At ethnic eateries in business for as many as 100 years, residents of the Windy City can pack away giant portions of politically incorrect food at tabs of less than $12 for two courses and a drink
Carl Sandburg was wrong. Chicago is less the City of Big Shoulders than the City of Big Appetites. In our search for "Little Wonder Restaurants" charging less than $12 for a full-scale meal, we've encountered larger servings in Chicago - more copious sauces and sides, bigger mountains of meat, higher stacks of rolls and loaves - than in any other U.S. city we've surveyed. In Chicago, eating cheap doesn't mean eating lean or meagerly. It means tucking in to vast platters that crash through calorie limits and leave you near-catatonic at the end of the second course. Here are nine enthusiastic recommendations, of which five are old standbys that have fed frugal Chicagoans for at least two generations.
The Berghoff 17 West Adams St., 312/427-3170. From just $10.95 for a taste of history (and some of the best German food in the Midwest)
Where else could we begin this eating tour but at The Berghoff, in the heart of the Loop and a Chicago institution since 1898? An oversize beer hall, it survived prohibition (and nabbed the very first liquor license when the ban was lifted), and has wursted and knocked the masses with elan ever since. While dinner will take you a buck or two over our usual limit, lunch is still a budget treat, easily coming in at under a dozen dollars. To get the full experience, stick with the classic Teutonic dishes on the menu: savory sauerbraten ($9.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner); the famous Wiener schnitzel, as long as your forearm and served with the equally famous electric-green creamed spinach ($10.25/$11.95); Rahm schnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet ($9.50/ $10.95); or any of the sausage dishes. A starter soup is just $2 per cup, or try the classic Caesar salad ($3.50). Whatever you consume (and many "hop" by just for a stein of the house brew), having a meal in this turn-of-the-century gem with its stained-glass windows, dark wood paneling, original brass chandeliers, and stand-up bar is an experience in itself. Closed Sundays.
The Parthenon 314 South Halsted St., 312/726-2407. A Greektown delight with soup and entree for as little as $6.65
At a good Greek restaurant, a meal is never just a meal. It's a celebration with jaunty music in the background and waiters bellowing "Opa!" as the plates of flaming cheese sail by. The owners of this Greektown culinary institution are not only throwing one of the best nightly parties in town, they claim to have invented (back in 1968) the "flaming saganaki" presentation that's become a dramatic standard in Greek eateries across the nation. Whether or not that's true, the waiters pull it off with aplomb, lighting the platters with a flourish and bearing the plate-size infernos like Olympic torches across the crowded dining rooms.
But who cares about pyrotechnics? It's the food that counts, and The Parthenon delivers-and then some. Here I've enjoyed some of the tastiest Greek food in my not-so-young life. The best of bechamels, topping every helping of those wonderful Mediterranean casseroles, moussaka ($5.75 small portion, $8.50 monster-size), and pastitsio ($5.25/$8.25). Moist and flavorful lamb ($11.25), which you'll see roasting on a spit as you enter. Flaky spinach and cheese pies ($4.50), exquisitely tart egg-lemon soup ($1.75 cup), and exceedingly tender octopus in white wine sauce ($6.75).
The eggplant dishes require special praise. The Parthenon's chefs have tamed the tricky aubergine, turning what can be a tough and seedy vegetable into the most melting of treats. Try the eggplant spread ($3.75), the baked stuffed eggplant ($8.50), or the melitzanopita ($8.50), which is cheese and eggplant encased in phyllo. All are delish.
While The Parthenon is not the most up-to-date of the restaurants in the area (most now look like the Greek Isles as imagined by a Pottery Barn exec), it's a colorful, oversize place with fun, hokey murals (blue seas, men in togas) and the kind of old-fashioned hospitality that can't be faked. Open daily. It's a bit out of the way, unfortunately, so drive or cab it.
