What’s so special about Lawrence Avenue on Chicago’s north side? At first glance, it seems like an ordinary street in a Midwestern metropolis. Look past the unassuming shops and signage, however, and something becomes clear: Lawrence is a patchwork of many different cultures. Running through neighborhoods like Albany Park, a longtime magnet for immigrants, the street is one of the most ethnically diverse in the US. Nowhere is this more evident than in its food offerings.
Stretching nearly 11 miles across Chicago, from Lake Michigan in the east to Chevalier Woods and the Des Plaines River in the west, Lawrence Avenue is a veritable Epcot Center of global influences. Here are five restaurants to try along this anything-but-average avenue.
On the corner of Lawrence and Ashland in the lively lakeside neighborhood of Uptown, Demera (demeraethiopian.com) is one of only a handful of Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago. And what a delicious destination it is. Here, guests enjoy the traditional communal dining experience of Ethiopia, using their hands, instead of forks and knives, to sop up spicy stew (wat) with spongy injera bread. The classic doro wat is a tender lemon-marinated chicken stewed in berbere sauce served with onions, garlic and ginger. But there are other highlights as well, including ye-mesir wat – spicy red lentils also stewed in berbere – and lentil-stuffed sambusas with flaky crust. Demera offers a variety of African beers and even roasts its own coffee beans.
Viva la Vietnam
Down Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square, a little bakery called Nhu Lan is serving up some of the best banh mi in Chicago. Fresh baguettes are the base for these French-inspired Vietnamese sandwiches, and it seems impossible to eat one without completely covering your lap in bread flakes. It’s all worth it, though, for the flavorful zing of pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro and jalapeños combined with a protein of some sort, such as pork, beef, chicken or tofu. Thirsty? Order a smoothie with fruit and tapioca pearls or enjoy the strong, sweet jolt of a Vietnamese iced coffee.
A couple blocks west of Nhu Lan, just before Lawrence Avenue crosses the north branch of the Chicago River, the cozy, family-owned Restaurant Sarajevo (restaurantsarajevo.com) serves up homemade Bosnian cuisine with influences of Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Mediterranean. Specialties include cevapcici, or skinless sausages made from minced beef and lamb, which are stuffed into fresh pita and served with onion and kaymak (a Balkan-style clotted cream), as well as a meat-centric mixed plate of beef sausages, grilled chicken and veal kebabs and pljeskavica, a spiced meat patty that’s the national dish of Serbia. Bring your own bottle of wine, if you choose, to enjoy with this homey cuisine. Restaurant Sarajevo is one of Chicago’s many BYOB establishments.
In a bright, clean space on the corner of Lawrence and Kedzie in Albany Park lies the second location of Brazilian Bowl (brazilianbowl.com). Serving up affordable, authentic Brazilian fare, this fast-casual restaurant offers everything from empanadas, tacos and burgers to sauteed shrimp bobo and feijoada, a rich meat-and-black bean stew served over rice with collard greens, farofa and pico de gallo. Then, of course, there are the namesake bowls, featuring seasoned rice, beans, cheese and a choice of meat or vegetables. But you can't mistake this place for a certain burrito chain: There’s also a selection of smoothies and healthy acai bowls, desserts such as coconut truffles, and a selection of Brazilian grocery items near the counter – in case you want to try and recreate these dishes at home.
Old-school Chicago Italian
Further west down the street in Mayfair is Marie’s Pizza and Liquors (facebook.com/Maries-Pizza-and-Liquors), a stuck-in-time pizzeria attached to a liquor store. It’s very 'Lawrence Ave' in its confluence of cultures: an Italian-American restaurant owned by Greeks. You enter through the liquor store, and once inside, are whisked away to a bygone Chicago: wood-paneled walls, red vinyl booths, fluted chandeliers, mirrored details and maybe (depending on the night) a singer crooning the standards to live piano accompaniment. During the holiday season, the interior decorations are spectacular. The tavern-style thin crust pizza is the go-to here – made more interesting when enjoyed with a bottle of wine from the adjoining liquor store. But the atmosphere? Unmissable. Just like Lawrence Avenue.