EATING OUT IN CHICAGO

Need to re-fuel before the next round of conference events? Make a pit stop at one of these Chi-Town restaurants.METHODOLOGYInformation in this restaurant report was derived from restaurants' own web sites, as well as from several review sites. This report isn't intended as a professional restaurant review, nor did SN visit any of the restaurants cited.Nine Hot SpotsGREEN ZEBRA (1460 W. Chicago Ave.;

Need to re-fuel before the next round of conference events? Make a pit stop at one of these Chi-Town restaurants.

METHODOLOGY

Information in this restaurant report was derived from restaurants' own web sites, as well as from several review sites. This report isn't intended as a professional restaurant review, nor did SN visit any of the restaurants cited.

Nine Hot Spots

GREEN ZEBRA (1460 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-243-7100) Chef Shawn McClain's recently opened vegetarian restaurant offers a refreshing change from the meat and fries fare of other low-carb newbies. It debuted in late March, and includes only non-red meat meals. While it is still in its infancy, McClain comes fresh from his experience at Spring (2039 W North Ave. 773-395-7100). The menu includes mostly vegetarian options, as well as some poultry, seafood and pork. There are even menu choices that only include raw foods.

MIRAI (2020 W. Division St.; 773-862-8500) Trendy sushi with chic hipsters to match make up this minimalist dining room. Downstairs, the decor is unruffled with clean lines and uncomplicated colors and textures. The food, consisting of fresh sushi delivered daily, includes simple classics like California and tuna rolls and original experiments of king crab in spicy mayo, and spicy octopus with spicy tuna. Upstairs is a lounge featuring a limited menu, various drinks and music.

PLUTON (873 N. Orleans St.; 312-266-1440) Cream and red fabrics decorate the dining room of this intimate setting, along with a rock garden trough and masterful tiles of artwork. The menu is French cuisine, but with American contemporary touches. Foie gras terrine; turnip soup with rosemary, crabmeat and buckwheat tuile; and bass with blue cheese tortellino and roasted pears are some favorites. Dessert includes options like passion fruit souffle with chocolate truffles. Before you go, be aware that you cannot order items a la carte, and the prix fixe menus start at $69 for four courses. Also, cautious diners might want to utilize valet parking, as the surrounding neighborhood of River North is largely undeveloped.

SWK (710 N. Wells; 312-274-9500) While it has become known recently for its cocktails, this new River North restaurant also offers dining. It's described as trendy yet comfortable, with a variety of wines and a 100-year-old carved mahogany bar. A solid contemporary American menu offers dishes like lobster carpaccio with lemon preserve, agnolotti pasta with ribs in Roquefort cream sauce, and rib-eye with garlic and rosemary. Meals can end with desserts like the Irish car bomb: a Guinness pound cake, Bailey's ice cream and Jameson's creme anglaise. On Friday and Saturday nights, a DJ starts spinning at 10 to create a club-like scene. Those looking for a full meal can get the chef's tasting menu for $60, which includes foie gras and lobster. If you want something less expensive, then you can order from the bar menu, which offers options like cheese and salmon courses.

TANK SUSHI (4514 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-769-2600) Light wood floors, aluminum chairs and background club music combine for a chic and fast-paced dining experience. A sushi bar on one side and a cocktail bar on the other make up the perimeter of the dining area. Maki rolls like the Ocean Sundae (a blend of shrimp tempura, avocado, cream cheese and tempura crumbs) and the Latin Heat (a combination of smoked salmon, tuna, jalapeno and cilantro) are just some of the wide variety of menu offerings. Traditional mochi ice cream or coconut creme brulee top the dessert offerings. For group settings, reserve one of two private tatami rooms. Currently, Tank does not have a liquor license, but there is no corkage fee for bringing your own.

