The tag line of the aggressive casualization of dining goes something like this: “The restaurant we’re opening is the kind of place you can come to two or three nights a week.” I get what this means—we’re affordable!—but the premise that someone would actually eat at the same trendy new restaurant multiple times a week over a sustained period of time has always struck me as absurd. First off, no place with $10 glasses of wine would work (who has the money?). At scene-y places, eating alone—with the desire to stay alone—feels awkward. Is it the type of place where some people in the group could eat, others could just have a drink and the servers wouldn’t give the stink eye? If not, there’s no way. Basically, for me to imagine going to a restaurant multiple times a week, this fictional place would have to be as low-key as my living room.
When Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman told me about his decision to give a face-lift to the 15-year-old faded café adjacent to his music venue, he described the months-long rehab and the skills of the new chef, Rodney Staton, who came from Longman & Eagle (where Finkelman is also an owner); he made no claims about how often people would eat there each week. But if ever there were a new, trendy restaurant I could imagine treating like my second home, it’s Bite.
Breakfast (at least on weekdays) is quiet and easy: The coffee is Dark Matter, roasted a few blocks away. The room now has a small counter with stools, and the space is as bright and lovely as its Logan Square sibling is dim and moody. Okay, you still have to walk into the kitchen to find the bathroom. And there is still a mediocre tofu scramble, lest one forget that for the better part of a decade, Bite’s food competed with Earwax’s for most-improbable-ability-to-sustain-a-menu-oriented-around-meat-substitutes-and-sweet-potato-fries.
But this is easily forgotten by way of the Mashbrown: a crisp-on-the-outside, burger-size patty of skin-on potato mash, which is wisely tacked onto a good number of the breakfast dishes. The hollandaise over the poached-egg bruschetta is light to an overly acidic fault, but if you’ve ever experienced the other extreme—gloopy eggs Benedict, that is—you can at least appreciate the gesture.
Lunch is bolder: How could it not be when there is a fried-chicken sandwich? The chicken is juicy enough and the slaw of pickled cabbage copious enough to bring cohesion to the fried-food-on-bread combo—a far greater frying success than the merely fair french fries alongside. And while I support rolling your eyes when you see that a classic lyonnaise is listed on the menu as a “Hangover Salad,” I also support this version, lightly dressed and topped with a nicely poached egg.
At dinner, the tables and their cloud-blue chairs, intermittently occupied in the daylight hours, begin to fill up. A good third of the menu is vegetarian-friendly, an act that by and large feels less like a throwback to the ’90s than a thoughtful approach to contemporary eating. Portions are generous, the servers are at ease and, though the execution of the food can be wobbly (e.g., an underseasoned short-rib special), it is nothing if not simple and satisfying. To start, there’s a plate of little green lentils with tangy cheese and strips of lemon. The half-chicken with dozens of garlic cloves is an ideal entrée to share (and a value at $14): The salt-and-peppered skin is crisp, the chicken jus rich, the meat tender and moist. Desserts, however—dense fritters, not-quite-set butterscotch pot de crème—leave room for Bite to improve. Yet the fact that there is both no corkage fee for BYO bottles as well as a short and cheap wine list makes the understated food (and even the occasional misfire) uncommonly easy to enjoy…even a few nights a week.