Understanding BAVETTE’S

Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf excels in Chicago’s crowded steakhouse scene by consciously subverting so many of the nasty tropes that have plagued this genre of restaurants nationwide. There is little glitz and even less glamour. Rather, you walk into a wood-paneled, leather-lined, and candlelit sanctum where one need not concern themself with whatever their neighboring diners are doing. The French inflection–alluded to in the restaurant’s name–is appropriately minor: the fries come with aioli, the steaks with béarnaise, there’s a Lyonnaise salad on offer, as well as a peppered duck and goat cheese terrine. Otherwise, Bavette’s does not tether itself to any Francophilic theme, allowing it to ultimately channel an authentic feeling of “Old Chicago” that rival establishments can only be said to bastardize.

You have been dining at Bavette’s for a little over three years now. The place hasn’t gotten much easier to get into, but it has undoubtedly strengthened its offerings while never lapsing in the quality of its most signature items. It is early November, and you spy the restaurant’s familiar red awning in the shadow of the Merchandise Mart. You reach the block, hop past two other Hogsalt properties (Gilt Bar and the glistening new Ciccio Mio), and hurl open the door just a couple minutes before your reservation time. The vestibule in which the host team stands can get a bit cramped, but they recognize you and cycle you through one more door with the invitation to grab a drink and come get them when the rest of your party arrives.

The restaurant’s wine list is one of the most generous in the city, featuring limited qualities of cult producers with little markup.

Usually, you resent not being seated immediately. Surely, the restaurant would rather you begin ordering and decanting a couple bottles of wine right now than see this small window of time wasted on a trifling cocktail. Yet it is no matter, as you find Bavette’s ample waiting area quite attractive. You sink into a plush easy chair staring across at an even softer looking couch. The brick wall behind it boasts an arrangement of antique picture frames featuring unknown visages. Another would-be diner passes through the vestibule and takes a spot on the couch. In his haste to unburden himself of his belongings, this old man let’s a bottle of wine fall flat against the table. The sound is sickening, yet the glass survives (and you do your best to hide the grimace you have grown).

Truth be told, you regret not having brought a bottle along yourself. Bavette’s has always maintained the most generous, jovial “BYO” policy: share half a glass with any other customer in the restaurant, and the $50 corkage fee would be waved. This, in a city where most steakhouses do not allow corkage at all, is a triumph. It tells you just what sort of establishment Bavette’s wants to be. Though you have brought your share of Cult Cabs, Barolos, and decades’ old Bordeaux through here over the past couple years, the restaurant’s own wine list has done wonders to satisfy you recently. While always approachable (predominantly offering domestic and French bottlings in the $50 – $150 range), the beverage selection has blossomed over the last year with top value offerings from producers like Delamotte, Roulot, and Keller for less than $100. Those with a taste for red wine (read: everyone) will now find an expansive list of magnums along with “Rare & Mature” offerings that climb towards the $500-$1,000 range. While most diners will be more than happy with the list’s more humble selections, Bavette’s best wines on offer are well-curated and priced well below what any other steakhouse would charge. Maple & Ash, for example, would never carry such a stock of magnums in the $200 – $500 range when they aim to squeeze winos for two or three times that. Simply put, the wine list at Bavette’s–like the corkage policy–rewards wine drinkers, welcomes them, whets the appetite without digging the proverbial steak knife in too deep for those special occasion diners.

The generous “BYO” policy at Bavette’s allows one to enjoy spectacular wine with unerring, comforting food.

One of your favorite servers, Erik, spots you in the easy chair and offers you (as well as the embarrassed man across from you) some water. You trouble him for the wine list too. Though customers could easily be forgotten, or ignored, while waiting for their tables, the staff–to their great credit–makes sure they are offered drinks. The list arrives, and you get lost in it. Many paths of vinous pleasure open up, but only one beckons. Erik returns, unprompted, to tell you about the bottle one table tried on Tuesday night. As fate would have it, that bottle was the 750 mL size of the wine you would like to get this evening in magnum. The server’s eyes light up–he fancies himself somewhat of a sommelier, though Bavette’s does away with any of that formality. Licking his lips, he reaches for the memory of the other bottle. “I think it’s going to drink better in magnum. ’98 was a wet year, but it should be perfect now.”

