The things that I loved about the Half Acre tap room (one of my favorites places in all of Chicago) were its rough-around-the-edges feel and free-for-all seating. A visit typically involved hanging out at the bar and eyeing tables as others finished their last sips of beer, looking for an opening. I always knew I’d come out of Half Acre with a hoarse voice and a belly full of delicious brews.
But Half Acre changed its tune in January when it started serving its own food menu, which features burritos and plated entrees such as ribs, soup and salad. Until the menu debuted, visitors had long been able to bring in food from surrounding restaurants along Lincoln Avenue—including places like Bad Apple, House of Wah Sun and Lou Malnati's.
The seating process has also changed—now you put your name on a list and wait for a table, which could be small or large. When it gets crowded, the the tap room's design gets in the way of its new use, forcing servers to push past groups of people vying for a pint. Some groups seek solace along the left wall, blocking a side of the main row of tables from exiting their seats.
All of the changes have made the tap room feel more structured and formal. The tables were designed for sipping on drafts while scarfing down a burger. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the loud, echoing space isn’t the ideal locale for a sit-down dinner. On my first visit, I couldn’t hear the people I was sitting with (which has always been a problem, but now I feel pressured to be quieter), forcing me to nod along to my tablemate's unfortunately one-sided conversation.
Then there’s the food. At first glance, the menu looks quirky and interesting, offering some twists on typical bar food. What you actually get is a rather mixed bag. Take the chicken noodle burrito: It’s packed with Amish chicken, mirin glaze, snap peas and mushrooms, but comes off as a sweet and spicy Thai dish wrapped in a still-cold tortilla (it clearly had not been grilled). On my second visit, I decided to ask my server for a suggestion. The result was the grilled bok choy, described as “like nothing else I’ve ever had." It was perfectly fine, stirred with rice and tomato gravy and eaten alongside flatbreads.
Among the best things on the menu? You can't go wrong with the nachos, a greasy dish topped with “science cheese” (I’m still wondering what this is, but my guess is a white version of nacho cheese), sliced chorizo, jalapeños and oxtail. The cheesy okra hominy, which is like a wacky version of mac and cheese, is also a great choice.
After my first visit, I felt like I'd struck out. I looked around and noticed that hardly anyone else ordering food, despite the fact that it was dinnertime on a weekend—never a good sign. My second visit, in the middle of an afternoon, felt closer to the experience of the old Half Acre tap room, but still felt like a letdown. The bar area was loud and rambunctious, but servers were still asking groups at the bar to move to make room for treks to the kitchen.
Half Acre's tap room simply wasn’t designed to be a sit-down restaurant. It worked as a place for people to gather and drink beer, filtering in and out of the available tables as parties came and went. The addition of food service calls attention to the shortcomings of the space, one that the expanding brewery has clearly outgrown. It's possible that the menu is just a pilot for the forthcoming restaurant at Half Acre's new 2050 W Balmoral Street brewery. If that's the case, I'd prefer that the Lincoln tap room stick to what it's best at: Serving wonderful beer.