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Filling the niche of the all-day option, the Serbian Beograd Café morphs from Euro coffeehouse by day to restaurant and bar by night, with a small grocery attached. Hit it late, when traditional tunes propel small clusters of Serbs to suck down big bottles of smooth, crisp Jelen beer ($5). We opt for a flaky, cheese-stuffed pastry called burek ($6.95) and grilled sausage links known as cevapcici ($6).
Though meat and cheese universally fuel boozing, at Karolinka Club it’s all about the carbs. This aging South Side Polish dive plugs along thanks to the power of pierogi ($8/dozen), plump little pockets of kraut and mushroom or juicy ground beef, made to order and sautéed in butter with nubs of bacon. Photo: Ashlee Rezin
There's always room on the dance floor when the DJ drops your favorite Gaga or Rihanna—plus an always-open pool table in the mellower bar room, where a handful of loyal regulars take down the classic Polish pizza bread ($10), a massive split French loaf topped with tomato sauce, gobs of mozzarella and a signature squirt of ketchup. Photo: Ashlee Rezin
The Meatballs of Jersey Shore have Karma; the Bulgarians of Chicago have Avant Garde, a slick, dark den of a bar on a northern stretch of Harlem Avenue. On a recent Friday night, expats nibble cured meats—cuminy lukanka, air-cured beef pasturma (both part of an assorted platter, $8–$14)—and shout along to traditional anthems of love, loss and national pride between bites.
A very basic, kind of divey beer joint with unexpectedly good food, like a greasy (in a good way), spicy sausage-and-peppers sandwich ($7). More Italian-American than Italian, really. Know how you can tell? It doesn’t matter what time you eat this thing—you will soon need a nap. Photo: Ashlee Rezin
At Three Aces, where chef Matt Troost puts out food that ranges from popcorn with housemade hot sauce ($2) and thin pizzas ($10–$12) to giant, made-for-two bowls of the Tuscan stew ribollita, his version topped with milk-braised pork ($24), the bartenders have a certain…aesthetic. They look as if they’d rather be punching you in an alley than getting your drink order. But ask for a cocktail, and they put together serious tipples like the Debaser ($9), made of Small’s gin, Campari, lemon, orange bitters and the smile of a tough bartender.
Italians eat a little lighter in the evening, and Disotto follows suit with small plates like anchovy-ricotta-tomato bruschetta ($8) and squares of egg-enclosed toast, rich with truffle oil ($9). And since you skipped wine at lunch, and this bar, under Francesca’s on Chestnut, is really a wine cellar, a bottle or two off the 100-strong list wouldn’t be out of line.
Eschewing burgers? Rejecting fried food? There’s the sophisticated and winecentric minibar. It’s the sister bar to D.S. Tequila, actually, so it’s no surprise the food is good. But if D.S. is Rosie, minibar is Oprah—it’s all sleek and shiny. The burgers (three for $12) are mini. The mojitos are minty. And there’s nothing about the name of this place that will make you lose your appetite.
Compared to the burgers at D.S. Tequila, the $1 quarter-pound patties at Big Chicks seem paltry. But is there any way to complain about these things? They’re only one dollar. Besides, the burgers aren’t why you come here. You come here because you can have an honest meal, including a very fresh, very generous Mediterranean salad ($10), crisp fish and chips ($7.50) and huge slices of chocolate layer cake ($5.50)—the same cake you ogle on the host stand every time you brunch at Tweet.
You are hereby encouraged to eat at D.S. because it is surprisingly, shockingly and, at times, grossly good. Yes, grossly. How else to describe the Barnyard Burger ($14), an Allen Brothers prime beef patty with pulled pork, bacon, provolone and a fried egg? But it’s not all that intense. The coffee-rubbed skirt steak tacos ($3.39 each) are just as good, and you can order as many (or as few) as you like. Photo: Evan Jenkins
Back in the city, another small cluster of Korean bars north of Lincoln Square includes hidden gem Dancen. Thanks to the bar’s built-in flattop, they're responsible for the best booze snack in town, “fire chicken” ($12). Bite-sized hunks of chicken thighs are soaked through with soy-spiked chili paste and piled high on the plate. Trust: After a couple of bottles of soju, you will be cleaning those bones.
