We had reasons for feeling giddy after dinner at Beacon Tavern, Billy Lawless’s new restaurant in a former McDonald’s behind the Wrigley Building. It was a beautiful summer night. We were on the brink of a three-day weekend. And we had just eaten a splendid meal.
All these things should have engendered a general feeling of happiness and well-being, but not this much stupid hilarity. “Look at that table!” my friend said as we crossed the plaza outside Trump Tower, pointing to a small round metal two-seater. “How did that get there?” “It’s YUGE!” I yelled. “It’s the best, most beautiful table in the world!” “It’s making America great again!” my friend yelled back. We stopped. We tried to think of more Trumpian praise to heap upon the poor table. Our wit deserted us. Instead we giggled, like we’d just split a bong or a few coconut shells of kava, though in reality, we’d had just one gin and tonic between us.
Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I think the cause of our giddiness was the bucatini with Maine lobster and floral curry butter sauce. I don’t mean to imply that the chef, Bob Broskey (formerly of L20 and Intro), uses illegal substances in his kitchen. He does really like butter, though, and this dish is proof that lots of butter does indeed make everything better. Here it’s lightly perfumed with curry and lime and poured over a plate of tender, chewy noodles and generous chunks of lobster knuckle and tail that still taste like the ocean. I ate my portion too quickly and then spent several minutes watching in silent resentment as my friend slowly cut her lobster into smaller pieces and twirled them together with the noodles into a perfect bite. When our server came by to check on us, she admitted that she came in on her day off to eat the bucatini. “It’s magical!” my friend said, with full-hearted conviction.
Nothing else we ate that night, or anything I ate during a subsequent visit, qualified as magical. I don’t mean that as a slight. How many things have you eaten in your entire life that you would describe as magical? The one thing that came close was the grilled bacon sandwich, technically a slab of pork belly cooked to the precise point where the meat was slightly charred but still meltingly tender, covered in a sweet and tangy root-beer glaze, served on a grilled bun with frisee and a mustard aioli. I let my companion on this visit have a bite while I tasted his grilled chicken. “I like that chicken,” I said. It was juicy, with a pleasant citrusy tinge. “It’s good,” he replied. “But the bacon is special.” He looked sad as he handed the sandwich back to me, and he watched me finish it with an expression that was probably quite similar to the one on my face while I watched my friend eat her bucatini.
So there’s magical, and there’s special, and there’s also very good, which is how I’d rate most of the other dishes I tried at Beacon Tavern. Broskey specializes in raw seafood, and the menu, which changes slightly every day depending on what’s available, is full of oysters, crudo, shrimp, and crab. The oysters arrived at the table cold and still full of liquor. They came with mignonette and house-made green “Tabasco sauce,” but after a cursory taste, I felt no need to use either. The snapper crudo was almost too exquisite to eat: delicate morsels of fish dusted with charred onions served with dollops of strawberry sauce and clusters of trout roe, “poor man’s caviar,” our server told us. My companion on the first visit greedily spooned up the roe but visibly restrained herself when she saw a busser approach. “I’m not done with it,” she explained. As soon as the plate was out of danger of being cleared, she continued her mission of hunting down every tiny globule.
There’s cooked seafood, too. The scallops were slightly overdone, a rare misstep, but the dish as a whole was redeemed by savory hen of the woods mushrooms. The shrimp toast is not the paste-on-fried-bread kind you get at dim sum restaurants, but rather roughly chopped shrimp and greens served on a piece of soft brioche that’s been toasted just enough not to collapse. The whole thing arrives at the table in another glorious pool of butter. (There’s a plate of shrimp heads, too, but they were overfried and superfluous.)
The land food is less dramatic, but equally well done. There’s salty-sour white gazpacho with sweet green grapes, a perfect hot-weather dish. There’s broccoli, spicy from green garlic and ever so slightly charred so it’s crisp and tender all at once. And there’s chocolate banoffee pie, more of a tart in pastry chef Kevin McCormick’s interpretation, with a thin layer of caramel smothered in chocolate mousse, studded with almonds, chocolate curls, and a very addictive chocolate brittle. It’s almost too much, but the nice thing is, you can box it up and take it home.
The bar, as you might expect from Lawless’s other restaurants the Dawson and the Gage, is well staffed and well stocked even for nondrinkers: there’s a lovely lavender cola, dry with a sweet finish, and subtle enough that you don’t feel like you’re drinking fizzy shampoo. The service is friendly and attentive; the servers and bussers make sure the dishes arrive from the kitchen at regular intervals, even on a busy night. The tables are just far enough apart that you don’t have to listen in on your neighbors’ conversation unless you make an effort. In good weather, the windows open out onto the river. This is what fine dining should be.
Although I must admit, the food high is something else. After that first dinner, I walked up Michigan Avenue to catch a bus home and heard music from underground. At first I wondered if I was hallucinating. But it was only a dance party on Lower Wacker Drive. A world with floral curry butter in it, I thought, can be a marvelous place indeed. v