Bring on brunch

Warmer weather beckons diners

Though Sunday brunch is a year-round option, warm and sunny weather is what brings out the crowds. I can attest to that, having spent most of the last 10 fairly miserable (weatherwise) weekends hitting one brunch after another; I don't think I found a single crowded dining room during all of February and March (Easter excepted), and reservations certainly were no problem. Brunch-friendly temperatures will be with us soon enough, and when they arrive, here are a few brunch spots, old and new, that will be worth checking out. Better still, visit them now, when tables are still easy to secure (Mother's Day excepted).

Autre Monde. The place to be for near west suburban Sunday brunch is this Berwyn hot spot, operating better than ever after a nasty fire last year. The must-try dish is Partridge & Pancake ($13), a riff on chicken and waffles as well as a tip o' the toque to Autre Monde's husband-wife chef team, Dan Pancake and Beth Partridge. Sadly, there's no actual partridge in the dish, though the juicy fried quail is a fine substitute, served over two savory chestnut pancakes with orange supremes and a side pitcher of maple syrup. There's also very good Mediterranean-influenced shrimp and grits ($16) with hefty shell-on prawns and pancetta-laced white polenta in place of grits. Try the goetta (pronounced "gedda," $6), a crisped-to-order cake of oatmeal and pork shoulder (a vegetarian version is also available), and finish off with the buttery crumb cake and brown-sugar streusel topping. And if you're imbibing at brunch, the bar's blood-orange gimlet ($10) makes a very nice eye-opener. 6727 W. Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, 708-775-8122

Big Jones. If you're not planning a trip to New Orleans this spring, weekend brunch (Saturdays and Sundays beginning at 9 a.m.) at chef and owner Paul Fehribach's homage to all things Southern is the next-best thing. Toast the recent dawn with a well-made Corpse Reviver ($12) or bloody Maria (made with vodka, $8) cocktail, then tuck into the Bayou Teche omelet ($15), compact-looking but bursting with such goodies as crawfish, smoked andouille sausage and cream cheese, with creamy grits on the side. Cheddar-stuffed corn cakes ($11) on a hill of black beans and topped with eggs and spicy tomato sauce, and the Big Jones benedict ($13), a couple of massive biscuits topped with house-smoked and cured ham and two poached eggs, are first-rate as well. You will walk out of here happy. Bereft of ambition, yes, but happy. 5347 N. Clark St., 773-275-5725

Bread & Wine. This Old Irving Park gem is a good one to keep in mind for all sorts of reasons (particularly pre- and post-Cubs dining, now that baseball has returned), including the fine Sunday brunch available here. Though the look is sort of industrial, the food is comforting and down-to-earth, though by no means simple. Take a gander at the semolina gnocchi ($13), presented as stacked, toast-colored rectangles that remind me of Rice Krispies Treats, and matched to spicy tomato confit and egg. Corned beef hash ($14) with eggs looks straightforward enough, but mustardy hollandaise and pickled chilies give the dish a nice spark. And old-fashioned johnny cakes with maple syrup ($11) pick up acidic notes from dollops of lemon curd and dried fruit. Good coffee and creative cocktails too. There's a small parking lot out front, though street parking isn't difficult to find. 3732 W. Irving Park Road, 773-866-5266

The Bristol. Considering how deafening this restaurant is during evening service, brunching at Chris Pandel's Bucktown restaurant is practically like going to church. Pandel's brunch menu is pretty worship-worthy at that, especially if you like your brunch meal rich and nurturing with the occasional peppery jolt. That's how I feel about his black pepper and maple sage sausages, soft beauties available as a side dish ($4) or as part of the biscuits and gravy entree ($12). The hangover breakfast ($13), an immense bowl of pork broth with noodles, beef tongue and an outrageously good shrimp cake, will cure what ails you, and the lively braised pork chilaquiles ($12) is the best version of this dish I've ever had. If you arrive extra hungry, you'll feel less guilty about starting with some coffee cake ($6) and/or the cinnamon-sugar doughnuts ($4), both excellent. The menu is available Saturdays and Sundays. 2152 N. Damen Ave., 773-862-5555

GT Fish & Oyster. The great thing about weekend brunch here (Saturdays and Sundays beginning 10 a.m.) is that you can actually get a table; dinner reservations at this highly popular seafood specialist are considerable more elusive. Several evening menu fixtures are available in the morning hours, including the addictive monkey bread with its orange-cream glaze ($7) and, of course, oysters. Brunch items of note include the crab Benedict ($14), which includes — spoiler alert — crab, along with Swiss chard and hollandaise, and a very good smoked whitefish quiche with frisee ($12). The take-me-now-Lord dish is the biscuits and lobster gravy ($15), with potato-lobster hash, tarragon and a poached egg; this sucker kills. The bourbon bloody mary ($11) and the peach cider ($5) with optional $5 bourbon shot (yes, please) are my favorite tots. 531 N. Wells St., 312-929-3501

The Monarch. Opened in January, The Monarch is a single, narrow room whose front half is given over to bar space and whose back half contains a handful of tall tables. (An undeveloped backyard holds the promise of outdoor dining someday.) The cool thing is that Andrew Brochu, a highly talented chef whose cooking landed him a job at Alinea and secured two Michelin stars at Graham Elliot restaurant, is running the kitchen here. The vibe here is very laid back and mellow, but the high quality of the kitchen output is undeniable. Silky smooth foie gras mousse ($13), served with strawberry jam and toasted brioche, was so good we begged for extra bread (we were in No Foie Left Behind mode). Duck confit chilaquiles ($14) are surprisingly prim, stacked neatly (at least on arrival) with crisp tortilla layers under a sunny-side-up roof. Blackening spices kick the shrimp and grits with cheddar cheese ($13) into high gear, and brioche French toast slices are topped with precisely diced roasted apples and a surfeit of Chantilly cream ($9). The "box of cereal and milk" is a cute $2.50 touch (it's an actual box of cereal from a variety pack), as is the sweet-spicy supersoft pretzel, served with raisin cream cheese ($7). Fun cocktails ($8.50) include a Vlad the Impaler bloody mary, blood-orange mimosa and a "Baby Spill the Wine" concoction of pinot grigio, cognac and lime, which I loved. Brunch is served until 4 p.m., for those of you who greet Sundays just a little more slowly. 1745 W. North Ave., 773-252-6053

Sugar Toad. You could argue that this restaurant, which takes its name from a fish (the Northern Puffer, nicknamed Sugar Toad for its ugly appearance and sweet flesh), isn't a legit brunch destination, as its collection of breakfast and lunch items is available every day of the week. Big deal. I'd still recommend a weekend visit here for the clever bento box-inspired assortment ($14) offering samples of chicken and waffles, egg white frittata, duck sausage and dessert (chocolate-enrobed banana). The breakfast egg sandwich ($12), highlighted by a good English muffin, fresh wilted spinach and plenty of home fries, is worth your attention too. Service is particularly considerate; when my extremely hungry party arrived and begged for anything that could be served immediately, our waitress came up with some croissants and raspberry strudels. They're not even on the menu. Now that's good service. Arista Hotel, 2139 CityGate Lane, Naperville, 630-778-8623

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

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