Sick of the crowds at popular brunch spots? Lose the wait with options just steps away.
The crowd of people sipping coffee outside while awaiting a table at Wicker Park's Bongo Room (1470 N Milwaukee Ave between Evergreen Ave and Honore St, 773-489-0690) never thins out. We're suckers for stuffed French toast, too, but not enough to put up with the wait, the surly service and the tiny room.
So instead, head to Francesca's Forno (1576 N Milwaukee Ave at North Ave, 773-770-0184), where the rustic, roomy space lined with floor-to-ceiling windows helps you wake up (that and a cup of strong Italian coffee). Italian-tinged dishes like pancetta-arugula BLT flanked by pecorino and truffle oil–laced fries should soak up some of the damage from the previous night, and the panettone French toast topped with sweet mascarpone cream, fresh berries and thick, aged balsamic vinegar should quell any sweet tooth's cravings.
Having a hard time choosing between sweet and savory brunch? HotChocolate (1747 N Damen Ave between Willow St and St. Paul Ave, 773-489-1747) delivers both with success. Chef-owner Mindy Segal's made-to-order, cinnamon-sugar–coated doughnuts are the perfect vehicle for house-made raspberry preserves; ditto for the basket of freshly baked breads, croissants and coffee cake. Banana brioche French toast gets a dose of savory with its side of Plapp Farm organic sausage. But if you're looking for a meatier fuel-up, the killer duck confit and fried-egg sandwich or the seared Wagyu skirt steak with soft scrambled eggs are the way to go. Pair it with a Grey Goose Bloody Mary and you're fortified for the day.
We love m. henry's (5707 N Clark St between Hollywood and Edgewater Aves, 773-561-1600) healthy, organic takes on sweet and savory eats, but sometimes even its blueberry pancakes aren't worth awkwardly shuffling with other hungry shlubs while waiting in the cramped vestibule.
Instead, we hike a few blocks down Clark Street to French bistro La Tache (1475 W Balmoral Ave between Clark St and Glenwood Ave, 773-334-7168), where we're immediately seated at a comfy banquette. Healthy, this food is not. The Sunday-only brunch menu includes brioche French toast, skirt steak and eggs, and our favorite belt-buster, a croque madame oozing with white cheddar and topped with two fried eggs. The lyonnaise is slightly less heavy, if you don't count the crisp lardons or pommes frites and the perfectly firm poached eggs and just concentrate on the frisée and the haricots verts drizzled with truffle vinaigrette. (But who really wants to do that?)
If La Tache is jeans and a sweater, then the nearby Swedish breakfast/lunch spot Svea (5236 N Clark St at Farragut Ave, 773-275-7738) is pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. Just stroll in and sit at one of the ancient-looking stools lining the counter or grab a table by the window. The spot's Swedish country-kitchen decor is as no-frills as the menu. The Swedish Tease features the holy trinity of breakfast eats: two eggs, one thick curl of bacon and crêpelike Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. The Viking Breakfast will prepare you for a day of pillaging, piling together two eggs, Swedish fried potatoes, Falukorv sausages (they taste like hot dogs), two Swedish pancakes and toast. A side of fishy-smelling but delicious pickled herring is a must, but may be the kiss of death if you're nursing a hangover.
You can find a fancy French dress in almost any store at Halsted Street and Webster Avenue. When it comes to finding fancy French toast, however, the mascarpone and chocolate–stuffed varieties at Toast (746 W Webster Ave between Burling and Halsted Sts, 773-935-5600) have enjoyed a monopoly for years.
The newly renovated Gracie's (1119 W Webster Ave between Seminary and Clifton Aves, 773-528-1788) aims to change all that. Chef Wade Fortin has upped the ante with his Death By Chocolate French toast, which tops bittersweet chocolate brioche with a white chocolate–banana crème anglaise; "flapjacks À la strawberries and creme"; and his tenderloin of beef Benedict, a filet-mignon sandwich with grilled tomatoes and béarnaise sauce.
For appetites that can't handle big plates of steak for breakfast, Café Ba-Ba-Reeba! (2024 N Halsted St between Armitage and Dickens Aves, 773-935-5000) quietly added a brunch menu to its offerings this summer. It should have been a little louder about it: If more people knew about the Spanish-style eggs Benedict (two thick slices of corn bread topped with poached eggs, Canadian bacon and aioli) or the sugary French toast covered with cinnamon-dusted apples, the place wouldn't be such a ghost town on Sunday mornings. Then again, we were happy not to have any competition at the extensive make-your-own Bloody Mary bar.
LITTLE ITALY/NEAR WEST SIDE
Sweet Maple Cafe (1339 W Taylor St between Ada and Loomis Sts, 312-243-8908) is well known for its soul food–inspired brunch of sweet-milk biscuits, vegetable hash and bone-in ham. So well known, in fact, that during the weekend rush, customers are asked to share tables with strangers in exchange for a shorter wait.
But right down the street at Demitasse (1066 W Taylor St between Carpenter and Aberdeen Sts, 312-226-7669) there are tables to spare. People aren't yet hip to the fact that this dinerish coffeehouse serves a full breakfast menu, which includes the requisite breakfast sandwiches, croissants, muffins and bagels. But you'd do better to wade through all that and order the amaretto pancakes—a sweet stack infused with the namesake liqueur and topped with almond shavings—or the fluffy fritattas, an egg-white variety packed with asparagus and sure to appeal to health nuts.
Healthy eating is part of the agenda at Cafe Penelope (234 S Ashland Ave between Adams St and Jackson Blvd, 312-243-6655) as well, where the menu proudly proclaims that "Broccoli prevents cancer!" and offers three options for getting your fill of it: a broccoli-and-cheddar omelette; broccoli quiche; and broccoli hash, packed with red pepper, potatoes and onions. But don't let that scare you off: Less-healthy options like crab-cake Benedict, cranberry pancakes and French toast, made with the café's house-baked bread, provide enough sugar and fat to get you through the morning.
We'll give it props for inventing "frushi," and it's true that its make-your-own-juice shtick is a selling point, but the original Orange (3231 N Clark St between Belmont Ave and School St, 773-549-4400) is so packed with Lakeview brunchers loudly reliving the debauchery of the night before, we'd give up clever menu items for anything half as good.
Luckily you don't have to settle for that. Erwin (2925 N Halsted St between George St and Oakdale Ave, 773-528-7200) has long been a stalwart of the area for its dinner menu of American classics, and its lesser-known Sunday brunch doesn't stray from form. Flank steak and eggs, lox platter, banana-cinnamon French toast, house-made basil sausage: All are deftly executed in a casual, classy setting that's just as perfect for taking the edge off your hangover as it is for impressing the 'rents when they're in town (Mom's sure to love the mimosa.)
If you're addicted to Orange's coconut–French toast skewers, give Harmony Grill (3159 N Southport Ave between Fletcher St and Belmont Ave, 773-525-2528) a go. Its Tropicalia French toast is even better: thick, coconut-crusted challah slices topped with grilled pineapple and drizzled with spiced rum–butterscotch sauce and vanilla crème fraîche. You'll also find tributes to N'Awlins with cheddar corn cakes, fluffy beignets and a Bourbon Street omelette packed with andouille sausage, onion, green pepper and Swiss. Portions are monstrous, especially Ted's Hangover Helper. We don't know who Ted is, but from the looks of this fried salami, pesto scrambled eggs and potato-topped sandwich, he's dangerously close to liver damage.