Considering our culinary culture during this time of prevailing economic uncertainty, I look back over the past year and recall those establishments that I can count on to consistently deliver on both quality and service. Note my emphasis on the word “consistently.” Nothing-believe me-nothing irks this restaurant-loving chef more than the feeling that I’m playing “food roulette” every time I open a menu.

Looking on the bright side, the present economic downturn might very well generate a much-needed adjustment in both the front and back of the house of tomorrow’s restaurants, where repetition-having the talent, ability and skill to duplicate-will trump the faux creativity that now seems to dominate the food scene. Here is my list of 10 consistent encounters during the past year that I know will repeat in the next:

1) Freddy’s Pizzeria, modestly situated on the corner of 16th Street and 61st Avenue in neighboring Cicero is my find of the year. Everything you might expect from an Italian grocery store and more can be found in this tiny, charming, old-world Italian storefront. Dine in or to take out, chef/owner Joe Quercia and his charming wife Ann-Marie will personally see to your satisfaction. Closed on Sunday, Freddy’s is open Monday through Saturday. A real winner!

2) Al’s Grill on Madison Street remains my favorite Oak Park diner. I’ve been eating at Al’s ever since I moved to the area-when they were located across the street and the sign said, “We Doze, But Never Close.” Ham off the bone! Always busy, always good.

3) Louie’s Grill-what can I say? I like diners-is my favorite Forest Park diner. Also located on Madison Street but a little further west, Louie’s retains the charm of the small American diner. Louie’s offers shredded rather than sliced hash-browned potatoes, which-depending on my mood-is the determining factor on which of these two outstanding diners I will visit.

4) McGaffer Joe’s, located at 7737 Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, is another discovery that somehow managed to elude me until I just happened to overhear someone talk about their pizza. Crusty thin-crust pizza like the kind I grew up on-and can count on. Give it a try. Call 366-6100 for delivery or pickup.

5) Da Luciano’s, 8343 W. Grand Avenue in River Grove, offers familiar Italian favorites at reasonable prices and big portions with quality and service that I can always count on. Da Luciano’s is unique as the only Italian restaurant to offer a complete gluten-free menu. No gamble here.

6) Phoenix Restaurant in China Town could easily be at the top of my list. I’ve been eating at, and writing about, this stellar Chinese restaurant for well over 10 years. Consistent quality, reliable service, and the best Dim Sum in the city. I have never had a bad experience in all the years I’ve been eating here. Ask for Carol and tell them I sent you.

7) Five Guys is the new kid on the block-literally. That comes as a welcome and needed alternative to those other ubiquitous name-brand institutions that epitomize what can only be termed the manure heap of the fast food industry. Very recently opened at 1115 W. Lake in Oak Park, Five Guys Hamburger & Fries has got it right. Fresh-not frozen-hamburgers, fresh cut fries, a grilled cheese sandwich and a “dubious” hot dog (it’s not Chicago style) make up the limited menu, which I have already tried-five times. Sure wish I could get a cup of coffee with that delicious burger.

8) Todd & Holland Tea Merchants on Madison Street in Forest Park doesn’t serve food, but you can surely sample any of the fine teas that Bill Todd and his charismatic wife, Janet, offer in this absolute gem in our community. My very first article for Wednesday Journal was about Todd & Holland, and I’m more than delighted to do so again … and again. Todd & Holland is without doubt a true testament to high quality and consistency.

9) Olive & Well on Oak Park Avenue has been open for little more than a year and here, too, you have the opportunity to sample some of the finest quality olive oils from various regions of the world. All indications are that owner Sondra Elder is “alive & well” in her unique shop, which once again must be attributed to her insistence on service and quality.

10) Trader Joe’s at Harlem and Lake just opened its doors and I extend a hearty welcome to this fine food store. Numerous happy visits to Trader Joe’s in other communities are a sure sign that I will be shopping at this new store in the coming year.

To all of these favorites let me wish you all a happy and prosperous new year!

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Frank Chlumsky

Frank Chlumsky, former executive chef of Philander's restaurant in Oak Park, teaches in Chicago at Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts. In his 37-year career, Frank has owned restaurants in Michigan...