>> BUDGET BEAT
Edward Hopper may not be the cheeriest restaurant-design muse out there, but we were pleased to see a print of his painting Nighthawks in the restroom at The Depot (5840 W. Roosevelt Rd.; 773-261-8422). Its palette, if not its melancholy mood, is reflected in this lovingly refurbished, impressively authentic old diner. If the spin-top stools along the counter and red leather booths against the wall were the only attractions, the place would still be worth a visit, but the food-classic diner fare, but better-keeps us coming back. Portions are satisfying, ingredients fresh, and all items are made on the premises. A hot turkey sandwich dazzles with juicy just-carved meat, mashed potatoes and gravy, and crisp, unsweet slaw. Burgers (pictured here: cheeseburger, $6.56), grilled cheese, tuna salad, club sandwiches-they’re all here, and right on the money. Blue Plate Specials may include anything from barbecue chicken with soup, spuds, and corn on the cob to a lovable pile of spaghetti with meatballs, garlic bread, and a green salad. For drinks, order pop in glass bottles (very endearing) or go nuts and get the chocolate egg cream. Pies and layer cakes beckon from the dessert case, but the most amazing finish is the made-to-order doughnuts, fresh out of the fryer and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Inspired by a trip last fall to Turin, Italy, John Bubala (Timo) transformed his old Thyme Cafe space into what is already a Wicker Park hot spot. Unveiled in March, Baccalà (1540 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-227-1400) boasts a rustic, no-frills menu packed with full-flavored dishes straight from Italy’s northwest countryside. The signature baccalà appetizer (above; $8), featuring soft cod, scallops, potato, garlic, and chives, is the perfect prelude to hearty entrées such as braised chicken thighs with white beans and smoked pepper; and pork butt, chunks of tender meat with a crispy outer layer, served with polenta.
>> EAST AFRICAN
A fusion of smells, sounds, and flavors of East Africa is what you can expect from Masala Yangu (43 E. Jefferson Ave., Naperville; 630-922-9999). The husband-wife team of Calvin and Rahila Young opened their restaurant in April with dishes nostalgic of Rahila’s childhood in Kenya. “These are the things I grew up eating,” she says, and literally so-she and her mother head up the kitchen, turning out entrées like biringanya (pictured here; eggplant with potatoes in creamy tomato sauce, $13) and Rahila’s personal favorite, samaki ya kupaka (baked sole in coconut curry base). This must be the only place in Naperville where you can sip fresh passion-fruit juice while enjoying live ambient music.
>> BIG OPENING
Since 2005, there have been whispers about something massive going on at 1240 West Randolph Street. Eighteen months, two kitchens, and untold millions of dollars later, we have Alhambra Palace (312-666-9555), an absurdly over-the-top Middle Eastern circus of a restaurant that seats 1,400 people. But the parade of waterfalls, chandeliers, marble, belly dancers, live jazz, and artwork imported from three continents may be less surprising than the man tabbed to head up the menu: Eric Aubriot. A classically trained French chef, Aubriot will now focus on dishes such as a paper-wrapped sea bass papillote with julienned carrots, zucchini, and celery (above $22). However this plays out, it’s bound to be interesting.
Photography by Tyllie Barbosa