If you've been downtown this summer, you've probably seen that the much anticipated Riverwalk expansion project has made considerable headway. When complete, the $22 million project will provide a continuous path along the south bank of the Chicago River's main branch from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street, providing yet another showpiece attraction for our fair city. A number of drinking and dining options have already opened along this stretch—among them O'Brien's on the River, an offshoot of the Old Town mainstay. While O'Brien's on the River falls a bit short in terms of amenities and selection, it does offer something few places can match: booze with views.
O'Brien's on the River, launched in 2008 at the corner of Wabash & Wacker, bears little resemblance to the Old Town original, long known for its piano bar, impressive beer garden and even more impressive snobbery. The setting here on the riverwalk is fairly nice, if a quick drink and a bite is what you're after. Situated well below street level, the patio space that O'Brien's occupies is well-insulated from both street traffic and the perpetual semi-darkness of Lower Wacker just behind the premises. The space itself is simply an exposed concrete slab with perhaps three dozen backyard patio tables. And I do mean exposed. With not even a single table-top umbrella to provide any shelter or shade, no other place in the city is as reliant on the weather as O'Brien's.
A portable hostess stand sits in front to handle incoming traffic. A plastic service bar, like you'd find at an outdoor wedding, is the hub for the beverage service. A medium-sized trailer serves as the on-site kitchen. As such, expect a streamlined menu for both food and drink. O'Brien's does have a full bar (limited brands), but the beer list tops out at a whopping five. Food is geared toward things you can eat with your hands, with a few salads thrown in for good measure. The quesadillas were decent. The mini-burgers were tasty, but a Cobb salad arrived at our table cleverly disguised as a Chef's salad, although there was no Chef's salad on O'Brien's menu. A mystery for the ages, since my friend was too hungry to send it back. As for specials, don't expect to find anything, except for perhaps your view.
Speaking of which, there are excellent views of the historic Wabash and Michigan Avenue drawbridges, which are even better if you're lucky enough to see them raised for a boat run. The glass majesty of Trump Tower, which I can't rip on despite my weariness of its namesake, looms just on the other side of the river. There are also excellent vantage points to see the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower as well as the steady stream of tour boats, pleasure craft and Styrofoam cups floating by. As for your fellow patrons, it only seems as if a camera and a map are required for entry. Actual Chicagoans can be spotted here as well. They're the ones that don't look up every time a pigeon flies overhead.
O'Brien's, like most establishments on the riverwalk, is open seasonally mid-May through Mid-October. They're open at 11am daily until 9pm weeknights, 10pm on weekends, but if the weather looks dodgy give them a call first. If you like O'Brien's you might also want to check out Castaways, Rivers or perhaps drinks and Greek tapas on the roof of nearby Pegasus. For more O'Brien's, check out their original location, their O'Hare edition and the O'Brien's website. Ahoy.
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– written by Randy Kohl
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