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Tavernita (CLOSED)

Restaurants River North
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Discretion dictates a critic not order a dish she has had on a previous visit. There’s only so much one can eat, not to mention expense. But I buckled, broke my self-imposed rule, and ordered the croquettes. “I just really want you to try this,” I said, passing off the blame to my innocent companion. I really had no choice: If I didn’t order the potato-ham croquettes—so creamy! But so light!—I was in danger of spending the rest of the meal thinking about what I had missed.

And at Tavernita, it’s better not to spend too much time pondering. For one: It’s so bloody loud in here you can’t hear your own thoughts. For two: The food is better at being immensely satisfying in the heat of the moment than it is at creating some sort of timeless food memory. And for three: Time spent looking at your food is time lost looking at the other people who possibly may be looking at you.

Tavernita, though for some intents and purposes a Spanish restaurant, is for many other intents and purposes a meat market. On a recent visit, the place was packed with groups of leggy women and packs of men whose arms are as big as my legs. When one guy group offered drinks to a girl duo as they were winding down their meal, I watched with a minor (and probably very naive) sense of awe: This is actually working?

Oh, yes. Tavernita works. The crowd is working it. The place is packed. Which is probably why, when I showed up on time for my 8:45pm reservation on a Thursday, the hostess didn’t seem remotely apologetic as she said: “It’ll be a few minutes. You can have a drink at the bar.” (Note: It was 15, and with a bar crowd two-deep, I couldn’t.) I am not opposed to the idea of a restaurant like Tavernita (or its sibling [node:136941 link=Mercadito;], or [node:211019 link=Paris Club;], or any other place that merges great food with an energetic scene). But I do have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to frequent a restaurant that makes customers feel it’s their privilege to get to pay to eat there. (And in truth, this is a vibe I encounter more at hipster food places than mainstream clubby spots.)

This being said, it actually is a privilege, at a place like this, to be served food made with the level of dedication and skill that chef Ryan Poli (formerly of Butter and Perennial) is exhibiting. The croquettes, obviously. But also the surprisingly tender housemade lamb sausage, which is paired with an awesome reinterpretation of giardiniera as spicy, spunky pickled whole vegetables. The rock shrimp set on top of a poblano pepper–studded corn “pudding” (it’s closer to a corn bread) couldn’t be sweeter or more delicate. And if you don’t like the escalivada—a toast topped with hazelnut romesco sauce, fantastic goat cheese, and the charred eggplant and peppers that give the dish its name—you are simply in the wrong restaurant.

True, I wasn’t quite as wild about the bracingly acidic tuna crudo. And though each component of the “carne del día”—hanger steak served over potatoes and sweet-sour fennel, on my visit—was prepared on the mark, the dish didn’t really move anywhere beyond its component parts. That’s kind of okay here. If you’re putting every small plate that comes out under a magnifying glass, you’re missing the point. You’re supposed to have a good time, to share food that’s meant to be shared. Maybe you’re supposed to, like, meet someone.

And it’s easy because, at Tavernita, you are always drinking. With notable exceptions (the smooth, strong brandy-and-sherry cocktail dubbed the Quixote), the cocktails, designed by NYC-based Tippling Bros., skew light and bright and very, very drinkable. Their drinks manage to incorporate serious ingredients (the Bros. seem especially fond of introducing heat into their cocktails, such as the initially fierce but ultimately yielding black-pepper syrup in the Turista) but don’t require you to take them too seriously.

The drinking culture is ramped up at Barcito, the enclosed bar that manages to be even louder and more raucous than the restaurant it’s nestled inside. It’s here I tried the Booty Collins, a drink that sounds truly awful (green tea–infused Absolut?) but tastes effervescent and refreshingly subtle. And it’s here I ate the simple and satisfying and amazingly messy snack of sobrassada sausage on toast with a fried quail egg. And I’m pretty sure it’s here that I’d be more comfortable returning, preferably on some off night, for an endless parade of escalivada toasts and croquetas and whatever other pintxos I feel like eating at the moment. This is partly because Barcito is as good as it could get as far as bar food is concerned, and it’s partly because, well, it’s just easier not to think here.

By: Julia Kramer



Address: 151 W Erie St

Cross street: at LaSalle St
Transport: El stop: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Chicago. Bus: 22, 37, 66, 156.
Price: Average main course: $15
Opening hours: Brunch (Sun), Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner
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