Erik leaves you with a knowing smile, and, a little while later, one of the hostesses arrives to usher you to the table. You’ve seen the restaurant stuff six people into this horseshoe booth before, but, tonight, you will be a rather comfortable trio. The other guests have yet to arrive, yet Erik tipped off your actual server, Meredith, about the magnum of wine to come. He thought it best to get it decanted, which means it needs to be tasted, which–thankfully–meant you needed to be seated. “You read my mind,” rolls off your tongue back at him. The servers at Bavette’s are not stretched so thin that they cannot communicate, cannot collaborated for the greater good of the guest experience. There is next to no rigidity in their respective performances–and even the bussers are among the bubbliest and best-natured anywhere in Chicago.

The restaurants serves what is reliably the best bread in the city (and some of the best sourdough anywhere).

In short order, the magnum is decanted (though not before the broken bottom third of the cork is safely retrieved from the neck of the bottle). You greedily guide a taste down your gullet, roll it around the mouth, aerate, slurp, and eyes roll back in your head. “Wow, excellent, you’ll have to try a taste–Erik too.” The carafe is put aside, and then your bottle of Riesling is poured. Von der Fels ’18, does life get any better? “Very nice.” You think you like this bottle even more than the magnum–especially at one eighth of the price–but, then again, you are a white wine drinker and might be singing a different tune by the time the steaks arrive.

It is ten minutes past the reservation time with no word where the other guests may be. Yet you know they departed the suburbs on time, and so it must just be a matter of minutes until those last deluges of traffic are defeated. That is ample time to get some food working, a familiar chilled seafood plateau you order so often that the kitchen knows to start shucking and shelling the moment your party sits down. While some dilletante food reviewers have steered their readers away from Bavette’s bounty of crustacean delights (in the interest of saving their money), there is truly no better place to order king crab in the city. Over the course of dozens, perhaps more than fifty, visits to the restaurant, you remember two occasions where the crab was pulled from the menu due to the purveyor not meeting the kitchen’s standards. Think of that, a whole night’s revenue waived way in the interest of quality. You’ve surely had your share of watery, worthless crab at steakhouses that should know better.

It is not just the king crab–deep red, plump, succulent, and sweet–that impresses. The oysters and shrimp punch well above the standard set around the city while the lobster–at its core an overrated delicacy–is no slouch either. Bavette’s signature Maude’s Tower (Maude?–as in Maude’s Liquor Bar (another Hogsalt property)?) includes two tiers toting all of these along with a coupe of salmon tartare. That tartare, truth be told, is the Achilles’ heel of the entire plateau. You have even tried to build your own tower out of individual components to tiptoe around being served the tartare, and the kitchen has offered it gratis. The salmon surely is not terrible by any means. You’d be lying if you said you did not eat it all anyway. The texture is nice enough, but the flavor is simply a bit muted. Perhaps that is why it is served with veritably excellent “everything” seasoned crackers that are quickly chomped down alongside the platter’s other offerings.

“Seafood towers” are often overpriced disappointments, but those on offer at Bavette’s are astounding in freshness and flavor.

Anyway, you no longer bother trying to avoid that tartare. It is the one blemish on the work of beauty that prevents it from seeming too perfect, uncannily so. You corral the server and sing your usual tune: “one Maude’s Tower with two extra pounds of king crab.” She’s a pro, and she’s handled you before, so there’s no exclamation of surprise. The extra allotment of crab (the tower comes with one sole pound) can vary by a half-pound or pound depending on the size of the party, but two pounds is the standard amount to bring the plateau up to snuff. Never mind that you’re not sure you could ever really have your fill of crab this good. And with the Keller drinking so well–suspiciously better than those bottles you sourced for your own cellar–you could die a happy man after just the first course!

The fellows joining you arrive in short order and spy the tools lining the table: cocktail forks, Crystal Hot Sauce, and metal bowls (to collect the shells). Hugs are exchanged, wine is poured (they, unlike you, prefer red but will try a bit of Riesling knowing what’s to come), and–before you know it–the cavalry arrives. Two busboys greet the table with sheepish grins. They are the only tie between the kitchen and the three of you who are about the devour their labor of love. The bottom level is put in place, anchoring the plateau with an assortment of east and west coast oysters, shrimp, and some king crab. The middle layer–which, to your knowledge, is only ever dispatched for your order–is devoted solely to the additional crab. Lastly, the top piece houses lobster tails and claws, some more shrimp, and the aforementioned salmon tartare with crackers. Drawn butter, mignonette, mayonnaise, and cocktail sauce are slid in front of you–it’s showtime!

