Lincoln Square's coolness factor seems to grow exponentially by the day, as quaint eateries, hip dinner spots and boutique shops find themselves in better and better company with each passing month. It's hard to nail down favorites, so instead we'll share a few standards along with newer-to-the-neighborhood haunts that are worth your attention.
Good for groups
At Lincoln Square's Brioso ("high spirited"), margarita senoritas belly up at a tile-covered bar and lick the salt from their rims inside the celery-colored confines. For the tequila connoisseur, the Brioso margarita contains Sauza Silver Tequila, Grand Marnier and fresh lime juice ($6). Two dollars more upgrades to Milagro Reposado Tequila and Cointreau. Margaritas of any flavor are best enjoyed with a little sustenance, in the form of executive chef Paul Niekrasz's upscale Mexican cuisine. Smaller appetites appreciate chili-dusted onion rings, as well as the tomato, avocado and arugula appetizer, which includes fried goat cheese and cilantro vinaigrette.
The tacos, a specialty, certainly improve upon the usual 2 a.m. Mexican fast food stopover, featuring accoutrements like grilled pineapple and chipotle-tamarind sauce. Most popular is the shrimp and mango taco with arugula and chipotle-tamarind sauce ($10.95). Hot entrees include the roasted half chicken asado with sweet pepper-chorizo hash ($11.95) and pan-roasted duck breast with roasted corn puree and green pipian ($12.95).
Where to chill
A favorite latte-stop for college students (there are three locations on the UIC campus alone), Cafe Descartes has recently brought its beans and oatmeal to Lincoln Square. Such ingredients are essential for the coffee shop's signature drink: the Oatmeal Latte. The perfect-for-breakfast concoction blends a shot of freshly-roasted espresso (all of Descartes beans are roasted daily in the cafe's Roger Park facility) with oatmeal, raisins, walnuts, almonds, cinnamon, honey, milk and blueberries.
If the oatmeal drink sounds a little lumpy, smooth things out with a cafe au lait or a plain ol' shot of espresso. Typical coffeehouse fare like bagels, muffins and bottled fruit juices stock the cooler, and a case of gelato provides an unexpectedly chill treat. The cafe channels rustic warmth with a dash of European bistro: golden-tinged red canvasses the walls, heavy tables of dark wood sit closely together and rich velvet fabric sweeps over an alcove in back. The long, curvilinear bar comes stocked with plenty of stools for espresso-machine side seating. For those who just can't fathom $4 cups of joe, be warned that prices at Descartes are comparable to those at Starbucks.
Sure bet for shopping
This super-cozy shop (Bouffe means "grub" in French) is perched right on the curve where Lincoln Avenue hits Western Avenue. It's a most welcome addition to the family-friendly and still affordable area (it's great to stop by after hitting the Lincoln Square Farmers Market on Tuesdays). There are usually delicious samples on display, including fudgey, heart-attack inducing Barry's Brownies. Patrons are free to ask for a sample of the myriad international cheeses in the cold case (each taste is usually accompanied by a special monologue, peppered with buzz words like, "heavenly" and "rich") and owner Libby Bonahoom will gladly recount how she tracked down each and every item in the store to interested customers.
Scattered across the ceiling-high shelves are goods from every far-flung corner of the globe including: red lentils from India (they whip up nicely into soup), pole-caught American tuna ($6, but worth every bite), Italian pumpkin pesto, cans of San Marzano tomatoes, bags of high-end pastas, and nuggets of salted French caramels (98 cents). She also offers a wide variety of beautiful cake platters, serving dishes and handmade placemats.
Opart Thai House
In a city that has a Thai joint very few feet, there has to be a clincher to make you stand out and Opart Thai (now that it has a new redesign) has the feel of an authentic Thai house (not just a hole-in-the-wall with haphazardly slung tables and fake flowers everywhere). With a beautiful slate floor, three big, bright rooms with dark wood splashes and a friendly Asian staff, Opart is a welcoming reprieve from the starkly lit, sticky floor offerings that most Thai places provide. Their clincher for me isn't the clean, welcoming vibe, though; it's the fresh, delicious food. Not that the food has a stop-me-in-my-tracks type of flavor, but the easy simplicity of the Tofu Pad Thai and the Tofu Fried Rice always makes my heart pound 'til I get back in there and order up a few helpings.
The Tofu Pad Thai has perfect little nuggets of tofu, lightly fried and scattered over thin, glassy noodles (unlike some Thai kitchens, I feel like the chef's break up the noodles before cooking them which makes them just the right size for chopstick showmanship). Peppered with tiny slivers of scallions, crunchy bean threads and big patches of eggs (my favorite part, please don't touch the egg), it's adorned with sides of freshly grated carrot and cabbage and with a squeeze of fresh lime (and a bit of peanut sauce).
The Chopping Block
With two Chicago locations and at least one vegetarian-specific class per month, chances are you'll find what you're looking for at The Chopping Block. Depending upon your price range and taste for adventure, you can choose from demo-only and hands-on classes, either on-site or at your home, on topics ranging from Vegetarian 101 to "The Five White Grapes You Should Know" to Cooking for your Baby to how to prepare a meal of buttermilk fried chicken, new potato salad, homemade mayo and apple pie.
Drop by for Sunday brunch at the Lincoln Square location. For a mere $20 you can get in on one of three seatings (10 a.m., 11:30a.m. and 1 p.m.) during which time a three-to-four course meal will be prepared before your very eyes and served with coffee or tea. Not all brunches are vegetarian, but if you make arrangements for your group ahead of time your dietary needs will be deliciously accommodated. Don't forget to take notes!