In nearby Des Plaines is Ssaboo (formerly Hourglass), which lured loyalists from its original Lawrence Avenue location with killer sweet-and-spicy chicken ($12.95). The crowd is a mix of ages, with businessmen sipping whiskey at the bar, middle-aged women slurping kimchi stew in a clay bowl ($8.95). Photo: Jason Little
For the complete checklist and good people-watching, DMZ Café in Niles is the late-night hot spot, dead before midnight, hopping at 1am and always a good stop for the “dry snacks” platter ($12), including strands of dried calamari for the adventurous and pistachios for the timid.
Sometimes you just want a salad with the game. No? You will after trying the arugula and grapefruit salad at River North’s Public House ($9), with peppery greens complementing the bittersweet grapefruit, shaved fennel giving depth and toasted pistachios adding crunch. And just to show its range, Public House, which manages to affix TVs to nearly every surface and still seem classy, also serves incredible fries: crunchy on the outside and not too greasy. On the miles-long beer list, the precious-though-helpful icon key breaks down flavor profiles (a bunny means hoppy!), and includes Bell’s Hopslam, rarely found in Chicago.
Rare is a sports bar that plays Lykke Li and New Order during commercial breaks, and rarer still is one that serves luscious pork belly sliders ($4 each) and meaty wings with scalp-sweatingly hot Cholula-buffalo sauce ($9 for six).
The burger ($11), Slagel Farm beef ground by the Butcher & Larder, is juicy perfection, and the lollipop wings ($9), breaded chicken drizzled with housemade buffalo sauce and ranch dressing and clinging to a tiny bone, make eating this classic sports-bar grub a more civilized affair. Photo: Jason Little
The food, though sometimes too precious, provides ambitious flavor combinations (e.g., lamb loin and blini drizzled with smoked maple syrup and dotted with Dijon mustard, $12) for less than the price of most drinks upstairs. Photo: Emily Mohney
Chef Nick Lacasse offers a three-course prix fixe for $49, but we found more success with the small plates than the mains: Try the beef tartare with fried nubs of potato ($14) and the refreshing salad of sautéed shrimp, jicama and cucumbers ($13). Photo: Ashlee Rezin
It’s actually chef Duncan Biddulph (ex-Lula) whose food is distinctive and beautiful, from the Roman-style semolina gnocchi sprinkled with hazelnuts ($11) to the delicately layered rectangle of savory corn crêpes ($8) to the dead-on medium-rare hanger steak entwined with seasonal vegetables ($15). Photo: Jason Little
Madeira was also the pairing a server at Webster’s Wine Bar suggested for the chocolate croissant bread pudding ($7). Webster’s and Telegraph are sister wine bars, but at Webster’s the desserts are far less complex. That doesn’t mean the thin slice of pudding wasn’t enjoyable. Actually, the size was nice in that it wasn’t overwhelming, leaving all the more room for another round of Madeira. Photo: Ashlee Rezin
It would appear that a red-bean pound cake topped with coffee toffee ($7) might pose a pairing problem as well. Luckily, Telegraph advises what to drink right there on the menu. The suggested bourbon-spiked coffee is surprisingly spot-on: The toffee notes in the bourbon marry with the dessert. Photo: Dave Rentauskas
When the food is actually good—gooey cubes of cheese fried in front of you, served piping hot ($4); an Italian beef soaking through its bun ($5, with ample fries)—and the smiley manager, Fernando, makes you feel as welcome as the regulars, you’ve found a champion. Photo: Tessa Marshall
The corn dog’s not the only cost-effective comestible at this busy hipster hangout; for $5, a Vienna dog with bold pepper jack, creamy garlic aioli and a crisp winter slaw is as satisfying as most of the specialty sausages, which cost nearly double that. Photo: Jason Little
Start with the rich mushroom-blue-cheese beignets ($12). Share the surprisingly sophisticated take on poutine, made with pig face and cognac-scented currants ($13). And then go all out: the porchetta sandwich ($15), a huge, dripping-with-juices mess of herb-laced pork.
On Sunday, find a date and haul him or her to Small Bar Fullerton, a place known for its devotion to soccer, beer and chef Justin White’s Sunday Gravy, a stew of meatballs, pork butt, chuck roast, braciola and hard-boiled egg. It’s paired with a bottle of Italian red wine and foccacia, all of which rings in at $30 for two. Photo: Tessa Marshall
For Tuesday specials, it’s off to the Bedford, the lounge in a former bank vault. There, chef Mark Steuer slashes the price of ocean-fresh oysters (regularly $2 each) in half, and the bar follows suit, knocking 50 percent off all sparkling wines and Champagnes. Photo: Dave Rentauskas