I’m not a homesick Brit, but I’ve read enough English novels, both historical and contemporary, to feel like I could be one. There’s probably a German word to explain the feeling of nostalgia for things you’ve only read about but never experienced in real life, and I felt a wave of this the first time I went to Spencer’s Jolly Posh, when the cafe was still in its original location on Irving Park Road. It was the middle of the winter of the 2014 polar vortex, and the sight of bacon sandwiches on the menu, and sausage rolls, and scones served with real clotted cream cheered me up considerably. It was like stumbling into a real-life version of a meal served to a hungry British orphan or a hobbit. The shelves of imported British groceries—digestive biscuits and crisps and Maltesers and spotted dick and, naturally, tea—were equally enchanting.
That summer, owner Nicholas Spencer moved Jolly Posh to larger premises on Southport and expanded the menu to include very British dinners (but in the good hearty-meat-pie way, not the overcooked-Sunday-roast way) and a satisfying afternoon tea that cost far less than the exorbitant prices charged by downtown hotels. He added beer and wine and cocktails. He cut back on the groceries. And then this past November, he abruptly closed Jolly Posh altogether, citing slow business and high rents, though he promised to continue selling his sausages and black-and-white puddings at Mariano’s and Gepperth’s Meat Market. Nine days later, the space reopened as Vivial, a restaurant and cocktail bar.
I cannot help but feel that Vivial is a rebuke to me and everyone else in this city who professed to love Jolly Posh but did not visit nearly as often as we should have. Would it have fared better someplace other than the once shabby, now shiny Southport corridor where, over the past 15 years, auto body shops, vintage stores, and tiny mom-and-pop cafes have given way first to boutiques and fake British pubs and now to upscale chain stores? Maybe homesickness is not as effective a restaurant inspiration as one might think: a few years ago and a few blocks south, Leo’s Coney Island, a mecca for members of Chicago’s large Michigan diaspora who yearned for the chili dogs of their youth, also shut down because business wasn’t good enough. Is Vivial Spencer’s attempt to give the neighborhood what he thinks it wants? Or in the wake of the demise of Jolly Posh, is he giving his customers what he thinks we deserve?
Whatever the reason, he has given us yet another restaurant with seasonal ingredients, purchased from farmers, this one billing itself as “fine comfort food.” (Its neighbor, Grassroots—formerly Deleece—promises almost exactly the same thing.) I’m not quite sure what that means, because I usually don’t associate comfort food with fine dining—I associate it more with what Jolly Posh was—but maybe chef Garrett Christiansen, who cooked at the Aviary before he came to work for Spencer at Jolly Posh and has been given free rein in the kitchen at Vivial, doesn’t know either. Or maybe he’s decided to serve dishes he and his staff personally find comforting, which would explain how TGI Fridays-style potato skins, steak tartare, and spring rolls all ended up together on the same menu. (But for $65, Christiansen will assemble a five-course tasting menu, which, if what arrived at the table next to ours was any indication, may be more coherent.)
The quality of the dishes also varies widely. There’s a very flavorful braised and roasted chicken with a crisp skin, moist interior, and a nice peppery kick. But there’s also a sad and dry duck confit served with baked beans that I think were supposed to serve as a contrast to the fattiness of the meat but instead added some necessary moisture. There’s a delightfully tangy and acidic crudo, served in an adorable little jar with a toggle lid, but the aforementioned potato skins crossed the line between well done and slightly charred. At brunch, I had a bowl of vanilla-bean Greek yogurt with granola and honey that was so good I vowed to figure out how to prepare it at home so I could eat it every day. But I also had a duck scramble with soggy potatoes and almost no egg.
It’s possible that the comfort aspect of Vivial comes from the fact that, unlike the rest of the stroller-clogged Southport corridor, the place is distinctly inhospitable to children. (A disclaimer: I do not hate children. Not all children, anyway. But even people who love them tell me that they sometimes like to enjoy meals where they don’t have to supervise other people’s table manners or wipe food off of them afterwards.) During dinner, the room is dimly lit, with lots of candles. (If you have no sense of romance, you may complain that you can’t read the menu.) The tables are the right size for discreet hand-holding. At brunch, it’s flooded with natural light and there is a waiter, handsome in the manner of a scheming nephew on a soap opera, who will happily stand at attention beside a table of two women in their 30s so they can better imagine the six-pack abs beneath his crisp white shirt. (Really what we wanted was cream for our coffee. And that’s not a euphemism.) On a busy Friday night, meals are leisurely, the staff is courteous, and nobody seems to be in a hurry to push you out into the cold—not even after you’ve paid your check. The desserts are worth sticking around for, especially the twisted toffee creme brulee and a lightly caramelized vanilla bread pudding with an aroma you can sniff out a table away. It’s by far the most comforting thing on the menu.
But the aspect of Vivial that is most, yes, convivial, is the bar, tucked away in a back corner. The bartenders appear to be enjoying themselves more than the rest of the staff, and they do excellent work with Kelsey Edington’s cocktails. The names suffer from an overabundance of whimsy—if you can say “I’d like an Honestly, I Spilled White Out, please,” without feeling like a sorority girl on spring break and then laughing like an idiot, you have more self- control than I do—but the drinks themselves are not silly. They are smooth and well-balanced and miraculously stay cold longer than you’d think they would. One night I saw several people come in, walk past the tables laden with food, and sit down to order nothing but a round of cocktails.
If starting up a place like Vivial is how Spencer thinks he can keep the doors open and the lights on, I guess I’m in no position to blame him. And maybe the kitchen will figure out what it means by “fine comfort food” and find a way to distinguish itself from every other fine/upscale/elevated comfort-food restaurant in the city. But it’s sad, to me anyway, that Vivial has to work so hard to be what Jolly Posh was so effortlessly. v