Clam Bucket and Southern Mac
Clam Bucket and Southern Mac Credit: Michael Boyd

[Editor’s note: Ethyl’s closed in 2011.]

Like Planet Hollywood is not actually Hollywood, Ethyl’s Beer & Wine Dive is less a dive than it is a simulacrum—it’s dive-themed. A true dive bar can’t be created from scratch, I don’t think, and in any event Ethyl’s, clean and well lighted, misses the aesthetic mark. But Scott Harris’s latest addition to his still-growing Taylor Street/UIC empire lands at some charming places along the way, among them “Wisconsin supper club” and “ice cream parlor”: there are dark-red vinyl booths and swivel chairs, and old beer cans for decor, and retro touches like shuffleboard and Pac-Man. The servers’ station is an antique kitchen.

And the drinks are served in jars, a pseudo-rustic affectation that’s fine for water but less appealing for cocktails. They’re weak here, a companion speculated, because they have so much jar to fill. Still, what we tried was pretty good. The Old Fashioned, heavy on the soda, had the refreshing effect of a summer spritzer; ditto the Wendella—spiced rum, molasses, and lime, plus more soda. A concoction of Hendrick’s gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, though, was a bit heavy on the last ingredient; the table agreed that it tasted “like grandma.” A back-lit Budweiser sign over the bar pushes beer—more than 40 in cans and a handful on tap—and a menu of “Snacks and Macs.”

One of those macs is “southern,” and served in a little crock with pimento cheese, andouille, and chunks of fresh tomato. It was excellent—smoky and just a little spicy. Another starter, the clam bucket—more andouille, plus smoked onions, garlic, and coriander, splashed with cream—was tasty too, if a bit salty.

A highlight from the salad menu was the least declasse, and also the least saladlike—a creamy heap of burrata sprinkled with peas, favas, fresh mint, and olive oil, served with thin little toasts. The Low-Country Salad was no more and no less than the sum of its parts, to wit: crouton-shaped chunks of pork belly, poached egg, frisee, and nice little yellow tomatoes. If the bacon vinaigrette, promised on the menu, was present, I didn’t taste it, and so there wasn’t much that held the dish together.

That trend continued. This is decent food, but it’s not exactly dynamic. Nothing in the croque madame—white cheddar and grana padano, more pork belly, and a runny egg—served to sharpen or lift the dish. It was three flavors of fat—not bad (how could it be?) but not great. The Barbecuban came closer, but a heavier dose of the pickles and mustard would’ve made copacetic what was already good. The fabulous smoked Duroc pork at its center made the dish; I’d come back and order it in any form. (It’s also served on nachos!)

The biggest bummer was the chicken and waffles: flavorless fried thighs and gummy bacon-cheddar waffles, served with orange honey butter and chipotle syrup. Not only salt, but some spice would’ve been much welcome. We asked for hot sauce and received it, cutesily, in inch-long little promo bottles of Tabasco. A restaurant that serves chicken and waffles shouldn’t be so trifling with its condiments.

Dessert after all that grease doesn’t seem like a great idea, but don’t skip it—warm little house-made doughnuts, oozing with vanilla custard, were a highlight of the meal. Another confounding winner was the broken glass pie: chunks of cherry, orange, lime, and pineapple Jell-O suspended in whipped cream between layers of graham-cracker crust. The confection gets at the essence of the dive bar, an aesthetic form that’s appealing because of, not despite, its nastier characteristics: shitty beer, poor lighting, spontaneous violence. I don’t know why that pie was so good, in other words. It just was.