An island of the familiar in the middle of a strange city
An island of the familiar in the middle of a strange city Credit: Amanda Areias

If you consider yourself a serious diner and a thoughtful consumer of food, if you follow restaurant openings the way other people follow college football, if you’re in the habit of tracking the progress of chefs from kitchen to kitchen, if you’re willing to journey to distant points south and west and even suburban to try a place you read about on LTHForum, if you have a favorite purveyor of vegetables and another favorite purveyor of poultry, and if you have a considered opinion about whether Honey Butter Fried Chicken should serve its breasts with bones or without, you should not be eating at Blackfinn Ameripub.

Of course, you knew that already since Blackfinn Ameripub happens to be one of those River North establishments where you would never dream of eating except under the threat of imminent starvation, or maybe out of duty to visiting relatives (but only under extenuating circumstances, like if they’re really old or pressed for time), the sort that caters to tourists and business travelers who are either too tired or too timid to leave the neighborhood at dinnertime. They don’t want to be challenged with fancy preparations and weird ingredients. They don’t want to be impressed with spectacular cooking. They just want something they can wash down with enormous quantities of beer. Preferably while watching a sporting event on a big-screen TV.

These people sometimes go out in large groups, so they’ll need a place with a menu large and inoffensive enough that the vegetarians and people with gluten allergies won’t have to resort to cobbling together a crappy meal out of appetizers. If it’s a national chain, even better! They’ll know exactly what they’re getting.

You can complain about the need for the existence of a restaurant like Blackfinn Ameripub—how can consumers show so little regard for food, the art form of our time?—and you can argue that the $50 it costs for dinner for two there can be more wisely spent. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is how well Blackfinn Ameripub fulfills its self-appointed mission to be a hangout for people who want a place to grab a drink and watch the game and not have to think too deeply about food or, really, anything else.

Blackfinn Ameripub is the latest outpost of a national chain with branches in Austin and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. (It is distinguished from its corporate sibling, the Blackfinn American Grille, which has a location in Mount Prospect, by the length and breadth of its drinks menu.) It occupies a cavernous space on the corner of Clark and Kinzie, divided into a bar and a dining room. The high ceilings amplify the sound of music and conversation to a level slightly louder than ordinary, cheerful sociability. It is not an especially attractive space, but there are tables long enough to accommodate an entire postwork office gathering, more than two dozen high-definition TVs positioned so you can keep track of at least two games from wherever you happen to be sitting, and a dazzling array of liquor bottles and beer taps lined up behind the enormous rectangular bar. You can get just about any nationally distributed beer on tap (the menu lists 70 varieties), and you can get it in a dainty nine-ounce glass, a traditional pint, a growler (which you can take home after you’ve drained it), or, most impressively, a 100-ounce dispenser, complete with spigot. The wine, alas, only comes by the bottle or glass, but a section of the menu headed “Who’s Buying” helpfully—if somewhat tackily—segregates the most expensive offerings, like Dom Perignon. (“This section is perfect for a rich relative or the boss’s expense account. No matter who’s buying . . . you’re worth it!”)

The menu itself is an intimidating document, comprising 12 oversize laminated spiral-bound pages (though admittedly only half of these are devoted to food). There are burgers. There are flatbreads. There are salads. There are attempts at international cuisine and barbecue, a valiant effort to satisfy any possible food craving. How does one begin to navigate this labyrinth?

You could allow yourself to be guided by the icons that identify various items as vegetarian, gluten free, “lighter side,” or “Blackfinn Specialty.” You could follow the general rule that the simpler and blander sounding the dish, the better off you’ll be. A steak emerged from the kitchen with astonishing speed; this, it turned out, was because nobody had bothered to sear it properly. A burger fared better. Of course, burgers are much harder to ruin.

The Blackfinn kitchen does not traffic in subtlety. Flavors do not blend. The goat cheese, strawberry, and pecan salad tasted only like cloyingly sweet strawberry. The chipotle queso dip tasted only like salty queso. But the fish and chips, which are almost always enjoyable no matter where you get them because they’re uncomplicatedly salty, were satisfying, if a little soggy.

The very best thing about Blackfinn Ameripub is the service. It’s quick and it’s cheerful, but not in an unctuous, obsequious way, and if the servers recommend something, you’d do well to listen. They’ve eaten off this menu much more often than you have because it’s their job and they know that even though the brussels sprouts with bacon may sound dubious, they come out gloriously caramelized and are much more satisfying than the gluey garlic mashed potatoes. You should also listen to them when they tell you the Blackfinn Hot Chocolate, a molten chocolate cake laced with peanut butter, is the only dessert worth ordering. They’re absolutely right. Their best trick, though, is somehow knowing to recommend the beer you were planning to order anyway.

And therein lies the appeal of Blackfinn Ameripub and places like it: it’s an island of the familiar in the middle of a strange city where you probably don’t want to be in the first place. (If you did, you’d have ventured more than two blocks from your hotel room.) But at least you can watch the same football game you’d be watching if you were back home, and drink the same beer, and there’s no pressure to order anything more interesting than a burger.