Following in the footsteps of Monty Python, The Beatles, and Hugh Laurie, the British gastropub is taking over America. In the last five years or so, dozens of restaurants from New York to L.A. have opened with a specific focus on creative, extensive beer lists and seasonal gourmet food. Chicago lays claim to at least twenty such establishments, including the well-known Hopleaf, Gage, and the recently opened Publican. A visit to their peer, the Bristol, revealed a relaxed, pleasant standard for experiencing the best aspects of the gastropub phenomenon.
The Bristol, a relatively new Bucktown institution, maintains an invitingly casual air despite evident attention to its status as a gourmet eatery. Its dining area blends together delicate lighting, hardwood floors, and polished tables with white kitchen chairs, communal seating, and earth-toned brick walls. Servers are dressed in brown T-shirts and jeans, but they give the Hong Kong-trained Peninsula Hotel’s staff a run for their money.
New American dishes with attention to portion size are the Bristol’s trademark. The menu sorts the food into bar snacks, sides, medium dishes, and large dishes. Adjacent to the beautiful wood bar, an enormous chalkboard wall showcases the handwritten specials of the day in the same format.
We began with a sampling of the beers and cocktails that the restaurant claims as its specialties. The craft beers selection featured new draft brews from the local Half Acre as well as some of the more unusual Goose Island creations. Cocktails are made in the spirit of a homespun speakeasy, with handmade syrups and fresh juices and bitters. A Pisco Sour, while nothing revolutionary, was well-shaken and balanced.
The fresh produce and fish, on the other hand, was absolutely revolutionary. A simple order of grilled spring onions, romesco, and breadcrumbs resulted in an enticing dish where charred, sweet, and spicy flavors intermingled with the crisp texture of the buttery breadcrumbs. The Caesar salad made no attempt to rely on anchovies to provide the dressing’s distinctive flavor. Instead, the salad featured another spoil of the sea: an expertly grilled, briny piece of mackerel gently nestled in a bed of fresh romaine greens and supplemented by buttery croutons. Just imagine a childhood seaside vacation and the salty freshness of jumping into the rolling surf, then add fresh lettuce.
The egg sandwich is equally capable of transporting you back to your childhood; that is, if your parents ever had the pretentious, strange, or simply brilliant urge to add pork belly and duck-fat fries to your brown bag lunch. The egg itself, farm-fresh and gently fried, let loose an intense, nearly orange yolk upon attack by a greedy fork and knife. Ensuing cascades of orangish-yellow protein drenched the thick slices of pork belly underneath the egg. Even then, the fries were surprisingly the best part of the dish. Perfectly crisp and barely greasy, the fries’ fine film of duck fat lingered pleasingly on the back of the mouth for several hours. Egg yolk triumphantly returned in the ricotta and brown butter raviolo—a creamy, delectable pasta dish that hit perfection, incorporating all four major ingredients in each mouthful.
Well-prepared, hearty meals and a great selection of beers define the American gastropub. The Bristol adds local, seasonal ingredients, care even to its cocktails, and sophisticated service. It is relatively affordable in comparison to similar establishments—the maximum price for a dish is $18—but admittedly pricier than your local dive bar and McDonald’s. Don’t know about you, but we’ll choose whatever gives us duck fat and egg yolks.