Walking into John’s Food & Wine on a busy Thursday night, I spotted a couple of open seats at the long marble bar. Normally, I’d make a beeline for this increasingly rare walk-in’s gift, but having just entered the back of the line at this upscale, fast-casual bistro, I hesitated. Was such self-serving behavior frowned upon?
Bar seats are indeed fair game for walk-ins at John’s, as I learned when a group behind me snagged the stools and commenced the ritual of dining out as we’ve all traditionally known it. But if you’re after a table at this Lincoln Park newcomer, you’ll queue up in front of a countertop tablet where (the night I was there) beverage director and sommelier Jonas Bittencourt takes your coursed, dinner order in one nerve-wracking go, then leads you to your table, where you choose your own pairing adventure by snapping a QR code and scrolling through Toast. There are no designated servers. Rather, a small crew helmed by co-owners and chefs Adam McFarland and Thomas Rogers breathlessly does a little of everything—hence the 20 percent service charge automatically applied to every check.
I acutely felt the lack of human touch throughout my meal—not just because this is a wine-focused restaurant full of cool, ever-changing pours that warrant a little storytelling. It also manifested in the harried pacing of courses and disconcerting sense that the main shepherd of our experience was the restaurant’s POS system. I longed for those small leisurely moments, like perusing a menu with a drink in my hand.
Housed in the former Nookies space on a boutiquey stretch of Halsted, John’s exudes timeless magnetism—narrow and warmly lit with cream and whitewashed brick walls, wood floors and soft banquettes the color of wheat. But there was no time to gaze! I had to decide on my dinner. The line moved quickly enough, and I was surprised that at the peak hour of 7:30pm no one had to wait for a table (if and when seating runs out, the restaurant adds diners to a wait list). The marquee menu board on the right wall displays a tight selection of unfussy, Frenchish-American dishes that, I’d soon find, pack finesse and lovely complexity. After helping us pick his suggested seven to share, Bittencourt whisked my date and me to our seats near the back of the dining room next to a VIP table, which would provide an unfortunate contrast in service throughout our dinner.
Whippy, silken chicken liver mousse was deliciously unctuous smeared on charred toast with a sweet, pungent swipe of quince mostarda and a peppery heap of cress. Barring a shellfish allergy, I’d consider the lobster salad essential ordering too; supple, impeccably cooked meat nestles atop melted leek aioli beneath a blanket of “millions” of herbs that uplift its buttery sweetness in a floral, anisey chorus. I was glad I panic-chose the first house white I laid eyes on to head off unwanted scrolling: a crisp, refreshing muscadet from the Loire Valley.
When runners arrived to consecutively deposit the next round, of scallops and decadent maitake and truffle canestri, they tried twice to confiscate and doggy bag the chicken liver mousse, despite our requests to keep snacking. We finally relented when the fries arrived with no place to land (did I mention that huge plates are very in again?).
Speaking of those hefty beef fat fries, you’ll balk at the $13 price until your first bite, which unleashes a crunchy symphony, thanks to a deft series of freezing and frying thick slabs of starchy Kennebec potato. The chefs’ gift for cooking sea creatures likewise gathered further evidence as I tasted tender, mid-rare scallops bathed in beguiling pastis crema and dotted with pickled raisins and creamy, crushed hazelnuts. However, mustard-tinged chicken breast en velvety brodo with spaetzle was over salted and missed a trick. My date wondered if the preparation would’ve better suited a more delicate slab of fish; I agreed.
As aforementioned, John’s wine list is as delightful as it is ephemeral. I especially love the surprise “whatever’s open” that might change several times a night—though, at $20 per glass, I’d never risk it on the app. Halfway through our final course, Bittencourt dropped by to retrieve our empty glasses and ask if we’d like something else. I didn’t, but was so thrilled to feel the warmth of human hospitality, I asked what was open. A peppery, kirsch-like Pineau d'Aunis red was indeed worth $20, though perhaps not the small additional fee I paid the next morning.
Maybe it’s a natural progression for a society increasingly populated by digital natives to remove the human equation from more everyday transactions. Pile on the ever-rising cost for independent restaurants to afford a living wage and a post-pandemic populace that’s more accepting of isolation, and the future of dinner could mean more scaled-down service. If that’s the case, I’ll be making a beeline for those open barstools a lot more often.
The food: Unfettered, elegant bistro dishes populate the lunch and (pricey) dinner menus. Can’t-miss items include handmade pastas and seafood like the lush scallops with pastis crema and lobster salad. Hearty lunchtime fare tops out at $18 and includes roasted chicken salad with little gem and blue cheese and a fried branzino sandwich. Whatever you order, no matter the hour, a side of beef fat fries is obligatory.
The drink: Wines by the glass, carafe and bottle lean fresh and interesting, with cheeky descriptors to match. At the risk of feeling overwhelmed by choice while scrolling the Toast app, ask for a recommendation when you order at the counter, or consider dining at the bar.
The vibe: Counter-service ordering suits an elegant lunch, but lends a rushed, isolating feel to the dinner experience at this pretty neighborhood bistro.