by Maggie Shea and Evan Noetzel, Chef Magazine

This article is an online exclusive for the May 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.

As you gear up for another year of eating your way across the tradeshow floor at the 2009 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, find an excuse or two to escape for a bit and taste some of what Chicago's restaurant scene has to offer. Whether you're looking for fine dining or a corned beef sandwich, Chef Magazine's annual restaurant roundup offers a range of great restaurants--including one worth a drive to the burbs--for every price level. So grab a fork, and bring your appetite! (Plus, chefs and operators weigh in on how the economy has affected their businesses.)

The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market, (312) 733-9555
Local restaurant-scene heavy hitters Paul Kahan, Eduard Seitan (Blackbird, Avec); Donnie Madia (Blackbird, Avec, Sonotheque); and Terry Alexander (Sonotheque, Violet Hour, Mia Francesca) are the brains behind The Publican, an upscale public house modeled in the style of European brasseries and beer halls. It's really all about the beer, shellfish and pork at this trendy spot, situated amid wholesale meat, produce and fish providers in the nascent Fulton Market neighborhood just west of the downtown Loop. Chef de cuisine Brian Huston's eclectic menu--ranging from Lake Erie perch fry and Basque Stew to Spicy Pork Rinds and Beef Heart--evokes simple farmhouse fare. Those who prefer quick bites like raw oysters can stand and gab at one of the pub-style, three-tiered cocktail tables. Either way, be sure to choose a beer with your meal from the rotating list of 12 on tap or the list of 100-plus international bottled beers.

Charcuterie plate at the Publican

Quoted--Chef Paul Kahan on the economy's impact on the Publican's business:
"The economy hasn't affected us very much, since our strategy from the start was to focus on a lot of offal: Beef heart, duck heart, sweetbreads, tongue--these items are less expensive, and they balance out some of the more expensive items like Dover sole or mussels, which we get from a fisherwoman in Maine. And we haven't hesitated to use seasonal products, like morel mushrooms and ramps. The place has been open about eight months, and we're incredibly busy."

Open Monday through Thursday, 3:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Open Sunday for brunch, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are encouraged.

Irazu, 1865 N. Milwaukee Ave., (773) 252-5687
A short trip heading northwest on Milwaukee Avenue brings you to Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood and Irazu, the city's only Costa Rican restaurant, which offers home-cooked meals that celebrate the staple ingredients and flavors of Latin America. Irazu, aptly named for a volcano in Cartago, Costa Rica, offers a range of authentic preparations, including: patacones, double-fried green plantains covered with roasted garlic oil; chicharrón, deep-fried pork rind chunks served with boiled or fried yucca; and ceviche, fresh fish marinated in lime and served with Saltine crackers and chips. No dish is complete without a side of gallo pinto, an authentic blend of black beans cooked with white rice, vegetables and spices. You may find yourself overwhelmed by the selection of milkshakes, which include Tamarind, Guanabana (custard apple) and Corn Meal. Fear not: The Avena (Oatmeal) shake is Costa Rica's trademark, and a must-have.

Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; reservations are not accepted. The best times for large groups are before 7 p.m. and after 8:30 p.m.

Custom House
, 500 S. Dearborn St., (312) 523-0200
Situated below the Hotel Blake in the historic Printer's Row neighborhood, Custom House is the newest offering from Spring Restaurant Group (Green Zebra, Spring). Chef Shawn McClain's menu celebrates regional American cuisine with a Mediterranean twist, offering playful items like his Duck Prosciutto appetizer with buffalo mozzarella, Prime Flat Iron Steak served with a pile of homemade sea salt and vinegar chips and a Berkshire Pork Chop with pickled peppers and caramelized fennel. If you're looking to sample Custom House's flavors at a cheaper price, come for lunch, where entrées top out at $15.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

SugarToad, 2139 CityGate Lane, Naperville, Ill. (YES, it's worth the drive!), (630) 778-TOAD
"Why on Earth would anyone drive from Chicago to Naperville for dinner?" is the opening tag line when you enter the Web site of SugarToad Restaurant at the Hotel Arista. The answer to that question is, to sample the "unadulterated," regional American cuisine from executive chef Jimmy Sneed. Sneed, who studied for years under legendary American chefs Jean-Louis Palladin and Gunther Seeger, uses fresh regional ingredients and straightforward preparation techniques to create dishes like American Kobe Flat-Iron Steak with Stewed Peppers and Anchovy Butter, Grilled Fresh Cobia with Parmesan Butter Sauce and Pan-Seared Fresh Carolina Wreckfish with Eggplant Caviar and Sun-Dried Tomato Butter.

Open every day for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.

L20 Restaurant, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, in the Belden-Stratford Hotel, (773) 868-0002
French chef Laurent Gras teamed up with Lettuce Entertain You chairman Richard Melman last year to open L20, offering modern seafood that incorporates global ingredients such as hirame from the Hokkaido and Kinki prefectures in Japan, Spanish octopus from the Galicia region of Spain and codfish from Maine. L20 offers a four-course prix fixe menu and a 12-course tasting menu.

