After our weekend trip to Tavern at the Park (click for address, hours and Reader Reviews), a two-week-old dining destination across from Millennium Park, all we have to say is: Let's hear it for modest ambition.
This place, with its Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design and classic American menu, doesn't feel like it's setting out to impress by excess. It seems happy enough to be the kind place you like, and maybe the kind of place you return to every once in a while. (No pressure though.)
Servers are laid back and appear to know the menu. The food is pretty decent, and manages to arrive while it's still hot. Leather booths are big and comfortable, if not trend-of-the-moment stylish.
So why does it feel like I'm damning with faint praise? It's a play-it-safe approach, by design. Even the menu wants to be cozy and familiar. Yes, there's some gilding around the edges, but it's pretty much honest-to-goodness, you-want-a-side-of- mac-'n'-cheese-with-that comfort food.
"Today, there's so much crazy stuff going on in the food world, with many young chefs trying to reinvent the wheel," said executive chef John Hogan (who also oversees the kitchen at popular Keefer's, which shares the same ownership team as Tavern at the Park) in a press release touting the opening. "For me it's about taking the old, rusty wheel out of the shed and polishing it up a bit."
The trendiest thing we ate at Tavern at the Park were gourmet sliders, called Tavern Teasers. You get your choice of a trio of sirloin burgers ($12) or Carolina pulled pork ($12) or filet mignon ($15) mini sandwiches; we got a sampler with one of each. They were all pretty good, but the tender filet was the only excellent one.
Other appetizers include Straws & Strings ($7), a basket of shredded onion rings and shoestring fries accompanied by a white truffle-oil aioli. The tastiest item, however, was the one that veered from the classic American formula: Sticky Fried Shrimp ($12), a batter-dipped shrimp in a sweet, goopy mango glaze. (Goopy Fried Shrimp might be a more accurate description, though it doesn't have quite the same ring.)
The menu also offers some decadent salads, including a BLT salad ($8) and a sirloin burger salad ($15) of shredded iceberg lettuce with green beans, tomato confit, fresh mozzarella, dill pickles, capers, red onions and blue cheese dressing.
Entrees show only minor contemporary flourishes. There's a chicken pot pie ($17), for instance, made with braised chicken, wild mushrooms, thyme and madeira. We tried the double-cut pork chop ($21)--which is enormous, by the way, so plan on leftovers--with a thin but tasty cherry cola barbecue sauce on the side. And as you might expect from a place with ties to Keefer's, there are steaks, including a grilled sirloin ($24).
The limited and not-too-expensive wine list offers mostly American selections, with plenty of familiar bottles. Whites are divided between sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and "Interesting Whites" (a.k.a. anything else). Reds offer pinot noir, merlot, zin, syrah, cab, and, again, "Interesting Reds."
The space follows the menu's lead, appearing about as cutting edge as, say, your grandpa's fuzzy slippers. Stacked flagstone columns, deep chocolate browns and rust-colored, high-traffic carpet are its hallmarks. Actually, there was one point of design controversy: a leather-like covering on the tables. It looked like leather to me anyway. One of my dining companions, a fashionista with a more sophisticated knowledge of such things, disagreed, insisting it was actually pleather. We were able to find common ground: We both thought it was awful.
Tavern at the Park, obviously, will join places like Park Grill and new gastropub The Gage as a popular tourist destination, as well as a pre-performance stop for the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which is just across the street. If you're calling for reservations, be sure to request a seat either in the bar or in the upstairs dining room in order to get one of the excellent views. With four private dining areas (the entire 100-seat second floor can be rented), folks looking for a conservative, non-controversial place to take clients or hold a lunch meeting will benefit too.
[ Chris LaMorte is the Metromix dining producer. ] email@example.com