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Best Happy Hour

THE REAGLE BEAGLE
160 E. Grand Ave.; 312-755-9645, reaglebeaglechicago.com
A lively afterwork crowd looking to escape the office—and, for that matter, the 21st century—rendezvous every weeknight at this wood-paneled, windowless lounge that simultaneously pays homage to Three's Company and your parents' old rec room. The TV-themed retro décor infiltrates every nook and cranny, from the martini list to the framed photos of such long-lost characters as Mork; Doogie Howser, MD; Alex P. Keaton; and Mr. T. But campy nostalgia alone does not a happy hour make: Luckily, the Beagle's nightly specials, including $5 Brady Bunch Punch and Love Boat Lemonade on Thursdays, do just the trick.

 

Best Hotel Lobby Bar

Two venerable destinations for leather and martinis face off.

SEASONS BAR
Four Seasons Hotel
120 E. Delaware Pl.; 312-280-8800
Although the Seasons Bar, on the seventh floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, embodies classic elegance and opulence with its plush chairs, soothing fountain, marble floors, and live piano music from the gleaming grand, it manages to pull it off without stuffiness. Choose the "conservatory" for a great city view and flattering afternoon light, and a professional waiter (Manuel, if you're lucky) provides impeccable service, even if you aren't ordering 50 grams of osetra caviar. Who needs caviar, anyway, when perfectly salted roasted nuts (heavy on the cashews) arrive at your table for free? Even the powder room, discreetly tucked behind an unmarked door, is a study in luxury.

THE BAR
Peninsula Hotel
108 E. Superior St.; 312-573-6766
You may have trouble finding The Bar at the Peninsula Hotel—it's hidden at the south end of the labyrinthine fifth-floor lobby—but it's worth the hunt. Intimate, cozy, dimly lit, and cloaked in black and red, The Bar dispenses with floral arrangements, turns up the music, and offers a hipper take on the classic venue, in spite of patrons who flout the "smart casual" attire suggestion and lounge in Cubs jerseys. Service is attentive and accommodating. The menu includes a list of Goose Island beers paired with cheese and a perfect little pretzel roll.

WINNER: Seasons Bar. In addition to the clubby, indulgent vibe we seek, this one has such attentive service, it's a wonder anyone ever leaves.

Photography: Courtesy of the Four Seasons Hotel and the Peninsula Hotel

 


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

Best Indie Band

ICY DEMONS
The six musicians of Icy Demons are all veterans of projects up and down the rock and free jazz spectra. But their new album, Miami Ice (Obey Your Brain), could well be the soundtrack for a funk-influenced afterschool special. Are those synthesizers you hear? More like vintage keyboards and ethnic percussion instruments, which the members passed around democratically in the studio. "Everybody in the group plays everything," says the 31-year-old frontman, Griffin Rodriguez, who loosely formed the band in 2001 and only recently solidified the lineup. "There are all kinds of influences in there—electro, Afro funk, jazz—but we like to call ourselves a rock band. That way we're not ostracized." Icy Demons show their rock roots on Saturday, July 19th, at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.

 

Best Jewish Deli

Between these two beloved Jewish delis, which is a nosh above?

THE BAGEL RESTAURANT & DELI
3107 N. Broadway; 773-477-0300
The Bagel Restaurant & Deli is what happens when you cross your Jewish grandmother's kitchen with the classic city diner. The massive menu is loaded with excellent renditions of old-world, remind-you-of-family-dinner staples like kreplach, chopped liver, kishke, noodle kugel, and blintzes, and the booths are filled with a crazy mix of retirees, Lake View locals, and funky-looking teenagers on dates. Famous for its crystal clear chicken noodle soup.

MAX & BENNY'S
Brookside Plaza, 461 Waukegan Rd., Northbrook; 847-272-9490
The victuals at Max and Benny's don't remind you of a good, home-cooked meal just like grandma used to make—rather, they're what you wished grandma could make on her best day. The pastrami is so flavorful it doesn't need mustard, the smoked fish is moist and rich, the chicken soup—so often too salty—is a true chicken broth, and the matzo balls are firm and tasty enough to eat on their own.

WINNER: Max and Benny's. We couldn't find a clunker on the menu.

