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Restaurants and Reviews


Chicago's North Shore communities are home to some very famous, and delicious, restaurants

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REVIEW OF THE WEEK:

Union Pizza
OMG: Is it possible to fall in love with a pizza?


It was last Sunday night and I was hungry. I was dying to check out Union Pizza in Evanston because I heard it was a cool place and because I was having one of those nothing else will do pizza cravings.

If you don’t know this (and I could hardly expect you to…) I am a bit of a restaurant/foodie snob. Its not that I have to always eat at white table cloth restaurants….on the contrary, I just like really good food and a really good atmosphere.

And so, I can promise you, Union Pizza has both.

First, lets talk about the atmosphere.

I was solo and often times I feel weird sitting alone at a table or at the bar.
So I sat in the “lounge”. The lounge at Union is more like a comfy flea market furniture hangout. Don’t get me wrong, the furniture is not grimy or in need of repair, but it does have that worn in look and feel. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing! So I made myself at home on one of the couches and took it all in. The high beams, unfinished exposed brick walls, cool fixtures and the mix and match of families, singles and evanston locals. I was in heaven. A vibe without a scene. An atmosphere without the attitude.

My waiter was a regular guy. Friendly and not chatty. I like that. He recommended a salad and I was fixed on the Margarita pizza so my order was without fuss. When it came I was smiling. The dough bubbles and torn basil instantly indicated that this was the real brick oven deal. Piping hot and perfectly yummy is how I might best describe my pizza.


I made it through a little more than half and took the rest to-go in a sturdy mini pizza box which gratefully kept my next day lunch treasure in tack. And just so you know, the salad was delish too. I wish I had know about the onions because I would have asked my nice waiter guy to x-nay them but it was no big deal to pick them off and enjoy what was underneath.

I can’t wait to go back. And when I do I want to stay for the night and hear some live music in the back at SPACE. I think Union Pizza is a great date place – even awesome first date place. The easy going feel could difuse just about any high anxiety situation or nite out when the kids might be tempted to make that move to monsterhood.

Love it, love it, love it.

Union Pizza
1245 Chicago Ave
Evanston
847-475-2400


Zingarella, Glenview: Date night! We like taking our couple's nights out to try places we know our kids wouldn't survive ("C'mon! You can try something other than a burger or Mac n' Cheese!")...which is what led us to Zingarella, a quaint little cafe just across from the Metra North Glen station. Walk in, and you'll find a market – think a way scaled-down Foodstuffs – candy, gelato and such. Our hostess took us back into the dining area, where at first, we were concerned – other than one other table, it was empty. However, we were eating early, and the dining room did fill over the course of our meal.

Our waiter was very nice and took the time to offer opinions about different dishes on the menu – I like a guy who is willing to say he prefers one dish over another. Speaking of menus, Zingarella's is not extensive, but it's very creative. Seafood, chicken, and pasta dominate, but the New York strip steak is there as well, with a variety of finishes (Roquefort or Al Mare, anyone?). My husband selected french onion soup off the appetizer menu and ordered chicken pot pie off the main menu – it came in a huge bowl, crusted over, and was fabulous.

Me? I got the Mista Salad, complete with a port wine dressing:

and Chicken Pignoli, a stuffed breast with mascarpone cheese, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and pine nuts, served over polenta and topped with a wine sauce. Delicious!

Zingarella offer a lunchtime sandwich menu, and at some point I'll have to head back for the NY strip steak sandwich. Or maybe just the BLT Classic. It all sounds good! As I mentioned, the service was great, prices were reasonable (Two drinks, two appetizers, two main courses for about $80) and the dress was "nice casual" - jeans are fine, ripped Ts are not. Give it a try!

Zingarella
2300 Lehigh Ave
Glenview
847.657.0707


Fire House Grill, Evanston: If you're looking for haute cuisine, you can keep on walking. That's not the Fire House Grill's forte – but if you want a really good burger, drop by the Fire House.


Fire House Grill, Evanston

We stopped by with the kids after the football game in Evanston last weekend. It seemed like a good idea to venture a bit farther south of the city to avoid the larger crowds on a football Saturday night. Getting there around 7 p.m., I was prepared for a wait, but luckily, once I got someone's attention (kinda hard, considering the family in front of us was intently researching the menus before committing to a table, and another couple was loudly berating the fact they trusted their no-good daughter to let the dog out while they went to the football game), we were golden. Two minutes later, the kids and I are at a table while the husband looks for parking.


BellRinger

It's definitely got a tavern feel to it, which isn't all that bad with kids in tow. I'm not so worried about what hits the floor or lands on a wall. The obligatory kids' menu has the usual fare - burgers, chicken fingers, Mac n' Cheese, etc. The regular menu won't take too long to peruse – appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers and a few entree dishes make up the bulk of the offerings. Are you a vegetarian? Word on the street is the black bean patty is very good – I went for the BellRinger.

Cheddar, chili, sour cream, jalapenos....yummy. There was an Asian burger that also sounded good - maybe next time. All I can say is that after my first bite, I thought, "Now THAT'S a burger!" (As opposed to Cheeseburgers In Paradise in Des Plaines....just, no. Yes, it's that bad.) The kids were kinda bummed we didn't order the Brownie Explosion for dessert, but considering the fact I had just swallowed my daily fat gram intake for the next week-and-a-half, I had to pass.

You're looking at a reasonably priced bill – with the tip, the five of us ate and drank for just under $70. And for game fans, the second floor will feed your pool/foosball frenzy. Check it out!