The dust settles not ten minutes later. It must be said, the staff expertly facilitates the eating of the tower by removing the bottom layer upon its completion. This task requires at least two people but prevents you from otherwise being unable to retrieve items from the top layer without blindly reaching. The crab and oysters were as good as ever while the shrimp, perhaps just a bit less plump than usual, still satisfied. Lobster and salmon maintained the same usual quality, making for an admirable plateau overall. What comes next? Well, it’s hard to go wrong. The mid course between seafood and steak at Bavette’s is open to the most variation from visit to visit. This is a testament both to the stalwart quality of the plateaux and steaks, as well as the plethora of options offered outside of those categories.

A sliced bone-in filet–Bavette’s best cut of meat–topped with roasted garlic.

The restaurant’s wedge salad–a steakhouse classic–comes coated in ranch (extra dressing on the side) with crumbled gorgonzola, egg, and onion. Warm, thick-cut bacon guilds the lily and makes for a most pleasing temperature contrast with the cold lettuce. Your party has also come to like Bavette’s Lyonnaise salad: a classic assemblage of frisée lettuce, brioche croutons, soft-cooked egg and that same, superb thick-cut bacon. There are four other salads on offer–all in whole or half sizes–that you have not yet tried but certainly would not hesitate to do so given the steadfast quality of these two others. The salad course is also a particularly perfect time to enjoy the restaurant’s sourdough bread, which (though the restaurant is replete with claims to fame) ranks as the crispiest, crunchiest, and unquestionably best bread in the city. Really, truly, it deserves that title–and do not be afraid to request the ultra-crunchy “ends” of loaves be served to you too.

Still, it has been far too many weeks since your guests have dined here. Something more serious is in order. Perhaps the griddled cheeseburger, a premium offering from the same proprietors of Au Cheval’s coveted creation? Here, an 8 oz. patty sits topped with dijonnaise and sharp American cheese. Customers can top it with a farm fresh egg for $2 more, and, for $5 more, the burger can be crowned with that transcendent thick-cut bacon (which threatens even to outdo the beef itself). The kitchen maintains a policy of not splitting its cheeseburger, but the front of house staff has always been more than happy to cut it into halves or quarters tableside–causing a slow ooze of egg yolk that girds one’s loins all the more for the griddled delight before them. The hand-cut fries, unsurprisingly, are absolutely unerring. Crispy, crunchy, and well-salted, the fries’ only flaw is that they arrive without any ketchup (its presence, however, may be requested).

But no, a burger will not do either–and those delicious fries can always be added in with the steak order. Instead, Bavette’s spiced fried chicken seems suitable for the mid course. It is the only dish on the menu that bears the restaurant’s name (and for good reason). The three pieces of breast that come with an order sit stacked on top of each other (a parallel to your three-tiered plateau?) and nestled onto a mound of mashed potatoes. A boat of sweet pea and cipollini gravy garnishes the other side of the plate. The chicken’s breading boasts a golden brown crust with a captivating crunch and mildly piquant taste that, nonetheless, allows the profound juiciness of the bird to shine. The mashed potatoes, it must be said, are rather nice too. Sticky and ever so slightly chunky, they stick to your ribs in the most pleasant of ways and only benefit (like the chicken itself) from a healthy pour of the gravy.

Yes, the fried chicken will do quite nicely. Now what else? Oh, there is a special this evening, something new. A lovely preparation of sablefish that is marinated overnight in miso and simply sautéed. Bavette’s will reliably offer one or two specials an evening–sometimes in limited quantities–that are well worth ordering. They show all the same finesse as the menu’s benchmark items, and this sablefish is no different. When it arrives at the table alongside the chicken, the 2 x 2 strips of filleted fish (with a wedge of lemon on the side) look almost wimpy by comparison. Yet, once that citrus is squeezed and that sablefish reaches your tongue: nirvana! The flaky skin and moist flesh resonate perfectly with the deep umami of the miso. The dish can only be termed “deliciously simple,” and must rank among the healthiest but most pleasing fish offerings you’ve had on this or any menu in town.

Bavette’s dry-aged bone-in ribeye cut, which benefits all the more from an adornment of roasted garlic.

