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Entering City Tavern, Chef Kendal Duque’s new colonial-inspired spot, is a magical experience—like slipping through the looking glass into an era when cocktails leaned on rum and milk, pies were stuffed with steak, and every dish came with a rich sauce that deserved its own loaf of bread. It’s the 18th century reborn.
The transition from street to restaurant is stunning. Outside, it’s all asphalt and concrete, cars and condos. Inside, there are cozy fireplaces and silver trays. Water is poured from hefty glass pitchers, and guests sit in round-backed chairs that look like holdovers from the First Continental Congress. Somewhere, the Founding Fathers must be smiling over this place. That’s chiefly because Duque, who created lighter fare at Sepia and supervisess the steaks and chops at Chicago Firehouse, has taken inspiration from the trading routes of the age, which allowed ships from Spain, Portugal, Germany, and the West Indies to offload foodstuffs and cooking techniques onto American shores.
As a result, his menu leans toward rich sauces and unexpected bursts of sweetness. The crust of a delicious flatbread, for instance, arrives spiked with cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey, capturing the savory complexity of a dark Caribbean rum. Beef cheeks are braised in an inky porter and accompanied by the earthiest root vegetables available: turnips, carrots, and puréed and truffled taro root. Then there’s Duque’s pork chop, glazed with a vinaigrette made with Banyuls, a fortified wine. The chop is liberally sprinkled with black pepper and topped with a thick slice of smoked bacon. Its appeal at our table split purely along gender lines. The men adored it; the women found it too indulgent.
On occasion, Duque was too bold for all of us. A sunchoke soup showed great potential but was marred by greasy bits of oxtail. And the house’s two pasta selections—a grainy whole-wheat version of carbonara and a cavatelli swamped in a milky goat cheese sauce—were both murky and gray. Those slip-ups just didn’t jibe with Duque’s mastery of sauces, which include a blood orange béarnaise for his crab-topped salmon and an earthy mustard dill sauce for a dynamite mushroom-stuffed trout.
It’s the sort of food that demands to be served on sturdy wood tables, with thick cloth napkins and a cold glass of beer. City Tavern offers all three, especially the latter, boasting 80-plus options by the bottle and 18 draft choices. At a time when everyone claims to have a beer-friendly menu, this is the rare spot that delivers. And the creative list of cocktails features a punch made with Bermuda rum infused with black tea, worth a tipple and perfect as an after-dinner pairing with a slice of excellent pecan pie.
But the most charming anachronism of all may be the cost of your meal. Appetizers hover around $10, entrées around $17—budget-friendly prices to which we can all raise a glass.