I thought about ordering the crab dip on my first visit to Tavern at the Park. I considered ordering the shoestring fries, briefly pondered the wedge salad and came close to asking for the chicken potpie. In the end, I opted for the salmon. And after all that deliberation? Turns out that trying to choose from a menu of contemporary American clichés isn’t inspiring predinner activity: By the time my order arrived, I had already lost my appetite.
I hadn’t planned on that happening, of course. In fact, I had arrived knowing that Tavern was adamantly serving American classics, a prospect that both appeals to my culinary patriotism and makes me hungry. But when I realized that, here, “American cuisine” has been reduced to the kind of ubiquitous items found at chain restaurants all over the country, I got a bad taste in my mouth. And if my sensibilities were offended, it’s only a smidgen of the insult tourists must feel. Chef John Hogan and his partners have gone on the record as saying that they designed Tavern’s menu with this demographic (the supposed visitors of Millennium Park) in mind, and it’s hard to decide which is more appalling: the assumption that these people have unsophisticated palates, or the fact that the restaurant clearly has no ambition beyond giving the people what they (allegedly) want.
Hogan can do better than this. He does better than this nightly at Keefer’s, where he breathes life into the steakhouse model by instilling it with French flair. At Tavern, he throws in a classic French sauce here and there—a filet of salmon is topped with lemon beurre blanc that, unfortunately, suffocates the nuances of the fish. But mostly he sticks to ubiquitous items like sliders. Called “Tavern Teasers” on the menu, they’re not bad, particularly the pulled pork–and–coleslaw, (though a less sugary bun would have fared better). Of course, there’s also steak on the menu—a prime rib that arrived bloody-rare despite our request for medium-rare. And there’s pizza, which was soggy from the center to the crust.
I thought maybe this food would be better suited for lunch, when the bar isn’t set so high, and in some ways that’s true. A fish sandwich proved boring but otherwise inoffensive. Yet my expectations were not so low that the sirloin salad—a mass of shredded iceberg topped with a glistening hamburger patty— was acceptable.
Desserts seem to be one place where the chef gets a little more creative, but this playfulness quickly goes awry. The cookies-and-cream fondue (thin, Oreo-studded white chocolate) had no grip and quickly slid off whatever we dipped into it. It had no problem sticking to my mouth, however, where it left a greasy residue. I couldn’t finish even half of it, and as our server took it away, he consoled me: “This is America,” he said. “We don’t have to finish everything.”
The sheer entitlement implicit in his comment stunned me into silence. But had I been able to speak, I would have told him that not all American food has to be such a waste.