Spring salad with wild watercress Photos: Jeff Marini

If one were to judge a restaurant by how gracefully it grows, Lula would have four stars. What began in 1999 as a modest, friendly café on a gritty block in an even grittier part of town has evolved into something much bigger: a symbol. Not just of a neighborhood that has blossomed, but also of a restaurant movement that defined a new era of Chicago dining.

Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, a pair of Midwestern Alice Waters disciples, embraced the farm-to-table ethos before many in these parts had even heard of it. And for 19 years Lula has barely been able contain all its ideas, even as it expanded to three storefronts. Herbs grow on the roof. Prix fixe vegetarian menus overflow with imagination. Homemade cookies abound. The justly famous brunch includes a revolving “breakfast sandwich series.” From hand-brewed coffee in the morning to a half dozen craft beers on tap at night, Lula takes care of you all day long.

The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Andrew Holladay, fires out fully realized dishes as comforting as hanger steak with poached turnips and as unexpected as squid à la plancha with French prune, kumquat, and sumac. And regardless of the hour, a contagious spirit of solidarity flows from the airy bar to the idyllic patio—and even onto the dining room’s walls, on which hangs a smartly curated collection of local artists’ works.

Many a farm-to-table neighborhood restaurant has popped up around Chicago since Lula was born. None honor the idea quite so well as the original.

Almond dacquoise
Farro gemelli