Bar food is almost by definition underwhelming. After all, why would anyone bother to lavish any creativity on empty calories, consumed primarily in order to prolong the feasible length of a drinking binge? Thus, apart from the occasional git-’er-done mini-burger, in American bars one mostly encounters only pre-packaged, salted foods served in communal bowls, passed around among the patrons like a sort of crappy Dionysian eucharist.
This is a crying shame for a variety of reasons. For one thing, from a daily calorie-budget perspective, those puny little White Castle–type burgers ain’t cheap. A typical serving of two or three burgers might set you back 400 calories—in other words, a fifth of a day’s worth. To take the caloric-budget perspective a little further, consider the fact that the typical college drinking binge already contains a “fixed cost” of four or five hundred calories of (what ought to be unpalatable) “American-style light lager.” If you want to bring your joy-per-calorie average up into anything like a healthy range, then that little midnight snack better be damn tasty.
It also should be borne in mind what a wonderful treat good bar fare can be. My favorite restaurant in all Madrid is a loud, seedy tapas bar in Chueca called El Tigre, where the pork fat glistens and gleams, steaming up the Sauce Andaluz–flecked glass panels of the deli-style counter. At the world-famous Boquería in Barcelona, the best fish is grilled fresh on flattops, a mere 18-inch stretch of oak bar from the thronging patrons. You walk up, you point, they grill, you eat—it’s absolutely marvelous. I know a pub in Donegal, Ireland that serves delicious wild Atlantic salmon in a perfect parsley sauce, right at your dark little table—the best place to eat in the whole country, I think.
The South Side’s tradition of late night rib joints is a bit of a step in the right direction. The one thing I can say about them is you really ought to order your rib tips chopped small, no matter where you are. It’s a very good sign if a ribs place has its own wood-burning smoker, and a very bad sign if they close by 10 p.m.
The gourmet scotch bar-cum-gastropub is another heartwarming trend. The Duke of Perth, at 1913 North Clark Street, is a great place to try. I went Wednesday for all-you-can-eat fish and chips night: my, my. Just delicious. The macaroni and cheese bites are also wonderful: basically a deep-fried chunk of mac and cheese, served with a tasty pink sweet and sour dipping sauce. A waiter told me many of the bar patrons come specifically in to demolish two or three appetizer portions of the cheese bites. Of course, I wasn’t that silly; I also had a lovely Glenmorangie with a sherry finish, and a “skullsplitter” ale or two.
The Silver Palm, on 770 North Milwaukee right near the Blue Line, is also a laudable attempt at the genre. Honestly, my duck wings were dry and my pike was cold, but at least they’re trying. The Peter’s Old Style ale the server recommended was, however, a succulent molasses infusion that would have gone quite well with pike (were it not such bad pike), and they deserve kudos for that. The railroad-dining theme they have going is also quite kitschy-cool.
Bar Louie’s mini-burgers ($2 on Tuesdays) are acceptable, I’m told, though I’m not a huge fan of the genre. You can’t go wrong with the extremely solid Ruben they make at the Pub—although closing their kitchen at 10:30 almost defeats the purpose. The food at Chant is chewy, over-priced and generally unremarkable, but they have “good” mixed drinks (i.e., mixed drinks that don’t taste like alcohol. I’m not a huge fan).
The best late night, drunken meals in Hyde Park, however, are available at one place, and at one
place only: my kitchen. I suspect that will continue to be the case. So try and stay on my good side.