The Bristol

  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
Critics' pick
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Photograph: Jill Paider
Most Excellent Contemporary American Restaurants in Chicago: The Bristol
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By the time I made my first visit to the Bristol, I’d gone online and read its menu, reread its menu and then read it again. To say it had a pull on me would not be accurate; it was more that it seemed to know me, as if the simple language of it was making an appeal to my specific weaknesses for fat, cheese, pickles and bread. I don’t think I was the only one who felt this way. When I watched the dining room fill up and saw people lining the walls, impatiently sucking down ginger-spiked cava sangria as they waited for my seat to be vacant, I got the feeling a lot of people have been waiting to get their hands on this food.

It should be noted that at least some of the people I saw waiting were shunning seats at one of the two communal tables and holding out for a table of their own. Me, I scanned the room and saw that the individual tables were arranged in such proximity to each other that the communal tables actually seemed roomier. And as I soon learned, there’s an added benefit to a communal table: It’s easier to scope out dishes before committing to ordering them. I couldn’t help but notice that, one night, after my companion and I swooned over the combination of crisp, acidic fruit and creamy Manchego in the heirloom apple salad, the couple across the communal table from us ordered it, too. Same thing with the fried sardines, which they must have overheard us rhapsodize about, and for the crispy chicken thigh (pictured), which that night came with warm strands of shredded zucchini. And after we were stunned into silence by the devastatingly delicious egg-and-ricotta-filled, brown-butter-topped raviolo, they got one, too.

So I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty when they followed us a fourth time and ordered the dill-and-sea-salt monkey bread, because I should have warned them that it doesn’t taste nearly as good as it sounds. In fact, it’s just plain bread, the dill flavor so mild as to be undetectable, and it’s put to best use sopping up remnants of other dishes (like that raviolo). I felt a similar pang of disappointment with the “smoky fritters,” which also failed to meet the menu’s description (they were not so much smoky as they were oddly sweet), and again with the watermelon ice, a chalkboard special that turned out to be a weak, watery dessert. And while the Parmesan-crusted sausages and the “chicken wings” (boneless wing meat rolled with chorizo) had good flavors, they had problems with texture (the sausage was chewy, the wings crumbled apart) that distracted from their taste. Turns out the evocative, simple and (this is important) affordable menu that wooed me couldn’t prepare me for dishes that were too simple or otherwise flawed. And since half of the Bristol’s menu consists of its ever-changing chalkboard specials, it’s hard for a critic to weed out most of the offending dishes. So here’s my best advice: If the beer cheese is anywhere on the menu, start there. And go ahead and get the burger, because it’s fat and juicy yet, somehow, not overwhelming. If the puddinglike chocolate sabayon is available, finish with that. And finally, sit at one of the communal tables, being careful to pay close attention to what’s being eaten—enthusiastically, that is—around you.

Venue name: The Bristol
Address: 2152 N Damen Ave

Cross street: between Shakespeare and Webster Aves
Opening hours: Brunch (Sat, Sun 10am–2pm), dinner
Transport: El stop:Blue to Western. Bus:50,73,74.
Price: Average main course: $19
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