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Review: Bub City

The Melmans mosey into casual territory with a new country-inspired bar in River North

By Kate Bernot, RedEye

December 20, 2012

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Review: Bub City
435 N. Clark Street 312-610-4200
Rating: !!!! (out of 4) Already hot

Remember the original Bub City? I certainly didn't. Rich Melman of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group opened the crab shack-inspired bar back in 1989 on Weed Street, and it closed in the late-'90s. With fond memories of working in the restaurant as kids, Melman's children, RJ, Jerrod and Molly (the nightlife forces behind Hub 51 and Paris Club) have updated Bub City in a 5,500-square-foot River North space. Unlike other swank Melman ventures such as RPM Italian, this bar's all country swagger, denim and barbecue. The team has proved they know how to attract Chicago's scenesters to their other venues, but opening a more casual bar—with a barbecue and seafood menu, no less—is new territory for the siblings. Could the sequin set go country? Turns out, I had to spill buffalo sauce on my shirt to find out.

Whoa, these drinks!
Before I had made up my mind about eating, I quickly ordered my first cocktail (all $10) from Paul McGee's menu. Since he left The Whistler about a year ago, McGee has been working with the Melmans to open Bub City, as well as the forthcoming tiki lounge below it called Three Dots and a Dash, set to open by February. "Paul McGee says the only thing we take too seriously here is the cocktails and the food," RJ Melman said. How right he is. My first sip was of Bub City's signature drink—and its only frozen offering—the Mexican Firing Squad, a sweet-tart zinger of tequila, pomegranate, lime and bitters that surprisingly didn't feel out of place despite winter temperatures. By the time I was halfway through the glass, I realized I would definitely be needing food—this drink had enough tequila in it to have me whistling "Country Roads." Likewise, the Horse's Neck (With a Kick)—a bourbon, lemon, ginger beer combo that tasted like a harder-partying dark 'n' stormy—was seriously strong. More ambitious folks around me went straight for the extensive whiskey list, organized by distillery and featuring some barrels that McGee himself selected on a trip to Kentucky. Lesson? Sip slowly—you're getting your money's worth.

Saddle up, partner.
By nature, a country Western bar in River North is going to feel a little kitschy, but damn if it isn't fun at the same time. If I knew any of the words, I might have hummed along with the DJ's country-rock selections (a stage in full view of the two bars and dining area will host live rising country stars two or three times per week, courtesy of a talent-booking collaboration with bar Joe's on Weed). Instead, I ogled the music posters and watched as servers in—of course—plaid shirts whisked plates of seafood and barbecue to nearby tables, mostly populated by groups of guys and post-work daters in business casual. Pleasantly, not one cowboy hat or mechanical bull was spotted in the entire place, a testament to the Melmans' restraint with the theme.

Now about that food…
Unlike some other trendy River North destinations, Bub City has plenty of tables in a main area between its two bars, meaning diners don't feel cut off from the stool-side action. Even the slightly overdressed couples seated at high-top tables enthusiastically dug into platters of brisket ($15.95), crab legs ($27.95) and fried chicken ($15.95 for a platter; $8.00 for a sandwich). While the slightly sweet, fairly generic barbecue sauce doesn't rival the better 'cue in the city, the fried chicken is crisp, the blue cheese-topped tots ($5.95) are decadent and the house-made hot sauce made a convert of even this buffalo sauce skeptic. So much so, in fact, that a huge, orange glob of the stuff ended up on my white shirt midway through my sandwich. At any other Melman establishment, I'd probably be mortified, desperately dabbing at the stain with soda water and plotting my sheepish escape. At Bub City, it felt like a badge of honor.

Bottom line: Competition barbecue it ain't, but Bub City delivers on a more casual nightlife or dinner option that's surprisingly affordable for River North. The Melmans preserved all the energy of their other spots, but tweaked it for folks in cowboy boots rather than stilettos.

Reporters visit bars anonymously and food and drinks are paid for by RedEye. kbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink

~~Powder room pranks~~
In the spirit of the original Bub City, RJ Melman said, the new bar retains a certain surprise in the women's bathroom. He asked me not to reveal exactly what that is, and I'll honor his wish, if only so that other ladies can be as shocked as I was upon opening the restroom door ...