Tales from the Bar

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

Bar fare used to be your standard, second-thought bar fare that just gave beer-lovers something to nosh on between brews. Times have changed, however, and we've discovered that there are plenty of bar stops in Chicago that are elevating their eats. If you're a foodie who also loves saddling up to the bar for a pint or a cocktail, then these gourmet go-tos might just be up your alley.
 

25 Degrees

{736 North Clark Street; 312.943.9700}

With a menu designed for a gourmet foodie audience, 25 degrees is dishing up some of the best grub in town—from the bar. Bacon-Wrapped Dates, a Sonoran Hot Dog wrapped in bacon, and custom burgers are all big pleasers here, but perhaps the most beloved are the Chili-Honey Chicken Wings. A wide array of beverages court all this delicious food, including “spiked” milkshakes, more than a dozen wines by the glass, and craft beers fit for a Belgian monk. Our favorite nosh: the Spicy Tuna served on crispy eggplant. 25degreesrestaurant.com

 

The Kerryman Irish Bar & Restaurant

{661 North Clark Street; 312.335.8121}

Upscale bar food at The Kerryman is something to behold: a keen craft with an eye on seasonal ingredients that is at the same time gourmet and comforting. So what is that exactly? Everything from the Southwestern Shrimp Salad and Barbecue Salmon Fillet with housemade kimchee to The Murger (pork belly and steak sauce aïoli on a bun). It's a far cry from spicy peanuts, to be sure. And if you're wondering what tipple best serves this kind of indulgence, just consider your surroundings. Nothing is better than the black stuff—Guinness, that is. thekerrymanchicago.com

 

American Junkie

{15 West Illinois Street; 312.239.0995}

For Executive Chef Kendal Duque, what's enjoyed at the bar must be something casual. As he says, people saddle up for a drink and a meal because it's comfortable and familiar. When you go gourmet, however, the focus turns to quality ingredients, simplicity, and thoughtfulness. All of that is deliciously part of the ever-popular Pork Sliders here, complete with Berkshire pork, a careful selection of Asian spices, and a crown of quail eggs. There are definitely guilty pleasures, too: Pretzel-Crusted Gouda Sticks with horseradish, for instance. It's all quite a match for more than two dozen beers, a generous selection of wines, and cocktails that call on the old and new. americanjunkiechi.com

 

The Motel Bar

{600 West Chicago Avenue; 312.822.2900}

Owner Hubie Greenwald of The Motel Bar is out for more than a snack when he ambles up to the bar. He's aiming for a casual meal. “The quality of the food is actually less important than the style of cooking,” he says. “It should be reminiscent of street food.” But, he's quick to point out, that doesn't mean chefs should skimp on the quality. To the contrary, his much-loved Motel Bar sources the best of the best—including grass-fed beef and hormone-free chicken—to fill his upscale bar food menu. For Greenwald's palate, you can't beat Motel Bar's Buffalo Wings—roasted, fried, and grilled to savory perfection. Then again, he's addicted to the chef's Mezzaluna Cipriani, a bowl of half-moon-shaped pasta filled with cheese and tossed in a tomato-cream sauce. With that kind of diversity, what's to come? “I like the idea of a rotating selection of bruschetta,” Greenwald muses. “Who doesn't like garlic toast topped with meat and cheese, or white bean purée, watercress, and white anchovies?” Who indeed. themotelbar.com

 

Dunlay's on Clark

{2600 North Clark Street; 773.883.6000}

Corporate Chef Kevin Ives knows bar food. After all, it's part of the Dunlay's concept—a classic American grill. And while many chefs point to ingredients when you ask them about bar food, Ives considers first the fact that any bar fare should be social. “We want our food to be comfortable, but have an element of refinement,” he explains. “And most of our dishes are made so they can be shared.” Take a classic comfort food, retool it for a discerning palate, and you have Dunlay's bar offerings—the likes of Lobster Deviled Eggs, a Filet Slider with truffle mayo, and Grilled Artichoke with rémoulade dipping sauce. Then again, Ives does love simplicity, as showcased by the salumi and cheese boards that rotate selections regularly. They all make apt pairs with the same drink specials the neighborhood has loved for an age, making it clear that the bar experience is more colorful than we ever imagined. dunlaysonclark.com