 


Photograph: Anna Knott

Best Kobe Burger

Which over-the-top fancy-beef creation is most worth the big shellout?
PARK GRILL
11 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-521-7275
The Park Grill's gourmet burger is a monster: a peppercorn-crusted ten-ounce patty of yielding Kobe beef, dripping with gorgonzola and dressed with balsamic-flavored grilled onions and whole-grain mustard—all stacked in a way that cunningly dictates the order in which you experience the flavors. All these strong elements seem as if they'd be too much for the top-quality beef, but somehow they're in harmony. Intense, luscious, carnivorous harmony.
RUNNERS-UP: Yoshi's Café (3257 N. Halsted St.; 773-248-6160). This burger shows off the delicious beef the best of the three, but, of the three side sauces, the mustard is good, the barbecue sauce is too sweet, and the mango is mystifying. Rockit (22 W. Hubbard St.; 312-645-6000). Nice beef, but the one-two from an onion roll and breaded fried onions overwhelms the medjool date spread and the Brie.

 

Best Lazy Man's Bike Repair

ON THE FLY
7366 N. Lincoln Ave., Lincolnwood; 847-436-2453, ontheflychicago.com
Since 2002, Joe Ebervein has been taking the effort out of bike repair with On the Fly, his mobile fix-it service that removes even the laziest excuse not to get up and rolling. One phone call, and Ebervein will show up anywhere in the Chicagoland area, year-round, with his 16-foot truck loaded with the tools of the trade necessary for tune-ups or overhauls, organized with the precision of an ER. (A complete overhaul—disassembling the bike and installing new bearings and cables—runs $130; a basic tune-up is $60.) A mechanic since high school, the affable 36-year-old currently drives a recycling truck for the city by day. In addition to servicing amateur cyclists, he does work for suburban police departments and charity events. Maintenance is performed quickly and on the spot, so no more cramming wonky wheels into unwelcoming trunks. And those with busy schedules can order his healthy home delivery evenings and weekends.

 


Courtesy of the artist and Moniquemeloche, Chicago

Best Local Artist to Invest in Now

KAREN REIMER
Born in Kansas in 1958, the Chicago textile artist Karen Reimer quietly made a name for herself by meticulously re-creating—via needle and thread on cloth—pages from books, pieces of paper, candy wrappers, and other scraps of life. But lately Reimer has put her embroidered copies of ephemera aside to focus on "Endless Set," a series of pillowcases appliquéd with prime numbers and incorporating a corresponding number of fabric scraps. Recently on view at Moniquemeloche Gallery (where Reimer's work is exclusively sold), it's a project she vows to continue until a piece gets too unwieldy and chaos descends. A set of pillowcases will set you back at least $5,000 (you can buy this piece only in sets of prime numbers—3, 5, 7, etc.), but with the art market remaining oblivious to a recession, anything under five figures could be considered affordable from an artist who has yet to produce a dud of an exhibition.

 

Best Mini-Golf Course You Didn't Know Was There

THE GREEN AT GRANT PARK
352 E. Monroe St.; 312-987-1818, thegreenonline.com
The unassuming mini-golf course and alfresco restaurant hidden away on the east side of Millennium Park can't compete with more tourist-laden areas such as the Bean and Pritzker Pavilion—but that's a good thing. With allegedly gentle sloping greens that prove otherwise up close, this course is considered by many a frustrated golfer to be the Augusta National of the Midwest. Fortunately, the consumption of adult beverages is structured into the course itself—play begins, ends, and takes a break after the ninth hole in the bar—making those triple bogeys much easier to swallow.

 

Best Neighborhood Dining Gems

Four-star dining is all fine and well. But for satisfying a craving—for juicy grilled chicken, a simple but delicious salad,  tapas on the cheap, or a brownie pie—these are the places we love, not least because they're just a stroll away.


Union Pizzeria

Photograph: Kendall Karmanian

BUCKTOWN  Any neighborhood worth its tiramisù deserves a red-checked-tablecloth, red-sauce Italian joint. Even Bucktown. Locals drift into Café Bionda (1467 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-2100) all evening and keep the tables covered with huge antipasto salads, SeaWorld-size shrimp cocktails, massive bowls of pasta, and overflowing platters of the signature brick chicken. The flattened boneless bird is awash in lemony garlic sauce but somehow the skin stays crisp. Gonzo wedges of rosemary-roasted potatoes add heft. For 22 bucks, it's plenty for two (or more) to share. The soundtrack fills the room with crooners of the forties and fifties. Corny, but cozy.

