“Eat Well • Drink Better”
In 2003, the Matisse Tavern & Grill opened, replacing the short-lived “T-Bone’s” and beloved Jillian’s Coffee House & Bistro. The new resident of 674 West Diversey brings a bit of Fauvism to south Lakeview, along with some New York-style lounging, a good selection of food, better selection of cocktails, and a rather popular beer garden. As a result, Matisse has become a favorite for area Metrosexuals that don’t have a problem with claustrophobia – the martinis and white wine sangria help them cope.
Matisse is located at the T-intersection of Orchard and Diversey, adjacent to the Half Shell oyster bar—another subterranean favorite. The small black awning with orange lettering can be a bit hard to see from the street but the front beer garden is sure to catch your attention in the warmer months. Fenced in by a wooden banister, the Matisse patio offers several black-painted metal tables and chairs and is an excellent spot to observe the Diversey sidewalk traffic. Before you pull up a seat, if you’re lucky enough to find one, you’ll need to first head down the steps that lead down into the narrow, dungeon-like chamber that is Matisse. Most people don’t know this, so you’ll see the same scene repeated again and again: patrons coming in and sitting down at an empty table only to be glared at by the hostess and patrons originally waiting for the table behind her, followed by being brusquely told to wait in the subterranean depths of the bar. Perhaps a simple sign could help…
Inside Matisse, you’ll first encounter a red glow, thanks to the red lights housed in 1960’s-era funky glass fixtures and maroon painted walls. The whole effect has somewhat of a Henri Matisse’s Le Grand Interieur Rouge, except for the “le grand” bit as Matisse is rather small. A short bar, accessible through a ceramic tiled portal, runs along the west wall and offers only a few high-backed chairs in front of it. Across from this, you’ll not find enough room for even cocktail tables. This area tends to get very crowded as those waiting for a table, or searching desperately for the hard-to-find hostess, tend to mill around the entrance and crowd the bar as they wait for drinks. While you’re waiting for a table, you can watch people out on the patio at your table from a squirrel’s vantage point through small plate glass windows. There’s a fireplace halfway down the east wall with a circular brick front part that is handy for setting your drinks and ashtray down, which is better than the awkward jostling closer to the door. Once Providence moves with you and a table becomes available, you’ll be seated at one of the low-slung tables with velvet banquettes or cocktail tables towards the rear of the front room and in the back room, near the bathroom. Several paintings that hang on the wall, looking like they were created by local artisans and reinforcing the Matisse tie-in, rounds out the décor.
Matisse satisfies the most voracious of appetites with a sandwich-laden menu. I’ve personally had the ham & cheese panini and sirloin burger, and both were quite good. All selections are served in flat baskets with sweet potato fries that are better than those found at Goose Island Wrigleyville. Some reviewers have described Matisse as serving inexpensive fare, but $6 appetizers (of which the mussels and chicken skewers stand out), $7-8 salads, and $8-$13 entrées put it more in the reasonably-priced category. On the other hand, the $6 sandwiches and impressive array of daily specials is indeed easy on the pocketbook: $2 burgers on Monday, $1 tacos on Tuesday, ½–priced appetizers on Wednesday, and $2 breakfast burritos on the weekends. An intriguing selection of $4.50 desserts follows your meal if you so desire. Choose from the Flourless Chocolate Cake, Tortilla Pastry (filled with banana cream, chocolate coconut sauce and vanilla ice cream), and Chocolate Quesadilla. When it’s busy, expect service to be significantly longer than a New York Minute, so make sure you know what you want when she finally does come around.
The $6 Martini is the cocktail of choice at Matisse, especially the Macadamia Martini (Vanilla Vodka, Baileys and Macadamia Nut Liqueur) and the Cocotini (Bacardi Coconut, White Chocolate Liqueur and Amaretto). Whew—a few of those are sure to set you on your ass. The white wine sangria made with freshly cut apples and oranges also featured at Matisse is a much more subtle concoction and is just as popular ($4 per glass, $10 for a small pitcher and $15 for a large pitcher). All ales served in the bottle or on tap cost $4. The beer selection is far less creative than the martini menu. Hip-hop, rock and soul is spun played by the bartenders compliments the food & drink and swanky atmosphere thanks to its being played at a level acceptable for close conversation rather than drowning it out like at Durkin’s and Zella.
The French-named holding actually has more of a self-described New York feel. This seems to be one of the latest trends in the Chicago bar scene, as evidenced by Sopo and Avenue Tavern. The only contradiction to Matisse’s “New York vibe” is that you can smoke here and you can’t in the Big Apple. As should come as no surprise, the crowd drawn to Matisse is largely comprised of modern day ráibéad sách úrs and bocaí ruas that use the lounge’s intimate setting both to impress and to prowl. The tiny lounge that is Matisse, not to be confused with the Tiny Lounge itself, fills up quickly so get there early (before 7pm) if you don’t want to wait or you could head over to the more spacious Waterhouse or Blue Stem, also owned by the people behind Matisse. For more information, check out the Matisse Tavern & Grill website. Bling-bling.