ONE CENTRAL CONFLICT of professional restaurant writers is that our dining life is nothing like a normal one—yet we are ostensibly writing for everyone. We don't spend our own money, we go out five nights a week, and we don't go to a place just to satisfy ourselves—we try to assess it for a variety of lifestyles and tastes. Restaurants are work foremost, then pleasure.
So where do I actually return with my own money, once the review is done? Where do I go that never was or never will be up for review? What happens in real life, when I just want to be happy someplace? Here at year-end, after 40-odd critiques, I'd like to tell you about the places I rely on—where I go when I want a sure thing, a quiet booth, or to do something professionally forbidden: to be known by the house, to experience hospitality based on familiarity. The point of a restaurant, to me, is to feel like I'm at home, like I'm cared for. Many people can cook great food, but fewer can become a part of my life by way of the warmth and sincerity of their intentions.
Smallwares, 4605 NE Fremont
I take my seven-year-old daughter to Smallwares every Thursday after school. This isn't to broaden her palate with Johanna Ware's masterpieces of culturally unrestricted five-point flavor; she will have none of it. She gets the $1 rice, the $1 noodles, and the $1 broth (I usually just go for the $10 lemongrass pork banh mi). We only see each other a couple times a week, so I treat her to a Shirley Temple and a Scotch pudding. They know her order by heart. I love that, and I know she'll remember the way she was treated on our little dates there for the rest of her life.
Cibo, 3539 SE Division
What Marco Frattaroli did right here is dead simple: solid Italian food in a classy dining room with prices so reasonable I can go there on a whim. The $14 hanger steak with rosemary-scented fried potatoes would be $10 more anywhere else, and the $5 happy hour margherita pizza painlessly rounds things out. The waiter often assumes the role of a fellow father who is complicit in providing the theater necessary to get little kids to eat—a gesture so appreciated that if I ever go there and they're closed, I'll just nail my money to the door.
Stanich's, 4915 NE Fremont
Stanich's has been serving griddled, loaded burgers with American cheese (white or yellow?) since before my father was born. The endless flow of human souls through the old room has worn even the gravity thin; you don't visit so much as sink in, calm down, and lose your ego. It's like being five, 60, and Buddha at the same time.
Pause, 5101 N Interstate
Pause doesn't get a lot of press, but they make one of the most substantial and well-grilled cheeseburgers in town. My girlfriend and I split this, a hefty Reuben, and the pile of thick, hand-cut fries that amasses between them. If you try this food, you will say thank you. Maybe not to me, but to whoever is standing in the vicinity.
Tanuki, 8029 SE Stark
No review has ever gotten this place right. It's the embodiment of its owner/operator, and this owner/operator has the strength of an ox and a 12-gauge personality. She's also deeply loyal, a sharp judge of character, and a world-class slinger of tantan udon in spicy chicken peanut sauce. When Janis Martin is dead, she will be a religion, and Stark Street will be renamed Toad Pain Panty Hunger Street, or something else from her DVD catalog.
Cedo's Falafel and Gyros, 3901 NE MLK
Their falafel and gyros somehow seem to have gotten even better since my initial review in May: bigger, prettier, more flavorful. I love going back to a place after the first romance is over and finding that it wasn't all in my mind.
Salt & Straw, 2035 NE Alberta & 838 NW 23rd
Salt & Straw's roster of ice creams is updated many times each season. That kind of aggressive risk-taking, especially when built on collaborations with ambitious local chefs, has led to unique and successful new flavors. (Aviary's toasted coconut ice cream with cracked sesame toffee and boysenberry ginger jam comes to mind.) Once a week, however, I just get a "walkin'-around scoop" of their almond brittle with thick, chewy, salted chocolate ganache.
The list of shoutouts could go on and on, but I'm running out of space and have to start with the honorable mentions. Pyro Pizza's wood-fired pies. Meet BBQ's Kansas City-style ribs. Sok Sab Bai's $5 Cambodian sandwich. Double Dragon's banh mi. Lincoln for happy hour patty melts and onion rings. George's fried chicken.
Many of these places will be on the next year-end roundup and the one after that, but I'm looking forward to discovering their competition, and sharing it with you.