Casual dining and value-priced menus. It's not just what suburban diners are looking for, it's what Daily Herald restaurant reviewers enjoy as well. As evidenced by our favorites of 2010 list below, plenty of restaurants deliver just that.
Sure we enjoy a five-course dinner with prime steak and a hearty Cabernet from time to time, but we, like you, are just as likely to find a memorable meal at neighborhood bistros or even strip-mall spots with counter service.
As the holiday bustle heightens and you find your free time at a premium, here are some places where you can enjoy a great meal with friends and have change left over for stuffing the stockings.
10 W. Grand Ave., Lake Villa. (847) 356-4400, blackthorngrille.com
This cozy, family-friendly tavern, named for the Irish shrub whose wood is favored for making shillelaghs, offers a vast and varied menu. Don't be put off by the curiously eclectic collection of entrees, priced at $6.50 to $19.95; you'll find everything from Irish-themed dishes to burgers to flat-crust pizzas to fried chicken, pastas, steaks and seafood. Best of all, it is cooked from scratch. Chef Alan Wolf even corns the beef that goes into the oddly addictive Reuben egg rolls: burrito-sized, crisply fried cylinders containing corned beef, caraway-seasoned sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, with a drizzle of Thousand Island dressing.
Half-pound Angus-beef burgers include the Kilkenny, slathered in barbecue sauce and crowned with creamy blue cheese and crispy fried onions. Excellent, genuine Broaster chicken, crisp-skinned and moistly meaty, comes with real mashed potatoes or french fries and coleslaw. The "Irish favorites" may not all be straight out of Eire, but dishes like house-corned beef and cabbage and "sheppard pie" are savory and satisfying. Desserts include a rich chocolate death cake, featuring a flourless chocolate base covered with ganache, and a particularly nice rendition of carrot cake, with cream-cheese frosting, walnuts and a garnish of grated raw carrots.
The Creperie Normande
1644 S. Randall Road, Algonquin, (847) 458-2621, thecreperienormande.com
My wish for the New Year is that The Creperie Normande survives in this challenging economy to celebrate its first anniversary and its second.
Opened last spring with bona fide French chef Lionel Pilate-Jean in the kitchen, this spot in the Algonquin Commons serves up ethereal crepes (entrees $8 to $9) with a variety of traditional and exotic fillings.
The place just got its liquor license in October, so you can now enjoy a Pinot Noir with your Mediterranean pesto crepe or a glass of bubbly with a raspberry and Nutella filled version. Along with the liquor came the move from counter ordering to traditional service, though you can still hang out at the counter to watch Pilate-Jean roll the thin buckwheat pancakes.
883 Main St., Antioch, (847) 603-1196, davidsbistro.com
After a two-year hiatus, chef David Maish has found a new home in Antioch in which to serve his well-crafted contemporary American cuisine. The change of venue also meant a change in menu. The prices have come down a bit (entrees are $11.99 to $22.99). You'll still find my favorite nut-crusted tilapia and pear walnut Gorgonzola salad, but Maish also offers pastas and kid-friendly fare.
The bistro is right on the town's main drag and the space is casual and cozy. Warm up this winter with a bowl of his homemade chicken and pasta soup or celebrate the holidays with the best darn chocolate martini.
227 W. Wilson St., Batavia. (630) 879-5900, fantasticoitalian.com
There might be fancier Italian restaurants; there might be more modern, innovative ones. Yet Fantastico won me over as the epitome of classic Chicago-style southern Italian food and a nostalgic reminder of my grandma's kitchen. Rich, thick tomato sauce covering fresh pasta dishes, spicy meat offerings and delicious and hearty pizzas highlight the menu at this gem of the Fox Valley.
The top dish for me is the gnocchi with braciola. Fresh-made, potato-based dumplings smothered in chef Sam Abdelnor's wonderful red sauce come with a large serving of braciola rolled flank steak filled with spicy beef and slow-cooked to tenderness. This is classic Italian food at affordable prices in a welcoming neighborhood restaurant.
210 Cedar St., St. Charles, (630) 444-0202, isaccokitchen.com
A cure for the inveterate suburban casualness, this hip St. Charles newcomer has kept its hot spot status for well over the usual allotted time with fresh, spontaneous looking dishes that sparkle, and a jaunty conviviality. A native of Northern Italy, chef Isacco Vitali converted an old BBQ shack to beget this polished, quite sexy and predominantly white interior that exudes an intimate cool.
But it's the inventive, seasonal bites that show the real substance: starters like watermelon-tomato gazpacho and meaty, Kobe beef lollipops on spicy salsa Verde are a perfect prelude. Plump, fresh homemade crab ravioli is surrounded by juicy shrimp in light lemon butter sauce, while an imaginative dish of cream-colored filet of snapper full of rich, buttery goodness finds its perfect mate in a brothy, olive oil vinaigrette-infused vegetable risotto. Delicate New Zealand lamb chops satiate all senses. Entrees range from about $15 to $24.
Desserts flaunt their own aplomb: black pepper gelato is a spectacular, exhilarating taste that gathers momentum on the tongue, and a pineapple Carpaccio with marinated strawberries and chocolate cremeux makes you appreciate the good life.
