For variety, energy, and quality, Chicago rightly ranks as one of the country's most remarkable restaurant towns. Here's a look at which restaurants came out on top in the Windy City and environs in the 1997 Zagat Survey of Chicago Restaurants.

Rated the city's most popular restaurant since Zagat began the survey in 1986 is Ambria, a contemporary French restaurant in a elegant art nouveau setting on North Lincoln Park. The more traditional Le Francais in suburban Wheeling retained its number-one ranking for best food, posting Chicago's only 29 on a scale of 0 to 30. This year's top-ranked newcomer is Courtright's, a suburban restaurant in Willow Springs offering sophisticated New American cuisine and views of a forest preserve.

Rated tops for decor was the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, which also rated tops for hotel dining. At the head of the list for people-watching was Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse, although respondents complained that there were "too many people with name badges" in the crowd. The highest rating for Mexican food went to Frontera Grill, although respondents grumbled about the no-reservation policy. Also among the top-five scorers in this category were two new Mexican restaurants, Chapulin and Salpicion.

The survey highlights new slices of Paris in Chicago, including Brasserie Jo and Cyrano's, both offering informal but highly rated French cooking at average meal costs under $30.

Chicago foodies have been waiting for L.A.'s Wolfgang Puck to bring the best of California cuisine to the Midwest, and now they can enjoy the newly opened version of Puck's Spago on Dearborn Avenue. (The restaurant opened as the Zagat edition went to press so it is not rated in the 1997 edition.)

Many of Chicago's trendy spots have launched extensive menus of fanciful martini concoctions, not to mention cigar bars. Also hot are supper clubs, with Lola's in River North being an early success story in this category.

According to survey respondents, the average cost per meal in the Chicago area increased to $23.16 in 1996 from $21.87 in 1984 (about 5.9 percent in two years). The price rise was higher in the 20 most expensive restaurants, which rose 7.7 percent from $49.65 to $53.46 in 1996. These prices compare favorably to 1996 average prices for New York City ($29.28 and $65.08). Los Angeles in 1996 had a higher average cost per meal ($23.72), but a lower average cost at the most expensive restaurants ($46.44).

For More Information For complete a complete guide to Chicago's convention bureaus, centers, and hotels, visit Corporate Meetings & Incentives' World Wide Web site at www.meetingsnet.com

Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau Brad Lewis, director of sales operations * (312) 567-8500 Fax (312) 567-8533 www.chicago.il.org

Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau Ann Fearday, convention sales executive * (847) 823-2100, (800) 873-2100 Fax (847) 696-9700 www.lincolnnet.net/chicago-south land-cvb

DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau Ben Benson, director of group sales * (630) 575-8070, (800) 232-0502 Fax (630) 575-8078/ www.dupagecvb.com

Lake County Illinois Convention & Visitors Bureau Gail Svendsen, president/CEO * (847) 662-2700 Fax (847) 662-2702 www.lakecounty.org

Lisle Convention and Visitors Bureau Estella Cronk, president * (630) 769-1000, (800) 733-9811 Fax (630) 769-1006 www.lisle.net/lislecvb/

Rosemont Convention Bureau Peter Lombardi executive director * (847) 823-2100 Fax (847) 696-9700 www.rosemont.com

Greater Woodfield Convention Bureau Amy Frazer associate director of sales * (847) 605-1010 Fax (847) 605-0120 www.thegreaternorthwest