Open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Sunday, 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Reservations are "essential" on weekends.

Eleven City Diner, 1112 S. Wabash Ave., (312) 212-1112
Eleven City Diner, a friendly Chicago diner and delicatessen that encourages clean plates, serves staples like Matzoh Ball Soup and a Pastrami Sandwich that's "as good as [radio personality] Steve Dahl says it is." If it's an omelet or French toast you're craving after a long day of work, breakfast is served all day. And in case you haven't had quite enough nostalgia, an in-house soda jerk serves up chocolate or cherry phosphates, shakes, malts and floats in nearly every color. Open seven days a week and serving fresh pies baked daily in-house.

Quoted--Brad Rubin, Eleven City Diner founder, on the economy's impact on his business:
"A lot of independent diners have share charges or split charges for people who come in just for coffee or to split a sandwich. We made the conscious decision to waive that charge--these are tough times, and our customers were unhappy with those charges. We also dropped the charge for extra dressing, and we started offering delivery around the neighborhood from 5 to 9 p.m. We were faced with the decision of changing the quality of our product to keep prices lower, but we couldn't do that. We choose to stay competitive by keeping the quality and portions the same and instead making small changes. Being a single-unit operator allows us to break the rules, think outside the corporate box and act a little quicker."

Open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Epic Burger, 517 S. State St., (312) 913-1373
How does a professionally trained chef do quick-service-style burgers and fries? Epic Burger founder David Friedman does them using all-natural beef cooked to order on a freshly baked bun with a side of hand-cut, unprocessed fries. Epic Burger's straightforward menu also caters to those who may not be craving a burger: patrons can opt for a turkey, chicken or portabello mushroom sandwich instead. All sandwiches come with topping choices that include nitrate-free bacon, Wisconsin cheese (including yummy aged cheddar) or a fried egg--organic and cage-free, of course.

Open Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sikia, 740 W. 63rd St. at Washburne Culinary Institute, (773) 602-5200
In Swahili, the word sikia describes how a person's concrete and abstract senses work together to make up total knowledge. This idea shapes the concept behind the African-inspired, on-site restaurant at Washburne Culinary Institute of Kennedy-King College in Englewood. A short cruise down Lakeshore Drive will take you to the restaurant, which showcases the diversity of African cultures with cuisine from across the continent. West African Goat and Ground Nut Stew, Vegetarian Tagine in the style of Morocco and North African Tilapia with Mango and Cilantro are among regular menu items.

Open for dinner, Thursday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Open for Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Café des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut St. in the Sofitel Hotel, (312) 324-4063
Last fall, after nearly eight years at One Sixtyblue in Chicago's West Loop--where he earned something of a foodie-cult following--Martial Noguier (joined by pastry chef and fellow One Sixtyblue vet Suzanne Imaz) assumed the executive chef position at Café des Architectes, located in downtown's Hotel Sofitel Chicago Water Tower. Suffice it to say, the marriage of Noguier's smart, internationally informed French cuisine and the Sofitel's luxurious ambiance and service make for a meal that you soon won't forget. For lunch, try the CdA Salad--goat cheese, tomato confit, black olives tian, caramelized baby beets, baby arugula salad, honey and cumin vinaigrette--and for dinner, the Homemade Potato Gnocchi with shrimp, Parmesan and asparagus.

Quoted--Café des Architectes executive chef Martial Noguier on the economy's impact on business: "We have a prix fixe menu on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night for $29 with three to four choices. And there is a prix fixe menu every day for $42 with different choices for an appetizer, entrée and dessert. We give people the freedom to choose what they want and how much they want to spend. Whether it's a bad economy or a good economy, you need to let customers choose what they want."

Open daily, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Open for brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; reservations not accepted for brunch.

dining room at Café des Architectes

Hannah's Bretzel, 233 N. Michigan Ave., (312) 856-1111; and 180 W. Washington St., (312) 621-1111
Citing his own longing for the handcrafted bretzels (Alsatian-style pretzels popular in Bavaria) of his native Stuttgart, Germany, Florian Pfahler opened Hannah's Bretzel--named after his daughter, who also serves as his chief quality control officer--in the summer of 2005. Since then, the shop has become a favorite lunch spot for Chicagoans living and working in the downtown Loop. Billed as "the first organic carry-out eatery" in the city, Hannah's Bretzel serves tasty soups, salads and sandwiches, as well as coffee, espresso, tea and gourmet chocolates. Of course, no trip to Hannah's is complete without a bretzel; choose either a Traditional Swabian Bretzel or a Whole Grain Bretzel, and pair it with organic butter, Nutella or slices of Gruyere Swiss cheese and organic cucumbers.

Open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; delivery available. Closed Saturday and Sunday.