Tavernita in River North (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
The first time I had steak tartare was at Maude's Liquor Bar.
Hardly a late bloomer when it comes to the wonder of raw beef and runny egg -- I was only 24.
But if it hadn't been for the drinks, the crushing crowd at the bar, the desperate rush for late table reservations and hip soundtrack that surrounded Maude's when it first opened, I may never have tried it. Or oysters. Or a lobster roll. Or fried duck skin.
Because, like many of my 20-something peers, I spend my time dining and drinking in bars.
If you pay attention to the writing of Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel (hint: you should), then you may already be familiar with the term "nitropub."
Don't panic. The word is new. And just like "fetch" in "Mean Girls," I'm not just sure it's going to catch on. But the idea behind it -- a label for the restaurant-nightclub hybrids that seem to be dominating the scene lately -- couldn't be more on-topic.
Vettel points to the Melman brothers' Paris Club, Studio Paris and RPM Italian; Brendan Sodikoff's Maude's and Gilt Bar and restaurant siblings Mercadito and Tavernita as a few examples -- spots characterized by their pretty young crowds, too-loud-for-discussion music and food. Not just good food, but review-worthy food. Vettel-worthy food.
"Even if much of the clientele seems oblivious of the kitchen's effort," he points out.
It's true that the parade of mini-dressed, high-heeled girls filling the booths at these spots may look like they care more about hitting the dance floor than savoring every bite. Sure, they may be Instagramming every course at Tavernita and tweeting every 5 minutes from their meal at Paris Club, but not because they hate what they're eating. If these people only cared to mix and mingle and didn't give a second thought to the quality of the food, they'd go somewhere less expensive and more Red Bull-fueled.
I like to think these bar/restaurant/club hot spots are popular because they're an accessible door into an amazing world of Chicago restaurants. I feel more comfortable sitting down at a table at Paris Club than I ever would have at Crofton on Wells. It would take most of my paycheck to eat at the likes of Alinea, Spiaggia, Graham Elliot or Tru, and I definitely wouldn't have money left over to keep the night going with cocktails and people-watching at a club afterward.
But someday soon (perhaps very soon, the way my bedtimes have been inching up lately), I can see how going out for a great meal once a month could trump going out every weekend. Good food in an environment where I can relax and truly savor it will be the next move. But for now, I'm thrilled to be in a city that's let me build an appreciation for food while I'm young -- even if it does mean shouting my compliments to the chef over the din.
So bring on the nitropubs. We're better for them.
Emily Van Zandt is a RedEye reporter.
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