Chicago’s Best Bistros

There was a time—a long time, actually—when fine dining equaled French haute cuisine. End of story.

Of course, that’s in the past, and many of those splurge restaurants have gone the way of the dinosaur. But the American love affair with French food survives, just in a less stuffy form. The Chicago area is filled with fabulous casual French bistros that emulate the food we remember from sojourns to Paris and afternoons on the Left Bank: crispy frites, blood-red steaks, gooey gratinées, crusty baguettes and glasses of rosé. The bistro—c’est magnifique, n’est-ce pas? Here are our favorites.

Balsan

This lovely restaurant inside the Waldorf-Astoria Chicago is one of my very favorites. The oysters are gorgeous, the bacon-laden Tarte Flambée fabulous, and the Beef Tartare is just right. 11 E. Walton, Chicago, 312-646-1300

Bistro Bordeaux/Creperie/Patisserie

The very dashing Pascal Berthoumieux has a veritable French empire in Evanston, which includes Crêperie St. Germain (1512 Sherman Ave., 847-859-2647) and Patisserie Coralie (600 Davis St., 847-905-0491), but Bistro Bordeaux is the jewel in his crown. The Onion Soup Gratinée never disappoints, the egg on the Salade Lyonnaise is always properly soft-poached, and the Poulet Fermier Rôti (Roasted Farm-Raised Chicken) with Sauce Perigueux and truffles is the pinnacle of bistro cuisine. 618 Church St., Evanston, 847-424-1483

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Bistro Campagne

A longtime Lincoln Square darling, it survived the sudden death of founding chef Michael Altenberg a number of years ago. Chef Adam Dittmer continues his tradition of seasonally influenced, locally sourced classic bistro fare, reflected in the delicious Socca Crêpe, Warm Goat Cheese Salad, Tarte Tatin and other favorites. 4518 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, 773-271-6100

Bistronomic

The Gold Coast loves chef Martial Noguier, not surprising when you consider that he makes the best Chicken Liver Mousse in town. The PEI Black Mussels here, currently dressed with basil puree, piquillo peppers, aioli and preserved lemon, are always spot on. Save room for his famous Chocolate Hazelnut Bars, or my favorite, the Bistronomic Lemon Tart with Mixed Berry Coulis. 840 N. Wabash St., Chicago, 312-944-8400

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Bistrot Margot

Chef Joe Doppes opened this Old Town stalwart in 1999, and much of the menu remains the same, because classique is classique. Pâtés are made in house, the Escargots Persillade are terrific, and the Canard Rôti (Roast Duck) with citrusy, sweet and sour Sauce Bigarade is to die for. 1437 N. Wells St., Chicago, 312-587-3660

Bistrot Zinc 

I’m a fan of chef Tim Kirker’s pleasantly bitter Salade d’Endives, with chunks of creamy Roquefort cheese, toasted walnuts and a Banyuls vinaigrette. If you are a calf’s liver devotee—and yes, they do exist—you’ll want to order the Foie de Veau, all tarted up with smoked bacon, fried onions, crème fraîche mashed potatoes and port sauce. 1131 N. State St., Chicago, 312-337-1131 

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Brasserie by LM and sister restaurant Troquet

Any French place that features four variations on a Croque Monsieur is a place I want to be. When sandwiches are smothered in Béchamel sauce and gratinéed, magic happens. And the $25 three-course prix fixe dinner menu (Boeuf Bourguignon!) is a South Loop bargain. Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan Ave., 312-431-1788; Troquet, 111 W. Huron St., Chicago, 312-202-9900

Chez Joël Bistro Français

There is butcher paper on the tables, French art posters on the walls, and romance in the air at chef Joël Kazouini’s cozy bistro, where the menu (like the chef) skews toward the South of France. Bouillabaisse Marseillaise is filled with an assortment of the freshest fish and shellfish; Coquilles Saint Jacques are sauced with a dill-lemon buerre blanc; the Frog Legs à la Provençale are done up with garlic spinach and brown butter. Just right with a glass of chilled Bandol Rosé. 1119 W. Taylor St., Chicago, 312-226-6479

Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen

Chef Didier Durant gives us playful takes on classics, like his “Tiny Taco Crêpes French Style” (one with pulled chicken and roasted carrots, the other sporting braised beef and tongue bourguignon with wild mushrooms), or his glass terrines filled with various Pâtés and Rilletes (the rabbit rilletes with lemon and thyme and the Pekin duck pâté with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes are particularly delicious). Many items are available for purchase at Cyrano’s to Go, so you can recreate the experience at home. 546 N. Wells St., Chicago, 312-467-0546

Deka Brasserie

At Deka, you’ll find French bistro food with a Russian accent. But the six different caviars (from wild Alaskan salmon roe to golden osetra) served with warm blini and “traditional accoutrements” will convince you that’s a good way to go. The Escargot with Pernod Cream and the Cassoulet are other prime indicators. 401 E. Dundee Road, Wheeling, 847-520-3352

La Sardine and Le Bouchon

Whether you’re in the West Loop or Wicker Park, it’s comforting to know that there is a Jean-Claude Poilevy bistro nearby. His house-made charcuterie is magnifique; the Lapin au Vin (braised rabbit with Poilevy’s own pappardelle) and French-style Gnocchi with whipped feta, tomato, artichoke and basil oil are both rib-sticking, soul-warming dishes. La Sardine, 111 N. Carpenter St., Chicago, 312-421-2800; Le Bouchon, 1958 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, 773-862-6600

Maude’s Liquor Bar

Any resemblance to NYC’s famous Balthazar restaurant is purely intentional; Maude’s will make you feel infinitely cooler. If you’re feeling flush, the Chilled Seafood tower is the play here, along with the Foie Gras Paté with sour cherry jam and a side of the spectacular Pommes Frites with garlicky aioli. 840 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-243-9712

Miramar Bistro

The north North Shore loves Miramar, and it’s easy to see why, especially in the summer when the outdoor café is bustling. Gabe Viti’s bistro hits all the highlights, from the chilled artichoke with mustard vinaigrette and gooey onion soup gratinée to the macaroni gratin with bacon and the Dover sole almondine. 301 Waukegan Ave., Highwood, 847-433-1078

Mirani’s

The Mustard-Crusted Salmon over French lentils and vegetables remains one of my favorite dishes at this Winnetka boîte. Pair that with the lovely roasted beet salad with bleu cheese and toasted walnuts, a crusty baguette and a glass of pinot and it’s a perfect meal. 727 Elm St., Winnetka, 847-441-5590

Mon Ami Gabi

When legendary Ambria chef Gabino Sotelino and Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You opened the first Mon Ami Gabi back in the 90s, I was first in line. Now there are five outposts around the country, and chef Andrew Shedden is at the helm. The food and service are still on point. The Steak Frites are legendary. Opt for the au poivre or béarnaise version. For the full-fat effect, start off with the Warm Triple Cream Cheese with mushrooms, black garlic and sherry reduction for the table. Toss health a bone with the green salad. It’s on! 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-348-8886


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