistry on full display. His meticulous direction earned him a prestigious Off Broadway award in May for the dark musical The Adding Machine (born at Next Theatre, Evanston; now running in New York). Cromer is so obsessive about his vision that he cast himself as the Stage Manager in his unsentimental, revelatory production of Our Town; the show will play again in September after a sold-out spring run. Also upcoming: directing Perfect Mendacity at Steppenwolf Theatre's First Look Repertory of New Work series this month, Picnic at Writers Theatre in September, and The Glass Menagerie at Kansas City Repertory in January. Don't worry that success is giving him an optimistic outlook, though. "I absolutely see myself working in Starbucks in two years," he says.

 


Photograph: Joe C. Moreno

Best Emerging Playwright

KEITH HUFF
Combining riveting storytelling and complex characterization, Keith Huff's deserving hit A Steady Rain, a gritty-and-then-some cop drama, tells a feverish tale of squad-car partners whose lives rapidly spiral in opposite directions. Huff, 48, has written plays for small local theatre companies since the mid-eighties, diligently rising by three in the morning to write before his day job as a Web site manager (going to bed so early that his young daughter sometimes reads him bedtime stories). Next up are Pursued by Happiness, a tale of love and pharmacology among biochemists, part of Steppenwolf Theatre's First Look Repertory of New Work series to be staged this month, and a trip to Los Angeles for meetings with television producers. "It's very exciting," Huff says. "It's a new world for me."

 


Photograph: Anna Knott

Best Frozen Yogurt

Which of these three new fro-yo joints serves the best stuff?
RED MANGO
111 W. Jackson Ave., Naperville, 630-904-0994
809 Davis St., Evanston, 847-866-0998

Now that the soft-serve frozen yogurt craze has reached Chicago—even Pinkberry is scouting city sites—we tried the top three purveyors here to see which combines the benefits of helpful probiotics with good taste. Red Mango, a chain out of Los Angeles, wins for its deliciously light and creamy texture in just two flavors—original (similar to vanilla, but tangy and less sweet) and green tea. It's nonfat and lo-cal but satisfies like ice cream. 

RUNNERS-UP: Berry Chill (635 N. State St.; 312-226-2445). This lactose-free entry comes with a dizzying array of toppings, but the yogurt is slightly sourer and denser than Red Mango's. Starfruit (1745 W. Division St.; 773-328-2900). It tastes like kefir! Which, we realized, is a bit of an acquired taste in a dessert.

 


Vatterott, left, and Messing

Photograph: Joe C. Moreno; Hair and makeup: Sara Saltanovitz/Artists by Timothy Priano

Funniest Man

NICK VATTEROTT
In a robust North Side standup scene that doesn't lack for visionaries, the cry "Vatterott's up!" inspires this comic's jaded, dusty peers to flee front-room barstools and beeline for the back, where the 29-year-old impresario's unhinged, kaleidoscopic stories pour out at a breathless pace. "You ever ridden in a Greyhound bus?" he asks in one joke. "It's like riding in a moving alley. Everything in that bus is either a crack addict or a puddle." Vatterott's peers would roast him on a spit and eat his heart to steal his power if he weren't such a nice, unassuming guy to boot. Catch him at Zanies (1548 N. Wells St.; 312-337-4027), Chicago Underground Comedy (chicagoundergroundcomedy.com), and throughout the North Side.

Funniest Woman

SUSAN MESSING
Characters crawl from improviser Susan Messing's mind like clowns from a Volkswagen. Each Thursday in Messing with a Friend at the Annoyance Theatre and Bar (4830 N. Broadway; 773-561-4665), the baby-faced scenery chewer pairs with a different guest to cocreate an entirely unscripted show. A recent outing had her playing, Tarantino-like, a hilariously careless hit man botching a job in chronologically out-of-sequence vignettes. And in true Annoyance style (the legendary theatre recently reopened its long-running hit musical Co-Ed Prison Sluts), Messing can work blue enough to peel the paint, blowing away taboos like so much dandelion fluff. Watch her ASAP—nobody does it better.

