Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Bar & Pub Food Edition

For the most part I try to eat pretty healthy. You know that; you see my salads and my Greek yogurt and my recipes filled with veggies, chicken, and whole grain pastas. There is something about bar food though, that makes me forget all of that. Greasy, cheesy, deep-fried and perfect with a beer is how you'd typically describe bar food and you would be mostly right.

Chicago has a bustling bar scene with plenty of run-of-the-mill places serving mediocre pub food. Lately though, we have seen more and more bars and taverns show up in the city specializing in craft beers, locally sourced ingredients, and upscale spins of standard bar food. And I love it! Here are four bars we have been to lately where the food may very well outshine the drinks... although I'd recommend the drinks too!


The Motel Bar
River North

The Motel Bar is a little off the beaten path for the River North neighborhood-- situated on the far west side right next to the river. They have a spacious patio outside and the inside is a retro 60's & 70's-inspired lounge atmosphere. Alex and I stopped in for a low key weeknight date recently and it was the first time either of us had been here in a few years-- and the first time ever for food. Their food was surprisingly good. They have a wide variety of standard bar foods available like sandwiches, salads, and flatbreads.

We started with an order of the buffalo wings, which Alex consumed on his own. He really liked them and although I am not a fan of wings in general, I was digging the quirky presentation. I'm always up for trying mac and cheese and was intrigued by Motel Bar's potato chip topped version. I ordered a small portion, which was a perfect cup of mac and cheese and I loved it-- it was a saucy mac and cheese (my favorite kind) and the potato chip topping gave it a fun salty crunch. For my entree, I ordered the shrimp tacos which were a special that evening. The waitress recommended them and it was a great choice-- lightly breaded and crispy shrimp with shredded cabbage, avocado, pico de gallo, and a spicy avocado crema.

While the food here is very good for bar food, the service is spotty. The staff is nice, but not very attentive. We did a lot of waiting-- and I have heard that from other friends that have stopped in here. Bear that in mind when you stop by The Motel Bar, but if you're in the neighborhood and looking for a good dinner in a laidback atmosphere this is a great option.
Motel Bar on Urbanspoon

Old Town Social
Old Town

Old Town Social is one of my Chicago standbys for good bar food. First, I love the space: It's a spacious bar and restaurant, also with a great outdoor seating area. The decor is eclectic-- a modern twist on an old fashioned "sports parlour" with fireplaces, cushy parlour furniture, and wood paneled walls displaying flat screen TVs. I'd also point out that the bar scene in the Old Town neighborhood is a bit odd... from the very divey to the very clubby, they have them all. This place is more my speed: upscale, but still comfortable and trendy, but not pretentious.

They have a huge and eclectic beer selection here, which my husband was enjoying after his brother turned him on to sour beers (that sounds gross to you too, right?). Like the atmosphere, the food here is a more upscale and modern twist on traditional pub food. Think conventional old school pub fare, but fancier.

One of my favorite things to order here whether we come for dinner or just for drinks, is the warm pretzel bites. It's a perfect little snack to share-- soft pretzels portioned into bite size nuggets served with two dipping sauces: beer cheese sauce and a tangy mustard. I don't think I have ever been here and not ordered it.

Normally I order a salad for dinner here (they have one with beets that I love), but that night, Alex and I both decided to order burgers for dinner. They have several different burger options on the menu (including a Build Your Own option), which is perfect for us because Alex and I could not be more different when it comes to our taste in burgers. He ordered his beef burger with a fried egg and poblanos on top. I went with my standard turkey burger topped with Gruyere, caramelized onions, and bacon. We both loved our burgers and the option to order them exactly how we wanted them.
Old Town Social on Urbanspoon

HUB 51
River North

I have sung the praises of various other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants here before, but brace yourself-- I'm about to do it again. HUB 51 is a modern bar and restaurant in the heart of River North. It's loud, energetic, and casual-- a perfect place to meet up for drinks and snacks after work, but with food good enough to enjoy for any meal. I have dined here for brunch, lunch, dinner, and snacks so I know what I am talking about.

The menu here is more eclectic than some of of the other bars and pubs in this post. HUB 51 serves everything from tacos to salads to sushi to burgers to their famous carrot cake. I almost always order a salad here because they have some really tasty and interesting combinations like their Del Mar salad with crab, shrimp, and jicama or the Sonoma Salad that I tried this time around. It has grapefruit, avocado, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and dried cranberries, which is tasty enough on its own. I added a seared salmon filet and it was the perfect way to round out this entree salad.

But let's talk about the real star of the meal here: The pulled chicken nachos. If you order nothing else here, order these nachos. It's a huge portion of housemade tortilla chips topped with braised chicken, melty cheese, sour cream, guacamole, salsa, and fresh jalapenos. The combination of toppings is so tasty and the plate is so huge that if it's just two of you, this may be all you need to order. Except for carrot cake. You may also want to order the carrot cake.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

Farmhouse
River North

Last, but certainly not least, let's talk about Farmhouse. Alex and I really love Farmhouse. It's a "Midwest craft tavern" and almost everything on the menu is locally sourced from farms, bakeries, breweries, distilleries, and other artisans in Illinois and the surrounding states. I'm a huge fan of buying local so this on top of the fact that the food is consistently good is why I love coming here. The menu is tweaked seasonally, but always stays true to a theme of modern twists on homestyle Midwestern classics.

I have tried countless delicious dishes here: the mac and cheese, beet and rocket salad, fresh cut tavern chips, roasted chicken, the daily seasonal flatbread... I could go on. I don't know that I have ever tried anything that I didn't love here. Like the nachos at HUB 51 though, there is one item that I always have to order here: the Beer Battered Wisconsin Cheese Curds. Farmhouse is actually where I tried cheese curds for the first time, which was both a blessing a curse-- a blessing because they are just so good and I realized I loved them. A curse because I have ordered them at several other bars and restaurants since only to find out that not many places make them like Farmhouse does. Here, they are perfectly soft and crispy, served with housemade ketchup and a spicy aioli dipping sauce. One night Kit and I stopped in for just drinks and cheese curds after work and called it "dinner." Delicious.

Farmhouse is one of those great neighborhood spots where you can grab a drink for happy hour, stop in for a casual lunch, or enjoy a cozy dinner date. I'd recommend it for any of those occasions. Any time.
Farmhouse on Urbanspoon

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