EDGEWATER We were as shocked as anyone to find such top-notch Thai food—gutsily spicy and fresh—at Summer Noodle & Rice (1123 W. Granville Ave.; 773-761-8500), an unassuming little BYO crammed nearly under the Red Line el tracks. For example, when's the last time your tom kha kai, Thailand's famous coconut-and-chicken soup, came chock-full of authentic aromatics such as a kaffir lime leaf, a slice of galangal, lemongrass shavings, and bird chilies? And the kitchen has fun, too: Buddy Drunk, a terrific basily dish made with short, chubby "pin" noodles, sounds weird, tastes great. The décor is admittedly design-on-the-cheap minimalism, but as long as the menu is loaded with dishes we can't stop eating, who cares? Two final words: The waitstaff is charming; the Chinese food on the menu is not. EVANSTON  Which one of these words doesn't belong: "fun," "hip," "yummy," "Evanston"? If you guessed "Evanston," you haven't been to the six-month-old Union Pizzeria (1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; 847-475-2400). The ultimate multitasker, Union sports a cool lounge, a craft beer list, and this year's fashionista thin-crust pizzas made in a woodburning oven. The crowd is equally diverse: Couples, families, profs, and students gab over eggplant caponata, baccalà, and blistered pies topped with nothing but zingy tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and a few leaves of basil. So which word doesn't belong? It was a trick question.

GLEN ELLYN  A cheerful corner spot in this genteel suburb's downtown, Honey (499 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn; 630-469-0000) rewards those willing to venture off the beaten, strip-malled path of Roosevelt Road. All the comfort-food classics are here, including meat loaf, mac and cheese, chicken potpie, and gooey brownies, but wait—there's more. You'll also find such elegant offerings as beet salad with goat cheese and shaved fennel and wild-caught salmon with leeks. Bakery treats are a strong suit, especially the terrific passion fruit cheesecake.

LOGAN SQUARE  The hipster-chic vibe at Azúcar (2647 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-486-6464) matches the laid-back yet sophisticated food perfectly and makes eating tapas right across the street from the Blue Line el station seem like the most natural thing in the world. Sip a mojito (the one made with brandy is extra nice) and nibble almond-stuffed dates with mint pesto; segue into delectable roasted red peppers stuffed with melty cheese and mushrooms; finish with rosquillas, just-made cinnamon doughnuts with warm chocolate ganache—that's living.

PILSEN  We're crazy about the steak tacos at Taquería El Milagro (1923 S. Blue Island Ave.; 312-433-7620), with their tasty meat hot off the grill, their seriously kicky salsa, and their tortillas as fresh and soft as can be (they're made next door—you can buy some to take home from the factory store). The cafeteria counter holds tamales and flautas with different fillings, chicken mole, chiles rellenos, and many other options worth exploring—we haven't hit a bad one yet. Wash it all down with sweet horchata.

RAVENSWOOD  The cartoonish Glenn's Diner (1820 W. Montrose Ave.; 773-506-1720) isn't perfect, but it may be the most instantly likable restaurant in town. Cereal-related artwork dominates the irresistible décor, and the extensive menu is packed with funny little nuggets like the promise of a Dr. Seuss book to read while dining if you add a soup to your grilled cheese. Straightforward, reliable food includes an endless array of fresh fish such as a simple pan-fried Australian silver barramundi, and homemade chocolate brownie pie. Both are simple and fresh, like everything else about Glenn's.

ROGERS PARK  Situated next to a bar on an isolated commercial block within a low-key residential enclave, Gruppo di Amici (1508 W. Jarvis St.; 773-508-5565) has got to be a gift to the people who live nearby. It's the kind of place anyone would love to have within walking distance, serving robust portions of tasty and simple-but-not-dumbed-down Italian food and hand-tossed pizzas (the Margherita reliably sports the right, light amount of cheese and sauce). The warm, woody interior is cavernous but somehow still welcoming, and you'll never feel rushed or shooed out the door.

ROSCOE VILLAGE  Hidden behind a nondescript door on a cutesy-poo stretch of Roscoe Street, Turquoise (2147 W. Roscoe St.; 773-549-3523), a Turkish storefront, exudes nonchalance. Sometimes it's hard to get the host to notice you—with or without a reservation—but once you're seated, all that is forgotten. The friendly waitstaff plies you with warm, airy, crusty, sesame-seed-studded house-made bread as well as an appetizer freebie such as crunchy, garlicky, yogurty cabbage slaw. The menu is admittedly long and confusing (Med, vege, entrées), so just be adventurous. That's what we did, and now we are hooked on Turquoise's hummus, mujver (zucchini pancakes), salt-crusted sea bass (flamed tableside), and extraordinarily juicy chicken kebap. Kazandibi (think Turkish flan) is so creamy, it should be illegal.