 

Best Game Night

The most entertaining theme nights at local bars—by game

TRIVIA
Where: The Globe Pub (1934 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-871-3757, theglobepub.com)
When: Tuesday nights, 8 to 10 p.m.
How much: $5; proceeds benefit MS Society of Illinois
Quiz Night at The Globe is for serious triviaholics with a sense of humor. Quizmaster Dave Ahrens says he's the product of a college professor who gave ten-question multiple-choice exams for which all the answers would be "C"—except the last one, just to mess with people. Questions range from "Who was originally cast to be Marty McFly in Back to the Future?" to identifying an elderly Lady Bird Johnson in a photograph. After round two, you may be questioning your intelligence, or it may just be the beer special: $4 for a pint of Beamish—and if you don't know how many pints are in a gallon, just go for the show.

BINGO
Where: The California Clipper Lounge (1002 N. California Ave.; 773-384-2547, california
clipper.com)
When: Monday nights, 9:30 p.m.
How much: Free
The irony of a wholesome game thrust into a Humboldt Park watering hole is not lost on the mostly hipster attendees. This has to be the edgiest bingo night in Chicago, with calls of "G 53," "B 11," and "I 29" punctuated by curt, self-deprecating comedy and drunken ramblings. Players anchor themselves securely to their strong drinks, mostly the bar's signature grape soda cocktail, the Purple Martin, hoping for the prize bags full of mini toys, erasers, gadgets, and out-of-print books. After a whole night of bingo and booze, don't be surprised if the red-and-black-checkerboard floor starts looking like a never-ending sea of bingo cards.

EUCHRE
Where:
Big Chicks (5024 N. Sheridan Rd.; 773-728-5511)
When: Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 6 p.m.
How much: $3
If speed dating isn't your thing, try euchre at Big Chicks. Declaring trump while sipping a $4 Absolut martini may be the perfect way to get revved up for a night out. The cards are dealt in a long, loungy room that later becomes a sultry dance floor. There's no need to take a partner along, as the teams rotate regularly—a chance to meet lots of fellow euchre lovers.

TURTLE RACING
Where: Big Joe's 2 and 6 Pub (1818 W. Foster Ave.; 773-784-8755)
When: Friday nights
How much:
Price of a beer
Horseracing season is over—but we still have Big Joe's, a dive bar in Ravenswood, which hosts turtle races rivaling the excitement of the Triple Crown. The bartenders convert a billiard table into a competitive venue where the shelled speed demons with names like Lola and Lucky Dan race out to the edge, only occasionally getting distracted or stopping short. Half a dozen heat races lead up to a final winners' race before last call. To get in on the action, order a beer and receive a raffle ticket. The winner gets a T-shirt and the loser gets a beer. We like those odds.

 


Photograph: Anna Knott

Best Handcrafted Cocktails

Of the many places now making precision cocktails completely from scratch, which one shakes up the tastiest drinks?
THE VIOLET HOUR
1520 N. Damen Ave.; 773-252-1500
Everything you've heard about this ersatz speakeasy is true: The vibe is contrived and fussy; the high-backed chairs cut you off from the action; and the wait at the door is near intolerable during prime time. The handcrafted cocktails, however, are incomparably refreshing and perfectly calibrated. We recently inhaled the NY Sour (Plymouth gin, rosé wine, egg white, orange flower water) and the Spring Sidecar (a tart take on the sweet classic), but the menu bursts with enticements—all $11 apiece, nowhere near the most expensive in town. The bar opens at 6 p.m., so go early, sit at the bar, and focus on your drink.

RUNNERS-UP: Sepia (123 N. Jefferson St.; 312-441-1920). Excellent versions of enduring classics. We wish the bar itself and the cocktail menu—offering just 12 creations—were bigger. Otom (951 W. Fulton Market; 312-491-5804). Perhaps the most creative in Chicago, the cocktails here are complex, layered, near-culinary creations that intrigue but demand perhaps too much attention.