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Virtual L: Montrose (Brown)

South of Lincoln Square lies a growing neighborhood of shops and restaurants.
Tuesday Aug 10, 2004.     By Jennifer Wennig
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Nestled just south of the resurgent Lincoln Square, the community surrounding the Brown Line’s stop at Montrose is filled with family-owned restaurants, a few pubs like Gannon’s and Jury’s, and several burrito joints. The area’s face is slowly changing, thanks to relative newcomers Lill Street Art Center (which relocated from cramped space in Lincoln Park), a gift and accessories store called Hazel and the Puppet Parlor, which stages (what else?) puppet performances.

Montrose is a fairly noisy, always-under-construction, heavily trafficked street. It quiets a bit in the evening and the smaller surrounding streets are quiet and filled with single-family homes. During the day, one can take a break in the sprawling Welles Park at Lincoln and Montrose.

Safety rating: Expect steady vehicle and foot traffic on Montrose during the day. With the exception of a few cat-calling construction workers, daytime strolls are comfortable. Some of the side streets are rather dark in the evening.

Panhandler rating: Panhandlers are rarely visible and most folks keep to themselves.

Where to chill
Cosmicafe

Open since November 2003, Cosmicafe could be the community roots of this Northside neighborhood. Local art, much of which is done by children, adorns the walls; a few family room-style sofas encourage lengthy visits. Wi-fi Internet service is available for $3 per hour (or settle in for the day at $9 or $20 for unlimited use for a month). Live jazz music soothes patrons on Thursday evenings and during Sunday brunch, and on Wednesday evenings a group known as “The Kelly Girls” gathers to knit (all knitters welcome).

Family-owned by Branton Morataya, Nancy Gilliam and Solomon Gilliam (Branton’s sister and brother-in-law respectively), Cosmicafe provides a small-town feel without sacrificing big city flavor. The thorough signature sandwich selection, which includes rosemary sun-dried tomato ham, relies on Boar’s Head meats. I opted to build my own (a good option for vegetarians as well) and can confidently report that my Cajun-smoked turkey sandwich with horseradish cheddar cheese (who knew such a cheese existed), lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, cucumbers and sundried tomatoes on multi-grain bread now sits at number one on my “best of” list.

Dinner-date destination
Andies

There’s no better location in the neighborhood for romantic alfresco dining than at this Greek and Mediterranean spot. Well tended flowers, tiny Christmas lights and table umbrellas make the sidewalk seating at Andies a hit with any pair looking to foster a love connection (the tasty sangrias don’t hurt either). The extensive menu is sure to meet any diner’s craving. We delighted in a spinach pie, the traditional vegetarian Mousaka (baked zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and carrots on a bed of dill rice) and a perfectly cooked Shawerma (Lebanese-style gyros). The famous vegetarian combinations and chicken kabob JoJo (order it spicy) with seasoned couscous are can’t-miss choices as well; the baba ganoush is some of the city’s best. Incredibly generous portions guarantee leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

In-the-know spot
Acqualina

While this Californian-Mediterranean eatery has many of the trappings of a trendy restaurant, it distinguishes itself by offering what many of those restaurants usually do not: Friendly and incredibly accommodating managers and wait staff, sleek yet comfortable decor and creative food that actually satiates your appetite.

Upon arrival, enjoy a refreshing pomegranate champagne cocktail at the mod bar that whose intermittent color changes recalls an oversized mood ring. Pleasantly lit by oversized shades that drop from the ceiling, the space is quite intimate but not invasive. Start with the fire-roasted mussels and white grape gazpacho soup, or a creative and light salad such as grilled asparagus with shaved serrano, sprouted almonds and shaved romano topped with mustard seed vinaigrette. Taste-bud pleasing entrees include applewood bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, slow-roasted Pacific salmon and vegetarian-friendly stuffed sweet pepper with quinoa, almonds, currants and spinach in a spicy olive-orange puree.

Cheap eats
Roong Petch

This neighborhood Thai favorite is relatively non-descript. But a friendly and efficient staff, diverse crowd, spacious room and good, inexpensive food makes it a worthwhile spot. BYOB is a thrifty bonus, and a convenient one thanks to an adjacent liquor store. Two appetizers and two entrees (and a container of leftovers) came to a mere $22.72. Choose from an extensive menu of traditional dishes like pad thai, pad see eiw, curries and Thai fried rice. Vegetarians will have, if anything, too many options, including the famous Roong Petch salad, made with crisp fried tofu, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted rice powder and cashews. Fried spring rolls filled with banana and coconut and seasonal sweet sticky rice with mango provide a satisfying finish.

For an even more skinflint-worthy meal, visit the Roong Petch Web site for printable coupons. A $2 delivery charge will bring cheap Thai to your door if you live between Belmont/Bryn Mawr and Kedzie/Lake Shore.

Arena for the a.m.
Beans & Bagels

Housed adjacent to the Montrose Brown Line entrance, Beans & Bagels is a must-stop for the weary-eyed workers bound for that dreaded cubicle. It’s a comfortably typical coffeehouse with coffee, cafe au lait and latte-type drinks and the usual Brown Elephant-looking sofa, an array of free publications and a bulletin board decorated with apartments for rent, art shows and concert listings. Beans & Bagels also has, surprise, bagels, with a wide selection of flavors and cream cheeses to choose from.

Make your own sandwich or simply choose from the nearly 20 menu offerings. The tree hugger, stacked with cheese, hummus, spinach, tomato, cucumber, mushroom, red onion and Dijon on multigrain bread, will bring a smile to the face of any vegetarian. If you’re feeling a bit carnivorous, try home on the ranch (turkey, bacon, cheddar, spinach, tomato, red onion and ranch dressing) or the 86’er (ham, turkey, salami, swiss, provolone and cheddar on flatbread). If you’re not a 9-5er, grab yourself a window stool and settle in for a relaxing morning with a huey gooey chocolate and caramel mocha latte. Nothing like a combo caffeine buzz and sugar high to start the day.

Late-night locale
Cornservatory

On Friday evenings at 11 p.m., this storefront theater presents original one-act comedies and/or improv sketches featuring resident artists from Chemically Imbalanced Comedy. On this particular evening, Christopher Durang’s “Sister Mary Ignatious Explains It All To You” was performed before a small crowd. The theater is BYOB, so be prepared for at least one group of rude folks who don’t think that the sound a beer can makes when opening can be heard by others. The cast was energetic, engaging and cohesive, and the performances change weekly. And when you’re just committing an hour and $8 to support neighborhood theater, it’s hard to go wrong. On Saturdays at 10 p.m. CIC hosts The Saturday Night Showcase, which features three different improv or sketch groups from the throughout the Midwest ($8 as well).

 

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