Brunch is the new black. Or very nearly so. It seems that everywhere you go in the city of Chicago, restaurants are starting to wake up to the popularity of brunch (no pun intended).
People Lounge is located 1560 North Milwaukee Avenue (between Honore and Damen), just a short half block south of the Damen stop on the CTA Blue Line. Most people seem to think of it as a bar – and they excel at that portion of their mission – but Executive Chef Ralph Steinberg takes food very seriously and the restaurant offers some of the best tapas in the Wicker Park area.
For many restaurants, brunch is simply a rehashing of the normal menu, with a few 'breakfasty' items thrown in. In the case of People Lounge, however, their brunch is an inventive affair and one that offers some intriguingly different items from the regular menu.
Normally, when I am invited to review a restaurant, I take a friend with me so we can order a number of items and get a good cross-section of the menu. In this case, however, I opted to accept the invitation as a solo diner. Tapas restaurants are often excellent choices for the single diner, and I wanted to see how People Lounge stood up to my ‘solo diner’ test.
People Lounge scored high on my ‘solo diner’ scale. They greeted me promptly and offered me a seat at a good table rather than insisting I sit at the bar or in some obscure corner of the restaurant. The service was prompt, friendly, and genuine without any of that “Oh, he’s reviewing the restaurant so we need to give him special treatment” sort of behavior that can negatively impact a good meal. The portion sizes were perfect for a solo diner and – most importantly – the food was superb.
I started the meal with the Estrella Michelada – their inventive take on the ever-present brunch time Bloody Mary. This concoction involved Spanish Estrella draft, spicy tomato juice, sriracha, lime, and a salted rim. I wondered how I would like the beer in place of vodka, and I must admit it was a nearly-perfect mixture. The Estrella adds a zing which vodka cannot create. The drink was spicy, tangy, and just hot enough for someone like me who doesn’t particularly enjoy a scorching food experience.
For my first course, I couldn’t pass up the Gypsy Skillet (gypsy hash, quail eggs, boar sausage). Just the description was intriguing enough to get my attention. The dish arrived in a small cast-iron skillet with three perfectly-prepared quail eggs sunny side up on top of the mixture of hash and sausage. There was a definitely hint of heat, but not so much to distract from the taste. The portion was a large one for a single diner, but would be perfect to share with two or three.
Most tapas restaurants have some version of dates wrapped in bacon, an iconic menu item for this sort of restaurant. At People Lounge, the Dátiles Con Jamón come in two sizes. The smaller size is perfect for a single diner, the larger would be perfect to share with up to four people. These particular dates were stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. The attractive presentation was enhanced with a tasty drizzle of an apple cider reduction.
Although I was getting full by this point, I had to at least make an effort to experience dessert. At the advice of my server (great advice as it turns out), I opted to check out the Brownie. Don’t let the boring, pedestrian name fool you. One bite and you wonder why they didn’t name it something like “Amazing Super Brownie.” The spiced chocolate brownie is served warm with marcona almonds, topped with house-made mint chocolate chip ice cream and sprinkled with espresso powder. When I plunged my spoon into the brownie, the warm, melted chocolate center began to ooze out. Messy? Just a bit. Tasty? That’s not even close. Wow! As most of my friends could tell you, I am not a huge dessert fan but this could convert even the most die-hard anti-desserters out there. Don’t miss it.
By this point, I had reached that “wafer thin mint” moment of Monty Python fame, so I opted for the check. I will be back soon, however to check out of few of the more interesting items which I simply didn’t have the stamina to try on my first visit. Who could resist the following?
- French Toast served with currant and pomegranate infused all natural maple syrup and Grand Marnier crème anglaise
- People’s Skirt Steak made with braised Wagyu, tomatoes, cornichons, capers, aged molten manchego, and patatas
- Mushroom & Goat Cheese Empanadas prepared with oyster, porcini, portobello, and button mushrooms, with chive aioli
The list goes on, but you get the idea.