Fire House Grill
750 Chicago Ave
Evanston
847.733.1911


Diner Dishes

Here are some of our insights on local eateries:

Trax Tavern and Grill, Deerfield: It was a rainy North Shore Chicago Saturday night, we had just been bowling, the kids were starving, and we didn't want to travel too far to find good food. I had remembered Trax as a place I would pass on the way to a friend's house, and had kept telling myself I'd try it someday. So here was the opportunity.

We found seating for five readily available, but have to admit I was taken back a little bit by the Kids' Menu policy of 10 and under. I know most restaurants have one, but this was the first time I was ever asked about the ages of my kids. Trax seemed to be pretty family-friendly even though it's probably more well-known as a neighborhood bar, and you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a flat screen TV. In fact, that's pretty much the decor – flat screen.

Our service was attentive and on task. The menu itself doesn't stray too far from American fare, with burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, pizza and the like. For me? I got the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich:

It was actually pretty tasty - not so overly-tangy that you can't finish it. Our other main dish? the nachos off the appetizer menu:

These were pretty average, though we liked the fact there was enough sour cream to last throughout the meal.

Now, nornally, we're not dessert orderers, but there was one thing on the menu that grabbed our attention - The Trax Twilight Twinkie:

This? Was reallllllly good. Seriously - the thought of a deep-fried twinkie is kind of nauseating. But it turned out to be really delicious. Not too heavy, and served with Homer's ice cream. Yummers. I would definitely go back for dessert.

Trax Tavern and Grill
833A Deerfield Rd.
Deerfield
847.236.0203

Bravo! Cucina, Glenview: With one child out for pizza with a buddy, we let our youngest pick the restaurant of choice for a bleated birthday celebration, and she immediately selected Bravo!, located in the Glen Town Center. We've been a couple times, but perhaps because we live so close, we tend to overlook it. And frankly, I don't know why, because I haven't had a bad meal yet.

It's truly a very pleasant place to eat - the kind of place you'd take family, where you can converse, but you don't feel rushed. We got to the restaurant at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, and while it was busy, we were seated immediately. The lighting is not dark, but subdued (which I have since learned can be a trick used by restaurants to get you to eat more - watch out!) Bread and dipping oil is provided to everyone, and ours was warm and yummy.

In addition to drinks, we ordered a ravioli appetizer which was brought out promptly with two wonderful sauces - a marinara and a basil and creamy horseradish - on the side. Our birthday girl ordered the "Make Your Own" pizza and got to head into the kitchen with our waitress to make her masterpiece. But I think what surprised us most was our son's pick of the (kid's menu) Chicken Parmesan. Seriously - does this look "Kid's Menu" to you?

He said it was "Awesome!" – which, coming from this particular, finicky kid, is saying a lot. What I liked about it? It wasn't Kraft Mac N' Cheese, it wasn't a hot dog, and it wasn't chicken nuggets. And it looked like something I could make and serve at home. As for me? I got the signature dish, Pasta Bravo:

This too, was very yummy, and didn't leave me feeling so stuffed - just pleasingly full. My husband got the regular menu's version of the Chicken Parmesan, and he devoured it, and then proceeded to eyeball my son's. So Bravo! could stand to perhaps up the portion size on that particular dish. Steak lovers should try the Gorganzola Filet - I've had that before and it was very, very tasty.

Headed out to dinner for a birthday? You'll get a tall glass of mocha-chocolate chip ice cream topped with a vanilla gelato - and a candle to boot. Enjoy!

Bravo! Cucina
Glen Town Center
2600 Navy Blvd.
Glenview
847.724.8400

Chop It Up, Glenview: What? My husband took the day off? That means one thing – a lunch date! We hadn't been to the latest establishment to open up down the block, so off we went to Chop It Up, the greater Chicago's area's first of an East Coast-based salad franchise.

The setting is definitely lunch, with a menu a mile long and ALL salad, or a wrap version of your favorite salad. I hope you like lettuce! (Note: Thank goodness there is a kids' menu for the vegetable-adverse, including PB&J and Mac n' Cheese!) If you're looking to mix it up with your standard Caesar or Cobb, this is the place to go.

All the regulars are there, such as the aforementioned Caesar and Cobb, along with Greek, and Julienne. If you do crave something different, though, check out the Signature Salad (as pictured), with onion, bacon, tomato, Ditalini pasta, Gorgonzola cheese, and grilled chicken. It comes with a fantastic champagne dressing that wasn't overpowering. You can also switch up ingredients and dressing when you order, and watch as they prepare your salad on a long white board, chopping away and scooping it into a large bowl, ready to eat.

Want to live on the edge? There's are strawberry spinach salad, asian, steakhouse, autumn, and buffalo chicken varieties – or, you can make your own, with dozens upon dozens of fabulous ingredients - all fresh - and dressings ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary (I gotta go try the creamy cilantro or wasabi ranch!)...

Be forewarned - these are BIG bowls - we could have easily split a salad, which they'll do for a $1 extra. Prices average $9 - $10 for the menu salads, and "make your own" versions start at $6.75 for lettuce, four mix-ins, and a dressing (there are upcharges for some items of about 50 cents a piece, and meat will cost $2 - $3 more). My only beef? I wish there were "half" sizes, in cases where you don't have anyone to split a salad with - I couldn't finish mine, and mixed salads with dressing just don't keep in the fridge.

Chop It Up
Glen Town Center
2071 Tower Drive
Glenview
847.730.5745

Mitchell's Fish Market, Glenview: Ah, another date night done right – with a sitter in the bag, my husband and I made a beeline for the door and walked down the block to our local seafood establishment, Mitchell's Fish Market. We had called earlier in the morning to ensure a place at the proverbial table, and were able to walk right in.

We've been here several times before, and one of my favorite memories is my son walking past the fresh seafood on display, to which he commented, "Oh, I am NOT eating that!" Thank goodness for kids' menus. On this visit however, it was just the two of us, and because we had mentioned we were out for our anniversary, we got the VIP treatment from the staff.

