New bread plates at Chicago restaurants

Restaurants aren’t giving bread away for free anymore. But what they are giving you is worth paying for.

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Balena 1633 N Halsted St (312-867-3888)�Peter�s Bread� (named for head baker Peter Becker): five housemade breads (roasted garlic and scape semolina, walnut bread, lemon-black pepper-rosemary challah, ramp-and-scallion crostini, nigella grissini); bagna cauda; whipped ricotta; olive oil. $6.
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Girl & the Goat 809 W Randolph St (312-492-6262)Housemade broccoli cheddar bread; �mushroom soup butter�; �tomato soup oil.� (Breads and accompaniments change daily.) $4.
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Kingsbury Street Cafe 1523 N Kingsbury St (312-280-1718)Housemade baguette (white, whole wheat or multigrain); housemade preserves; housemade almond butter; housemade chocolate spread; butter. $3.50.
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Nellc�te 833 W Randolph St (312-432-0500)Housemade breads (mini loaf of brioche, mini loaf of focaccia, demi-baguette); house-cultured butter. $3.
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RPM 52 W Illinois St (312-222-1888)Toasted semolina bread from Z Bakery; housemade ricotta cheese; pomodoro sauce. $7.
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Vera 1023 W Lake St (312-243-9770)Sourdough boule from High Rise Bakery; three housemade butters (roasted garlic, sea salt and black pepper, chicharr�n); extra virgin olive oil. $6.

“When I’m at a restaurant,” says chef Mark Mendez, “I’m there for the food, not for the bread.” With this position Mendez seems to be in the minority: Now more than ever, bread has become a high-profile part of the restaurant experience. Bread is now a seasonal offering (sometimes changing daily), crafted by in-house bakers and/or paired with housemade condiments. And because of this, these breads are not being given away for free at the beginning of the meal—they’re being sold like any other dish on the menu.

For restaurateurs, this is an economic decision. Mendez, who sells a loaf of bread with three butters and olive oil for $6 at his West Loop restaurant Vera, notes he couldn’t give bread away, because, as a small plates restaurant, “I need people to not fill up” on something free. Jared Van Camp, the chef-partner at Nellcôte who charges $3 for his bread plate, puts it like so: “Operators try to spend as little money as they can on [bread], so it becomes an afterthought.” Charging for it, on the other hand, allows Van Camp to spend some time on the bread, which he makes with flour he mills in Nellcôte’s basement.

Are people insulted that they’re being charged for water and flour? Apparently not. “Most people don’t complain,” Mendez says. “What they usually complain about is when they want more.”

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