Things did not begin well at the Grid. On a recent visit, before I even reached the host stand to ask for a table, a bro rushed up to me and immediately started chatting me up. I quickly sidestepped him and headed to the bar, where I sipped a Rush Street (an acceptable rendition of a boulevardier, a negroni that swaps whiskey for the gin), and watched some sort of loud office bonding excursion while waiting for my friend to arrive. When she arrived, she ordered the Midway (each drink is named for something in Chicago), a gin-based cocktail made with St. Germain, grapefruit juice, jalapeno and lime, a drink that was inexplicably thick and almost chewy.
In case it wasn't clear—the Grid is not a fine dining spot, it’s a River North sports bar. It used to be located in the basement below Baume & Brix, but when the restaurant closed earlier this year, the Grid moved upstairs and took over. And they brought in Dirk Flanigan, formerly of the Gage, to create a food menu, which immediately turns a restaurant into one you should check out, regardless of the setting.
And, as we started to get into, the setting is frenetic. Sports are playing on giant televisions, but the loud music drowns them out. The bar area is clearly a spot where River North workers are coming to let loose. The dining area, which has a mix of booths and tables, is a little calmer and not a bad spot to watch a game, provided you don’t care about actually hearing it. After our disinterested bartender told us that she’d send the host over to seat us (she didn’t), we went up and requested seats. We pretty much had our pick, since the weekday action is definitely in the bar, not the dining room.
But let’s get to why we’re actually here—the food. Flanigan was the opening chef and has since moved on. (He just revamped the menu at Green Door Tavern and is planning to open a solo project called Il Coniglio.) Eric Romero is the executive chef, and he’s turning out a menu of dishes mostly based on typical sports bar fare—pizza, burgers, sandwiches and wings—but elevated and much better executed.
Calamari is extremely light and served with charred leeks and a piquant cocktail sauce. Meaty chicken wings are crispy and gilded with a buffalo-blue cheese coating. A nicely spiced, generous amount of housemade sausage is tucked into a roll with sweet peppers, tomato sauce, melty provolone and spicy giardiniera.
The only miss, besides the chewy cocktail, was the orb of burrata, which was a bit too dry and served with an overdressed arugula salad, vinegar chips (to scoop everything up?), and a perplexing smattering of salmon roe. The whole thing was just too salty and unappealing.
The pizza, though, was the most surprising—a wood burning pizza oven is visible from the dining room—and the crust on our mushroom pizza, which was also topped with a handful of arugula, taleggio cheese and black truffle, was slightly charred and smoky, but appealingly so, and well-salted.
The Grid is not a spot for a quiet date or nice night on the town. But for a quick bite after work while ignoring the music and watching a game? I can’t think of a sports bar with food any better than here.