 

LUXBAR

{18 East Bellevue Place; 312.642.3400}

With the design and concept patterned after Adolf Loos's American Bar in Vienna, LUXBAR in Chicago's Gold Coast takes the classics of our past and reinvents them with locally-sourced ingredients in mind, executed with a keen attention to detail. Saddle up to the bar and enjoy a game or two on the big screen with the kitchen's upscale bar food treats—Truffle Fries, Sweet Chile Fried Calamari, fresh-from-the-sea Mussels, and burgers that make your heart melt. Most of the fare rotates seasonally, appropriately inspired by seasonal ingredients, but there are a few that linger year-round. Served with one of 12 rotating suds (all craft brews) or a classic cocktail with housemade bitters and hand-cut ice, a meal at the bar is more than just a stomach-filler: Environs rich with woods, a touch of gleaming gold, and a playful checkerboard floor make a stop at LUXBAR's bar an experience in itself. luxbar.com

 

The Grid

{351 West Hubbard Street; 312.321.1351}

The Grid is an unusually delightful mix of rustic and elegant, sports bar and upscale lounge. It's got a state-of-the-art Funktion-one sound system—an amenity few spots in Chicago can boast—over 20 HDTVs, and a sleek marble bar that beckons with glowing spirits lining the back. And much like its sophisticated yet comfortable character, the menu at The Grid is a perfect example of bar food taken to new heights. Case in point: the house Foie Dog. It's got caramelized onions, goat cheese, candied apricots, and truffle mayo—along with foie gras—inside a luscious bun. As Owner Steve Tavaso says, “It's really in a league of its own.” But part of what makes The Grid's food so great is that it never gets stale. The culinary team—headed by Chef Dirk Flanigan of Gage and Henri fame—is constantly putting energy into new ideas, like the upcoming army of flatbreads assembled at the Flatbread Bar, soon to be located on a whole new level of the restaurant. How can you get more creative bar food than that? thegridchicago.com

 

Rockit Bar & Grill

{22 West Hubbard Street; 312.645.6000}

For Executive Chef Amanda Downing, bar food is simple—easy fare that plays well with craft beer and touches on traditional American comfort food. When you add “gourmet” to the equation, what you get is classic eats dolled up with high-end ingredients and expert preparation. One of Rockit Bar & Grill's best examples is their gooey guilty pleasure, Cheese Fries topped with shiitake mushrooms and Brie. You could also spend some of your appetite on the Bourbon Chipotle Maple Wings and not give it two thoughts, but that's because everyone loves chicken wings—especially these wings. Coming up, Downing plans on adding a few more classics to the menu, each with her own signature: fried pickles, a wealth of homemade dips and spreads, flatbreads galore, and whatever else fits in with seasonal offerings and the classic bar food genre. But for Chef Downing, the hands-down, go-to dish must be the Cheese Fries, and it must be paired with a Goose Island Matilda, a Belgian-style pale ale. rockitranch.com

 

Vinyl Social Food & Drink

{121 West Hubbard Street; 312.222.0222}

For the team at Vinyl Social Food & Drink, traditional bar food has something of an inferiority complex. It's overdone fare, dished up right out of the deep-fryer. Which is why you'll find nothing like that in their dining room. High-quality ingredients such as hormone-free chicken, Angus beef, and local veggies make up what they've renamed “contemporary American tapas.” Among these small-bite treats, the Beef Tenderloin Sliders have long come out on top, sporting a unique blend of pickled shallots and béarnaise on pretzel buns. Then there are the healthy indulgences: Quinoa Sliders, Seafood Skewers, and Kale Salad, among others. It's all about personalizing the menu—at least for this chef. “I like to serve food that I would be proud to serve to my family, with extra attention given to product quality and ingredients,” Head Toque Vincent Munday says. It's an added bonus that this fare cozies up nicely to many a craft brew, wine, and bubbly. vinylchicago.com