Serious Eats Neighborhood Guides: Julia Kramer's Wicker Park
Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, chef Kevin Hickey gave us guide to his neighborhood of Bridgeport (who could forget his account of kicking Bill Veeck's wooden leg). Today the torch gets passed on to dining critic Julia Kramer. Also, I'm pleased to announce the return of Johnny Auer, who will be checking in biweekly with a different neighborhood guide from a local chef or food personality. Take it away, Johnny!
View Julia Kramer's Wicker Park and Bucktown in a larger map
Julia Kramer holds her own in this town. As the associate food editor and restaurant critic at Time Out Chicago, where she has worked since 2008, she's tough but fair. She called a spade a spade when The Black Sheep closed as quickly as it opened, and she doesn't mind placing a doughnut shop (Doughnut Vault) on the same five-star pedestal as other fine-dining establishments in town—not your straight and narrow school of thought. So, I'm thrilled to share her personal picks for her own neighborhood of Wicker Park.
Wicker Park is a tricky 'hood to scope, as the border distinctions with neighboring Bucktown are often blurred. She held firm with Wicker Park, though one person's Wicker Park is different from the next. I'm sure we'll see the inverse when Bucktown's turn is up. I'd love to hear your favorite haunts in the comments, but for now here's one dining critic's take on her Wicker Park.
Bar: The Violet Hour is, distance-wise, the closest bar to my apartment. You couldn't pay me to wait in the crowded doorway on weekends, but I like to go right when they open during the week or on, like, the coldest day of the year when no one else in their right mind would be there. I always order the drink that is--I think--the fourth down in the section of gin drinks, right below the Juliet & Romeo. This is an incredibly weird thing to admit, because the drink in that spot changes a few times a year probably, but every time this turns out to be my favorite drink that I order. In the past it has been The Riviera, then I think it was a drink called the Black River... when I was there last month, it was the Thumb in the Pie.
Sandwich: I have loved Birchwood Kitchen since the minute it opened, and it has gotten even better since then. I like the Croque Madame that's on their weekend brunch menu, and as banal as this sounds, the chickpea salad in the case is really good. But mostly I go there because the people are so nice it affirms my faith in humanity. Also they don't make their own sweets but I usually start with a slice of the banana bread (from Evanston's Sugar & Spice) to eat while waiting for the hot food to come out. (This probably makes me sound like I can't go five minutes without food....Possibly true.) Honorable mention here for the tri-tip sandwich at Lillie's Q.
Dinner Spot: Taxim is kind of an underrated restaurant in Wicker Park. It's right near Six Corners so I guess it's easy to forget there is a really, really good Greek restaurant to eat at when you can get free pizza at Crocodile...or something. I like the rampopita (flaky pastry stuffed with ramps), the whole fish, and they have a really good list of Greek wines. Honorable mentions here for Cumin, which serves excellent Nepalese food, and Schwa, which is obviously a cool place but is a little, I guess, touch-and-go. Also there are lots of great dinner places in Bucktown, which I am leaving out in deference to the official boundaries of Wicker Park.
Essential Wicker Park: It's hard for me to be a regular anywhere since I am going to new places for work four nights a week if not more. So maybe it's a little sad, but I would say the people who know me best are the women working the Big Star takeout window, which I positively could not live without. I pretty much exclusively get fish tacos.
Pizza: Piece is all right place to hang out and have a few beers. One time my sister did an extremely memorable duet with one of her co-workers there (they have weekly live-band karaoke), so it has a soft place in my heart.
Burger: The Anthem is a sports bar, but for some reason I don't hate it. I like really simple burgers, and I think the best cheese you can put on a burger is American, so I guess it's not a huge surprise that I like the Jucy Lucy, which is a patty stuffed with Velveeta cheese. More on my terrible eating habits later.
Falafel: The obvious answer here is Sultan's, and if you go at a busy time, you can get a solid falafel sandwich. But I am partial to a newish place called Falafel & Grill, over by the Jewel, where they fry the falafel to order. (The ones at Sultan's are sometimes sitting under heat lamps.)
Date night: I'm going to make an exception here and veer slightly outside the official bounds of Wicker Park so that I can include Le Bouchon. One of the questions I'm asked the most is what my favorite restaurant is. I change my reply all the time, but usually it's Le Bouchon. There is a hostess who is often there who is the most lovely person on earth. I love the brandade and the escargots. If Le Bouchon were the only place I ever went on a date for the rest of my life, I would be happy.
Bread: You have to leave Wicker Park/Bucktown to get good bread. Someone should fix this.
Coffee: During the week, I have a pretty strong allegiance to the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock building by my office, but on weekends and some mornings when I think I can't make it to the train without coffee, I go to the Wormhole. They make good coffee and have somehow managed to keep the price reasonable, and in the summer they have a drink called Rocket Sauce that I am absolutely obsessed with and put on Time Out Chicago's 100 Best Things We Ate and Drank list last year. It's iced yerba mate, fresh ginger syrup and lime juice.
Breakfast: I have horrible eating habits and usually don't eat breakfast. I am addicted to sugar so sometimes I just grab a handful of chocolate chips from my pantry. Sorry if that's disgusting. In some dream world, I would go to Milk & Honey on a quiet weekday morning and have a bowl of oatmeal.
Dive: I've had a few really fun nights at the VFW (technically Chicago Blackhawk VFW Post 7975), which is a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall that is overtaken by hipsters doing karaoke on the weekends. You can smoke inside and they stay open till like 4am. There's something vaguely annoying about the whole scene so I wouldn't go every week, but it's a good time. It might technically be in Noble Square. On Division, I like Zakopane. Overall, I think Ukrainian Village has better dives than Wicker Park.