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Better Bar Food 

Eleven gastropubs, from the Bad Apple to the Publican

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The Hopleaf

The Hopleaf

The Bad Apple

4300 N. Lincoln | 773-360-8406

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, BURGERS | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: saturday till 3, other NIGHTs TILL 2 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Craig Fass and Mandy Franklin (Menagerie, Cooper's) opened their beer and burger bar the Bad Apple a scant half block south of the venerable Jury's, and while that institution attracts a decidedly different crowd, its burger is formidable and has been justly recognized as such for years. Now, with the Bad Apple shipping in a custom-ground beef mix from New York wholesale butcher Pat La Frieda, it's difficult not to imagine a gauntlet has been thrown down between the generations gathering on each side of Lincoln Avenue. In various instances Cass and Franklin see fit to bedeck their pedigreed beef with lily-gilding school-of-Kuma's-type arrangements, offering options like pulled pork and onion rings, ham and eggs, ham and pineapple, etc. But the more minimal preparations (one in fact named for La Frieda) better reveal a slight overmanipulation of the burger, resulting in a tougher, drier chew than the patties probably deserve. And since they cook up a size too small for their buns, I'd say Jury's has little to worry about in the burger department. A second category of sandwiches, many featuring some appealing beer-manipulated element—ale-brined pork, peanut butter and lambic jam, Witte-roasted chicken—show the kitchen is capable of more. Accessorizing all of these sandwiches are golden brown hand-cut fries available in seven different flavors (truffle, curry, Old Bay, etc), which certainly appear attractive but could stand a much harder fry, particularly if they're expected to survive a deluge of gravy and cheese curds. As it stands they don't have the tensile strength to support their own weight at a 90-degree angle, much less the onslaught of the sloppy Montreal poutine, one of two offerings, along with deep-fried cheese curds, with an appeal directly proportional to the level of alcohol-diminished inhibitions. Where the Bad Apple clearly has the upper hand over Jury's—and most likely every other place in the neighborhood—is in its extensive and diverse beer selection. —Mike Sula

The Bluebird

1749 N. Damen | 773-486-2473

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, SMALL PLATES, american CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, TUESDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, MONDAY-TUESDAY TILL 1 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

This late-night lounge/wine bar/gastropub from the owners of Webster's Wine Bar is a pleasantly understated space, outfitted in a sort of rustic-minimalist vein, with tables made from old wine casks and stools reminiscent of high school chem lab. On a Sunday night at least, it's a nice mellow scene. For the most part the starters are great—lots of cured meats and funky cheeses, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The classic frites, simultaneously crispy and floppy and served with little cups of addictive curried ketchup and garlic aioli, are no-brainer perfection. The seasonal menu features dishes like ale-braised rabbit with mushrooms, bacon, and Manchego served on fettucine and wild-caught whitefish with braised leeks, sauteed spinach, and chipotle cream sauce. By-the-glass options we tried from the wine list were excellent, and the extensive beer list is sophisticated and heavy on the Belgians. —Martha Bayne

The Bristol

2152 N. Damen | 773-862-5555

$$$

american CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

If we truly lived in a town that cared to eat well, restaurants like chef Chris Pandel's beercentric the Bristol would be distributed evenly instead of concentrating in overcrowded, gentrified ghettos like Bucktown or Lincoln Square. The seasonal menu here promises interesting variety at accessible prices, including such things as a broiled eel sandwich, a perfect pairing of grilled mackerel and romaine in the Caesar salad, and "Scotch olives," a mutation of a Scotch egg (a boiled egg encased in sausage and deep-fried) and Italian olives all'Ascolana (fat green olives stuffed with pork and veal and deep-fried). The Bristol's snack portion consists of smaller fruit somewhat overwhelmed by their envelope of crispy pork sausage—but I'd be helpless not to order it again. Challenges are even more evident on the daily chalkboard menu, where snout-to-tail items beyond pork belly or the increasingly common headcheese put the Bristol in the growing class of restaurants catering to the public's curiosity about the fifth quarter and other uncommon proteins. It's indicative of Pandel's guts that he's unafraid to leave the foot on a roasted half chicken, but at the same time he occasionally shows too much restraint. A supper-club-style relish plate special with potted salmon and beer cheese featured beets with a sprinkling of grated bottarga, the delicious, famously funky cured roe of a mullet. But it was applied with such moderation that if I'd never eaten it before I'd think it was nothing more than some ungarnished purple root vegetable. Similarly, the gaminess inherent in a grilled goat trio—chops, belly, and rib—was so disguised by a sweet, sticky hoisin sauce that I could have been eating lamb. If these dishes still sound fearsome, there's plenty here to feed the timid—monkeybread with a dill butter dipping sauce, duck-fat fries, a burger, a flatbread with sweet onion and bacon—and the beer list is deep and fascinating, with lots of large-format bottles and unusual choices. —Mike Sula

