Fact or fiction: all chain restaurants have the same general food and décor location to location. If you said “fact” you’ve never been to Earls Kitchen + Bar. Located in the NewCity shopping area of Lincoln Park, this 33-year-old Canadian eatery is reinventing what it means to be a chain — no two restaurants are the same and the menu varies by city. What’s the most unexpected detail? Almost everything is made in house, from scratch (trust me, I stood inside of the refrigerator). As I walked up to the door, I was immediately eager to sit down on the covered patio, complete with plush couches and a personal fire for each table. The interior of the restaurant was vast, and when I entered I noticed another patio, two bars and the main dining room, located right next to the open kitchen.
As I took my seat, the server handed me a drink menu and I knew immediately what to order, thanks to the visually compelling images of each drink. It was love at first sight when I saw the Bees Knees. This adorable little cocktail, served in a honey bear jar with a honey stick, was thankfully just as tasty as it was visually appealing. Made with Cointreau triple sec, gin, angostura bitters, fresh lemon and honey, it was aromatic and refreshing. And while slightly sweeter and more plentiful than a traditional apéritif, it was a wonderful way to stimulate my appetite before tasting my first Tuna Tostada. The flavors and textures were on point and this set my standard high for the rest of the meal. The chili rubbed albacore tuna sat atop sliced avocado, a tangy and flavorful cilantro aioli, a lightly salted, crunchy tortilla chip and was garnished with a jicama slaw. This dining experience began on a high note.
When I was presented with the Warm Spinach + Three Cheese Dip I thought it was going to be difficult to top the tostadas. One bite of the freshly baked bread slathered in cheesy, garlicky dip and that thought went out the door. As chain-bred as a basic spinach and artichoke dip may sound, it was nothing of the sort. This dip was special and I was addicted. It’s a miracle the person I was dining with tasted any of it. I felt like Gollum with the ring — I didn’t want to share.
After thoroughly over indulging in my first two appetizers, I knew it was time to try lighter fare and went straight for the Warm Kale Salad, which paired well with the Strawberry Spritz. The fruit forward flavors of the cocktail, made with strawberry, aperol, prosecco and lime leaf bitters, were a bright contrast to the deep earthiness of the salad. The rich and hearty baby potatoes, black kale, cranberries, grilled chicken and toasted almonds were toothsome, but the crisp brussel sprouts stole the show. These masterfully fried leafy greens were downright irresistible when paired with the brown butter vinaigrette.
The Bibimbap came next and was a beautifully presented medley of rice, mushrooms, zucchini, shrimp and carrots served in a hot stone bowl, drenched in a sesame chili sauce and accompanied by a soft poached egg. Mixed table side, the intoxicating aromas flooded out of the bowl and enticed my senses. The heat from the dish married with the freshness of the veggies, which created a scintillating melting pot of intense and exquisite flavors. I washed this down with a Passionfruit Craft Soda, also made from scratch and with half the calories of a regular soda. This non-alchoholic drink was bright and lip-smacking good.
Beyond the menu, Earl’s interior was uniquely created for Chicago and pays homage to the city’s jazz history. The most monumental art piece (and my favorite) is the turquoise wall behind the bar that boasts dozens of trumpets. They were arranged to look like sound waves from Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly” while also being reminiscent of the flow of the Chicago River. With an eclectic, made from scratch menu that boasts items from all over the world and chefs that travel globally to conceptualize each dish, Earls Kitchen + Bar is revolutionizing the chain restaurant game. I left feeling especially thankful for our neighbors to the north.
1538 N Clybourn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60610
Featured Photo Credit: IMR