CHICAGO -- Carl Sandburg's "hog butcher to the world" has become a hotbed of restaurants. Once a meat-and-potatoes town, the Second City now is second to none in its selection of contemporary American dining rooms, French bistros, Italian trattorie, Spanish tapas bars, Asian cafes and a great variety of ethnic storefronts, as well as first-rate steak houses.
Several stars -- Le Francais and Carlos' among them -- are in the suburbs, but those listed here all are downtown or a short cab ride away. They include fine-dining destinations, notable newcomers and a few old favorites. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg -- so go exploring and be sure to call ahead for hours, credit cards and reservations.
Ambria (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773/472-5959). The elegant Art Nouveau decor and chef Gabino Sotelino's imaginative French- and Spanish-inspired cuisine help make this one of the city's top-rated restaurants, though service can be a bit stuffy. Several degustations ($48 to $68) supplement an a la carte menu featuring such delights as warm quail salad with sherry sauce and pumpkinseed-encrusted red snapper. Desserts sparkle. Wide-ranging wine list.
Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.; 312/715-0708). This austere white-and-gray Randolph Market District hot spot with packed-in tables and noisy patrons gets low marks for comfort, but chef Paul Kahan's lavish seasonal creations compensate. Look for appetizers like dainty lake perch paired with an exotic salad and entrees ranging from confit of duck leg and sweetbreads in sun-dried cherry-cassis jus to wood-grilled sturgeon with root vegetables. For dessert, have the chocolate crepe or warm apple-walnut charlotte. Generally excellent service, despite minor oversights.
Crofton on Wells (535 N. Wells St.; 312/755-1790). A sleek, spare storefront done in tones of taupe with black accents and well-spaced tables provides a backdrop for owner/chef Suzy Crofton's inventive cooking. Artful salads, such as prosciutto-wrapped greens with fresh figs, and Southern flavors like barbecued pork loin with smoked apple chutney are among the highlights. Carefully chosen wines, scrumptuous desserts (especially chocolate ones), and knowledgeable service complete the picture.
Gordon (500 N. Clark St.; 312/467-9780). Still ticking after two decades, Gordon Sinclair's surreal restaurant remains a bastion of power dining. Don Yamauchi's globally inspired cuisine suits the setting and is strong on interesting combinations, such as monkfish in curry cream. A five-course tasting menu and a three-course early dinner are among the pleasures, as are excellent desserts, a fine wine list, live piano music nightly and a jazz trio on Saturdays.
Harvest on Huron (217 W. Huron St.; 312/587-9600). The boisterous bar scene intrudes on the clubby, art-adorned dining room, but this newcomer is a "must" for chef Alan Sternweiler's meals which, like the music, move to a world beat. Barbecued shrimp "mojito" with papaya-mint salsa, phyllo stuffed with snails and goat cheese, ahi tuna with Asian salads and terrific game are on the bill, along with unusual desserts like spice cake with candied quince. Outstanding collection of wines and spirits. Deceptively laid-back service is razor sharp. Quieter at lunch.
Rhapsody (65 E. Adams St.; 312/786-9900). Well-orchestrated lunches and dinners with few sour notes are the rule at Steve Chiappetti and George Guggeis' spacious Symphony Center restaurant, where "American" means everything from wild-mushroom risotto to turkey pot pie. Finely tuned wine list has two-dozen picks by the glass. Finish with the aptly named rhapsody of sorbets in a spun-sugar nest. Service can be worth singing about.
Spago (520 N. Dearborn St.; 312/527-3700). The Chicago outpost of Wolfgang Puck's Cal-Asian empire includes a noisy Adam Tihany-designed dining room with daily menus showcasing complicated, assertively seasoned dishes and a more casual, less expensive, often noisier Grill spotlighting Hollywood hits, such as duck sausage pizza and Chinois chicken salad. Save room for the warm chocolate tart. Lots of California boutique wines.