Finally, it is time for the main event, the reason that so many guests make their reservation a month in advance. Bavette’s beef is labelled USDA Prime and split into three familiar cuts. The filets come in 6 oz. and 10 oz. sizes along with a 16 oz. bone-in option. The ribeye is available either as a 16 oz. classic “Chicago cut” or a 22 oz. bone-in size that is additionally dry-aged for a hefty 42 days. The New York strip comes in just one size: 16 oz. bone-in and also dry-aged for 42 days. That’s it. There’s no exorbitant Japanese Wagyu or Kobe at Bavette’s, no overpriced American wagyu or menu spaced devoted to touting various domestic ranches that nobody has ever heard of. The dry-aging is kept simple and applied to certain cuts as deemed necessary. That is, the kitchen curates the steak selection rather than dumping out endless options of dubious quality like the city’s other steakhouses. Accompaniments are varied and split into several price categories. $4 gets you peppercorn crust, maître d’butter, or roasted garlic while $7 conjures wild mushrooms or gorgonzola to go with your meat. Roasted bone marrow (at $8) and a warm king crab “Oscar” preparation costs $24 (though, having tried it once, you are content with the crab as it is in the plateau).

For you, the choice among these cuts is obvious (and has been since your first visit). At a little over two inches thick, the bone-in filet is the best piece of meat in town. It is always, and you mean always perfectly cooked, the thick, ruby-tinged slabs of beef turning into the equivalent of cow butter when they slide onto the tongue. You rarely order filet mignon, but this one cannot be missed. It stands as the ultimate testament to the cut, and, while you often enjoy it with the peppercorn crust added on, the topping’s crunch almost criminally subtracts from the supreme tenderness on offer. You would contrast this cut with the more petite pieces of filet on offer, but so steadfast is the bone-in’s presence on your table that you cannot say you have tried–or even seen–them.

Needless to say, the cook temperatures on all of Bavette’s steaks are unerring.

Next on the chopping block, the number two steak that more or less always accompanies that bone-in filet (unless, of course, you simply decide to order several of those delightful cuts), is the bone-in, dry-aged ribeye. While the lesser ribeye on the menu carries the name “Chicago cut,” you think that title is better applied to the bone-in variety. Sporting a healthy outer char (that, as it should be noted, all steaks at Bavette’s possess), the dry-aged ribeye offers a deeper, “beefier” flavor than the filet with just a little more chew. You say “just a little,” as many of the city’s ribeyes–even those of the ostentatious “Tomahawk” variety–come out a bit tough whether you order it medium (some say this temperature dissolves the inner sinews of fat) or medium rare. Tonight, cooked to medium temperature, the bone-in ribeye is a beautiful blushing pink. Juicy, with well-rendered caps of fat that dissolve in the mouth, the steak possesses a sublime umami undercurrent by way of the dry-aging’s musky mushroom flavor. The roasted garlic accompaniment makes a perfect bedfellow to this piece of beef, and you never forget to pair the two together.

When hosting a larger party–or, perhaps, a particularly carnivorous smaller group–you will sometimes trot out the bone-in, dry-aged New York strip. It’s a fine steak, one that would stand up against the vast majority in the city, yet it suffers when compared to the two others previously mentioned. The cut is thicker than the ribeye, coming much closer to the filet, but lacks the former’s intensity of flavor and the latter’s incredible texture. You end up with a cut that is somewhere in between the two without really exceling and “wowing” one’s palate. While the peppercorn crust can detract from the bone-in filet, you have no bones about applying it to this strip, where it works to make the cut just a bit more interesting in comparison to the others on the table. For most parties, you would recommend doubling up on the filet rather than add in a New York strip simply for variety’s sake.

The side dishes, in comparison to the steaks, are a whole ‘nother story. That is, you cannot go wrong with any one of the dozen dishes on offer. The pommes frites (which also come with the cheeseburger) and the “buttery” mashed potatoes (which coat the bottom of the fried chicken preparation) have already been praised. So has the thick-cut bacon, which is available as a showstopping standalone item.

The loaded baked potato–replete with bacon, sour cream, cheddar cheese,  and chives–is deliciously oversized and impeccably dressed. One does not need to worry about eating chunks of unseasoned tuber as you work your way through the top layers. You cannot say you have tried the baked sweet potato–topped with butter and brown sugar–but this is simply out of protest due to the restaurant removing a bourbon-glazed, candied sweet potato dish you deemed superior (if only by avoiding there being two styles of baked potato on the menu). Oh, and there’s a “truffle” mac & cheese too. The “truffles,” you think must come from truffle oil given that no shavings appear in the dish. Nonetheless, its presence is not offensive and certainly does not overshadow the creamy, molten white cheddar and al dente elbow noodles.