Andalous 3307 North Clark St., 773/281-6885. Marvelous Moroccan meals at a bit over $10
Some restaurants strive to be exotic, others simply are. Andalous falls into the latter category, seemingly plucked off a St. in Marrakesh and plopped down one long pitch from Wrigley Field. There are few accommodations to American tastes here. The lamb is adamantly bone-in, and it's a big bone at that. The couscous is laden with ungainly slabs of vegetables. The owner's one-year-old periodically scoots through the spare dining room on a little play car, followed by her smiling, kerchiefed mother. But are we complaining? Of course not. This restaurant is a delight, with food that's unfailingly pleasing. Try the lemony harira ($2.25) or the thick, garlicky lentil soup ($2.25) to begin. Then make your choice from the many kebabs, couscous, bastillas, and tagines. We particularly like the lamb tagine ($9.99) with prunes and the chicken tagine doused in lemon confi (pickled rind), for $9.50. If you have room left, spring for any of the nutty, honeyed pastries, just $1.25 each. Lunches and dinners all week; take the El to Belmont.
Foodlife 835 North Michigan Ave., 312/335-3663. Right in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, an abundance of options for as little as $8.15 for two courses
We don't normally recommend food-court dining, but a phenomenon called Foodlife is so imaginatively executed, so well located, and most importantly, so well priced, that I'd be remiss not to mention it. Mimicking a charming town square, down to the cobblestone floors and arbors strung with fake grapevines, the ambience is much gentler than that of your local mall. A host greets you at the gate and then seats you at a table after first giving you an "eat the world" credit card that allows you to go from kiosk to kiosk, charging your food (you pay as you exit). Then you get up and wander through this "global village," choosing barbecue chicken ($6.95) from the "Kickin' Chicken and BBQ" area, or the jambalaya ($5.95) at "Creole King," a bottomless bowl of Italian wedding soup ($5.50, or $2.20 for a cup) at "Souplife," a brownie sundae ($3.25) from "Sweetlife." We could go on. While we can't pretend to have tried everything available (that would up us a dress size), the grub we grabbed was all quite tasty, high-quality stuff. Open seven days.
Heaven on Seven 3478 North Clark St., 773/477-7818; 111 North Wabash Ave., 7th floor, 312/263-6443; and 600 North Michigan Ave., 312/280-7774
Almost as fun as baring your breasts on Bourbon St., this New Orleans-style eatery is cheap: from $7.95 for soup or salad and entree. It's Mardi Gras every day at Heaven on Seven, which celebrates the New Orleans version of that holiday in all its tacky glory. The restaurant is festooned with carnival beads (the drinks are too!), there are masks everywhere, and a museum-worthy collection of hot sauces graces one wall as you enter. Tables are loaded up as well - we counted a full 25 hot sauces at our four-top.
But don't overdo it with the sauces, since much of the food already packs a fiery punch, as it should. This is real, down-home Cajun cooking, bravely spiced and as flavorful as anything you'd find in the bayou. All the standards plus a few unusual picks are here: jambalaya ($9.95), red beans and rice with andouille sausage ($8.95), a creamy cheese grits and shrimp platter ($10.95), southern-fried chicken ($9.95). All entrees come with your choice of soup, gumbo, or salad. By the way, this is a great place to take kids. They'll love the decor and music, and there's a special children's menu ($4.95) for blander palates. Open daily (Wabash location closed Sundays).
Hi Ricky 941 West Randolph St., 312/491-9100; 1852 West North Ave., 773/276-8300; and 3730 North Southport Ave., 773/388-0000. Noodles and starters from just $9.90
Somehow the humble noodle has become a vehicle for high-concept cooking, as sleek au courant eateries have popped up in cities across the country. One of the smartest is the cheerfully named Hi Ricky, which mixes things up a tad by introducing a slew of fab satays into the mix. These meats-on-a-stick are a great way to start your meal and affordable, too, at just $3.95 to $6.25 per trio of skewers (there's shrimp and tofu, too). If you're not a big carnivore, the salad ($2.95) is a distinct treat, garnished with crispy noodles and dressed in a succulent sesame vinaigrette. Then move on to the pasta, which ranges from fiery, cabbage-laden Indonesian bakmi goreng ($7.45) to curried thin Singapore noodles ($7.45) to the pad Thai classic ($6.95).
You do your noodle-slurping in some stylin' settings, by the by. Hi Ricky has that "industrial with just the right splashes of color" look down. There are terrific photos of Asia on the walls (in corrugated tin frames, of course), and the background music is tres alternative. Open daily.
