Phil Vettel | Tribune restaurant critic
Keefer’s team keeps Tavern at the Park in comfort zone. The 11-week old restaurant on Millennium Park’s northern border welcomes tourists and neighborhood regulars alike.
Ambition can be overrated. Look what it did for Julius Caesar.
Tavern at the Park, an 11-week-old restaurant across the street from Millennium Park’s north border, is not going to die of overambition. But neither will it scare off visitors with exotic ingredients or stick-it-to-the-tourists prices.
Blessed with a terrific location that boasts views of Millennium Park from its second-story dining room (and just wait until the rooftop patio opens next summer), the minds behind Tavern at the Park — Glenn and Richard Keefer and James, Peter and Donny de Castro — are operating like a football team with a substantial, late lead (think back to last season, Bears fans). That is to say cautiously, while playing to their strengths.
Thus, in Tavern at the Park (the name is evocative of New York’s Tavern on the Green, but so far, no lawsuits) we have a straightforward American pub abounding in comfort-food classics, embellished with just enough contemporary twists to keep executive chef John Hogan from nodding off.
“We’ve taken some knocks for playing it safe,” Hogan says. “But you know what? We want to play it safe. We want to be there for 20 years.”
That seems like an attainable goal. The interiors are spiffy, all gleaming dark wood, leather-wrapped tabletops and ceiling fixtures echoing Prairie School architecture. There’s the boisterous main room upstairs with views of the park, a sunken wine room that’s low-key and surprisingly quiet, and a long bar area lined with high-backed booths and festooned with TV screens. Like its sister property, Keefer’s, the restaurant is smoke-free.
And affordable. Although the menu offers a 12-ounce filet mignon for $34, it also lists a $15 eggplant Parmesan, along with six other entrees under $20 — even more, counting the $10 cheeseburger and other sandwiches.
Amid the fried calamari, crab dip and grilled artichoke dishes that dot the menu, chef de cuisine Michael Cisternino manages a few nifty culinary turns. One of these matches mussels to pepperoni, a Portuguese-inspired pairing (substituting pepperoni for chourico) swimming contentedly in a tomato-garlic broth. Another mixes Southeast Asian flavors with mango-glazed shrimp and a spicy, Thai-style salad.
The entire world is doing mini-burgers these days, but Tavern at the Park takes that trend an extra step, offering mini-trios of cheeseburgers, North Carolina-style pulled pork with slaw and sliced prime rib with a blue-cheese crust. The burgers are fine, but the pork and prime rib sandwiches really shine, as do the eggy and sweet silver-dollar rolls and the crispy shoestring fries served alongside.
The beef is excellent here — I had a terrific filet mignon and a luxurious rotisserie-roasted prime rib, along with knockout braised short ribs in a red-wine demiglace — but the pork, as in the double pork chop, is a killer. This chop, bathed in a cherry-cola barbecue sauce, comes to Tavern directly from Keefer’s (where Hogan also is executive chef), and it’s every bit as good as I remember it — tender and juicy, with a jolt of tangy sweetness provided by the sauce.
On the more modest side, the chicken pot pie is a thing of beauty, encased in a perfect pastry dome and brimming with chicken, mushrooms and veggies in a Madeira-laced veloute.
A yummy blueberry-apple bread pudding leads the list of down-home desserts, which also includes a chocolate brownie sundae, and a dessert fondue of white chocolate and crumbled Oreo cookies, into which one dips pretzels, Rice Crispy treats and fruit.
Service seems determined to erase all fears of tourist-trap mistreatment; waiters are friendly and well-informed, managers roam the floors regularly and the restaurant’s valet parking is considerably cheaper than parking in the underground garages nearby.
So Tavern at the Park has no designs on being the Next Big Thing. I suspect that as far a great many customers are concerned, maintaining a restaurant with upscale decor and well-made, moderately priced food is ambition enough.
Tavern at the Park **
130 E. Randolph St.
Open: Dinner and lunch Mon.-Sat.
Entree prices: $15-$34
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking;
VERY GOOD **
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.