“The grilled cheese funhouse”
For everyone, there comes a time when you graduate from 25¢ wing night, beer pong and “speed mating,” and start looking for more sophisticated nightlife options. To further your studies, you could pay a visit to a European-style taverna, a trendy gastropub and a chic wine bar, or you could simply find your way to Bluebird and experience them all at once.
Bluebird comes courtesy of Tom MacDonald, the nightlife pioneer who brought Chicago its first dedicated wine bar in 1994, Webster’s—also featured in Sean Parnell’s Historic Bars of Chicago. And with Bluebird, MacDonald was/is ahead of the curve. Open since 2007, Bluebird was among the early adopters of the “gastro movement,” beating notable competitors like Longman & Eagle and Gilt Bar to the market by a couple of years. And it’s lost none of its luster over that time, remaining as popular as ever, despite—or because of—a low-key approach to self-promotion relies largely on word-of-mouth.
Located on Bucktown’s busy commercial stretch of Damen, Bluebird blends in with its surroundings, almost too well. First-timers might be hard-pressed to spot the simple blue and white sign and surprisingly narrow storefront entrance the bar shares with a neighboring exercise studio. But once inside, you’ll find a space that’s far more expansive than it first appears. The long, rectangular room is both simple and urban, with candle-lit tables, rough plank floors and ceiling beams, chalkboard signage, and exposed brick walls where the work of featured artists is rotated regularly. An extended service bar runs the length of the room, with an equally long banquette opposite, where a half-dozen closely-spaced tables sit. An even narrower pass-through beyond the bar leads to the washrooms and then opens into a rear dining area that offers a good deal of additional seating and a wall-mounted gas fireplace. Diversions are largely of the social variety, with a single TV and the bartender’s handiwork providing some distraction. Patrons of the arts will want to take note of Bluebird’s bi-weekly Salon Series (except in December), consisting of an evening of art and dinner for $40 with wine and beer pairings and artist Q&A.
At first glance, Bluebird’s lack of draft beers might seem puzzling. Then, as you make your way through the 85 selections on their list, each categorized by brewing style, you’ll notice that most of these high-end, limited production beers don’t really lend themselves to the keg. This ensures that among the 25 Belgian offerings, 27 American craft brews and 26 additional selections from across the globe, even the most well-traveled beer connoisseur will find several selections they’ve never tried. Bluebird also maintains a beer cellar, where select beers are aged to alter their character. This attention to selection comes at a cost—specifically $6 for starters and climbing to the price of a Salon Series ticket.
What separates Bluebird from other gastropubs is its equal focus on wine. From merlot to moscato, fully two-dozen varieties are offered by the glass, supplemented by a bottled list of two-dozen whites and nearly four-dozen reds, a good number of which are under $40. The list may not be as extensive as some, but given Bluebird’s pedigree there’s no question of its quality. Bluebird also doesn’t have the robust liquor list of some other establishments, but they do round out their drink menu with a handful of classic cocktails for those that want to shake things up.
Bluebird’s bistro-inspired menu starts with a selection of cheeses, often updated daily. Pare that with meats from the charcuterie menu, including the melt-in-your-mouth pata negra (cured Spanish ham) that transported me back to Madrid with every bite. The bulk of the menu is geared toward sharing, with a compact offering of small and large plates. You can still get chicken wings, in this case harissa-spiced and served with grilled orange, which taste like nothing that ever came out of Buffalo. Mussels are served three ways: Belgian, Provinçale and curried, and are served with a cone of homemade fries that rival Manhattan’s Pomme Frites (123 2nd Ave.)—the best spuds I’ve ever devoured. If you saved any room, the fresh made waffles, topped with Belgian chocolate sauce and whipped cream or bananas & caramel, will put your sweet tooth in a coma. The food is fine restaurant quality, but don’t make the same mistake I did and forget that Bluebird is still a bar. After a multi-course meal and some carbonated beverages including a Dark Horse One Oatmeal Stout, I made the faux pas of ordering coffee with my dessert. “Sorry rookie, this isn’t a Starbucks.” Well, the waitress was actually much nicer than that, but it still led me to a “Wanna get away?” moment.
Bluebird rewards those with mature palates and, quite frankly, finances to match. You won’t find many 20-year-olds trying to sneak in with fake IDs, especially when dinner and drinks for two can hit $100 without much effort, and that’s without exploring the darker corners of the beer and wine lists. But in this case, the price is directly related to the level of service and product you receive. So, expect a wait for a table during primetime, though there’s open seating at the bar. And expect to make new friends over dinner. Tables are packed so tightly, cross-table conversation is virtually inevitable. Bluebird is open from 5pm-2am Sunday-Friday and 3am Saturday.
If you fancy the finer side of food and drink, but can do without fancy restaurant finery, Bluebird surely won’t ruffle your feathers. If Bluebird is to your liking, you should wing it on over to Hopleaf, Volo or Fountainhead. For more information, visit Bluebird’s website. Chirp. I mean Cheers.