Up on North Damen, away from the craziness of the Six Corners and Division St, lies Chicago’s best not-kept secret, The Bristol. Once named as one of the Best New Restaurants in America by GQ, still a continuous champion on the Eater 38, had previously received accolades from Zagat and more, The Bristol has been a neighborhood favorite since opening its doors.
Known around town for its “duck fat fries” and “roasted half-chicken,” The Bristol’s rustic Americana cuisine has had a solid focus on seasonality and sustainability since its conception. However, with Sean Pharr now in the executive chef coat, he plans on going one step further and taking the restaurant back to “its roots.”
What have been the biggest struggles since you’ve been exec chef?
“So far the biggest struggle is finding staff. There is a massive shortage of cooks in Chicago.”
Where do you see the menu going forward?
“I see my menu changing pretty rapidly this summer into fall. There are so many great vegetables becoming available every day now that it really gets my mind racing. The food will always land in between my inner struggles to either create super simplistic food vs. compelling and technically driven. As always, I just want it to be delicious and consistent.”
Besides the chicken and duck fat fries, do you plan on keeping any more “staples” on the menu?
“In all honesty, I have no connection with the remaining dishes (olo, chicken). When I started at The Bristol, I was gunning for any dish that was “old Bristol.” I ate everything on the menu and decided that the chicken was great. Other than selfish pride, there was no need to change it. I want to show respect to the regulars of The Bristol that helped make it the iconic restaurant that it is today. So, it will remain for now.
The Raviolo on the other hand, I have plans for…”
Although it was hard to bypass the two local favorites while stopping in, I was very happy to embrace Sean’s new wave of change. Despite being heavily season-driven, each ingredient of the dish plays a role – as each instrument in an orchestra working together to create a perfect tune. This “harmony” was first noticeable in the burrata. Sitting a top a bed of greens, alongside preserved mushrooms, and drizzled with grilled onion vinaigrette, the subtle creaminess of the cheese was escalated by its woody accompaniments.
For those interested in something slightly more fulfilling, The Bristol’s house made kielbasa bridges the gap between a satisfying starter but not-as-heavy-as-an-entree style dish. Bringing together aromatic, woody, and bright flavors, these sausages are anything but ordinary. Not to mention, they are almost too beautiful to eat….almost.
Out of the pasta arsenal, the (rotating) raviolio is a standout… and not just in flavor. Filled with ricotta and a single yolk, the perfectly puffed dumpling swims in a sea of seductive brown butter. Once cut open, the light and airy homemade dough serves as an excellent mop to soak up the residual velvety yolk.
While the starters and entrees take center stage, The Bristol also offers approachable, yet thoughtfully created desserts by pastry chef Sarah Koechling. Although appearing to be the most gimmicky, Sarah’s version of “nutter butters” are nothing short of perfect nostalgia. Before you inhale them, use your cookies to dig deep into the bottom of the cremeuex for the fresh caramel – you won’t be disappointed.
After being on my “list” to visit for quite some time, The Bristol has easily climbed into being within my “top three” ranking. Although I had only really sat down and eaten in the Bristol once, I already felt at home. For the first time in awhile, I was able to taste the thoughtfulness of the kitchen in each bite and the creativity in each sip. There’s such an aspect of “realness” in the restaurant that you can feel it in any seat you sit in.
Word to the wise, don’t walk into Bristol, run! Even if you’re just plan on ordering a plate of half roasted chicken.
Interior Photos: Courtesy of The Bristol & Food Photos: Aimee Gasior