Spruce (238 E. Ontario St.; 312/642-3757). Chef Keith Luce, former White House sous chef, has made a big splash with his sophisticated cooking -- often using Midwestern ingredients with Asian accents -- at this stylish, spacious basement with wood beams and bold floral displays. Several tasting menus; generally modest portions; well-chosen wines. Nifty glassed-in private dining room.
Charlie Trotter's (816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773/248-6228). This townhouse has become a destination for adventurous international diners, thanks to Trotter's often brilliant, beautifully crafted meals. The nightly menu is limited to two degustations -- regular and vegetarian -- using everything from luxury lobster and foie gras to humble buckwheat groats and stinging nettles, often in unexpected ways. World-class wine list -- and wise sommelier, as well as predictably fine service.
Brasserie Jo (59 W. Hubbard St.; 312/595-0800). Chicago's bustling answer to Paris's La Coupole is picture-perfect from the zinc bar and French furniture to the Alsatian onion tarts, coq au vin, choucroute (sauerkraut with cured meats and sausages) and profiteroles. Affordable regional French wine list; custom-brewed beers. Servers can be harried. Everest (One Financial Place; 440 S. LaSalle St.; 312/663-8920). Alsatian-born chef Jean Joho's 40th-floor financial district aerie with dramatic views and an urbane safari decor offers meals that are simultaneously rustic and extremely refined, often elevating ingredients as humble as barnacles and cabbage or pairing unusual ones, such as salmon and sauerkraut. Chanterelles, truffle oil and other luxuries also abound. Exquisite desserts; degustation and early menu; largest Alsatian wine list in North America.
Kiki's Bistro (900 N. Franklin St.; 312/335-5454). Equally appropriate for business lunches and romantic dinners, this cozy, cottage-like spot tucked on a River North side street is everything a bistro should be. Good renditions of classics like baked onion soup, sauteed duck breast and confit of leg and chocolate mousse vie for attention with slightly more ambitious dishes. Well-chosen wines are affordable, as is the food.
Ritz-Carlton Dining Room (160 E. Pearson St.; 312/523-5223). Genuinely ritzy from the plush booths to the crystal chandeliers, this blissfully quiet old-fashioned room is an apt setting for chef Sarah Stegner's contemporary yet tradition-rooted cooking. Wild game, such as venison with black truffles, stands out, as do shellfish preparations. The cheese cart may be the best in town. Delicious desserts; excellent wine list and picks by the glass. Degustation and vegetarian degustation. Service is attentive and not at all snooty. For lighter, less expensive meals and late-night snacks, try the Cafe in the lobby.
Spaiggia (980 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/280-2750). The dramatic post-modern dining room overlooking the Mag Mile is a great place to entertain on an expense account, thanks to chef Paul Bartolotta's sophisticated pastas and wood-grilled meats and fish. But if you just want to have fun, go across the hall to the bemuraled Cafe Spiaggia to enjoy similar dishes at lower prices. Start with carpaccio or a trio of imported prosciutti, followed by a pasta such as potato and leek ravioli painted with pesto. Save room for feather-light coconut Bavarian, bittersweet semifreddo (like a mousse cake) or satiny ice creams. Excellent, expensive wine list.
Trattoria Parma (400 N. Clark St.; 312/245-9933). Earthy bread and roasted-garlic puree for dunking set the tone for chef/owner Paul LoDuca's robust country cooking at this modestly priced, faux-rustic place. Parma ham and eggplant parmigiana are possibilities, of course, along with appealing pastas, roasted lamb shank and quivering panna cotta. Wines are chosen to go with the food. Generally professional service.
Vivere (71 W. Monroe St.; 312/332-4040). Designer Jordan Mozer's dazzling fantasy of mosaics, glass and exaggerated Art Nouveau furniture is the main draw, but the Northern Italian food is solid (fish ai ferri, seared under a griddle, is a staple), and the mind-boggling wine list is one of the biggest in the country. It's also the list for the two other dining rooms in the 70-year-old Italian Village complex: the aptly named Italian Village upstairs (complete with fake building facades and twinkling lights) and La Cantina on the lower level.