UPTOWN  A good neighborhood restaurant is generally one you want to hit again and again. By that definition, Demera (4801 N. Broadway; 773-334-8787)—with its hearty Ethiopian stews and lack of silverware—may sound like a strange choice. It's not; the homey place demystifies Ethio cuisine enough for absolute beginners, and it manages to keep the menu true enough for the hip young Africans who frequent the place. A few bites of michetabish, essentially a chili sautéed in sharp Berbere sauce, and you'll understand the allure of using spongy injera (flatbread) as your utensil. Then you'll be back.

 


Photograph: Anna Knott

Best New Bakery

TWISTED SISTER BAKERY
1543 N. Wells St.; 312-932-1128
Twisted Sister pulls it off: It's an old-fashioned bakery that looks, tastes, smells, and feels old-fashioned. The hardwood floor is probably new, but everything else tucked into this brownstone space near the epicenter of Old Town makes you feel as though you've stumbled back in time. Take the cute marble-topped sideboard set up for coffee service: It's so vintage, it screams country farmhouse. The two time-warp wraparound glass display cases hold dream tarts, buttery cookies, and childhood memories. Pull up a café chair and share a mini supercreamy graham-cracker-crusted cheesecake with a friend, but don't leave without a box of cookies for the house—chocolate chips, if you must, but the corny lime circles and the powdered-sugar tea clouds are sublime. They're not exactly cheap at $13.95 a pound, but apparently that's the price of nostalgia.

 


Photograph: Joe C. Moreno

Best New Green Entrepreneur

CASSIE GREEN
Green Grocer Chicago (1402 W. Grand Ave.; 312-624-9508)
A young mother has wheeled a racecar-shaped stroller into Green Grocer, a bright neighborhood market that has become the unofficial community center of West Town. The owner, Cassie Green, listens intently as the mother explains her need: fruit that's high in iron and toddler friendly. Green looks up iron counts of what's available and recommends some dried figs. "People are craving a personal experience, especially when it comes to food," says the 31-year-old, who, with her new husband, Gary Stephens, 34, opened the market this past January. A former saleswoman for a jewelry company, Green had little management experience—only a desire to provide the best of the local food economy. "You need to know where your food is from," says Green, who makes it a policy to speak with farmers whose goods she sells, takes special orders, and offers Saturday-morning classes on everything from mushrooms to container gardening.

 


Photograph: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Best New Hire

RICCARDO MUTI
When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced in May that Riccardo Muti would be its next music director starting in 2010, the classical-music world was abuzz: He said he wouldn't take an American post! He turned down the New York Philharmonic! He wants it to be his last music directorship! Muti, the former director of La Scala and the Philadelphia Orchestra, is known for his precise baton technique and his facility with a gamut of styles and genres. He brings major star power to the CSO podium—and early interviews suggest the fundraising duties that drove Daniel Barenboim away won't be an issue. Sound the trumpets.

 

 


Branca

Photograph: Chris Lake

Best New Stores

Thirteen fab destinations
by Rebecca Little

HOME  Branca (17 E. Pearson St.; 312-787-1017), a gorgeous shop in a Gold Coast brownstone, features one-of-a-kind antiques and vintage furniture ranging from the 17th century to the 1940s (as well as modern wares), handpicked by the peripatetic local Italian-born interior designer Alessandra Branca. West Town's welcoming Post27 (1819 W. Grand Ave.; 312-829-6122) specializes in midcentury modern and similarly inspired furnishings at prices lower than can be found nearly anywhere else in the city.

COSMETICS  Sue Katz and Lisa Thurman, who met when they were stay-at-home moms, developed a concealer that became a favorite product among Hollywood makeup artists. Amazing Cosmetics (605 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville; 847-680-3917), their small storefront operation, opened in February and offers the entire product line, including eye shadows, lip-glosses, and bronzers. Worth the trek to Libertyville. Colorlab Custom Cosmetics (857 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-525-9086), a Rockford-based chain, opened in Lincoln Park and found an instant following for its made-to-order lipsticks, foundations, powders, blushes, and eye shadows.

SHOES  The recent shuttering of the famous Old Town shoe boutique Josephine may have left many divas in a lurch, but Bucktown's Grace (1917 N. Damen Ave.; 773-384-7223) ably fills the void—at a much lower price. The lovely shop is stocked with about 15 shoe brands and handbag lines from established and emerging labels, almost all made in Italy. We love the sexy heels from Luciano Padovan and Patrick Cox, but Grace also covers the comfort end of the spectrum with style.

