While not actually made of the famous Chicago architectural substance, the Brownstone Tavern & Grill is instead an homage to it. The saloon has become almost as popular since it opened in 2004 as the residences in the city known as “brownstones.” Probably the closest that any of us will come to owning an actual brownstone of our very own is pulling up a stool at the Brownstone Tavern. There, you can have a good meal and earn yourself an almost certain hangover due to your inevitable abuse of alcohol (unless you have a proper dose of Alka Seltzer before bed – our little secret here at the Chicago Bar Project…). Texas fans will also appreciate that Brownstone is their headquarters on gamedays, though the rest of us won’t.
The Brownstone is located at the base of a brown-painted brick two-flat on the northeast corner of Lincoln and Larchmont, across from the two-story, ionic columns of the Lincoln Trust & Savings and just south of the Lincoln, Damen and Irving Park intersection. Just take the Brown Line to the Irving Park stop, force yourself past Globe Pub and Katerina’s and round the corner at Lincoln, or just take a cab if you can’t be bothered. The door at Brownstone is sure to be manned by a bouncer, so have your ID as you step into the pub.
Inside this chestnut-hued groggery, you’ll find a long, single room with exposed brick walls. Seating at cocktail tables can be found up front at windows overlooking Lincoln Avenue as well as down the entire south end of the room. A long wooden bar that bows out in the middle lies opposite and sports shaded table lamps and an impressive, Brunswick-style mahogany bar-back with stately columns. Brownstone offers up 16 beers on tap and about 40 more in bottles with such highlights as Dekoninck, Dogfish Head “Raison D’Etre,” Dos Equis, and Flying Dog’s “Old Scratch.” The wine cellar also boasts 12 red and six white wines by the bottle or glass.
In the back, you’ll find a slightly elevated seating area with a large curving, black vinyl booth and low slung wooden tables and chairs that serves as a stage on Sunday nights when a three-piece acoustic band called Acoustawa plays. Across from this area is a wood-paneled hallway that leads to the doorless bathrooms – don’t worry, you walk around the corner so there’s plenty of privacy. As you might have guessed, the decor at Brownstone is thoroughly brown, including the framed sepia photographs of famous Chicago brownstones, wooden floors, tables and chairs, antique bronze bar fixtures, tin ceiling and fans, Tiffany-style stained glass light lamps, and even the brown-painted exposed ductwork.
An array of flatpanel screens are continuously tuned into SportsCenter or whatever game happens to be on, particularly Texas football and basketball as Brownstone is the only bar to openly support the Longhorns (a definite upgrade from Field House). UT fans will take immediate notice of their beloved flag of orange and white hanging out front. This draws the Chicago chapter of the Texas Exes (they even serve Lone Star Beer) and just about anyone else wearing a baseball hat within a one mile radius. Brownstone also claims to support all Big 12 teams, which never ceases to attract a predominantly male fratboy crowd on gamedays. Otherwise, just about everyone is clad in jeans, with the lasses in tight-fitting tops and the lads decked out in their favorite UT sweatshirt or striped, button-down shirt all of whom are buys getting loaded whatever time of day. Because of its newness, the Brownstone is a bit sterile though nicely decorated, but is definitely a fun place to hang, even though the satellite radio gets so loud the later it gets that it’s hard to hear your inner alcoholic. The overall atmosphere is surprisingly conducive to drinking followed by… more drinking. It seems impossible to leave Brownstone sober. I was there once for a farewell party for a French guy who was partial to flowers and worked at a web design and hosting company and saw him take more shots than a Cujo victim.
The French Guy
Though the crowd is that of a typical sports bar, the food is somewhat more upscale but not nearly as spectacular as I’ve witnessed some people describe it. Regardless, the menu is creative, thanks to former Absinthe chef Jim Hoban, with its reuben rolls, hot soft pretzels, salads and sandwiches named after Chicago highlights (“Lakeshore Drive,” “The Cardinal’s Mansion,” and “The Cortland”), the “Australian” rack of lamb (oy!), Thai chili salmon, and seared ahi tuna – all of which is topped off with the ever popular skillet cookie (literally the size of a skillet, so make sure you share with the rest of the bar). I’ve had the tilapia sandwich (very dry) and the chimichurri garlic fries (very greasy), and was not particularly impressed, but it’s rare for a bar to get fish right and I’ve been spoiled with the chimichurri and other Colombian food at Las Tablas (who serves excellent steaks on cutting boards). On another occasion, the mini-wich sampler at Brownstone (beef with horseradish, BBQ pork and bleu cheese, mango Dijon chicken) were excellent. The tavern also features a kids menu and brunch on the weekends. The service is a bit spotty with some veteran waitresses being quite good mixed in with the less experienced ones sometimes with a put-upon attitude. Additional seating and waitress service can be had in the sidewalk cafe along the shady lane of Larchmont Avenue.
According to Wikipedia, brownstone is, “…a brown Triassic sandstone which was once a popular building material. While brownstone is often popularly associated in the United States of America with New York City and Chicago, the stone was used widely around the world before losing popularity around 1900 in part due to rapid failures of carved surface details in the weathering process.” Though it may have fallen out of favor after its initial use, “brownstones” have become synonymous with highly sought after brick residences that feature a brownstone facade – just check out the real estate listings.
The Brownstone Tavern may not be perfect but it’s a fun place and a far cry from its predecessor, the garishly painted hole known as Benedict’s/Benz Bar. Brownstone is also a sign of more grills/grilles to come from the Four Corners Tavern Group who also owns the Schoolyard Tavern & Grill, Gaslight Bar & Grill and Sidebar Grille. After purchasing Schoolyard, those at the Four Corners have been busy opening more upscale taverns around the city, stretching from North Center down to the Loop, rivaling the Bar One (Duffy’s, Durkin’s, McGee’s, Wrightwood Tap), Barleycorn (East, West and North) and the Adolfo Garcia (Sopo, Bar Celona and Lot 48) empires. If you like a good bar, you’ll like Brownstone – unless you’re a Nebraska, Oklahoma or Texas A&M fan in the Fall, or if you like ordering coffee and will post complaints on multiple websites if it happens to spill a bit when served… For more information, check out the Brownstone Tavern & Grill website. Hook ’em horns… not!