English

444 N. LaSalle | 312-222-6200

$$$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | saturday brunch | CLOSED SUNDAY | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, MONDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2

Chicago's kudzulike gastropub invasion continues with this handsome River North spot from the folks behind Bar Celona and Grand Central. But when the food is this decent, why carp at the trend? Housed in a vintage three-story building that manages to be both chic and comfy, English has a large bar and several tables for groups on the first floor and a handful of pool tables and booths on the second. The English Crisps appetizer is a huge platter of waffle-cut fries heaped with shredded pork, cheese, red cabbage, scallions, and sour cream. It was certainly snackable (and perfect for sharing) but despite the pile of ingredients it lacked oomph, and the fries were rather soggy.Things improved drastically when the entrees arrived, especially a chicken roulade with a lemon-thyme beurre blanc and scallion mashed potatoes. The fish-and-chips were just as good; salty shoestring potatoes and generous pieces of battered fish that tasted fresher and less greasy than they usually do elsewhere. Prices are very reasonable so beware: English is packed with boisterous happy-hour suits in the evenings. Expect a noisy nosh. —Rob Christopher

The Gage

24 S. Michigan | 312-372-4243

$$$

BAR/LOUNGE, ENGLISH/IRISH/SCOTTISH | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2

Across the street from Millennium Park, the Gage draws swarms of tourists and suits alike, and the restored ceiling and decorative tile only amplify the din. But if you can tolerate the noise, you'll find some superb dishes. The extensive drinks list features specialty and vintage cocktails like the Champagne Charlie (champagne and Grand Marnier with a sugar cube soaked in blood orange bitters). The one-page menu has surprising breadth without seeming scattershot: there's everything from oysters, rabbit pate, and venison carpaccio to a juniper-braised goat ragout, caramelized lobster with lemon quinoa, and roast saddle of elk. Save room for dessert: sweets like the sticky toffee cake make a perfect finish. Brunch items include buckwheat waffles, egss Benedict, and a traditional Irish breakfast. —Rob Christopher

Goose Island Brewpub

1800 N. Clybourn | 312-915-0071

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN contemporary/regional | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 1

Last year former Mas chef John Manion gave the menu at this brewpub a makeover, taking a new approach emphasizing the pairing of locally sourced foods with brewmaster Greg Hall's prolific rotation of beers. The kitchen fell in line with current snout-to-tail doctrine, receiving and butchering whole animals, and the brewery even began sending its spent grain back to farmers to use as animal feed. Now Manion's moved on to Branch 27, but Goose Island has promoted longtime in-house chef Andrew Aroza to keep his legacy alive with dishes like house-made goat sausage with pickled brussels sprouts. —Mike Sula

Hopleaf

5148 N. Clark | 773-334-9851

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, EUROPEAN | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Michael and Louise Roper's Hopleaf has always been a great bar with a few tragic flaws. The staggering selection of beers with an emphasis on Belgians can be daunting for novices to navigate without assistance, and occasionally stony bartenders are sometimes unwilling or too overwhelmed to provide it. A victim of the Check, Please! phenomenon, it can get so unbearably crowded on weekends that it's advisable to avoid it entirely. Still, there's an extremely detailed beer menu that helps, and there's no place like this one to explore the deep Belgian tradition of pairing great beer with food—not to mention good food cooked with great beer, the most celebrated and enjoyable example being the mussels steamed in Wittekerke white ale, with long, crispy frites and a tangy aioli. I also like the red cabbage and endive salad, the toasted Nueske ham sandwich on pumpernickel with Gruyere and apple coleslaw, and the hearty stews, currently goat. But one of the coolest things about Hopleaf is its commitment to the proper way of drinking—many drafts are poured in their own glasses, designed to accentuate the special qualities of each. The kitchen's open till midnight on weekends, other nights till 11 PM. —Mike Sula

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