Mini-reviews: The Monkey's Paw and Mercer One Thirteen

First looks at food-focused bars in Lincoln Park and River North

May 29, 2012|By Emily Van Zandt | RedEye

New bars, clubs and restaurants open nearly every week in Chicago. With so much competition for customers, new hangouts either stand out—or they don't. Without the magic combination of location, quality and buzz, it can be hard to have staying power.

Recently opened Mercer One Thirteen in River North and The Monkey's Paw in Lincoln Park are both keeping bar-like hours while putting big emphasis on their food to try and draw dinner crowds. But while Mercer has a clubby vibe in the city's trendiest bar neighborhood, The Monkey's Paw is more out of the way, where the crowds seem to be more the stroller-toting set. Do they have what it takes to survive? Only time will tell.

Mercer One Thirteen

113 W. Hubbard St. 312-396-0113

Rating: 1.5 (out of four) Proceed with caution

The service: Knowing the tendency for any spot on Hubbard Street to draw a big after-work crowd, I hit Mercer early (I'm talking 6 p.m.) on a Friday. After playing the awkward stand-near-the-entrance-waiting-to-be-seated game, my friend and I decided it must be a do-it-yourself operation. Most of the dining room was empty and tables already were set with utensils and menus, so why not? A server took our orders, brought us our cocktails and it was then that disaster struck: A hostess materialized, scolding us for taking a table that was "reserved." In fact, every table in the restaurant was reserved for the night, she said, so we would have to sit at the bar. Despite all but a few tables near the front being empty, we obliged, dragging barstools around just to be able to sit together. Our ex-table remained empty until we left. So did at least 70 percent of the others.

The scene: With all the wall murals of forest scenes and glowing photos of grass, I believe the feel they're going for here is "fresh." The space is huge, with three bars and open windows facing Hubbard for prime people-watching. A DJ booth in the back is sure to change the mood on late weekend nights. While I was there, a few couples perched on barstools with groups of post-work/pre-party 20somethings taking over tables near the front. A few older groups stopped in for dinner, but really, there wasn't much going on so early. I'd expect the scene to pick up closer to 9 or 10 p.m. when Mercer is sure to get lucky with overflow from nearby Hubbard Inn, Epic or Paris Club.

The food and drinks: While I'm never expecting a bargain in River North, the price point here is steep. Seafood-heavy appetizers (including fried oysters, tempura shrimp and tuna carpaccio) start at $11 and top out at $20. My friend and I tried the meat platter, but for $13, I expected more than some stale serrano ham and three piles of the same type of salami. Cocktails will set you back $12—a number I don't mind if the drinks are high-quality. My cocktail, called the Ruby (grapefruit vodka, agave and sauvignon blanc) would have been more drinkable without the pink salt rim. In the end, two cocktails and two shareable appetizers added up to more than $50 with tip, which is comparable to what you might pay at Epic across the street, or for a few more small plates at Paris Club—but there, the food quality is clearly much higher.

Bottom line: If you're going for an upscale vibe (and price point), people will expect equally polished service. As the new kid on the block, Mercer will need to work a bit harder to earn bargoers' respect before they're ready to open their wallets. There are better ways to spend your money on this flush block.

The Monkey's Paw (pictured)

2524 N. Southport Ave. 773-413-9314

Rating: 2 (out of four) Give it some time

The setting: The Monkey's Paw opened quietly earlier this month at Southport and Lill, a location that's far enough away from major bus and train lines that it'll likely rely on neighbors for steady business. With reliable tavern Crossing just down the street, owners may have a hard time convincing bargoers to try the new spot on the block.

The crowd: The first time I visited around 10 p.m. on a Friday, the bar was so empty that my group felt like we were disturbing the few parties that were there. But the bartenders seemed excited to have us in, and quickly explained that they were still in soft-opening mode. When I stopped by earlier on my second go-around, near dinner time on a Sunday, our company included a few groups (several of which seemed to have friends on staff) and families with kids. It felt more like a corner restaurant than a bar, but at 7 p.m., that's exactly what a place like this may need.

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