Once upon a time, the design district of River North wasn’t dominated by high rises and popular restaurants. It was mostly full of galleries, dive bars, and the always-irritating-to-navigate Merchandise Mart. Then, along with the iPad and Season 1 of The Walking Dead, Gilt Bar popped onto the scene. It was trendy, interesting, and completely different from everything else in the neighborhood. And while today it might feel like old news, the more popular (and crowded) this neighborhood gets, the more you need to remember that Gilt Bar is still great.
Gilt Bar is from the same people who own Au Cheval, Bavette’s, and a bunch of other places that are both popular and really good. But contrary to the myth that Prometheus gave us the Au Cheval burger along with fire, Gilt Bar actually preceded all of them. It’s the origin of the extremely dark, chill, speakeasy-type atmosphere you find at these restaurants - and while it doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore, Gilt Bar still has great food (including a burger that’s basically the same as Au Cheval’s). Plus, you can often just walk in and get a table.
The menu here doesn’t have any obvious theme. In fact, it sounds more like a buffet, with starters, salads, a lot of housemade pastas, and entrees that range from fried chicken to mussels to a ribeye. But unlike the last buffet you went to, the food here is actually impressive. For example, the steak tartare with a slow-cooked egg yolk is really well seasoned, and the bone marrow comes with a delicious red onion jam. The truffle bucatini has just the right texture and amount of truffle flavor, and the lone steak on the menu is as good as any you’d find in a fancy River North steakhouse - including Bavette’s. Plus, as mentioned, there’s an exact replica of the Au Cheval cheeseburger here. If you’ve ever waited three hours or more for the famous version, you’ll understand why this place feels like one of those warp zones in Super Mario that takes you instantly to the end of the game.
All that being said, occasionally one of the dishes will make you wonder if they’re actually just testing something out before releasing it into the wild. Like a lobster roll with tough and chewy meat, and pastas that are frequently overcooked to the point that you can’t appreciate their (mostly) fantastic sauces. But considering how good most things here are, these issues are easy enough to look past.
It seems like you leave work in River North on Thursday, and by Friday there’s a new apartment building next door you swear you’ve never seen before. There’s a chance you’re just not very observant, but it’s true that this neighborhood is growing like crazy. Luckily, despite what’s going on around it, Gilt Bar has managed to stay not-insanely-busy while preserving its fun atmosphere and great food. Which is why, unlike the past few seasons of The Walking Dead, it’s still both interesting and very much worth your time.
Tenderloin Steak Tartare
The tartare at this restaurant is excellent. It’s topped with a slow-cooked egg yolk, and served with dijonaise and some very, very good toasted sourdough. You want to order this.
There’s a lot of good stuff happening with the bone marrow here. Not only is the marrow itself always rendered very well, but the sourdough toast and red onion marmalade that come on the side are delicious.
There are a few salads on the menu, and they’re all tasty and a nice break from the heavier dishes. That being said, the arugula with fennel and roasted grapes is our favorite.
This pasta has been on the menu since Gilt Bar opened, and we’re glad it hasn’t disappeared. It’s very simple - pecorino and truffle, with just the right balance of both. It should always be on your table.
Like the truffle pasta, this is also made with housemade bucatini. The sauce is very spicy, and made with a generous amount of guanciale. Put it next to the truffle and see who wins. Surprise, it’s you. You’re the winner.
There’s nothing offensive about this pasta, but there’s nothing great, either. It has a creamy parmesan sauce with prosciutto and peas, but unlike most stuff you’ll find here, it’s a little bland. Plus, the pappardelle is overcooked.
The pasta here is rigatoni, and the bolognese sauce will nearly convince you that you’re actually eating at a very good Italian restaurant.
The preparation of the gnocchi changes seasonally, but our favorite version is the one with butternut squash and sage. The pasta is always pillowy and light, and we want to rub the brown butter sauce on our face.
This is exactly like the Au Cheval burger. No, that is not hyperbole. Do with this information what you will.
There’s only one steak on the menu, but it happens to be one of the best steaks in the city. It’s a double-cut ribeye with excellent char, and it’s served with a bearnaise sauce you really don’t need.
Imagine a KFC meal, but awesome. That’s what you’re dealing with here. It’s two crispy and juicy boneless thighs served with buttery mashed potatoes and a boat filled with gravy (which you’ll briefly consider pouring directly into your mouth).
Pan Roasted Salmon
Want a light piece of fish? Too bad. The salmon is roasted in a fantastic brown butter sauce with capers and lemon. Get some butter-drenched green beans to go with it, and thank us later.
Chocolate Cream Pie
This is one of the best chocolate desserts in the city. It has more of a ganache than a cream, plus an Oreo crust, and it’s topped with a mound of unsweetened whipped cream. It’s very smooth, rich, and not too sweet.