Caffe Oliva draws crowds from nearby Ohio Street Beach (Barry Brecheisen )
For those who prefer sandy stretches to sleek lounges in the summertime, many of Chicago's beaches are equipped with seasonal lakefront drinking and dining options. The mostly temporary structures typically serve your standard, sometimes over-priced beer and margaritas along with hearty picnic food favorites. But a few spots are looking to draw more than just the swimsuit-clad crowd with upgraded menu offerings comparable to what you find on dry land. On two sweltering days, we dropped in on Ohio Street Beach's new Caffe Oliva and Oak Street Beach Food + Drink (formerly Oak Street Beachstro), which went through a menu revamp this summer.
Oak Street Beach Food + Drink
Rating: !! 1/2 Take it or leave it
1001 N. Lake Shore Dr., 312-988-4650
The scene: This beach is always teeming with teens on summer vacation, 20-somethings with the day off and tourists soaking up sun, and Oak Street Beach Food + Drink lures all with bright yellow umbrellas and plenty of seating. The expansive porch-like structure includes two bars and a walk-up food stand. While most of the bar stools were occupied by people recovering from their day in the water, plenty of tables were taken by groups who seemed to just be there for the view. On a day with temps in the 90s, there's little refuge from the heat, so the fewer clothes you can get away with, the better.
The food: I was slightly hesitant to order seafood from a lakeside stand, but the quality of the food here is on-par with what you'd get at a casual indoor spot. It makes sense that the food exceeded my beach-fare expectations since it was taken over last year by Levy Restaurants, the group behindSpiaggia, Jake Melnick's and others. My top choices: The Louie Louie sandwich, piled high with baby shrimp and crunchy celery ($9), hit the spot on a warm day, while fish tacos ($9 for three) were better than expected with a tasty avocado cream sauce and plenty of lime wedges.
The drinks: I do not envy bartenders working all day in the summer heat, but it's no excuse for poor service. The bar was anything but slammed, but bartenders seemed preoccupied with chatting amongst themselves. The drink menu includes a surprisingly lengthy wine list, a handful of draft beers and a longer list of canned and bottled brews. Cocktails come in two forms: pre-made frozen concoctions ($10 each) and hand-crafted mixes ($9 each) including a peach mojito, basil-blueberry mojito and a Dos Equis shandy. The basil-blueberry mojito was an overly minty disaster spiked with a different rum than the one listed on the menu—not that watching as the bartender hunted for the correct bottle, gave up, and made a substitute without asking wasn't slightly entertaining. So if a cocktail is what you crave, I recommend staying safe with a frozen option, or a super-simple mixed drink.
Bottom line: If you're out at the beach and are suddenly starving, don't overlook OSB's lunch and dinner options. The quality is there, the price is right—and no need to change out of your swimsuit. Keep in mind that there are no late-night bites; OSB closes at 10 p.m. weekdays and 10:30 p.m. on weekends.
Rating: ! 1/2 Proceed with caution
550 E. Grand Ave. 773-828-9841
The scene: I hadn't even heard of Ohio Street Beach before hiking through sand to get to a table at this lakefront cafe. Tucked next to a bank of trees just north of Navy Pier, the beach was so empty when my friend and I stopped by on a recent Saturday evening that I'm not sure anyone else know it exists, either. The bar and restaurant capitalizes on the scene by staging its tables and raised wooden cabana-like booths with clear views of water and skyline. The kitchen itself is housed in a trailer of sorts, complete with a walk-up bar and bathroom (expect port-a-potty conditions, sorry to say). Despite the location, no one looked out of place in a sundress or slacks. Take note that due to park hours, the cafe closes at 10 p.m. daily.
The food: Caffe Oliva's menu leans heavily on grilled and veggie-filled entrees, including tomato and zucchini-topped crostini, grilled asparagus with shaved parmesan, salads, grilled pizzas and panini. A grilled chicken panini topped with provolone, arugula, prosciutto and roasted pepper aioli was satisfying, but with bread that vaguely resembled that of a microwaveable Lean Cuisine meal, it didn't seem worth the $14 price tag. The pizza was similarly OK, with grilled portabello, asparagus and pepper adding flavor, but the small size and chewy crust didn't live up to its $12 price. Knock a few dollars off and we'll talk. It's clear they can get away with the pricing at such a prime location, but just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
The drinks: Cocktails here are slightly more reasonably priced than the food, around $9 on average. The Beach Bash (vodka, rum, amaretto, orange and cranberry juice, $10) was sickeningly sweet and the Perfect Storm ($7) was mostly ginger beer. If you're there for an end-of-the-day drink, stick to the house margarita ($8) which comes on the rocks in an especially large glass. After a day in the summer heat, who doesn't need a margarita in the largest glass possible?
Bottom line: The most redeeming feature of Caffe Oliva is the location. If you want a day at the beach but can't stomach the crowds of North Avenue, try Ohio Street Beach. You can't beat the convenience of a massive margarita at a waterfront bar and if you're starving, they can help you out. But don't expect it to hold its own as your destination for the evening.
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