JEWELRY  The local jeweler Erin Gallagher (1017 W. Lake St.; 312-492-7548) has a keen eye for the spectacular. But we think the real brilliance lies in the back half of this West Loop boutique, where customers can design their own jewelry: Choose a gem and a chain style and length, embellish it however you wish, and Gallagher's staff will have it ready in two weeks. In the north suburbs, Jill Alberts (469 Roger Williams Ave., Highland Park; 847-681-1630), long a celebrity favorite for the designer's pretty gold necklaces and earrings, has opened; the small elegant space showcases the brand's handcrafted pieces.

ECO BOUTIQUE  In Roscoe Village, sisters Heidi Bailey and Krista White, owners of A Cooler Planet (2211 W. Roscoe St.; 773-248-1110), may have created the perfect destination for the design-obsessed who want to shop smarter. The merchandise at this lifestyle store ranges from organic mattresses to body lotions and kitchenware made from recycled industrial glass.

WOMEN'S BOUTIQUE  You need money to burn in order to shop at Simone's (1060 Gage St., Winnetka; 847-446-9966), an apparel boutique with the most rarefied selection of luxury garments on the North Shore. Simone Gensburg, an Israeli émigré and former model, believes that women should feel like chic individuals, not one of a trend, and to that end stocks only one to three sizes of each piece from her stable of hard-to-find designers. You'll find coats worthy of your best red-carpet gown, Audrey Hepburn-esque day dresses, and other timeless staples.

BABY  In a fast-growing retail niche, Green Genes (5111 N. Clark St.; 773-944-9250) stands out for its vast array of goods for green-minded parents: organic-cotton baby clothing, PVC-free diaper bags, the partially disposable gDiapers, and environmentally friendly soaps and cleansers. One-stop shopping, all in a bright and friendly Andersonville storefront.

SWIMWEAR  We jumped for joy when Malia Mills, the New York-based swimwear boutique, opened here (2050 N. Halsted St.; 773-404-0467, maliamills.com), because no designer takes better care of women who like to shop for tops and bottoms separately for a near-custom fit. The fabrics are strong and stretchy, the bras are beautifully supportive, and bottoms are sized like pants—from size 2 through 16.

DRESSES  The brand-new Wicker Park store Le Dress (1741 W. Division St.; 773-697-9899) wins for its huge selection of well-chosen dresses in all styles—more than 40 lines ranging in size from 0 through 12. And did we mention that no piece costs more than $500? Veruca Salt Fancy (1921 N. Damen Ave.; 773-276-9888) carries the cocktail dresses we really want to wear—sophisticated but never too serious.

 

Best New Workout

THE BAR METHOD
3144 N. Sheffield Ave.; 773-935-2150
What workout is worthwhile enough to prompt a gym rat, a marathoner, and a ballet dancer to each give up her revered Saturday-morning training? The Bar Method, a simple-but-deadly hourlong class that's popular enough to require a reservation. The concept—weights, abdominal exercises, and low-impact movements at a ballet barre—is the sole engine behind this Lake View business run by two transplants, Catherine Wendel and Lis Settimi, who met while studying the method in San Francisco. The exercises, seemingly gentle and basic at the beginning, are performed in repetition until thighs are quaking, biceps are taut, and those size 4 jeans in the back of the closet are again a viable option.

 

Best Nonchain Bookstore

The suburban favorite versus a beloved city destination

UNABRIDGED BOOKSTORE
3251 N. Broadway; 773-883-9119
Any bookstore David Sedaris never misses on a book tour has got something going right. After nearly 28 years in Lake View, Unabridged prides itself on both its gay and lesbian specialty and its stellar children's section. Customer service is outstanding (don't be afraid to walk in and say, "Pick out a great beach read for me"), and so are handwritten staff recommendations. The packed but easy-to-navigate store rivals the big chains with its fiction, classics, and travel sections, and it outdoes them in the sale section, where publisher remainders are marked down by as much as 70 percent.

THE BOOK STALL
811 Elm St., Winnetka; 847-446-8880
The Book Stall's owner, Roberta Rubin, travels to New York three or four times a year to establish contacts with authors. "There are a lot of authors who like being in an independent bookstore," she says. "I make sure they remember who I am." Her effort shows, in the sprawling, well-organized shop's calendar of almost daily events, including children's readings and author visits. The 71-year-old shop has maintained a loyal customer base through multiple owners and a name change. The staff greet regulars by name and make thoughtful recommendations from the shop's 60,000 titles.

WINNER: The Book Stall. For longevity, selection, and its helpful staff—and the all-important fact that it is connected to a Caribou Coffee