TRE VIA RISTORANTE (1575 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-227-7990) This is upper-class Italian dining inside Wicker Park's Flatiron building. A bar visited by an after-work crowd divides an earth-toned eating area. Simple elegance defines the dining area, which makes for a romantic spot. The menu is mostly contemporary Mediterranean dishes with experiments like sea scallops swathed with pancetta; pumpkin ravioli; black and white fettuccini with grilled chicken, asparagus and cream sauce; and thin-crust pizzas with mushrooms, figs or shrimp. Desserts like chocolate Vesuvius cake go great with the restaurant's signature coffee, which is also sold in three-quarter-pound bags. You can choose courses from chef Wayne Peluso's kitchen, with complementing wines, for around $50.

TWISTED SPOKE (501 N. Ogden Ave.; 312-666-1500 and 3369 N. Clark; 773-525-5300) Biker bar meets inventive diner, with a splash of H.O.G. and a pinch of yuppie all grilled up and served with a side order of meat loaf. The menu matches the atmosphere, including barbecue, jalapeno poppers and the infamous Fatboy burger. The biker brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. offers French toast, banana buckwheat pancakes and corned beef hash. There is an assortment of beers; its signature drink, the Road Rash Mary, is paired with a beer chaser. The scene is tame enough for families during brunch and lunch. In the evenings are themed parties like Smut 'n Eggs every Saturday at midnight. On Tuesdays, almost all beers -- including drafts, bottles and imports -- are $2.50, and can be enjoyed on the rooftop deck.

VERMILION (10 W. Hubbard St.; 312-527-4060) This restaurant hosts a mostly working crowd and presents a simple atmosphere with splashes of color. Indian fashion pictures frame white booths, and a vermilion-red wall is positioned near the oak bar. The menu fuses Indian and Latin flavors. Tapas like tuna escabeche with cilantro-lime marinade, or spinach-queso empanadas with mango-coconut chutney, chicken tikka masala or blackened tamarind ribs and lobster Portuguese with coconut curry leaf gravy are among the dozens of choices. Desserts include sultana and carrot pudding or Hedonism, a molten cake with Cointreau ganache. For small groups, some of the booths offer translucent silver drapes that can be closed for a more intimate setting.

WINDY CITY SWEETS (3808 N. Broadway St.; 773-477-6100) Before sampling all the treats at these new restaurants, one must leave room for dessert! The meal includes Smoothies, sundaes, homemade chocolates, hand-dipped English toffee, s'mores and 10 flavors of fudge. You are able to sample just about anything before you buy it, and there are fat-free and low-fat frozen yogurt options of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and Heath bar if you must. Full-fat ice cream flavors include toffee temptation, muddy sneakers and chocolate rainforest. Make sure you like what you buy, however, because there are no returns on food items.

Ten Mainstays

CAFÉ BA-BA-REEBA (2024 N. Halsted St.; 773-935-5000) This young singles scene offers an affordable menu with many meal options. There are numerous rooms and an outdoor patio with flowers and colorful artwork. The Spanish cuisine includes beef skewers, chicken empanadas, seafood gazpacho and scallops served with couscous and mango vinaigrette. If you're willing to wait 35 minutes, try the paella with lobster, scallops and shrimp. There are also four varieties of sangria, including red, white, mango and champagne. Some find the wait can be long for a table, however, so consider eating at the front and back bars, where the full menu is available.

EVEREST (440 S. LaSalle St.; 312-663-8920) This four-star French restaurant offers views from 40 floors up, paired with a wine list of thousands of varieties ranging in price from less than $100 to over $3,000. The gold railings, abstract bronze centerpieces, and mirrored walls exude prosperity, as does the rich menu of creamy French classics. Options range from roasted lobster to sea bass on celery root. You can also choose from the a la carte menu, which includes carnaroli risotto topped with a 24-karat gold leaf, and tenderloin of beef. Five different chocolate inventions make up the "fantasy of chocolate" dessert. Not every meal has to cost a fortune: A three-course, pre-theater meal at 5:30 p.m. is $49 per person.

FREDDY'S RIBHOUSE (1555 N. Sheffield Ave.; 312-377-7427) The classic pub-like atmosphere, with dark woods and an unpretentious menu, make this restaurant a casual dining experience for anyone looking for classic barbecue. The menu offers ribs cooked a number of ways, including baby back and smoked St. Louis style. For the non-rib eaters, there are salads, burgers, sandwiches and other choices. Freddy's lager, brewed by Chicago's Berghoff restaurant, is on tap. An all-you-can-eat baby back rib special is available on Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $14.95.

