The bar at City Winery (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Review: City Winery
1200 W. Randolph St. 312-733-9463
Rating: !! (out of 4) Give it some time
Nearly everything about City Winery is big.
Hop out of a cab in front of the huge West Loop warehouse it was built into and the first thing you'll see is a sign shaped like a massive wooden barrel on the facade. Step inside and you'll find yourself in a foyer that feels a little like a hotel lobby and a lot like an oversized wine cellar. Through one brick archway, there's a 175-seat dining room with views through a glass wall of what soon will be a working winery. Through another archway, there's a 300-seat music venue where you can order dinner at your table before a concert. Not to mention private party spaces and a 175-seat wine garden.
A preview party last week brought out local heavyweights—Mayor Emanuel, for one—and City Winery's creator Michael Dorf (the music producer behind the first City Winery and famous concert venue Knitting Factory, both in New York) has been talking a big game about CW's arrival in Chicago. "CW Chicago is our 2.0," reads a quote from Dorf on the winery's web site. "We learned a lot in NY and have improved the physical layout, the operational logistics, taken the best of our menu, programming, and put together an all-star management team."
Hungry for a first taste, we scoured the concert lineup, made a reservation for dinner and hung out at the bar during opening weekend. And … we were not impressed. Like full-on McKayla Maroney not impressed.
A backed-up kitchen is par for the course at a new restaurant, especially one of this size where pretty much everyone in both the dining room and the concert space wants to order dinner at the same time. But surely the kitchen will get the hang of that in coming weeks, and really, that was the least of the problems. Here's what we'd like to see tweaked before we'd consider going back.
Tell us more about the wine
During dinner, the only thing our server had to say about the 18 house wines on tap was that they're not actually being made in-house yet (they're being shipped in from NYC until Chicago's first wines are ready early next year) and that a few of them weren't available at all. He spent more time describing the bouquet of his favorite wine from the backside of the menu, which features bottles from other wineries. Call us crazy, but we didn't come here to drink some other winery's juice. We had even worse luck at the bar, where our bartender seemed unfamiliar with the menu and wasn't able to suggest a pairing for certain dishes. It's too bad, because the house wines we did try, from the malbec rosé ($12) made with Argentinean grapes to the Downtown White (a blend of muscat, gewurztraminer and pinot gris from California, $10), were perfectly lovely.
Give us some more space at the bar
Despite the drink-centric-sounding name, City Winery's super-sized dining area is mostly devoted to group tables, with space for a little more than a dozen to post up at the bar itself. Because the bartenders are also busy trying to get pours out to the rest of the room, we found ourselves dealing with distracted staff. Despite telling a bartender that we needed to take a minute to decide on a second round, he brought another glass of the same and was off before we could object. We'd love to make a regular habit out of swinging by for a glass, but this bar isn't really built for that. The wine garden wasn't open during our visit, but now that it's open for drinks only, perhaps that'll be a better option.
Update the outdated food
If City Winery opened in New York in 2008 and the Chicago menu is "best of" New York's, why do some of the dishes feel ripped from a Naperville wine bar menu circa 2005? Panini flights and molten chocolate cake are not going to hold their own on Randolph Street—especially when the sandwiches are under-filled and the cake is overdone.
Improve the food that's not outdated
Duck tacos ($10 for three) were so comically tiny we were compelled to take a photo. Paella balls ($13)
are a fun Spanish spin on Italian arancini, but these spheres of rice and the occasional chunk of shrimp tasted more like chewy hush puppies. Ahi tuna ($25) with tamarind-lobster sauce, split yellow peas, fennel pollen and shaved cucumber sounded interesting on paper but both looked and tasted boring on the plate. A classic burger featured a good quality, cooked-just-right patty, but a meager dollop of goat cheese isn't very indulgent for $17. Everybody loves pizza, but the $10 brick-sized margherita flatbread tasted as unremarkable as the ones Crocodile gives away for free. Even a simple snack such as sweet potato fries was a fail, not for the $6 price, but because most corner bars in town do better than the sad, soggy pile that arrived at our table.