Again, I am not a seafood person, my husband is. But I can appreciate the spread, which Mitchell's puts on – there's a raw bar, and case after case of seafood ready to be prepared to your specifications. In the past, I've had their signature Shang-Hai prep on the Catch Of The Day, and have always enjoyed it. This night? I had to feed my inner carnivore, and the New York Strip was just the way I like it - pink, but not blood raw. That said, it could have been kicked up a notch with the right marinade or rub, but, this isn't a steak house, right? My husband got the Fried Combo Platter, and commented it was good. Take that to the bank. My only other beef (no pun intended, here...but) was that the appetizer menu has nary a non-seafood item. I get it - it's a seafood place, but c'mon, throw a meat-lover a bruschetta-covered bone!

Because it was a special night, they offered us a dessert on the house (Our bad - we thought they said two, but we were charged for one. Oh well.) The Mocha Lava Java Cup can easily feed two, and was very, very yummy. My husband's Key Lime Pie was tasty as well, if for nothing more than the Macadamia crust.

As for the atmosphere, it's always been casual, but casual as in "this is a nice restaurant - not Lovell's, but not Chili's, either." It's very clean, contemporary and comfortable. Prices...For the two of us, with dessert and one glass of wine and a martini (the Grape Crush, which my husband says is really, really good!), we got out of there for about $85. Not too shabby!

Mitchell's Fish Market
Glen Town Center
2601 Navy Blvd.
Glenview
847.729.3663
http://www.mitchellsfishmarket.com

Michael Salerno's Pizzeria, Glenview: The Glen Town Center's newest addition to its dining fare, Salerno's has been quite some time coming - I have been waiting anxiously for the corner pizza purveyor to open its doors since last spring when I saw the "Coming Soon" sign appear. I am so glad it's finally here!

Michael Salerno PizzeriaIt's a lot of food in a small space - just a few small tables fit inside the restaurant, with some outdoor seating for warmer weather. It's a full-service establishment, or you can grab items to go. Flat-screen TVs will keep you entertained while you wait (they're very pro-Cubs!). On the menu, you'll find everything from pizza by the slice to whole pies, seafood, veal, steak, chicken, pasta, ribs, salads and sandwiches. For a quick bite after a baseball practice, the kids grabbed pizza while the adults got a chopped salad and an Italian Beef sandwich.

The pizza got a rousing thumbs-up from the kids, and from the few quick bites I could steal, it can hold its own - I'm not a grease lover, and this fit the bill - especially for By The Slice, which for me, always seems to be oozing grease wherever I go. Huge slices (enough for two) for $4 - $4.60 were more than enough for my crew of three - we had plenty to take home.

I'm a big fan of Portillo's Italian Beef, and am always looking for someone to take them on - I have to say, this was a REALLY GOOD sandwich, with homemade beef, and accompanied with hot peppers and fries on the side. What's more, it was a very reasonable $4.50 - I was stuffed. And my husband was really impressed with his chopped salad, topped with warm chicken slices. To seal the deal, we grabbed a gelato as we left - very tasty!

If you're in The Glen and want a quick bite at a great price, head to the north end and pop on in. This isn't high-falootin' dining, but it's downright delicious. (Psst...It's B.Y.O.B., so grab the vino before you head out the door!)

Michael Salerno's Pizzeria
2085 Tower Drive
Glen Town Center, Glenview
847.724.0700

Depot Nuevo, Wilmette: I have been anxious to try Wilmette’s newest dining establishment for weeks now – in fact, as sad as I was to hear Rob and Ann Garrison were closing The Noodle in Glenview, I was excited about their newest venture into Latin-inspired fare. Checking out their web site, I called for a reservation, left a message and got a call back later that afternoon. So from the start, I could tell this place has a very laid-back, casual vibe.

Depot Nuevo Depot Nuevo is, well, cute! It’s a cute little restaurant in a cute little building. That may not be ths most inspiring description, but the surroundings just make you feel good - bright colors, lots of sunlight, and a full bar ready to go with a number of margarita choices.

The service was just like you like it - not too intrusive, but definitely attentive. We ordered our drinks and tried the Vegetable Sope while we perused the rest of the menu. It was a fantastic addition to the table along with the complimentary chips and (hot!) salsa.

You’ll have no problem finding something that sounds and tastes delectable – from Cilantro-Lime Marinated Chicken Breast to Chipotle-Rubbed Trout, Skirt Steak and Surf and turf. Our choices? An Argentinean Flank Steak that was out of this world, and a super-fresh Vegetable Burrito.

As mentioned, the atmosphere is casual and kids are more than welcome – the restaurant even has a “kid-tested” menu. Of our three, the most popular plate was the tacos. My only beef? Drinks were not included with the kids meals, which upped the tab a bit. But really, if that’s your only complaint, then you’ve got a winner when it comes to keeping the kids happy.

Entree prices average between $12 - $18, margaritas start at $7.50, and kids’ meals are $7. It’s fresh, wonderfully-inventive food for the price, and you’ll leave relaxed and raring to go - check it out soon!

Depot Nuevo
1139 Wilmette Ave.
Wilmette
847.251.3111

McCormick and Schmicks, Skokie: In what can only be described as the cosmic forces of good coming together on a single night, I was able to score a sitter for a Friday evening out with the husband. Ah! This means we can go to a restaurant that doesn't HAVE to have a kids' menu! that's how we ended up at the new McCormick and Schmicks, located in the mid-construction portion of Westfield Old Orchard in Skokie.

