Belmont boasts a few ultra-famous fixtures of Chicago's culinary scene: Ann Sather, the legendary Swedish bakery and restaurant, has been a cinnamon bun's throw from the L tracks since 1945. Just across the street, Clarke's diner stands as a greasy-spoon testament to the lure of around-the-clock omelets. Breakfast aside, Belmont features an array of shops for fashionistas who accessorize on the cheap (pop into Tomato or Pink Frog), a bakery for Bugaboo-pushing mommies on a frosted cookie mission (see Bittersweet below) and an alley-bound shopping district perfect for Goth rockers or folks in search of ornamental skeletons.
Best of the nightlife
Trader Todd's Adventure Bar
If you ever need a break from the bleak grayness of winter in Chicago, saunter on in to Trader Todd's. The predominant Cubs theme will take you back to summer in the bleachers, and everything else (papier-mache parrots, lifesavers mounted on the walls, buoys hanging by the door and straw covering the roof of the bar) lands you squarely in the middle of Margaritaville. Trader Todd's is famous for quirky things with a tropics-in-Chicago-twist: Take the house-owned Tiki Transit, a teal shack on wheels that offers transportation to and from Wrigley Field.
The menu infuses standard bar grub with Key West chutzpa. Try the Conch'n'Crab fritters ($8.95), a mix of crab meat, conch, herbs and spices served with cocktail sauce. The Maui onion rings ($5.95) come dusted with coconut. Drinks such as the coconut lime ricky (Bacardi coco with cream of coconut, lime and a splash of cream) and the pineapple margarita are sweetly umbrella-worthy. In back an outdoor beer garden has a distinctly Peewee's Playhouse feel: think stools pulled up next to a boat (said boat sports a giant candy cane year-round), kitschy "welcome to Florida" signs and plastic lanterns strung up everywhere. Not-to-be-missed: the karaoke, which begins at 9 p.m. seven days a week has earned accolades from Playboy. Best brush up on your Buffett.
Good for groups
It certainly is colorful in Mi Tierra. Pink stucco climbs toward teal ceilings, and swatches of sunflower-yellow brighten the walls. Purple donkeys, Christmas lights, pastel lanterns and Mexican flags hang jauntily. Tile-topped tables, colorful faux flowers, guitar-laden folk songs and a fake stream winding through the back room conspire to create a Mexico-in-Epcot feel. Grab a margarita at the (surprise! colorful) bar as soon as you get arrive, then kick back and prepare for a tequila-laced, rainbow bright night that's best if taken with friends.
Mi Tierra's menu is comprised of 88 dishes (which means order-by-number fun) that fall into categories of appetizers, meat, chicken and seafood. Bonus: Prices are extremely reasonable. The Platillo Juve is a popular pick for pollo; for $9.95 you get a charbroiled breast served on a skillet alongside rice, beans, side salad, guacamole and corn tortillas. The Bistec a la Mexicana, a Mexican pepper steak with rice and beans, is only $7.95. "Mexican Favorites" offer chimichangas, tostadas and taco dinners. Sugary selections for capping off the meal include mini burritos ($3) filled with your choice of strawberry, vanilla or coconut pudding.
This order at the counter, eat-it-and-run establishment provides fresh falafel for diners on the go. Sinbad's clean, storefront space offers about 10 tables and a few stools at the front counter. So while you can definitely find a place to roost while you down your Jerusalem salad, this is definitely not the perfect place to hunker down for a long, intimate meal. Aside from a few touches of Arabian-night flair (ornate sword sheaths hang on the walls and an Aladdin-style lamp crowns the counter) ambiance is kept at a minimum.
Sinbad's does, however, deliver on its promise of "delicious Mediterranean cuisine" at even more palatable prices. Look for the whole gang of Middle Eastern delicacies: The ever-popular rice-and-herb stuffed grape leaves go for $1.99 ($3.29 for the large order). The yogurt salad ($2.69) combines a roster of refreshing ingredients like cucumber and mint, and the tabouleh is mighty tasty. For entrees, go for the vegetarian sampler ($5.99) or chicken kabob ($5.79). Baklava ($1.19) is the standout star of the dessert menu. But just when you think you've guessed the theme, a bit of Los Angeles shines through the shawarma: Sinbad's in-house juice bar blends up smoothies in flavors like peach, mango and banana, boosted with vegetable protein powder.
Where to chill
If you like to take your tea and pastry without hustle, bustle and throngs of babies, lunchtime is no time for a visit here. While ogling pink and green macaroons, lemon meringue tarts and giraffe-shaped cookies during one afternoon rush, I had to studiously avoid bumping into waitresses or stepping on any of the three baby rockers set down on the floor by busily ordering mommies. ("This place can be a bit like a romper room," one hoodie confirmed.) Another warning: Prices at Bittersweet are undeniably steep. The root beer float costs an astonishing $6, and that giant chocolate chip cookie will set you back a whopping eight bucks.
But if lunchtime crowds and pricy pastries are the bitter part of this bakery experience, sweetness can be found in scoring a seat and chilling at a quieter time. Classical music floods an airy white space that's cheerfully stocked with cute displays: rustic bread baskets, an assortment of multi-tiered wedding cakes and pretty old Parisian posters provide a feast for the eyes. As for your feast, besides a whole busload of sugar-laden goodies, Bittersweet offers an array of salads (examples include the $7 spinach salad with blue cheese and lemon vinaigrette) and Paris-does-lunch specialties like the ham and cheese croissant.
Housed in an easily-missed stretch of nondescript buildings, Matsu Yama was voted one of the city's top 15 sushi spots by "Chicago" magazine. Soothing hues of gray flood the casual and spacious restaurant. Small square tables (all adorned with tiny flower vases) dot the space, and an illuminated sushi bar, though tucked into a corner, steals the spotlight.
When it comes to sushi, get ready to roll with some innovative ingredients. The Godzilla roll ($12) combines just about every imaginable sushi savory: smoked salmon, eel, cucumber, masago, shitake, cream cheese, wasabi mayo, eel sauce and tempura crunch are only some of the fixin's in this monster. Other roaring rolls include the Red Dragon (tuna, chili tobiko, shrimp tempura, cucumber, mayo and hot sauce, also $12) and the white-tuna stuffed white dragon. Dressing up the normally simple Philadelphia roll ($6), Matsu Yama's version comes laden with smoked salmon and cream cheese as well as asparagus, green onion, avocado and cucumber. Other options on the menu include an orange shrimp tempura, grilled eggplant with miso sauce and sauteed lobster tail in lemon butter sauce. BYOB.