“Kick-Ass Bar + Comfort Food”
With its serious take on casual food and casual take on serious socializing, it’s easy to be won over by The Southern’s charms. Having an excellent, and affordable, menu, a drink list to match and a relaxed setting that seems to encourage mingling, The Southern is a can’t-miss, no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line you’re from.
Perhaps it’s just ironic that The Southern is located on the north side of North Ave. Maybe they’re making a statement. Either way, the bar does reside along Bucktown’s southernmost border, replacing the site’s previous incarnation in spring 2010, the all but forgotten Chaise Lounge. The handsome exterior, with its dignified signage, is designed around a sizable patio that is set well back from the sidewalk, with a gas burning fire pit at its center. Two glass-paneled garage doors separate the bar from the patio, retracting in warmer months to combine the indoor and outdoor spaces by essentially removing one of the bar’s walls.
The interior, with its exposed ductwork and candle lit tables, nurtures a carefully worn look with a spacious timber bar as its centerpiece. Cocktail tables line the perimeter along the windows with convenient purse/coat hooks underneath, and bench-style seating plus two over-sized booths occupy the relatively small dining space. A bank of TV monitors runs above the bar, but the buzz of conversation dominates, reverberating around the low ceilinged room to create a lively atmosphere for couples and small groups. For an even more informal setting, head up the stairs to the rooftop deck, which is covered by a semi-permanent tarp to provide moderate protection from the heat and cold. Two cabana seating areas highlight this space, which also features its own bar and service from the full menu.
Drinks at The Southern feature a selection of popular favorites of the confederacy. Southern craft beers dominate the menu, including almost every delicious variety of Abita, among the 30 or so beers available. Bourbons and American whiskies, of which you’ll find two-dozen brands, run neck-in-neck for dominance, with a $3 shot special available daily a la Longman & Eagle. An assortment of nine house cocktails will please fans of post-prohibition classics like The Presbyterian and Mint Julep. Groups, or determined individuals, might want to chip in for one of the three $56 punchbowls, including the likes of Planter’s Punch, which serve 10-15 colorful cocktails—a pretty good value actually.
While it might not reach the culinary heights of a true gastropub, The Southern perfectly embodies the evolution in bar fare that has swept the city’s bar scene. Food is really the star of the show here, and it ties the whole place together. The inspired down-home cooking, which focuses on the use of local ingredients when possible, comes courtesy of chef Cary Taylor who honed his skills at two local restaurants that were recently awarded Michelin stars, Blackbird and Avenues. The menu is short and sweet with seven apps, two sandwiches and a half dozen entrée-sized portions supplemented by seven side dishes, which can easily be shared by 2-4 people. The hush puppies, with roasted artichoke and smoked trout dip, were gone almost as soon as they hit our table. The Johnny Cakes—like southern tacos with hot cornmeal instead of a tortilla, pulled pork and chow-chow (pickled veggies) were equally good. But the dish that we saw come out time and again was the Southern Mess, a pail of French fries, cheese curds and gravy that is almost identical to poutine, the national dish of Canada (served at Kith & Kin). Extra napkins are required. The entrées, of which we tried the crab cakes and shrimp & grits, also met with no complaints as we cleaned our plates. Sundays and Wednesdays get special treatment with a fried chicken dinner special, but groups of 6-10 can order 48 hours in advance to reserve their personal feast of chicken and all the fixin’s any night of the week—and order a punchbowl while you’re at it. The food was disturbingly good, but the prices surely aren’t crazy. With nothing on the menu above $19, a couple can dig into a full meal of appetizers, entrées, a side and a couple rounds of drinks and still get out of there for around $80, plus tip. Good times. P.S. Save your receipt. It’s good for 15% off a return visit on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (i.e. fried chicken night).
Despite the attention to food, The Southern is a bar through and through, A laid back and casual atmosphere predominates, lacking any of the pretense that often goes hand-in-hand with food-centric venues. Service is friendly and attentive, embodying southern hospitality. The crowd is largely an energized mix of young northside professionals, but also plays host to families with children, who come for early dinners, along with a smattering of more mature diners. Who you might mingle with depends on when you go, so plan accordingly. The Southern is perfect for groups of 10 or less. Anything over that size might require a private party, so reserve a cabana in advance. The Southern is open from 5pm-2am Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3am Saturday, until midnight Sunday, and is closed Mondays.
For down-home cooking, libations and atmosphere, The Southern delivers everything you could want except the line dancing (thank God). If you like The Southern, you should mosey on over to the down-home original Stanley’s in Lincoln Park (or the one on Racine), Roadhouse 66 in Wrigleyville, or the original Wishbone in the West Loop. For more information, check out The Southern’s website. Y’all come back now, ya hear?