I'll say this right up front: I am not a seafood person, my husband is. So I went with fairly low expectations, hoping I could get by on a Fish and Chips dish. I had made a reservation through OpenTable.com (Awesome, by the way!) and upon entering, was immediately seated - no wait for me! Kinda made me feel like a movie star. The decor is inviting, not too stiff, but definitely dressed up. I felt a little underdressed in my jeans, but not out of place. It's also a great place for a conversation - you can hear the person you're talking to, but not everyone else around you.

Our waiter wasn't overly intrusive, but didn't leave us hanging, either. Oddly enough, it was my husband who went with the Fish and Chips, while I chose a pretzel-crusted whitefish. It was really, really tasty. The potatoes were the run-of-the-mill smashed with garlic and butter, but good. It was served on top of three perfectly steamed asparagus spears. Really, for a non-seafood foodie like me, I was impressed. I topped it off with the Key Lime pie - nice size portion, enough for two to share.

Prices range from about $8 for appetizers/small sandwiches to $30 or more for the choice steak selections and high-end seafood dishes. For the two of us, with dessert and two glasses of wine, we got out of there for about $80. Not bad. Now - I wasn't in kid mode, so I can't tell you if they even have a kids' menu, but chances are there is something for your wee wot to eat. They'll probably want to go next door to California Pizza Kitchen, though.

McCormick and Schmicks
Westfield Old Orchard
4999 Old Orchard Center
Skokie
(847) 763-9811
www.mccormickandschmicks.com

Washington Gardens: Finding a restaurant on the North Shore is cake. The challenge lies in finding a restaurant that is quite, charming, not swarming with kids, not too much scene but with atmosphere and of course good food.

Being a transplant from NYC there are still a few places I’ve yet to discover. And, last night my list lessened when I was treated to dinner at Washington Gardens.

My walk-in first words were “This is sooo cute” and that because surprise came from contrast of the curb appeal, which I would qualify as a sleeper and the interior old school red, and white table clothed Italian feel. This is in part where Washington Garden’s Insider charm comes in.

This neighborhood restaurant has been around for 75 years and while its changed ownership several times, the familiar feel has not gone away – even if it’s your first time. Today’s proprietors Jim and Michelle Stoecker make you feel like family whether they know you or not introducing themselves with open hands and a generous breadbasket.

Before I get to the food you should know that Washington Gardens is the place to go when you want to have a catch up dinner with a girlfriend, an intimate meal with your significant other, another couple, important business discussion or even a less hectic larger family meal. The emphasis here is on relaxing not rushing.

Our waitress told me that the Alfredo sauce was like no other, my friend raved about the classic Hay & Straw pasta dish and settled on the Ahi Tuna. The starter salad was more creative than most equipped with a scallion on top to break up, slice of egg with plenty of freshly ground Parmesan cheese to add on.
My blue cheese dressing was NOT the thick white stuff that typically comes from an industrial sized container. Instead it was blended with fresh herbs in an Italian olive oil base that I wish I could promise you was homemade – but I forgot to ask. I bet it is.

I devoured my tuna, which arrived on a huge platter with rice, fresh vegetables, fruit garnish and a yummy dipping sauce. The cut was magnificent – really. Thick and tender prepared simply and perfectly. I was too busy eating my tuna to taste the Hay & Straw (pasta, cream sauce, mushrooms, prosciutto and peas) but it looked phenomenal.

Never made it to dessert but I am sure Washington Gardens would not disappoint.

What a total find. So, if you haven’t been to Washington Gardens consider this a MUST EAT AT Insider Restaurant Tip. If you’ve been, spread the word about this little Highwood vintage jewel.

Washington Gardens

256 Green Bay Road

Highwood, IL
847.432.0309
www.alexswashingtongardens.com

The Bagel: Here's a classic, "I say to-MAH-toe, you say to-MAY-toe" experience. Three of us NSI staffers hit up the Bagel on an early weekday afternoon for a lunch meeting. I was impressed with the counter of goodies when I walked in – had I known it was there, I would have had the kids in there getting chocolate-covered marshmallows as treats for behaving while Mommy shops the nearby Crate and Barrel. But I digress...

Service was prompt in that I was asked if I wanted something to drink upon sitting down. As the three of us began to get down to business, our orders were taken and the food did not take long. Now - if you're looking for some kind of orgasmic deli experience, you're not going to find it here. That said, my BLT Club was huge - I could only eat half of it. And...it was good. Not, "Omigosh, I'll order this every time I come here" good, but lunch worthy. One of my compatriots had the veggie chili, which she would have preferred hotter and spicier, and the other was hoping for a superior cut of salami, and was left feeling "meh" on the sandwich he got - not fantastic, but not awful.

I did notice through the course of my time there that our waiter remained attentive, even though the tables that were nearly all empty upon our arrival were now filling up. And I always take busy crowds as a good sign - that people like the food and/or atmosphere. It's not as if Old Orchard doesn't have a number of restaurants to choose from, so there's something to be said about having a following, and this place definitely has one.

50 Old Orchard Shopping Ctr (Behind Crate and Barrel)
Skokie
847.410.8788

Merle's Barbecue: I'm your run of the mill Midwesterner, which is to say that I have no particular allegiance to any particular cuisine, outside of a kick-ass Kansas City steak. So keep that in mind when I offer up my review of anything remotely ethnic, including good old fashioned BBQ. I do like it – BBQ – and will on occasion fire up the crock pot and throw in a couple of flank steaks to slow cook all day long. Thank goodness – now that I've found Merle, I don't need to do that anymore.

