Need a breather from big-city hassles? Head to a place where honking cabs are few and far between. During certain weekday hours, the Purple Line takes an express jaunt from Belmont to Evanston, making travel time surprisingly quick. If you're down for poking around Central's antique stores, bakeries and boutiques, head north during the daytime: The street tends to close up shop around 6 p.m., though a few lively restaurants will keep you out way past dinnertime.
Safety rating: Aside from sporting a "Wildcats Suck" tee, there's not much you can do to attract danger.
Panhandler rating: None.
Mustard's Last Stand
Mustard's Last Stand, a hot dog shack that's been stuffing Wildcats fans silly for more than 20 years, channels the South Side with Vienna-beefy treats and sports-themed decor; tennis rackets hang on the wall alongside more framed athletes than you'll find in Cooperstown, New York. Behind the counter, service moves at lightning speed. Employees dish orders of greasy, paper-carton bound goods and milkshakes and malts to down 'em with. If you're feeling ultra-Chicago, order up the "everything" hot dog loaded with catsup, mustard, relish, hot peppers and a pickle. Other dog variations include polish sausage and chili dogs.
Arena for the a.m.
Prairie Joe's decor oozes serious quirk: The junkyard-chic joint houses a hanging plastic shark, bunches of American flags, a lit-up palm tree and Moses action figures. The doors open early, so stop by before work to stock up on hearty breakfast goods like blueberry pancakes ($5.50), an egg and veggie sandwich ($3.50) or the chorizo and cheese omelet ($6.95). The lunch menu features Mexican, American and "eclectic" (read: whatever the cook feels like cookin') cuisine. Always-on-offer selections include open face meatloaf ($6.25) and specials may include fried plantains with rice and beans or eggplant-feta quesadillas.
Good for groups
Bluestone of Evanston
Bluestone's sleek, steel gray facade suggests the kind of place that serves up tuna tartare, but all pretense melts away when you walk through the door: With an indigo color scheme, a crackling fireplace and exposed brick walls, Bluestone is a casual joint with some trendy spoils. A lively bar at the left side of the restaurant hosts flat-screen televisions and martini-swigging sports fans. Pull up a stool and order up a round of Bells or Sierra Nevada from the excellent beer selection. The bar menu offers a variety of beyond-jalapeno-poppers grub like calamari, turkey Rueben sandwiches, salads and the customer favorite, thin-crusted, barbeque chicken pizza.
Snow-white walls and a lumpy stone roof make this restaurant look like a cottage plucked out of a fairy tale. But if you insist on realism, Trattoria Trullo is modeled after trulli, conical, limestone-roofed houses from Southern Italy's Puglia region. The vibe is set by floor-to-ceiling windows, a cozy bar at the front of the space and an exposed kitchen. Trullo's menu focuses on traditional dishes from Southern Italy; in fact, Chicago Magazine voted this spot the best for Puglia wine and food. House specialties include the grigliata mista ($13), an antipasti that tops Tuscan beans with grilled octopus, squid and shrimp. The orrecchiette con dome di rapa ($13) features orecchiette pasta with rapini, olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.
Place to be seen solo
The same family behind Trattoria Trullo runs this deli-style joint just down the street. The brightly-lit, black and white interior offers seating for a few lunch-on-the-run types, but a BYOB policy opens Panino's doors for linger-over-dinner folks as well. If you do stop by for a quick fix, be prepared to spend a few minutes looking over an extensive menu. Salads and panini join more substantial dishes; pasta selections include spaghetti, rigatoni, tortellini, penne and ravioli. Entrees dole out saucy pieces of chicken, veal, shrimp and rib-eye steak. The somewhat-different timpano stuffs ingredients like eggplant, chicken or sausage into a pasta pie and (beware, carb-phobes) bakes the whole concoction in Panino's dough.