For some, especially those living in the surrounding Old Town neighborhood, O’Brien’s Restaurant & Bar is a Chicago Classic. Others are less impressed. O’Brien’s is part steakhouse and part piano bar, and it has an impressive beer garden. O’Brien’s is well regarded for its elegant surroundings and upscale atmosphere by those who can afford it, while others rate the food and service as disappointingly mediocre. Whatever the case, O’Brien’s is worth a visit at least once.
O’Brien’s is located on Wells Street, just South of North Avenue. Parking in this area is nearly impossible, but free valet parking is available. While O’Brien’s promotes itself as an “Irish chophouse,” I would consider it more of a traditional American steakhouse, especially as I have not run across any establishment in old Eire that is at all similar to O’Brien’s. To find it, just look for the old-fashioned, O’Brien’s ornate metal clock that is reminiscent of the ones hanging outside Marshall Field’s on State Street (it’s hard to use the “M” word). The only difference is that the O’Brien’s clock stands in the middle of the sidewalk amid a bevy of sidewalk café patrons (in summer), with “O’Brien’s” written on every side. The clock, complimented by the old-fashioned street lights, stands in front of the inviting many-windowed, wood paneled façade that is shaded by a long green awning. O’Brien’s can also be easily seen by its twin peaks, one of which looks like a stylish second floor, while the other looks like a large shed housing farm equipment.
Have no fear, instead of tractors, you’ll find a nice dining room complete with a grand piano, tables with white tablecloths, and a copper-topped bar. You’ll also find a hostess that will look you up and down, to gauge what level of service you will receive. There is also an elegant upstairs floor, with orange walls, chandeliers and paintings, which hosts private parties and the occasional fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Illinois.
The food served at O’Brien’s is similar to what you would find in snooty places on the East Coast, which includes: calamari, shrimp cocktail, crab cakes, Oysters Rockefeller, escargot, filet mignon, New York strip steak, prime rib, lamb chops in mint sauce, salmon, sole, and veal medallions. While the food sounds great, I have yet to hear O’Brien’s lauded for its quality and my own experience and that of many others I have heard from is disappointing (more on that later). O’Brien’s isn’t even reviewed in Zagat’s annual survey of Chicago restaurants. Hmmm… Whether you like your meal or not, you can still enjoy the sounds from the piano every day from 7pm to midnight.
O’Brien’s piqued my interest after passing by the place on numerous occasions and seeing what is known as their “Garden Café & Gazebo Bar.” This proved too much to resist while I was perusing works at the Wells Street Art Festival (not to be confused with the Old Town Arts Festival held on the “other” side of North Avenue…) that shuts down Wells every year. Behind the flowers and the green metal gate, stands one of the larger beer gardens on the North Side. Thick wooden tables and chairs fill the front of the patio, offering patrons a nice view of the street traffic. Just behind that is a large wooden, gazebo-looking structure that serves as a circular bar. This area is usually quite crowded with beer drinkers watching the game on one of the suspended televisions, and waitstaff waiting for drinks and chatting with each other. A paved brick walkway takes you beyond the gazebo towards more tables in the back, most of which are located under a large canopy. This is where I was seated, next to the carved wooden falcon atop the tree stump, in the middle of a cement planter with more flowers. Instead of watching people on the street, I waited for my food while looking at the large golf course mural on the building opposite O’Brien’s. As I was still waiting, I then turned my attention to the large mural on O’Brien’s wall depicting gentlemen of yesteryear.
The menu in the beer garden offers the hungry a limited choice of overpriced appetizers, salads and sandwiches, including spicy artichoke dip, buffalo wings, smoked salmon, corned beef, steak and chicken sandwiches, and a half-pound burger. Peanut butter & Jelly, grilled cheese and spaghetti are available for the kids (under eight please, the bar emphasizes). The crowd outside differs from the businessmen, Thurston Howell III look-alikes and older couples inside, by being more of middle-aged white crowd getting plastered. It seems like the O’Brien’s beer garden is where people go when they’re too old for places like Sheffield’s. They also make enough to afford nicer baseball hats than their younger incarnations.
While only having ordered food once in O’Brien’s beer garden, it was easily the worst service I have experienced in Chicago (out of literally hundreds of restaurants). The waiter took ten minutes to come over to our table at first, had someone else bring our food who lacked the ability to take a drinks order, then brought the wrong drinks order, didn’t bring the right drinks order after the mistake was realized, and charged us for our initial drinks order that we never received. To top it off, the steak tenderloin sandwich I ordered was forgettable. When this was brought to the manager’s attention, he had the wrong drinks taken off the tab, but did not compensate us for our aggravation in any other way. Ugh.
The combination of expensive food, old-boy atmosphere, and insensitivity to anyone other than who they feel fits into the upper crust all says one thing: money. If you have it and flaunt it, you’re welcome. Maybe. Otherwise, get in, eat your food, and get out (but only after you’ve had a chance to look at the variety of O’Brien’s merchandise available for sale, including ties, hats, shirts, jackets, and mugs). This same attitude also seems prevalent at O’Brien’s locations at O’Hare, the Loop, and even the booth at Taste of Chicago (that serves baked potatoes and “Celtic” corn on the cob). It’s truly a shame that a place with such potential as O’Brien’s is filled with pretension and where poor service is rampant. It seems that the O’Brien family who owns the place is satisfied with this reputation, as little has changed since 1980 when it opened – even though O’Brien’s is routinely lambasted in reviews. It is especially surprising that O’Brien’s has held out for so long, as there are so many great restaurants in the area like Orso’s (Italian), Kamehachi (Japanese) and the Fireplace Inn (barbeque) that make O’Brien’s seem like a Dick’s Last Resort without the comedic element. On the other hand, O’Brien’s had a cameo as the “Sir Loin Inn” in Martin Scorsese’s film, The Color of Money. My recommendation: if you’re gung ho for checking out O’Brien’s, go there in warmer weather and have a drink at the outdoor bar. Then head to Orso’s for food – they have a beer garden that is even better than O’Brien’s, plus the food and service are spectacular. For more information, check out the O’Brien’s Restaurant & Bar website. Lovey!