An Evanston institution, Merle's is a member of the"Clean Plate Club" restaurants, along with Pete Miller's. Its specialty? BBQ, and more BBQ. As always, we had the kids in tow on our way to a concert at NU, and needed something that would keep the tummies from rumbling. Mission accomplished. I got the Texas slow cooked pulled beef, and my husband ordered rib tips. The kids were banned from ordering just plain Mac n' Cheese, but thought they pulled one over on us when they got it as a side dish to their pulled beef sandwiches. Everyone chowed down in a very relaxing atmosphere that leaves you feeling like you're hanging out in a warm, oak paneled saloon somewhere down South. The Elvis/John Wayne motif runs thick here, but it's not corny.

Decent prices, fabulous menu, kids were welcome and we'll go back!

Insider Tip: Don't forget change for the parking meters unless you want to pay $7 for valet service.

Merle's:
1727 Benson Ave.
Evanston
847.475.7766

Al's Italian Beef: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit Portillo’s is still my fave, along with Glenview’s fRedhots and Fries version. But I have to say, Al’s is pretty darn good. And…you can find them on the North Shore – in downtown Evanston!

We grabbed a quick dinner at the Evanston location a couple of weeks ago, just prior to a Northwestern basketball game. We got very lucky with parking, a perennial beef with me. And aside from a couple of Evanston cops, the restaurant was practically empty. My guess is the place does a rousing business during the lunchtime rush, given its downtown location. So - thanks to those lucky twists, we were able to get our food fast.

Al’s is definitely on the “wet” end of the Italian beef spectrum – juicy, juicy, juicy. The menu has a lot to offer, the staff was very nice, bathrooms were spotless (another big sticking point for me!) and the price was right. My advice? Check it out in the early evening to get in and out - just be prepared to circle the block on those blasted one way streets a couple of times to get a good parking spot!

Al’s Italian Beef:
622 Davis Street
Evanston
847.424.9704

El Jardin: There's no shortage of great Mexican places on Chicago's North Shore, and El Jardin ranks right up there as one of my favorites. Located in the Glen Town Center in Glenview, it's in the heart of the retail strip, across from the movie theaters, and is almost always busy, busy, busy. It's on the small side, which lends itself to always looking so packed, but it's worth the wait. The atmosphere is very relaxed, and although on our most recent visit we were the only ones with kids, you don't feel as if you're out of place if you do have them with you. In fact, the manager was very cool to ours, offering them the obligatory crayons and kid's mats, and checked in with them - the kids - to make sure they were happy.

El Jardin has an impressive margarita menu, and it's almost a sin not to get one. I always go simple - the Classic, at about $10. Chips and salsa are always on the table, but don't stuff yourself. You need to save room for the entree! I'm into the Combo platters, so I can mix it up, choosing betwen burritos, chimichangas, tacos and tostadas. Fillings include beef, pork, chicken, cheese and beans. Prices are very reasonable, not just with the platters, but on just about everything. I've had the fajitas on previous visits, and the steak is really, really good - not that grisly gunk you sometimes come across.

Service was very quick, and very courteous. We never had to wait or run down someone, yet never felt like they were overbearing. Perfect. This is a great place to go one-on-one or with the family, and if you're not in the mood for dessert just yet, you can walk the strip, do some shopping, and hit up Ben and Jerry's later on!

El Jardin:
1831 Tower Drive
Glenview
847.729.9888

Boston Blackie's: In the mood for a burger, we hit up the Deerfield location of this chain to see if what "they" say is true – Boston Blackie's can serve it up. Hmm. Where do I start? Let's just say the visit had its pros and cons:

The cons (I always like to end on a good note, so let's get these out of the way): It's not a good sign when you walk in, it's packed, the host is being confronted by an angry customer about the mayo on his wife's burger, and he disappears for five minutes. Also, it's a really tight environment. If I backed up an inch in my chair, the table next to me could have picked up my tab. And the mean age of the customer was about 73. That's not a bad thing, per se, it just tends to tense me up when we've got the kids with us and I feel like I have to follow grandmother's rules - no elbows on the table, etc.

The pros: Did I mention it was packed? I always take this as a good sign, in that it means the food must be halfway decent. "They" are right, by the way – the burgers are really, really good. Or as I heard from my compatriots - I got the Buffalo Chicken Breast sandwich - which was also tasty, though not as hot as I usually like. Service was fairly quick, and they took our name over the phone, so our 25-minute wait was about 5 minutes by the time we got there. It's reasonably priced too - always a bonus in my book!

Boston Blackie's
405 Lake Cook Rd.
Deerfield
847.418.3400

Pizano's: Rudy Malnati Jr. is the brainchild behind Pizano's, a Chicago hotspot open since 1991and famous for its thin crust pizza – and so good it was voted Oprah's fave. Its first North Shore location is located in Glenview on the corner of Waukegan and Chestnut. It's easy to find, hard to park – especially when it's busy. Thank goodness they offer valet parking.

Lots of flat screen TVs and close tables lend itself to that pizzeria feel – it's certainly not a hushed and quiet environment. Think first date or family night. But if you're looking for a great pizza, it's here – my husband and I were able to halfsies on a large thin crust – his half Rudy's Special (Cheese, Sausage, Mushroom. Onion and Green Pepper) and mine was all about Mark's (Sliced Tomato, Fresh Basil and Garlic) - Yowza.

Prices are reasonable, the pizza's hot, and it's a good place to have a great time.

Pizano's
1808 Waukegan
Glenview
847.486.1777
www.pizanoschicago.com

Little Louie's: A Northbrook institution for more than 40 years, Little Louie's is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or early dinner. We happened upon it one Sunday afternoon after a family visit to the library and left with stomachs on full for the next few hours.