CoCoRo (668 N. Wells St.; 312/943-2220). Everything from sushi and kushi (skewered, grilled morsels of meats and vegetables) to shabu-shabu (Japanese fondue with broth instead of hot oil) is on the bill at this chic storefront in the heart of River North.
Le Colonial (937 N. Rush St.; 312/255-0088). Bamboo shutters, lazily rotating ceiling fans, and sepia-toned photos evoke Saigon in the 1920s at this New York import, where exotic Vietnamese dishes include rice-paper-wrapped shrimp and vegetable rolls, spicy beef with lemongrass salad, and shrimp and eggplant in coconut-milk curry. The second-floor bar and terrace is a great place for a drink.
Red Light (820 W. Randolph St.; 312/733-8880). Gaudy, glitzy, noisy melange of swirling mosaics and undulating surfaces sets the stage for a trendy blend of Chinese and Southeast Asian fare. Appetizers like tea-smoked squab with scallion pancakes, delicate steamed dumplings and sweet and sticky spare ribs shine. Duck with plum sauce and chicken curry in a clay pot are pleasant entrees. The best dessert: coconut sorbet with hot fudge. Lots of cocktails, wines, boutique beers and teas. Uneven service.
Cafe Iberico (739 N. LaSalle St.; 312/573-1510). Sip a Rioja and nibble at the bar or come with a group, sit in one of the sprawling dining rooms and share tortilla espanola, grilled octopus, pisto manchego and other tapas that will transport you to Spain. Skip the entrees. Retail outlet has tapas to take back to your hotel plus Spanish pottery and paraphernalia.
Costa's (340 S. Halsted St.; 312/263-9700). One of the best Greektown spots is a white-washed, wood-trimmed source for such mainstays as taramosalata, kebabs and seafood, as well as some surprises. Finish with Greek coffee and rice pudding or caramel custard. Piano music many nights.
Fado (100 W. Grand Ave.; 312/836-0066). Tri-level spot traces Irish history and culture in six distinct areas that would make Hollywood envious. Most stunning is the Victorian bar salvaged from a Dublin pub, but every square inch is plastered with collectibles. The rib-sticking food is satisfying, especially the all-day Irish breakfast. Great for a post-conference Guinness or whiskey. Live Irish music most nights.
Frontera Grill/Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St. 312/661-1434). Recently expanded, Rick Bayless's nationally known bailiwick for authentic regional Mexican fare is two restaurants in one. The casual, colorful Frontera features wood-grilled meats and fish, while the semiformal Topolobampo excels at more complicated, elegant dishes. Enticing side dishes and desserts. Many Mexican beers, rare tequilas and offbeat wines complement the food.
Gibsons Steakhouse (1028 N. Rush St.; 312/266-8999). Always-packed gathering place for everyone from politicos to average Joes (and Janes) adheres to a "bigger is better" policy with humongous steaks and chops, hefty lobsters and fish fillets, huge sides and desserts that easily feed four. Martinis are double-sized, too. Nice selection of red wines. Variable service. Expect waits even with reservations.
56 West (56 W. Illinois St.; 312/527-5600). The sexiest basement in town is industrial-chic with dramatic lighting, seen-and-be-seen booths lining the walls, a lively bar scene and, wonder of wonders, delicious food. Appetizer-size portions run the gamut from stellar ahi tuna sushi to wild-mushroom risotto. Lots of martinis and fancy cocktails, champagnes, cognacs, single-malt scotches, etc.
Narcisse Champagne Salon & Caviar Bar (710 N. Clark St.; 312/397-9900). Swank little salon worthy of a Cocteau film specializes in an impressive range of champagnes from several of the major houses, various caviars with traditional accompaniments and an appealing array of light dishes and entrees.