When I was a kid, dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse in Boston was a special night out. I wasn’t much of a meat-eater in those days, but I loved the ceremony of the place—the white tablecloths, the buttery sauces that came with meats, the giant shrimp cocktail fanned over ice, the huge desserts. But as I got older, steakhouses started to feel too stuffy—I was getting serious about what I was drinking, I cared where my meat was coming from, and I wanted more casual, more affordable meals, not white tablecloths. Is it possible to make a steakhouse, that extravagant bastion of old-school stodginess, cool and appealing to people who prefer dining at casual, farm-to-table restaurants?
Chop Shop, the new bar/restaurant/butcher shop/event space is Wicker Park, is trying to do just that. While the menu, with steaks, chops, sides and salads, looks fairly traditional, the space is airy and open and there’s a big, separate space called the 1st Ward for special events, like Dose Market. Chop Shop is the product of a partnership between Nick Moretti, Matt Woodburn and Mario Minelli (from the family who runs Minelli Meat and Deli in Niles). Chef Joshua Marrelli, formerly of Urban Union, is in the kitchen, and Dan De Los Monteros, an Aviary and Bedford alum, handles the drink list.
So how do they do? The space is pretty—it’s spacious, cheerful and comfortable, but it’s mildly confusing where exactly you’re supposed to go. You’ll enter off of North Avenue into a butcher shop, which features a deli case, a chalkboard list of hot and cold sandwiches, and a line of seats overlooking the street. This is where you’ll order sandwiches for lunch or butcher items to go. Want a drink? Head toward the back of the first floor, where there’s a bar and a few booths along the walls. There for dinner? Go upstairs to the small dining room, which has another bar and wooden tables with cherry-red chairs. The dining room, which took me straight back to college with a soundtrack of the Postal Service and Spoon, was filled mostly with 20-and-30-something couples on dates, and I couldn’t imagine many of them choosing a more traditional steakhouse.
Once situated, it’s time for a drink, which was the clear highlight of my visits. There’s a substantial wine and beer list, but we mostly stuck with cocktails, which were all excellent. The Moretti’s Manhattan, which uses both angostura and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters, gets an upgrade with dark cherry syrup, which deepens the flavor. The Sinister Minister, made with both green and yellow chartreuse, is fruity from raspberry-huckleberry puree and lime, and comes with a bouquet of mint spritzed with chartreuse that’s set on fire tableside. The Pompelmo Bite, with a choice of gin or vodka, combines pretty much every grapefruit ingredient you think of—Stiegl Radler plus grapefruit liqueur, soda and bitters—but it’s nicely balanced. At $10 apiece, the drinks make Chop Shop a more affordable—and frankly, better—option than nearby Trenchermen or Violet Hour for a pre-dinner drink.
And if you go there just for a drink, you’ll leave thrilled. Because the food, while mostly solidly executed, just winds up being fine. The shrimp cocktail was chilled, cooked just right and served with a horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. The butcher’s board was hit or miss, with a delicious, smoky bacon-wrapped country pork pate and excellent guanciale served with odd barbecue chicken rillettes and a forgettable chicken liver mousse topped with a layer of maple-bourbon gelee. I’ve eaten many kale salads and the version here has the distinction of being the most boring kale salad I’ve ever had—it was topped with a soft-cooked egg that, when pierced, was supposed to provide a yolky dressing when combined with the balsamic vinaigrette. But the egg was overdone, and the balsamic almost non-existent, and the salad was basically a naked pile of greens.
But let’s be real, we’re here for the meat. The rib-eye came in a 16-ounce portion, and was cooked perfectly medium and flavorful. And at $34, it was substantial and felt like an affordable portion of meat. In steakhouse fashion, there are no accompaniments, so you’ll need to select a side dish. We opted for the mashed potatoes, which were a tad too smooth and buttery (words I never thought I’d write), but fine. The butcher’s burger, made with ground prime cuts and topped with aged cheddar, sweet cooked onions and smoked bacon, is dense and heavy—there was nothing to lighten it up and I could barely eat half before throwing in my napkin. At the butcher shop, cold sandwiches are available in three sizes, while hot sandwiches are only available in the 7-inch size. I opted for the meatball sub, four big meatballs doused with marinara sauce and tucked into rolls with sweet peppers and provolone. Is this a life-changing meatball sandwich? No. But at $7, it’s a pretty solid and filling option for lunch in Wicker Park.
But is it fun? Chop Shop feels like a cool place to hang out, and the bar is a very welcome addition to the neighborhood. The food may be hit or miss, but one thing is very clear—Chop Shop isn’t your parents’ steakhouse.