Hot dogs, a tuna melt and an Italian beef made up the fare – I'm the lover of a great Italian Beef, and this didn't disappoint. Well, there was one thing – they put the hot peppers on the bottom, which makes the bun kinda soggy. But it was still really, really good. And big - they don't skip on the meat. Louie's has a fantastic menu, including wraps (Grilled Portobella, Spicy Albacore, Chicken Avocado), and salads (Strawberry!, Cactus, Chicken Chop, BBQ Chicken), quesadillas, fajitas and tacos, and a few tables to sit and enjoy the downtown view. But really, it's just a classic quick eats place where the basketball game is on the tube and you can get some hot food fast.
We'll be back!

Psst....they cater, too!

Little Louie's
1342 Shermer
Northbrook
847.498.1033

Yard House: If you're looking to have your next Book club meeting here, skip it. This is a place for people who can handle THE LOUD. The Yard House sits in the heart of the Glen Town Center, and is home to the Six-Pack, Goblet, Pint and Half-Yard selections of more than 100 different beers on tap. (My personal favorite? Monty Python Holy Grail.) There's even "beer floats," such as Young's Chocolate Stout with vanilla ice cream.

The beer is definitely the draw, and the large circular bar is the restaurant's centerpiece. One gripe - if you plan on running a tab, they confiscate your credit card. That aside, you'll need a few good minutes to digest the drink menu before you even consider looking for something to eat. Beer afficiandos may have a thing or two to say about the selection, but for your average Goose Island drinker, I think there's more than enough to make the mouth water. This restaurant is usually insanely busy on weekend evenings, and a patio seat on a summer's evening is almost impossible to get without a wait. However, on our last visit, we were told it would take an hour to seat nine of us, and 25 minutes later, we were led to a booth large enough for easily seat our entire party.

Personally? I think the food is great – it's a fairly inventive menu, especially for a chain. Let's put it this way – it covers all the bases, from burgers to steak, fish to pasta. There's your standard homemade Mac and Cheese with chicken dish, a chicken rice bowl I always order, tasty fish and chips, excellent steaks and entree salads that'll fill you up. Our friend really enjoyed his turkey burger, and I can vouch for a taste-bud tingling pepper jack burger. The kids' menu also has all the faves – mac and cheese, personal pizzas (that are HUGE), buttered noodles, burgers, dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches. Kids' meals run about $7 and also come with a variety of side dishes (we dig the fruit), a drink and a frozen fruit bar for dessert.

Again, intimate conversations will have to wait. There's a lot of people, a lot of beer and a lot of sports on TV, all of which contribute to a loud environment. But talking's overrated anyway, right?

One final note: For larger parties, a gratuity is automatically added to your bill. The first time we went with a large group, we were unaware of this, and the waiter did not bother to point it out as we left another large tip on the table. It was only when we asked for an itemized bill and noticed the additional gratuity that we knew we may have been had. To the restaurant's credit, the manager graciously refunded the tip to us. A lesson learned – always check the bill first!

Yard House
1880 Tower Dr.
Glenview
847.729.9273
www.yardhouse.com

Szechwan North: I’m always on the lookout for really good Chinese, and Szechwan North fit the bill - at least for takeout. My brief glimpse of the dining area left me with the impression that yes, I was in a Chinese restaurant with brightly lit Asian decor which was clean and inviting. But I digress - I was there for the food, right?

I happened upon the restaurant online - and while I was disappointed the online ordering function was not working, my phone call was taken right away. And, as with most Chinese restaurants, the wait would not be long - 15 minutes. Upon my arrival at the restaurant, I found a small throng of people waiting for tables. That’s always a good sign. It was also busy - another good sign. The employees running the counter were very efficient, my food came in a great spill-proof cardboard box/carrier and they even double-checked order in front of me to make sure everything was as ordered.

Oh, and the food? Yummy. I’m a hot and spicy fan, so the Yu Hsiang Chicken hit the spot. My husband ordered the Sweet and Sour chicken, which was also mouth watering - what he liked? The fact they kept the sauce on the side, so the chicken didn’t get soggy in transit.

The menu is extensive and the prices are very reasonable - nothing is more than $15. There are noodles, soup, Mu Shu, chicken, seafood, beef, pork, duck and veggie options. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you’re not looking hard enough.

Szechwan North
2857 Pfingsten Rd.
Glenview/Northbrook border
847-272-0007
www.szechwannorth.com

That Little Mexican Cafe (TLMC): I was actually a little surprised, surfing the web for their address, that TLMC has such a wide range of reviews, so I’ll proceed with caution - just remember, to each his own, right? I for one, love TLMC. We’ve never had a problem getting a table, the staff has always been very gracious with our family and the three little tornados we call our kids, and it has to be said, the bathrooms are the bomb.

But that’s not why I go - it’s all about the margaritas. Oh, yeah. Very, very good. And if you time it right and can make it during the evening, the “made at the table” guacamole is a fan favorite. I myself am a salsa fan and the kids have to fight me to get a chance to dip their chip. My meal of choice? The burrito platter – and I have never been disappointed with my meal. There’s always a full plate and I never leave feeling hungry.

If I were to complain about anything, it would be the parking - given you’re in downtown Evanston, you’ll have to search around a bit and hoof it - but the flip side is you can walk it off with a little (or a lot of!) window shopping.

1010 Church Street
(between Maple Ave & Oak Ave)
Evanston, IL 60201
(847) 905-1550

Bluegrass, Highland Park: With limited exposure to bluegrass music, and no time spent down south you could say I am clueless about what the ($*)@%&@ Bluegrass is.
Safe to say, the closest I’ll ever come to being born on the Bayou when I drive “off the beaten path” to discover new tastes and treats at Bluegrass Restaurant located just behind the Highland Park Police Station.

