1224 W. Webster Ave. 773-248-0900
Rating: !! 1/2 (out of four) Take it or leave it
With a reputation built on solid bar food and plenty of drinks at spots such as The Irish Oak and Jack's Bar and Grill, Big Onion Tavern Group is at it again with its new Southern-inspired hangout Derby. The Lincoln Park bar and restaurant sits in the larger-than-it-looks space that used to hold Charlie's Ale House. While we don't tend to crave mint julips in the winter, we decided to give it a go, stopping by the sports-focused spot on a recent Thursday night for a late dinner and drinks.
Here we go again with the Southern thing...
From deviled eggs to cornbread to whole restaurant themes (Barn & Company and Farmhouse come to mind), Southern-tinged comfort food is becoming nearly as common in Chicago as the gastropub. When done right (and Derby does them well), the hearty bites are great padding for a night out drinking. But the whole thing is starting to feel a bit been there, ate that. And Derby does little to stand out among the pack.
Keep your voice down
Tucked away just off of Racine Avenue on Webster Avenue, the neighborhood is decidedly residential despite its close proximity to the DePaul campus. The dinner crowd brought a smattering of late twentysomething couples occupying oversize booths and tables in the main room, with a few larger groups watching games on TVs in the back part of the building. Around 10:30 p.m., the typical Lincoln Park wind of change swept in, bringing with it groups of 21-plus college kids ready to kick back.
You'll go back for the beer
The bar has 24 brews on tap -- a mix of local, craft and national brands. From Half Acre to Two Brothers to Lagunitas, there's something for everyone. The bar served up a monster 22-ounce mug of Goose Island's Sofie for $10, which is enough to keep Derby on my list to return to for a drink. And if nothing on the draft menu suits your taste, there are plenty of big name bottles (Miller, Bud etc.) along with some imports (Chimay, Delirium) and a smattering of craft bottles and cans, including three choices form Ska Brewing. In a nod to the Kentucky-esque theme, the drink menu is rounded out with a hearty selection of bourbon and a few racing-themed cocktails, but the atmostphere lends itself more to downing some cold brews than sipping something more pricey.
The food isn't game-changing
But when it comes to slightly-upgraded bar food, the menu at least offers variety. Starters include basics like wings, pretzels and nachos alongside more Southern-theme choices such as fried pickles and hush puppies. The pickles ($7) were good and the spicy dipping sauce that came alongside added an extra kick. The hush puppies ($9), however, were disappointingly bland; despite being billed as having jalapeno in them, there was no fire here. Entrees such as baked mac 'n' cheese, burgers and po' boy sandwiches come in huge portions for the money ($9-$16). Derby's signature dish, the Kentucky Hot Brown ($14), is a traditional open-face sandwich of turkey, ham and bacon, smothered in melted smoked gouda and tomatoes. The dish easily could be the next best hangover cure for any diner-loving Chicagoan. Just be careful ordering it for dinner -- this thing is seriously rich.
The theme isn't overwhelming
There aren't huge photos of horses everywhere, but there are plenty of pleasant jockey-silk patterns (including on the menus) and even a few derby cars. The overall look comes off more as the typical rich wood-and-leather booth sports bars than anything too theme-y. There are plenty of TVs above the bar for big games, but if you want to ignore them, you certainly can. The music managed to keep to a somewhat indie/southern rock soundtrack, so country music haters need not fear.
Expect big things for the Kentucky Derby
With a theme like this, a big, year-round patio, plenty of TVs and bartenders who know how to sling mint juleps, I'll have my eye on Derby in May as the place to watch the race.
Derby is what it bills itself to be -- a sports bar with a bias toward horse racing and Southern fare. Don't go in expecting a gourmet meal or a craft cocktail, but don't rule it out for a fun stop on your next Lincoln Park bar crawl. Ultimately, though, the bar will need to rely on events and mixing up its menu to stand apart from the other Southern-inspired spots in town.