Honorable Mentions: Little Italy/Midtown/Old Town
2600 Calhoun Street, Old Town
Fresh food and antique architecture in Old Town. This restored stately hotel houses a fine, reasonably priced new restaurant. Chef Amy DiBiase cooks up a seasonal California/upscale-Mexican menu of local produce, natural meats. The long, tasty appetizer list invites grazing meals. Among entrées, carne asada with nopales does honor to the dish, Prime top sirloin is “like butter.” Dessert churros with Mexican-style chocolate dipping sauce are astonishing. Varied, affordable wine list, but also consider near-forgotten old-timey cocktails, especially the dreamy-creamy Rum Raymos, which tastes like liquid key lime pie. Moderate. – Naomi Wise
505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill
Hip, crowded, noisy spot for tasty modern Italian cuisine, with faux-rustic decor and your choice to order a little (grazes, small pizzas) or a lot. The playful, classy trattoria food offers a flexible choice of starters, pastas, and entrées, emphasizing seasonal vegetables and interesting combinations. Downside: it’s hard to score a reservation. Seating encompasses normal tables, communal boards, or the long bar. Wines are just $7 over retail, with a wine room that you can visit to choose your bottle. Moderate. – Naomi Wise
2060 India Street, Little Italy
No fancy decor at this simple spot, frequented by South Americans, just authentic Argentine food, including flavor-packed, healthy, grass-fed steaks, parillada mixta (mixed grill, including some organ meats), and morcilla (moist sausage resembling Irish black pudding gone to heaven). Seafood’s treated lovingly, too. To start, enjoy empanadas (beef, corn, cheese, spinach, etc). Great happy hour: Argentines dine late, so they’re masters of teatime snacks. Moderate. – Naomi Wise
1742-1/2 India Street, Little Italy
I’m sorry, but you can’t beat a sausage made on the spot, and Pete makes his own. Always has. Pete’s Meats used to be a butcher shop. Then Pete’s daughter and sister-in-law had the idea of setting up a grill inside the shop. Now aficionados line up (’specially on festa days) for Pete’s Sicilian treats, like Italian sausage sandwich, with caramelized onions, peppers, and a background flavor of fennel. Prices: around $5. – Ed Bedford
1927 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Christian Gómez is a lucky man. He slipped on a wet stone in Brazil, fell 50 feet over a waterfall, and lived to create this wine bar café. He started life in Logan Heights, conquered Hollywood, traveled the world. Now he makes food so artistically presented you hate to stick a fork in it. Tastes? Try the baby greens, peaches, plums, Danish bleu cheese, and pumpkin seeds of the Stonefruit Salad. Great soups, good paninis, and ten bucks will get you in and out if you don’t buy wine. – Ed Bedford
1810 West Washington Street, Mission Hills
I asked the guy behind me in line (and there’s always a line), what was best. “Four things,” he said. “Quesotaco, surf-and-turf burrito, TJ hot dog with the bacon wrapped around it, and rolled tacos stuffed with potato.” He was so right on every count. The quesotacos have melted cheese fused to the tortilla, with marinated steak inside, cheese topping, avocado slices, the idea taken from La Ermita in TJ, where one of the cooks used to work. And have a TJ hot dog, just to remember your good times down there. There’s also an outstanding salsa bar. Run by the brothers Rojano-García.
– Ed Bedford
Hillcrest / North Park / Kensington
Top Pick Naomi Wise
2121 Adams Avenue, University Heights
Across the street from a park, you can believe that you’re eating at an actual farmhouse, a neat cottage with rural decor featuring parades of carved little ducks, with a cute fair-weather patio. But the sunny chef, Olivier Bioteau, has his ducks lined up in a row: the cuisine is very French, light and modern, and free of the shoddy shortcuts and heavy, tourist-food clichés that blight some better-known “neighborhood French” eateries. Little wonder the chefs of top local restaurants hang out here on their off-hours.
The food is both rustic and sophisticated, not to mention clever, with combinations you don’t expect. Chef Olivier is a devotee of the Slow Food movement, favoring sustainably raised produce, humanely raised meats, and artisanly care in cooking. His own artisanship shows in his ravishing chicken-liver mousse, house-made pastas, and exquisite hand-crafted chocolates, served as a dessert. Fish (fresh and mainly local) are treated like superstars; meats come out light, rather than stifling; and of course, there are some good choices for vegetarians. Wines include lots of good, affordable French-grown finds.
On Sunday mornings, you can awaken to joy. Sunday brunch is not a glorified Grand Slam cholesterol fest but an array of delicacies — especially the airy, fragile ricotta pancakes with citrus segments and orange butter and the scrambled eggs with truffles served with polenta. The sausages that come with certain dishes (or as a side order) are the rarely found fresh (not cured) Bruce Aidells chicken-apple sausages that burst with sweet liquid when you bite into them. Prices for all meals are moderate, making this one of the city’s “best buys” for culinary pleasure.
Hillcrest / North Park / Kensington
Top Pick Ed Bedford
3442 30th Street, North Park
I have seen the future, and it is un-hamburgers. This little eatery is the HQ of the revolution. Rachael Fogg and the rest of the crew here try to make it easy for us unenlightened carnivores by fixing foods so like standard meat dishes we won’t know we’ve crossed over. Their “burgers” are the methadone to get us off the real thing, the antimatter to Lefty’s Chicago Pizza (next door) and Eddie’s Philadelphia Steaks/Hoagies/Burgers (opposite). The amazing thing is that they sell, mostly, not salads but burgers. Premium burgers — except, no ham in the burger. Meat patties are called “meaty” patties. The Western Burger, the biggest, most expensive (almost $9), has a “meaty” patty piled with “bacon,” cheddar cheese, onion rings, and the usual lettuce and tomatoes. You have to wonder if all this gunge is any better for you than what you’re giving up. But Alice, one of the ladies here, says there’s no comparison. Look at what’s in the “meat” patty: “We make it from peppers, broccoli, carrots, onions, and mushrooms.” Got to admit that sounds healthy. And their giant-disk sweet-potato fries are outstanding.