Truthfully, I never understood the attraction of Etouffee, or even catfish. But thankfully, after scanning the menu and meeting with owners, Jim Lederer and Chef Dave Tichman I felt more at ease. Yes, the menu offers fare with a southern twang but there are also plenty of safe items for the crowd confused by crawfish.
Click here to check out Bluegrass and whet your appetite with some of Chef Dave’s signature dishes.
I am still salivating over the skirt steak and blue cheese salad I had for lunch a few weeks ago. I came in starving, managed to clean my plate and polish off nearly half a loaf of warm, fresh bread.
Other insider items include the house drink special – The Bluegrass Martini. Chef Dave told me that because of the floating blueberries, this martini is healthy given its antioxidants!

Also, Bluegrass is one of the few places that actually smoke their own ribs in the Louisiana tradition.

 
Bluegrass
1636 Old Deerfield Road
Highland Park
847-831-0595



Cubby Bear,
Lincolnshire: Problem: It’s 7:30 p.m., your son just won a spring league hockey game, there’s a couple of families who want to keep the party going while simultaneously providing a meal for six kids ranging from 5 to 14 years old, and Mommy needs ESPN to see her beloved Spartans in the NCAA Championship hockey game.
Solution? Cubby Bear, of course!

Ask my kids what their favorite restaurant is, and it takes a nanosecond for any one of them to shout “Cubby Bear!” I readily admit, I’ve never visited the Wrigleyville locale - the ample parking in Lincolnshire is enough to keep me loyal to the North Shore site. And it’s not the menu that keeps the kids interested - it’s the mini flat-screen TVs with cable in each booth. (Yeah, this isn’t for the family who actually wants to converse during dinner.)
But it was perfect last night – the boys climbed into a booth and promptly tuned their TV, while the parents convened at a long table. It’s not too noisy, (although “Mr. Blotto” was setting up for a gig later in the evening - bands are a regular fixture on the weekends), not too smoky, and the wait staff is perfect - not overbearing, but there when you need them.
And since we’re talking about a restaurant, it’s worth mentioning I’ve never had a bad dinner. My favorite? Gladys’ Flank Steak. However, Pasta Primavera was on special last night, and I figured a few vegetables wouldn’t hurt. De-lish!

After we finished up eating, the boys cajoled me into supervising a visit to the upstairs section, where youngsters need an adult with them. Surprisingly, it was just us and the pool tables. I’m not sure if it was divine intervention or just plain luck, but the pool balls stayed on the tables and did not make their way over the railings to the floor below.

If you’re looking for a yummy place to go where your house sports nut can catch the end of the game, no one cares if you drop a bag of crushed Cheerios on the floor, and a single extra-long booth can seat your entire family, check it out.

Cubby Bear
Milwaukee Ave., between Route 22 and Deerfield Parkway.
Hours: Sunday - Thursday, 11:00am - 1:00am; Friday - Saturday, 11:00am - 2:00am



The Dairy Bar
, Glenview: So I just found out my embarrassing video footage has been leaked. I admit I’m not proud of it, but you have to understand it was my first time … eating ice cream. The soft scratches that flicker over the television screen and the over-synthesized music tells me that it’s from one of my earlier birthdays that requires a visual to even remember it. I’m wearing my favorite pink osh-kosh overalls and my face is so far deep into the French vanilla double scoop that when I come up for air, I have a full-on kabuki face.

With these five minutes forever immortalized on VHS, so began my deep obsession with ice cream. Chocolate, vanilla, soft serve or scooped, with sprinkles and in waffle cones - any way you put it, I’m an addict. They tell me it’s genetics - legend has it that my mother is an unofficial double record holder: the North Shore’s fastest ice cream eater AND winner of the most scoops ever eaten in one sitting. I know, it’s sick, but it’s something I’m just not willing to give up.
Every year I go to the one place, the only place that feeds my frozen habit, The Dairy Bar in Glenview. Open for only six short months of the year, April through October, it is one of the hottest tickets in town. This humble little shack is quite hard to miss as the line wraps around the block near Harlem Ave. & Glenview Rd. since the first day of open season.

I’ve been stalking the grounds for the past week now, waiting for the perfect time to pounce, and finally yesterday … I got my first taste. Vanilla cone with milk chocolate coating. Pure heaven. Later visits in the months (okay, weeks … fine, days!) to come will include cherry slushies and root beer floats. I’ll probably throw in a major league sundae that comes in the collectible “baseball helmet” or butterfinger candy blast. Maybe even an ice cream sandwich... and on the days I pretend I’m on a diet, I’ll get the carb-free ice cream with sugar-free toppings that tastes just as good as the original.

This quaint little mom ‘n’ pop ice cream shop has been around for 50 years now and there’s a reason for it. You won’t find better soft serve or a wider selection of treats (the menu covers practically one whole wall) anywhere on the North Shore.

The Dairy Bar
1015 Harlem Ave. (near Glenview Rd.)


Kevin’s Place
, Deerfield: What is… brunch? No one knows for sure. Technically, it’s the mysterious meal that occurs sometime between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and it’s more often than not an excuse to eat inordinate amounts of things that don’t normally go together, like crabcakes and French toast. It’s also a reason to drink liquor before noon. These classic components of brunch make it a popular (if not slightly hedonistic) dining option.

The North Shore definitely fosters a brunch culture. I have always thought that the N.S. restaurant scene fosters two distinct food groups: steak and breakfast. The two are not mutually exclusive, but I prefer the latter. Walker Brothers, or the Original Pancake House, has been serving up fabled breakfasts for decades at its locations in Highland Park, Libertyville and Wilmette. But maybe W.B. is a little too famous these days, now that its sinful apple pancake has been featured in the Chicago Tribune only seven or eight times.

