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Feature Fri Aug 20 2010
Over the summer while working in Evanston, I've found myself wandering around one block of Noyes Street in search of lunch. Nestled in a quiet, student-less (for the time being) residential area west of Northwestern's campus is an impressive group of restaurants that cater to all price points and tastes. The street's anchor is the Piven Theater Workshop, which resides in a beautiful white brick building bordering a busy, children-filled city park. Far from home and working in an office with a scary, ancient microwave, I did what any curious foodie would do: I began an endless (and often enjoyable) lunch crawl in the neighborhood.
My first eating experience on Noyes was at its namesake cafe (Noyes Street Cafe, 828 Noyes), which is surprisingly more affordable than its dark, mood-lit interior would suggest. The menu is a little all over the place -- the food is primarily Greek, with Italian and American fare added in that seems like a marketing-driven afterthought (where else can I get a burrito, moussaka, a grilled cheese sandwich or fettucine alfredo in the same meal?) -- but the result does not disappoint. My flavorful Caesar salad could have fed several people, and I kept stealing looks at the barbecued chicken that my dining companion happily gobbled down. The service was good, they played loads of Sinatra and Martin on the stereo, and we were back at work within an hour.
The next stop I made was to Al's Deli (914 Noyes), a small, narrow storefront serving sandwiches, soup, and cookies. Al's French fare gets a lot of respect from food lovers, having received a Great Neighborhood Restaurants award from LTH Forum. The applause is for good reason; Al's makes a good, simple sandwich (think roast beef, turkey, blue cheese, bearnaise, aioli and the grainiest Dijon mustard this side of the Atlantic) and an even better array of soups. Even on a blistering summer day, I could go for a cup of any of Al's soups of the day -- a pistou (a pesto-like soup of basil, garlic, olive oil, and tomato), tomato bisque, and Basque lentil are among the tasty offerings. Al's also sells a great frosted sugar and chocolate chip cookie that is worth the visit alone.
But I'll be honest. As much as I liked Al's sandwiches, I am a firm believer that they should be always (always!) be served warm and toasted. So one of the restaurants that gets my firm nod of approval is Al's neighbor, Rollin to Go (910 Noyes), an Italian sandwich, pizza and pasta place decorated with flowery tablecloths and metal chairs. Judging from the framed wall photos of hard-looking Italian guys gathered around a flour-covered table, you'd think you might get in a scrape with Joe Pesci while ordering; however, the service is uneventful (sigh of relief) and the food great. I took a strong liking to their sausage philly grinder and an even stronger liking to Rollin's potato chips, which are thick, heavily seasoned handmade delights that are a separate meal in itself. I imagine that once Northwestern students return to campus, getting lunch from this place will be much harder.
I've spent a lot of time at Fraiche (815 Noyes). This relatively new, small storefront serves food reminiscent of Wicker Park's Milk and Honey -- higher end sandwiches and salads, and a bakery case filled with muffins, cupcakes, whoopie pies, bars and quiche. I'm a sucker for a good-looking bakery case, which brought me into Fraiche as I walked by one morning.
Fraiche definitely attracts a more discriminating clientele, but I found the food -- even the colorful bakery case -- to be extremely uneven. Their Nutter Betters live up to the name, but the pistachio and rosewater whoopie pie was dry and flavorless. The goat cheese and roasted vegetable sandwich was perfectly edible and the sesame broccoli accompanying it was delicious the first time around, but the second time I ordered it, the product was hastily assembled and mushy. I enjoy Fraiche, but everything I've ordered on their menu is something I can make at home--and perhaps better than the busy kitchen staff who are easily visible from the dining room. But I can see why Fraiche is a popular spot--it's light and airy, and the perfect place to tell your parents that you're dropping out of school (the waiting area abuts the dining area, so what are you going to do, turn your ears off?).
Noyes also offers a hot dog/burger/pizza puff stand that suspiciously opens at 8am for breakfast -- gyro omelets anyone? (DD Dogs, 825 Noyes), and Korean (Mandarin House, 819 Noyes) that seems closed every time I try to eat there, which, given the availability of good eats from its neighbors, is not a letdown. This small stretch of Noyes (easily accessible from the Purple Line, hint hint) is a solid dining experience that is a nice, unexpected treasure to those in the neighborhood -- even if they only have an hour to eat. Back to work!