OK, here's a bunch of favorites in Chicagoland, based on a completely nonscientific survey. The kids are asleep, I'm in a mood, so what the heck.
Pasteur - 5525 North Broadway 773-878-1061 $$, - we've watched this place through bad landlords, ill-timed expansions, and fire, and the Nguyen family has survived and thrived. The new place is elegant, the service attentive, and the food better than ever. The Pho Dac Biet Pasteur is still our food of choice when feeling down. Pasteur's Dungeness Crab Appetizer has finally been upgraded to a meal - a whole Dungeness, with its insides scooped out, stir-fried with a lot of garlic, and put back together. Banh Xeo, a crepe of delicate vegetables, is a great start to a meal. Kids like the shrimp paste on sugar cane, and why not? Tell them you heard about it from Noah & Lynda.
Arun's - Now that it's gone to an all-degustation menu, things are a little easier for the way we always ordered anyhow. Make sure the red snapper is somewhere on the menu and you'll be all set. But if Arun asks "do you want the soup the way I like it?" say no. Even two days later, cut three to one with chicken stock, it was too spicy to eat. Not cheap, but worth it for special occasions.
Red Light - 820 West Randolph 312-733-8880 $$$ - Pan-Asian, in the heart of the new West Randolph restaurant district. A trifle noisy, but fun. Unusual teas, great drinks.
Phoenix - 2131 S. Archer 312-328-0848 $, in Chinatown. Great view (by night) of the Loop, solid and somewhat lighter Chinese food. In the morning, it's great for Dim Sum - This is the point-and-eat style of Dim Sum - watch it pass by, and make a noise. If you need English, flag a manager.
Emperor's Choice - Wentworth, south of Cermak, Chinatown. Peapod greens with shiitake, salt & pepper shrimp, stir-fried lobster, and great soup.
Heaven on Seven - 111 North Wabash (Original) or 600 North Michigan (New) - 312-280-7774. - When Chef Jimmy Bannos added Gumbo to his coffee shop menu, it all began. Now this is Chicago's favorite Cajun/Creole spot, and it's where Emeril eats in Chicago. The new one opened when the 7th floor corridor of the original wasn't big enough to hold the line that forms at 11:30 AM every day.
Now, this Chicago institution is a full Cajun/Creole menu, with fancy food at night! If you're planning on lunch, get there early. Have the Gumbo, and consider the Louisiana Soul Deluxe (and an angioplasty to go.)
Vivaldi - Oak Park's own, get a table outside. Being in the biz, Lynda doesn't go out for Italian much, but this place makes the cut. More after we go there tomorrow.
Topolobampo / Frontera Grill - 445 North Clark - 312-661-1434, $$$ - River North. Until Rick & Deanne Bayless started cooking in Chicago, people thought "Mexican Regional Cuisine" was a pretty funny phrase. They're not laughing now. The menus are similar in these adjacent restaurants. Frontera is noisier, and doesn't take reservations. Topolobampo is, well, the opposite. Amazing Molé, sometimes a few different kinds. Fresh tamales. Ingredients you haven't heard of.
Ixcapuzalco - 2919 N. Milwaukee 773-486-7340 $$ - Great high-class Mexican food in a funky neighborhood, with a great tequila list.
MK - 868 North Franklin 312-482-9179 $$$$ - Arguably the best of the exposed-brick and brushed-aluminum style restaurants. Get a seat in the balcony if you can. Chef Michael Kornick is a Chicago veteran, and finally has his own showplace. One of the best cheese courses in Chicago.
Vivere - 71 West Monroe In Italian Village 312-332-4040 $$$ The chichi part of Italian Village, on the main floor. The pheasant ravioli in butter are amazing, and the wine list is a world unto itself. And if you can get one of Gerardo's tables, so much the better.
Russell's Barbecue - Thatcher north of North Avenue, Elmwood Park (I think) - a great roadhouse, really cold beer, good barbecue (by Chicago standards - see the Kansas City page.) And kids love it.