If you’re looking for something new on the brunch front, I suggest checking out Kevin’s Place in Deerfield. The place has the feel of an old-school diner and an unusually charismatic wait staff, but the food is most excellent. You won’t get a mimosa with your brunch, but you will get the best oatmeal-granola-blueberry pancakes on this side of Lake Michigan. I consider myself somewhat of a pancake connoisseur, having eaten pancakes in over 30 states and 5 countries. Kevin’s Place ranks way up there in terms of taste (and also convenience), making brunch all the more palatable.

Kevin’s Place
808 Waukegan Road, Deerfield



L’Appetitio
, Glenview: As an Italian, I take my pastas, pizzas and spicy meat-a-balls quite seriously. Watching my dad for years attempting to create ravioli with a perfect circle shape, biscotti with just the right amount of crisp, I know that crafting Italian delicacies is a mater of balance rivaled only by The Leaning Tower of Pisa. That’s why, when I order a lasagna that tastes like it came out of a can, I send it back without my compliments to the chef … and also why, when I find a place that serves up a marinara to remind me of my favorite home-cooked meals, I’m quick to pay their praises.

L’Appetito in Glenview is one of the finer Italian establishments to find its way to the North Shore - blending quaint cafe with fresh bakery, sandwich shop, gelato station and even imported “market.” Your eyes many not know where to look to first, but your stomach will. From appetizer to dessert, L’Appetito is like the grandmother who prepares an amazing feast and won’t let you leave the table until you’ve stuffed yourselves a pants size larger than when you started.

L’Appetito in Glenview is actually the third location in the area, with two more nestled amongst downtown Chicago. Its owners, Anthony Spatara and wife Christine, were both born in Italy, a fact evident in the authentic creations they prepare every day.
 
Whether cozying up to the fireplace inside or eating al fresco, L’Appetito is a great place to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu presents a pleasing variety, from omlettes and crepes in the morning to panini, soups, salads, daily pastas and pizzas and full-service entrees and wine list for dinner. Dessert is my personal favorite - with over a dozen gelato flavors to choose from, full espresso bar and an expansive bakery offering the best cannoli, cookies and cakes. You can even bring the experience home with a treat from the deli or one of the many imported packaged cookies, spreads, sauces and more.
 
Take-out or dine-in, solo or with friends, L’Appetito is a must-try if you’re looking for the true taste of Italy in the North Shore.

L’Appetito
1836 Glenview Road, just East of Harlem Ave.
Hours: Monday - Saturday 9am-9pm; Sunday 9am - 5:30pm



Leonida’s Cafe Chocolaterie
, Wilmette: The recent media attention to the health benefits of chocolate may or may not be valid. Regardless, while pomegranates and goji berries have had their day in the sun, chocolate is a hold-steady food whether or not it is considered healthy– if it does have powerful healing capabilities, great, but I’m going to eat it either way. On the North Shore, I like to go to Leonidas Cafe Chocolaterie to fulfill my chocolate needs. Forget Godiva– Leonidas is the real deal. The chocolates are lovingly handcrafted from the finest European stock; consequently, they are amazing. And twelve chocolate-covered orange peels later, I feel as if I might live to be 100!

Leonidas Cafe Chocolaterie
1157 Wilmette
(847) 256-5250
www.CafeChocolaterie.com



San Gabriel Cafe
, Bannockburn: Today is my favorite holiday: Cinco de Mayo! No better reason than to kick back with a margarita and some salsa to celebrate our dear neighbor’s independence. This year, I think I’ll go out to eat instead of falling asleep in a pile of tortilla chips and salt-rimmed glasses mid-afternoon. Aim high, right?

One of my favorite Mexican restaurants is the San Gabriel Cafe in Bannockburn Green, the dressed-up strip mall that also houses Dominick’s and feels a bit like the English countryside. Mixed motifs aside, San Gabriel provides a rather authentic Mexican experience: cold, slushy margaritas, fiery salsa and fresh, chunky guacamole that is prepared tableside. The staff is friendly, the service is quick, and more thought is put into the food than you would expect. The entrees are creative and at times experimental. As a result, the menu changes often so there’s always something new to try– from ceviche to duck taquitos to ever-oscillating varieties of fish. And there are the classic enchiladas and tacos, too. Whatever you do, don’t pay the bill without trying the tres leches cake. Ole!

San Gabriel Mexican Cafe,
2535 Waukegan Rd., Bannockburn



Tapas Barcelona
, Evanston: Of course the food should be delish, but eating out is also about the experience. That’s why Tapas Barcelona in the heart of Evanston scores huge raves with NorthShoreInsider.com. Also, it’s safe to say that Tapas Barcelona offers a guaranteed good time – especially with large parties.
We met with Vladmir, the manager and he gave us the skinny on the restaurant’s history and why this place so conducive to serious fun.
Need more evidence, here it is!

1. Live Music & Dancing
Mark your calendar, the third Tuesday of every month, Tapas Barcelona brings you Ensemble Espanol – live flamenco with three shows throughout the night.

2. There’s The Outdoor Patio.
Its unreal… and also one of the more sought after spots on the North Shore. Please, we can’t stress it enough if you are hell-bent on sitting outside on a blissful summer night, arrive early as outdoor seating is on a first come, first serve basis.

3. The Indoor Ambiance
If you can’t take the heat and want to enjoy more of an indoor experience, I would recommend sitting with an opportunity to see “the wall”.

4. Finalmente! The Food and Drink
Tapas Barcelona specializes in seafood but the signature dishes we sampled included the infamous mussels served on an iron skillet and dates decadently wrapped in bacon. For those thirsty on these warm days and nights – the house specialty is their Sangria and they also offer one of the city’s best sherry and Spanish red wine selections.
Whatever you do – go there and make sure you say hi to Vladmir – he will treat you like you’re one of the family.

Tapas Barcelona
OPEN FOR LUNCH & DINNER
1615 Chicago Avenue
Evanston
847-866-9900

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