For any Francophile, entering La Sardine instantly transports the senses back to the heyday of the bistro circuit. Located directly across the street from Harpo Studios, La Sardine first appeared on the restaurant radar upon its 1998 opening. As a sister to Bucktown's (still!) amazingly popular Le Bouchon, La Sardine survived when many petite cafes were essentially guillotined off the Chicago market.
La Sardine's continued popularity can be attributed as much to its playful decor as to its cuisine. Tomato-colored walls provide the backdrop for two splashy pillars capturing a day in the life of a beautiful mermaid. Small sardines are nailed strategically throughout the restaurant. West Loop neighborhoodies and a number of suburbanites lured in the area by its proximity to the highway file in en masse on prix-fixe Tuesdays, when $25 covers a three-course feast (and the delightful kind, where you can pick any dish on the entire menu). The same special is available mid-day for $3 less.
The energy level of La Sardine only goes up when patrons combine dining and imbibing. A selection of all French wines seems more comprehensive (and just as reasonable) as the country's special section at Binny's. With its half off special, Mondays are the best nights for sampling the grapes along the Seine.
You'll need more than bread with the wine, and La Salade Lyonnaise is an art perfected by Jean Claude Poilevey that includes greens with lardoons, poached eggs and crotons. It's best as a warm-up to Le Steak Grille Maitre d'Hotel that is coated in a deliciously authentic French green butter and piled with pommes frites (Think super-size portions). Go sparingly on the fries because it's practically a sin to dine at a bistro and skip dessert. This holds double for La Sardine, where pastry chefs have honed an Americanized form of creme brulee that's smaller and lighter than the pastries across the pond but still decadently French.
Average cost: $21-$30
Centerstage Reviewer: Robin Wright