Toby Keith would love this bar. In fact, it’s his kind of place.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry. You’re among the 99 percent of urbanites who don’t either. With their new country-western theme park of a tavern, Bub City, Jerrod, Molly and R.J. Melman are banking it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the lyrics to Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar.” You don’t care that Keith is the Guy Fieri of country music, and that he and his overproduced pop-country cohorts are on constant rotation at Bub City. You will tune it out. You will yell over it to grab the attention of the bartender, who is scanning the crowd for hotties to send Bud Light cans to. You will drink many of these while waiting an hour for a table, then yell even louder as it gets later, the crowd gets drunker, the band takes the stage and, suddenly, everyone around you is adding a twang to their order of fried clam “yella-bellies” and “giddy up fries.”
And you’ll have a pretty good meal, especially if you stick to the sparkling-fresh seafood platter (blue crab fingers, snow crab legs, raw oysters and shrimp cocktail—a crazy-good value at $25), proper Southern sides like spoon bread, and impeccable banana cream and chocolate–peanut butter pies. You’ll also have a good drink at Bub City, if you go for the impressive cocktails designed by Paul McGee but executed deftly by slammed bartenders. (The bourbon-based Riverboat Gambler is the way to go, the fresh lemon juice balancing a touch of maple syrup and molasses bitters.) And you can even have decent barbecue, including those crispy-edged Kansas City–style burnt ends, sticky and luscious all at once. But there are also middling renditions of pulled pork and brisket, and rubbery ribs, the fate of a kitchen trying to get the timing right between its Southern Pride smoker and the constantly packed dining room.
Barbecue fiends will have to be patient to see if consistency catches up with potential, while curious diners will have to weigh the prospect of stellar seafood and tasty cocktails against crushing crowds and a cloying shtick (and you really have to see the place to appreciate just how much the country concept is jammed down the throat, from the beer-can formation of the American flag to the pissing cowboy in the ladies’ room). Regardless of what those two camps do, the Melman boys are counting on their unflappable following to make a concept as polarizing as commercial country-western work in downtown Chicago. If Big Star can sell the outlaw-country honky-tonk shtick to tattooed hipsters feigning the “Ramblin’ Man” blues, Lettuce Entertain You can get droves of downtown yuppies to drop a $5 cover for a new-country cover band playing “Hillbilly Bone.” If everybody’s just looking to have a good time, who cares if no one knows the words?