Naf Naf Grill
Freedom Commons, 1739 Freedom Drive, Suite 109, Naperville, (630) 904-7200, nafnafgrill.com
Recently relocated from an old Taco Bell building to glossier digs in a lifestyle center this September, Naf Naf Grill hasn't lost its luster or its penchant for fresh flavors.
Fans used to waiting for tables can thank their lucky stars: Naf Naf has doubled in size. The reason it's so good is clear: everything including the pillowy, warm pita is made from scratch in house. Whether you order the spit-carved shawarma, the crispy outside, crumbly inside falafel, the velvety hummus or every single one of the entree selections priced $4.99 to $11.99 unilateral praise is pretty much a guarantee.
260 Hawthorn Village Commons (off East Hawthorn Parkway), Vernon Hills, (847) 573-1829
Set in a nondescript shopping mall, this small storefront brings the exotic flavors of such places as Marrakech, Casablanca and Rabat to Vernon Hills. Combinations of sweet and savory, a hallmark of Moroccan cuisine, feature in such standouts as pastilla, delectable appetizer pastries of chicken seasoned with cinnamon and other sweet spices, wrapped in crispy phyllo and dusted with powdered sugar.
The house specialty, tajine, a Moroccan-style stew, owes its name to its cookware, a special ceramic pot with a conical cover that concentrates the steam and juices to intensify flavors. Desserts, another highlight, include milk pastilla, large, crispy phyllo squares sandwiching a light rice pudding, garnished with almonds.
Reservations at the intimate restaurant are a good idea, particularly if you prefer a regular-height table and chairs. Much of the seating at Tajine is at low tables on squat, cushioned benches. It's traditional, but meant for the spry.
Tom & Eddie's
348 Yorktown Shopping Center, Lombard, (630) 705-9850, tomandeddies.com
Confusing ordering system aside, this contemporary, counter-service burger joint from two former McDonald's execs does what it does exceptionally well. The all-natural, gourmet burgers are like nothing this part of the 'burbs has seen.
The Bushel & a Peck stands out with its topping of sliced Granny Smith apples, walnut butter, melted Brie and caramelized onions, while the Love me 'Dew goes glam with Wisconsin pepper jack, Peppadew peppers and a swath of spicy mayo. The shakes are thick and gluttonous, the design-your-own Boylan's soda floats are dreamy and the sides (a tangle of onion straws, crisp sweet potato fries) are nothing short of added boons.
Toom, Toom Thai
23 S. Grove St., Elgin, (847) 531-8755, toomtoomthai.net
Quality from start to finish, fresh ingredients, reasonable prices and a chef/owner who aims to please are the main features of this small Thai restaurant along a quiet stretch of downtown Elgin.
A simple interior belies the complexity of the menu, which allows you many options to customize your selection to your taste buds. Entrees fall in the $8 to $11 range.
Don't miss out on an appetizer of Toom Toom Pao (barbecue meat within soft steamed buns) or a large bowl of Tom Yum soup to start your meal. Mix and match different noodles with various sauces and meats, while also experimenting with several levels of hotness.
Chef Uthatwan "Toom" Wiitanen's menu also includes some Thai versions of Western meals like the wonderful pepper steak. Remember to tell Wiitanen that you enjoyed the food and she'll make you feel like a full-fledged member of her family!
686 Lee St., Des Plaines, (847) 768-7461
Via Roma means "the way to Rome." And as this Des Plaines treasure illustrates, the husband-and-wife team Alessandro Forti and Lisa Leslie's way to Rome is delicious, authentic and wonderfully affordable. If that isn't enough to sway you the affable, nearly all Italian crowd surely will.
The menu (entrees range from $6 to $14) is straightforward with bruschetta, pizza, pasta and specials, but each dish so entirely transcends the sum of its uncomplicated ingredients, you may be left wondering: Why can't everyone do this?
A simple mixed greens salad, with a whole mint-braised artichoke lying regally like a scepter, is spectacular, and a Carpaccio bresaola Italian air-cured beef over Parmesan and arugula is a perfect finger-licking pairing. A black chalkboard features the night's specials, so if you're not there before 8 p.m., you may fast see them disappearing. Try an extra thin and crispy prosciutto pizza, or the cannelloni with the chef's special meat sauce home cooking you wish your mama did. Do not skip the spaghetti vongole: exceptionally fresh clams over an understated lemon butter sauce and thick, glistening spaghetti. One bite of the soft, spongy limoncello cake alongside a hazelnut gelato that tastes like spoonfuls of Nutella will have you whisked to Rome in no time.
The restaurant industry isn't known for being easy on anyone, but the continued economic downturn meant this past year has been especially tough on some eateries.
Here are 10 favorite restaurants that turned off their stoves in 2010.
• Carlos & Carlos, Arlington Heights*
• Citizen Kane, Geneva
• Entourage, Schaumburg
• Kabul House, Elk Grove Village**
• Key Wester, Naperville
• LeBerry Bistro, Geneva
• Michael's, Mount Prospect
• Mint Julep, Palatine
• Pierogi Place, Rolling Meadows
• Sage's, St. Charles
* opening in new location in 2011
** relocated to Skokie