The true neighborhood joint is an elusive ideal—the kind of place that can draw people in a few nights a week with the magnetism of just-right food, service and vibes. These haunts weave themselves into the fabric of the community, until it’s hard to fathom the neighborhood without them.
If you’ve ever been to Gather in Ravenswood, you know what I’m talking about. Cozy and convivial, with refined American shareables, terrific brunch and an oasis of a patio, this five-year-old storefront quickly secured a place among the neighborhood’s most beloved eateries, encapsulating the kind of upscale casual dining its residents crave and reward with repeat business.
The Warbler—Gather’s roomier, more relaxed younger sibling next door (the former, short-lived sites of Mash and Bad Dog Tavern)—appears well on its way to neighborhood-haunt status too, if the bustling crowd on a recent evening was any indicator. Its anything-goes comfort dishes are assembled with care, matching the upscale diner feel of the space.
Walking into the Warbler early on a Sunday evening, the natural light penetrating the front room lent airiness to the pretty, 25-seat square bar, where couples staved off Monday’s arrival over colorful cocktails and sticky Korean-style chicken wings. My two dates and I were seated at a four-top table among a mix of couples and young families in the wood and whitewashed brick dining room, which leads to a narrower hall lined with brown leather booths opposite an open kitchen. Waning daylight beckoned from the back dining room, whose tiled floor, exposed-bulb chandelier and wooden shelving enticingly recall a farmhouse kitchen out of a catalog.
The food menu is a veritable smorgasbord of comfort fare: nachos, flatbreads, house-made pastas, wings and—to this omnivore’s unexpected delight—a slew of veggie-focused dishes and hefty salads.
Decisions seemed less daunting after we selected drinks from the eight bird-themed cocktails—a technicolor flock that will no doubt look great on the forthcoming 120-seat back patio. The tequila- and mezcal-based Robin was subtly vegetal, dually sweetened with red bell pepper and jalapeno-cilantro simple syrups and uplifted with lime and a crisp topper of pilsner bubbles. Beet juice and allspice dram lent earthiness and warming spices to the Purple Martin’s rye-whiskey sour base.
After my husband and I tried unsuccessfully to sell our frowning third date on the brandade—“like buttery cod-mashed potatoes that you spread on toast!”—we went for the friendlier nachos instead. Fried pork belly cubes and slivers of pickled red onion punctuated the heap of sturdy, housemade chips streaked with crema, cheese sauce and globs of puckering tomatillo salsa—deliciously un-newsworthy, as nachos should be.
In the deceivingly humble-sounding bacon & egg flatbread, two runny eggs capped a balanced and brunch-ready handheld layering sharp provolone and salty bacon with jalapeno, tomato and a slick of pesto—all atop a squishy dough with a mild rye-sourdough tang. Approachable yet assembled with skill and care—it encapsulated the Warbler itself.
Another highlight of our carb fest was the pliant, house-made whole-wheat bucatini whose nuttiness lent depth to cacio e pepe’s salty flavor; the thin sauce was rich with olive oil and the barnyard umami of cheese rinds, humming with the faint heat of cracked black pepper.
The real triumph for me, though (and I suspect the veg-loving executive chef/partner Ken Carter), came when my self-professed “anti-sweet potato” dates went in for multiple bites of the grilled sweet potato and winter radish. Perhaps they were beguiled by the pleasing scarlet pepper vinaigrette painted on each root pre-char, or the lemony, caramelized notes of the coarse pecan-cilantro pesto underneath, or the Grape-Nutty crunch of the buckwheat crumbles.
When the double cheeseburger arrived minutes later—a perfectly tasty assemblage of thin patties and melted American cheese, peppery arugula, tomato and mayo on housemade bun surreptitiously varnished with beef fat—we quickly appraised it among the top third of Chicago’s cutthroat burger rankings. Then the conversation veered back to life, work and bad dates as we demolished every bite, down to the last salty, twice-fried fry.
On second thought, the places that keep us coming back usually don’t demand lengthy or deep contemplation of what’s on the plate. More often they simply fill us with craveable, comforting food and let us momentarily forget that another Monday is just one sleep away.
Atmosphere: This spacious barstaurant from Team Gather dishes out accessible, veg-friendly comfort food composed with care alongside easy-drinking beverages in what could be another neighborhood darling.
What to eat: The eclectic collection of comfort food—nachos, house-made pastas, flatbreads and an impressive staple of veg items—will certainly please the masses. Don’t skip the bacon & egg flatbread, whole wheat bucatini and thoughtful veggie dishes like grilled sweet potatoes with pecan pesto.
What to drink: Refreshing, easy-drinking cocktails lean on fresh fruit and fragrant herbs, like the Rose Finch, a Szechuan citrus- and lime-scented play on the sparkling rosé cocktail, or the lemongrass-infused Canary with cognac, lemon and pineapple. A focused list of lower-ABV draught and packaged beer is similarly sessionable.
Where to sit: The 25-seat bar is a great spot to grab a few drinks and shareables. Come summer, grab a spot on the 120-seat back patio. The farmhouse-chic back dining room is an inviting option for small groups, if it’s not reserved.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.