Pizzeria Uno 29 East Ohio St., at the corner of Wabash Ave., 312/321-1000. Soup or salad and the thickest pizza ever, from $6.98.
he pizza joint that inspired the chain. If only its namesakes in other burgs were as good! Forget about fast food! "The pizzas we make are all done from scratch, so they take about an hour to cook," the host at the door explains to somewhat stunned patrons. "I'd suggest you order now." And with that he hands you the menu, and you choose your toppings, as quickly as you can. Then you take a seat, ordering the simple but fresh salad ($2.95), zippy wings ($4.99), or the thick minestrone called Florence's soup ($2.69) in honor of the founder's wife. And you wait. And wait. And wait.
Is it worth it? Assolutamente. More "pie" than "pizza," the densely layered concoction that arrives at your table is certainly more interesting texturally than your average thin pizza. The massive crust is crispy on the edges, soft and doughy towards the center. It's topped with just the right amount of sauce and an extra-gooey layer of cheese. If you order meat, it's nicely peppery. If your choice is vegetables, they arrive still crisp atop the pie. But don't over-order. Remember, these pizzas have girth - a medium can easily feed a family of four.
And that's just what founder Ike Sewell planned when he created the "bigger is always better," Americanized version of the Italian classic in 1943. Yes, this is where Chicago-style pizza was invented, so eating in this old-fashioned joint, with its pressed-tin ceiling and down-at-the-heel charm, is as much a pilgrimage as a meal. Open seven days a week, an easy walk from Michigan Ave..
La Creperie, 2845 North Clark St., 773/528-9050. Fattening French food (ah, don't we love it?!), two million calories, and a swell time for a mere $9.50. La Creperie inspires a fierce loyalty among Chicagoans. As I recently stood outside, scribbling notes about the look and menu, three passers-by stopped to encourage me to go in. "The best crepes in the city," one told me, and I had to wonder how much competition there was. No matter, this remains one of the top buys, an oh-so-Parisian little joint, redolent of frying butter and decorated with colorful, if faded, travel posters.
You might think of crepes as a light in-between-meals snack. Not here. These are crepes to tickle a trucker, dinner-plate-size and plumped with heavy if savory fillings: coq au vin ($7.25), boeuf bourguignon ($7.25), spinach creme ($6.50), ham or cheese ($5.50), egg ($5.50), broccoli with cheese ($6.50). You can start with soup ($2.25) or salad ($4.25), or finish with a dessert crepe (from $3.50), but we doubt you'll be able to do all three. Portions are midwestern (read: big) and addictive - you won't put your fork down until the plate is clean. Closed Mondays.
Ann Sather, 929 West Belmont Ave., 773/348-2378. As little as $9.95 for a Swedish feast
'Tis a gift to be simple, according to the old Shaker hymn, and our final pick has that gift in spades, serving food that is proudly simple but far from plain. A Second City fave since 1945, this was once one of many Scandinavian restaurants on Belmont. As demographics shifted, so did tastes, and Ann Sather is the last buffalo, overlooking an urban meadow of funky shoe stores, tiny theaters, and crowds making the trek to nearby Wrigley Field. It still has a sedate Scandinavian look with "Rosemaling" murals on the walls (those swoopy, whimsical paintings you see across Sweden and Norway), a dignified portrait of founder Sather above the fireplace, and upgraded diner banquettes throughout the two large rooms.
While the restaurant serves a wide range of American fare, we'd suggest you stick to the Scandinavian specials, all of which come with a starter and two side dishes. We like the Swedish fruit soup, although it is an acquired taste, a peachy concoction filled with massive chunks of mystery fruit (the composition changes daily, but expect prunes, apricots, figs, dates, or kumquats); also good is the pickled herring. For the meat of the meal, choose...well, meat. The Swedish meatballs ($9.95) are a treat, lighter than you've ever tasted and subtly nutmeg-scented. Roast duck with lingonberry glaze ($10.50) is another champ, as is the surprisingly delicate potato sausage ($10.50). Open seven days; take the El to Belmont.