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Review: Tavernita

We scope out the bar, lounge and dining room at multi-faceted Tavernita

By Lisa Arnett and Emily Van Zandt

7:54 PM CST, February 9, 2012

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Tavernita
151 W. Erie St. 312-274-1111
Rating: !!!! (out of 4) Already hot

For month-old restaurant Tavernita, delay-induced anticipation (summer 2011 was the goal) plus a hot-stuff chef (Ryan Poli of Perennial, and before that, Butter) has added up to deafening buzz. Pile onto that the name recognition of the owners (the same group as nearby River North taco palace Mercadito) and a seriously sophisticated drink selection (48 taps go way beyond beer), and it’s no wonder that no one can stop talking about the place.

And really, Tavernita is three places in one. The dining room serves Poli’s Spanish-inspired plates that are, of course, meant for sharing. Then there’s a dinner lounge with oversized booths and bottle service for groups. And a separate room inspired by Spain’s pintxos bars, Barcito, serves a separate menu of drinks and cheap bites. We checked out all three.

DINING ROOM
It’s 7:45 p.m. on Tavernita’s first Friday night open. Early for our dinner reservation, my date and I wedge ourselves in at the long bar on one side of the dining room. A little over a year ago in this very address, bartenders were shaking up candy-colored drinks at cougar magnet Martini Park. Infinitely more cutting-edge, Tavernita’s bar is equipped with the most elaborate tap system I’ve ever seen, allowing bartenders to keep pace with big crowds by pouring sangria, vermouth, ciders, house-made sodas, beer and impressively complex cocktails, all from kegs. On one side of us, there’s a cluster of shrieking sangria-sipping girls, some in sky-high heels and others rocking salt-stained snow boots. On the other, it’s shouting suit-clad men with file folders and laptop cases piled on a barstool.

The candlelit tables are so close together that I almost set my jacket on fire squeezing into my banquette seat. (The votives in question turn out to be faux, so no harm done.) We can hardly hear our server over the music and chatter, but she cheerily explains how to navigate the menu which is split up into three sections: crudo (raw seafood, $4-$13), en pan (stuff that’s on or served with bread, $8-$15) and platos (dishes ranging from small to large, $7-$24). Our dishes and drinks are perfectly paced, which is impressive considering the place is packed. As we pay our check, a group of seriously dolled-up girls debate what club they’ll head to later. Another booth full of diners grooving in their seats and high-fiving each other make us feel a little like we’re already in one. –LA

BARCITO
Looking for drink and snack after work on a weekday, my friend and I made our way into Barcito, which is separated from the dining room by a massive wooden door and a glass display case filled with what looks like carefully curated artifacts from a historian’s study. After having to shift my barstool a few times to fit between our skinny table and the already drunk businessmen behind us, we settled in and were starving. Luckily, small plates come fast and the drinks even faster thanks to the same cocktails-on-tap setup they have next door. Sipping oversized glasses of red sangria ($10), we watched as the space—a big bar in the center ringed by tall four-person tables—became standing-room-only-full with young girls-night-out groups and groups of office coworkers, served by waitresses clad in torn, off-the-shoulder Barcito T-shirts. By 10 p.m., we were happy to turn over the table to a hovering group. I can only imagine how packed this will be in the summer, when the walls of windows open out onto the corner of Erie and LaSalle. –EVZ

LOUNGE
Separated by a few stairs, a swept-aside velvet curtain and two massive slatted murals that open and close like shutters, Tavernita’s lounge was the last of its three parts to open and it’s still getting into gear. It’s open now when there are enough dinner reservations to fill it, so I enlisted a friend who’s traveled to Spain to join me for a late weeknight dinner. Over serrano ham croquetas ($10) that reminded her of the ones made by her Spanish host family, we both agreed the booth-lined space was more conversation-friendly than the dining room. After 10 p.m. on weekends, a communal dining table will transform into a bar and a DJ will be booked as soon as next weekend. And in a few weeks, Tippling Bros., the NYC-based cocktail consultants that designed Tavernita’s drinks (and also sibling spot Mercadito and its lounge, Double A) plan to debut a bottle service menu. I expected something really unique for high-rolling groups, but Tipping’s Paul Tanguay says that because the by-the-glass drink menu is already so elaborate, it’ll be basic bottles and mixers. Why bother? I’d rather see pitchers or punchbowls of kegged cocktails for groups rather than the same old club routine. –LA

BOTTOM LINE
Some foodies might think it’s too sceney and some scenesters may not appreciate the food and drinks, but for the majority in the middle, Tavernita hits the sweet spot for a hot night out.

lmarnett@tribune.com | @redeyeeats; evanzandt@tribune.com | @redeyedrinks