No one said embracing healthy eating habits is easy, but sticking to a diet while still hitting bars for an after-work drink can be a nightmare. The most direct solution is obvious, if impossible: Cut out the bar visits. But putting a sudden end to the fun may not be the only solution. Thanks to lengthy bar menus and more restaurant/lounge hybrids in the city than ever, you don't have to reach for a pile of fried-and-sauced wings when you sit down for a drink.
"I'm not recommending you eat [at bars] every day, obviously," Chicago-based nutritionist Jason Boehm said. "If it's Friday night and you want to splurge, [there] are some smarter alternatives so you don't feel deprived." Boehm points to some obvious basics to help immediately cut the guilt: Think wraps, not burgers; salads, not sandwiches; red wine, not another sugar-loaded cocktail. And fries? "Instead of regular fries, get sweet potato fries," Boehm said. "[There are] more nutrients in the sweet potato fries ... just don't drown them in sugary ketchup."
Watch out for hidden calories in dishes and drinks that might sound like a good choice, such as grilled chicken wings. "Don't be fooled by the word 'grilled,'" Chicago-based dietitian and author Dawn Blatner said. "Chicken wings are all skin ... and it's the skin that's fatty and high in calories. So even though you save some fat and calories because they aren't fried...baking wings are still a skip."
Before you head out this weekend, see what Boehm, Blatner and other local nutritionists had to say about what to eat and what to avoid on Chicago bar menus.
6 W. Hubbard St. 312-494-1200
What to eat: It may seem indulgent, but at this recently opened River North wine bar, Boehm suggests the salami and cheese sections ($4-$5 each). "You're getting protein and good fats without the starch or sugar," Boehm said. "Alcohol plus starch or sugar is a good way to pack pounds."
What to avoid: In the interest of avoiding the dreaded starch-and-alcohol combo, Boehm warns against this wine bar's heavy pasta dishes.
Mercer One Thirteen
113 W. Hubbard St. 312-396-0113
What to eat: "I would tell people to go with the bacon-wrapped scallops ($15) and share a steak salad ($16)," Boehm said of the menu at this restaurant-lounge combo new to Hubbard Street. "Both of these options give you protein and good fat without anything deep-fried or sugar-coated."
What to avoid: The worst appetizers include fried options such as the fried oysters ($13) or the tempura shrimp ($11) which picks up an extra diet violation for being served with a sugary mango dipping sauce.
Estate Ultra Lounge
1177 N. Elston Ave. 312-582-4777
What to eat: At this rooftop lounge, Chicago nutritionist Breea Johnson of Sustaining Nutrition suggests getting adventurous with an order of grilled octopus, which comes with watermelon radish and frisee ($12). "Octopus is a delicious, low-calorie and high-nutrient seafood," Johnson said. "When paired with greens and a spicy nut sauce, this dish is perfect to share over a cocktail." Johnson also points to the beet salad ($8) as a low-calorie winner.
What to avoid: As much as you might want to pad your stomach for a night of cocktails with something heavy, Johnson warns against deep-fried options such as the fish and chips ($13) or the pretzel croissant ($7), which is "high in refined carbohydrates, low in protein and fiber which makes for a highly unfulfilling snack when paired with a cocktail."
Black Bull Tapas
1721 W. Division St. 773-227-8600
What to eat: For those looking for a few health perks at this Wicker Park tapas bar, dietitian Amari Cheffer, founder of Eat Chic Chicago, recommends starting with the pimientos de pardon, a dish of salt cod-stuffed piquillo peppers in a tomato sauce ($7). The peppers are both low in calories and contain capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory that can improve circulation, said Cheffer.
What to avoid: Pass on the boquerones en vinagre ($6), aka white anchovies in vinegar. "A mere five anchovies contribute to over half of your daily recommended sodium intake," Cheffer said. "A high-sodium diet may increase your risk for high blood pressure." While anchovies have some nutritional benefits, enjoy them in moderation and share this dish among friends."
2201 N. Clybourn Ave. 773-472-9920
What to eat: The best choice on the menu at this retro Lincoln Park lounge is the mussels ($10), but dietitian Jennifer Vimbor, owner of Nutrition Counseling Services, warns that you'll want to nix the beer-cream sauce with bacon that comes with it.
What to avoid: The Drinkingbird has some yummy options that my not be the most healthful," Vimbor said. "I say, live a little ... we're human. Take care of yourself regularly so you can have the occasional not-so-good-for-you food." In other words, the deviled eggs or house-made bratwurst could be worth the splurge.
Stout Barrel House & Galley
642 N. Clark St., 312-475-1390
What to eat: Move past the main dishes on this River North bar's dinner menu (too big, said Blatner) and order from the "bar bites" or "to share" sections. Try the fish tacos ($12 for three with raw tuna, coleslaw and chipotle cream) for a good non-fried option, plus a dose of veggies in the slaw. Or split a flatbread pizza ($14) with a friend.
What to avoid: The Animal Fries ($8). "Cheese and bacon on deep-fried potatoes ... you don't have to be a nutritionist to figure this one out," Blatner said.
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