The people of the Loop have been waiting. They’ve been waiting for an alternative to Bennigan’s or for a liquor list that goes beyond Old Crow and Miller draft. Now, thanks to Billy Lawless, the wait is over. The Ireland native and his father (same name, but call him William) ventured far from their neighborhood pubs the Irish Oak and the Grafton to open a big-deal spot on a big-deal strip of Chicago. And they did it right.
A lot of money was sunk into the Gage, and it shows—the design strikes the perfect balance between “What a swank new spot” and “Has this place been here forever?” Multiple rooms extend beyond a big, beautiful wooden bar, with shiny, sage-green subway tiles wrapping each room into the next. Booths are big and comfy, tables are dark wood and sturdy, a couple of TVs by the bar are unobtrusive, and little details give the place a touch of vintage class.
Drinks and food sport downtown prices, so plan on spending some loot and don’t look back. Like sweet ’tinis? The signature Gage Cocktail— pear Grey Goose, Aperol, clove-infused apple juice with a splash of cranberry and lime— is your drink. Are you a brown liquor sipper? The whiskey list is lengthy and expertly selected. The beer list goes beyond the basics and wines are accompanied by clever, straightforward descriptions. Assuming that even happy hour–goers need something quality to munch on, chef Dirk Flanigan has created a “snack” menu that includes shrimp cocktail (fresh but with a blah aioli), crispy chicken livers (a must-try for offal lovers) and a giant Scotch egg (a spot-on execution of the traditional pub snack of hard-boiled egg rolled in sausage then bread crumbs, fried and served with mustard). The latter is the best of the bunch and perfect with a beer.
If you’re in it for the long haul and are doing dinner, expect to fill up—everything is rich and aggressively flavorful. Smoky haddock is formed into a cake and crisped, its smokiness balanced with lemony crème fraîche. The “salad of crisp potato” is the Gage’s answer to those national chain fried-chicken salads: Crispy panko-coated potato pieces and chunks of tallegio cheese are tossed with a handful of arugula for a dieter’s nightmare (but a glutton’s dream). Richness continues with a caramelized lobster appetizer; it’s too bad the chili-soy sauce is so sweet it sabotages the already-sweet lobster, because the shellfish is perfectly cooked. Ditto for the hanger steak that was ordered medium-rare and arrived expertly seasoned, slightly charred on the edges and oozing with pink juices. The grill prowess was echoed the next day when the Gage burger came out exactly medium-rare, dripping with melted onion marmalade and gobs of stinky Midwestern Camembert. Just about the only dish that was a letdown after two coma-inducing, eatathon visits was the fish-and-chips. The overly bready fish casing was way too greasy and unseasoned. I normally wouldn’t complain about having to doctor my own dish with a splash of vinegar, a pinch of salt and a bit of tartar sauce—and I realize that across the pond seasoning is scarce—but if a couple of Irish guys have brought us this far, we want them to go all the way.