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February 27, 2009

The Gadabout—Handlebar

February marks the first checkpoint for New Year’s resolutions. Have you been losing weight, eating healthier, or exercising more? Taken up that new hobby yet? Probably not. With the temperature still dipping below freezing, huddling in bed ensconced in a Snuggie could be considered a very reasonable alternative to self-improvement. If, however, you’re looking for a kick- start to get on the path to the new-and- improved you, take a trip to Handlebar and learn from its philosophy of bicycling and vegetarianism.

Handlebar, which incorporates these healthy ideas into an environment enlivened by local bands and craft beers, could only exist in a place like Wicker Park. The walls are covered in vintage posters (including a naked woman flying off a bicycle) and bizarre art. Intimate tables and dark lighting complete the independent coffee shop-like vibe.

Although the bar and grill tends to biker chic over PETA health nut, the menu features popular American cuisine with a vegetarian twist. Buffalo chicken wraps and barbecue both get the seitan (a meat substitute) treatment, and veggie salads and sandwiches contain creative elements such as champagne honey mustard dressing and herbed goat cheese. Mexican dishes seem to be the specialty though, given the heavy emphasis on quesadillas, burritos, and nachos.

The side dishes get only a little menu space, but the option to get three of them as a meal serves as a testament to their exceptional deliciousness. For $7.25, you can have your pick of three from choices such as fresh-cut french fries, garlic mashed potatoes, brown rice, collard greens, black beans, and chili. An extra $1.50 per side will let you select from among the premium choices, including smoked Gouda mac ’n’ cheese, a side salad, aged cheddar grits, seitan sausage, or fried plantains.

Each of the sides we tried was remarkably perfect in its own simple way. The french fries with the potato skin left on appeared deceptively normal, without any strange shapes, fancy titles, or creamy dips. You would never suspect them of being covered in delectable, addictive seasoning. The smoked Gouda flavor stood out in the hearty mac ’n’ cheese without the need for creamy drenches or crumbly crusts of cheese. A mug of robust bean-filled chili contained just enough spice to burn away the leftover trappings of winter, though it would be the laughingstock entry in any chili cook-off south of Amarillo, TX. For those whose culinary tastes venture even farther south than Texas, the fried plantains were a delightful accompaniment to a pint of beer, but maybe not the wisest dietary choice considering the amount of grease and salt.

Speaking of booze, Handlebar lives up to the last three letters of its name with a superb craft beer selection from some of the Midwest’s best microbreweries. The eatery was even featured in Beer Advocate magazine. But if you’re not quite in the mood to savor the complexities of $20 worth of limited-edition pumpkin ale, Handlebar offers more affordable beer specials every day, including a can of Tecate and a tequila shot for $5. For lighter options, there are also about 10 wines offered by the glass and a few fresh-squeezed juices.

Handlebar is a bar and grill that may lack red meat, but its waiters won’t try to give you a hug and force-feed you wheat grass. With a wonderful selection of drinks and vegetarian dishes, it stands as a pretty cheap, pretty cool, and pretty healthy alternative to the other Chicago vegetarian standbys. So take a ride up to Wicker Park and get a new start on those New Year’s resolutions.