IT’S THE TIME for cranking up the heat, whipping up hot toddies and taking refuge in turtleneck sweaters. What’s the common theme here? Comfort! You’ll get all the same feels – deep in your hearty food-craving belly – at one of these four local restaurants.
$17-$42 | 2315 N. MURRAY AVE.
Italian cuisine has long lived at this address (it was Palermo Villa in a previous life), and a snug night here still doesn’t get much better than a couple of bar seats, a bottle of red and a saucy bowl of pasta. This dining room is more modern than old-school, but it’s still warm and comfortable – an appropriate setting for the handing over of waistbands to things braised, roasted, sauced and stuffed. The menu’s seasonal, modern Italian side shows up in plates such as the half-moons of mezzaluna pasta stuffed with mushrooms in a cheese broth with kale and turnip. But you can’t go wrong with more classic pasta (pappardelle with ragu Napoletana – a meat sauce of beef, pancetta and Italian sausage) or an entrée like pan-seared scallops with risotto, sweet potato purée and ground cherries.
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2. Balzac Wine Bar
$5-$23 | 1716 N. ARLINGTON PLACE
This almost 18-year-old small-plates haunt gives off a big romantic-meal-for-two vibe. It’s partly the low, twinkly chandelier lighting in its L-shaped room, whose layout offers pockets of intimacy. I’ve enjoyed hunkering down at a table next to the western windows, particularly on nights when white fluffy stuff floats down outside. Wherever you sit, lock in some plates like the Madeira mushrooms with sofrito cream sauce (spoon it on crostini); coq au vin bao buns; grilled green beans topped Szechuan style, with ground pork and chile flakes; and stewy monkfish a la Gallega, with potato, chard and Spanish chorizo. Cap off the night with an apple chai cheesecake ice cream sandwich.
3. Kegel’s Inn
$9-$35 | 5901 W. NATIONAL AVE.
Over the last few decades, I’ve really seen the shift in our cultural-culinary landscape as many of the old guard restaurants – representing some of our early immigrant cuisines – disappeared. These days, you have to go out of your way to find German cuisine here, and that’s one of the reasons Kegel’s is so vital. It’s also just a charmer – Old World murals and stained glass, beamed ceilings and old beer steins. The gemütlichkeit is strong and the food hearty and comforting. Virtually every plate on the menu is the culinary equivalent of an XL Snuggie. And a fact: specialties like wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten make an especially cold, long night more bearable. So does lots of crispy pan-fried spaetzle! Also, the cozy heated yurts – tents that accommodate six to 12 people – introduced during the pandemic are back. Dinner in a German yurt in West Allis – who’da thunk it?
4. Three Brothers
$16-$34 | 2414 S. ST. CLAIR ST.
It is many seemingly small things that make this Serbian institution (since 1956) a soothing ointment: the authentically vintage
decor, the marvelous old Schlitz globe on top of the building’s turret, the home-kitchen-like sounds that filter into the dining room. Experiences like dining at Three Brothers are rare and wonderful. I wouldn’t want to eat like this every day, but I would like to feel like this every day when I eat. The menu reads the same as it always has, though I don’t remember them always having a burger or broiled tilapia. (A website is also one of its few steps into the modern world.) Relish all things old with the ćevapčići (Serbian sausage), sarma (pickled cabbage filled with beef and rice), chicken paprikash with potato dumplings and the grandaddy of savory pies – phyllo dough burek.