GALE STREET INN (4914 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-725-1300) Burgers, ribs, steaks and seafood make up the majority of the menu, with pasta thrown in for good measure. Old photos of the surrounding neighborhood, and families and commuters from the train fill the two dining areas. During the week, you can order a meal of ribs, chicken, salmon or steak, plus soup or salad, potato, soft drink and ice cream for $10.95 to $12.95 if you place the order before 5:30 p.m. If it's crowded, the bar offers a full menu and is comfortable for small groups. A magician performs in the dining area on Fridays and Sundays.

NINE STEAK HOUSE (440 W. Randolph St.; 312-575-9900) This upscale establishment draws Chicago's beautiful people with its hip Ghost bar and impressive dining room. Mirrors, glass, suede and silver surround a champagne and caviar bar that is supported by glittery pillars. The menu includes rock shrimp with tobiko aioli and a Vietnamese pepper sauce, tuna and New York sirloin. Desserts include Valhrona chocolate cake. From 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, there is a complimentary buffet with a rotating assortment of finger foods and salads.

PALMERO'S ITALIAN CUISINE (4849 W. 95th St.; 708-425-6262) This local South Side favorite has a comfortable ambiance with brick arches, busy tiles and classic Italian stand-bys. The massive menu includes all the traditional fare. Dishes include a grilled shrimp and calamari appetizer served with roasted red peppers and vinegar dressing, and pasta with fresh tomato sauce. Pizza is mostly takeout, although you can enjoy it in the dining area. The price is mid-range, and you have to make reservations if you want to avoid the wait, which can be up to an hour at times.

SAUSSY (1156 W. Grand Ave.; 312-491-1122) This romantic setting offers dim lighting, brick walls, heavy curtains and a comfortable bar. The menu includes sea scallops with spinach; veal stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and mushrooms served with mashed sweet potatoes; and blue cheese-crusted filet mignon with mashed potatoes. You can get 15% off your bill on Mondays and Wednesdays when you purchase an entree. Diners also can choose the chef's tasting menu: $40 for four courses; $60 for six, including wines.

SIGNATURE ROOM AT THE 95TH (875 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-787-9596) For out-of-town guests, the surrounding landscape of this restaurant on the 95th floor make it a must-see, if only for drinks. The decor is simple, if hotel-like, and the food is upscale American. Dishes like shrimp cake in spicy lobster broth, rack of lamb and tuna grace the menu. The $13.95 lunch buffet includes regular and pasta salads, a small variety of soups, tasteful sides, basic fish and chicken dishes, and two carving stations. On Sundays, there is a brunch that is even better than the views from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

TIZI MELLOUL (531 N. Wells St.; 312-670-4338) Chef Michael Tsonton helps this restaurant live up to the Moroccan mountain it was named after. Meals including lamb and duck transport the clientele halfway around the globe, and the Moroccan music, plush pillows and dark tiles provide an exotic destination. There are many extras, such as unlimited appetizers, glasses of wine, and live belly dancers from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays for $25. Monday offers a similar deal with a free bottle of wine with a dinner for two. Additionally, every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., renowned flamenco guitarist Steve Edwards plays in the bar and lounge.

WILDFIRE (159 W. Erie St.; 312-787-9000) This steakhouse is both casual and classy, with a mix of tourists, locals and a touch of Paul Bunyan. Pillars, log cabin-like walls and stone ovens in the kitchen make up the decor. The climate can be both romantic and good for groups, and the main dish is steak. Meat in large portions, sided with cream and buttered, chunky, redskin mashed potatoes and beers like Goose Island-created Wildfire Pilsner make up the menu. For dessert, try the traditional apple pie, served in a metal tin with vanilla ice cream. The center section can become hot from the ovens, so ask for one of the inviting booths around the edge of the dining area.