While the starchier offerings are just fine, you think it is the vegetables at Bavette’s that really shine. Both the creamed spinach–served with a molten mixture of blue cheese and caramelized onions–and the button mushrooms–covered in cream sherry with a coating of crispy onion strings on top–bring an impressive amount of richness to proceedings. The dishes might strike some diners as a tad heavy, but they strike right at the essence of their respective ingredients, providing an ample mouthfeel and intensity of flavor to ensure that they are not wholly outshone by the steaks.

On the other hand, the charred broccoli, broiled asparagus, and brussels sprouts sides are more simply prepared and textural. Rather than melting on the tongue along with the beef, these items retain their hearty crunch and draw on flavors like lemon or Dijon to revive the palate during the latter portion of the meal. Tonight, a special offering of fresh Klug Farm peas with roasted sweet onions and that always-wonderful bacon, fits into this same category. You only wish it wasn’t going out of season! Last amongst the sides–and striking somewhere in the middle of the two aforementioned categories–is Bavette’s elote style corn. The kernels in this dish (which ranks as the only side item you must order each visit) retain a pleasing snap but come dressed in a sauce of melted parmesan. Yet, rather than veer towards being too rich, a hint of chili and squeeze of lime bring things back from the brink. This elote style corn has it all, and it stands as a wonderful flourish that breaks from the menu’s France-meets-Chicago theme.

An oh-so-satisfying chocolate cream pie topped generously with whipped cream.

It comes as no surprise that Bavette’s dessert selection follows much of the same formula as the rest of the menu: classics, done (very) well, with little extra ostentation or adornment. The chocolate cream pie boasts a fudgy filling and crumbly crust along with a titanic dollop of whipped cream to offer a reprieve from all the decadence. The lemon meringue pie, by contrast, possesses a torched mane of thick meringue taller than the pastry itself. It, again, plays well off of the filling (which, in this case, is quite pleasingly tart). The restaurant’s rendition of carrot cake is quite classic, with carrots sliver that are not too crunchy (but still clearly there) and a cream cheese frosting that is fantastic (and why else does one order carrot cake?). While one person could take down a pie slice, you think the cake could (perhaps should) easily be split by two. Last of all, the hot fudge sundae “royale” is the real showstopper of the dessert menu. Customers are treated to three varied scoops of ice cream (two are always chocolate and vanilla) with whipped cream, cherry, hot fudge, and dozen assorted toppings that include cookies, brownies, candy bars, marshmallows, and more. You marvel at the restaurant’s ability to repackage and charge a premium for slivers of Kit Kats and Reese’s Cups, but there’s no denying the ice cream is damn good.

Sundae service is a playful way to end proceedings, though it is quite similar to something served at Maple & Ash.

Alas, you skip dessert this evening having so enjoyed your wines, your seafood plateau, the fried chicken, the sablefish, and your selection of steaks and sides. It has been another unforgettable meal at Bavette’s, an experience so well-curated, so unblemished time after time that perfection becomes an expectation. The pacing was perfect: each of the three courses entered individually with ample pauses in between (and no sort of prodding so that the servers may turn the table). Neither water nor wine glasses were ever left empty, due to some of the best bussers in the business. And the server, too, knew to have your steaks arrive sliced even though you forgot to ask for it when reciting the breadth of your order.

Bavette’s is a restaurant where no little detail goes neglected, but you, the diner, never for an instant feel fussed over. Not every party will partake in the same bacchanalia that your table did, and there is no need to “play that game” to ensure proper service. The staff shows the same warmth whether you order cocktail or Cabernet, burger or bone-in filet. The establishment is totally at peace with itself. The food? Confident in its simplicity. The staff? Content and expressive. There is something eternal about Bavette’s. Something that feels like you truly are stepping into another world, another time. It is the standard-bearer for the “Chicago steakhouse” and the very first place I would recommend to any friend with more traditional tastes.

In the city’s most crowded genre of restaurant, Bavette’s excels by offering “less,” not “MORE,” ditching any sort of “corporate” feel, and never compromising on quality (without needing to shove it in your face). It sets a benchmark that you would pit against any steakhouse–perhaps any American restaurant–in the country.

Three Pineapples: an ultimate expression of hospitality, a peak experience that reminds us why life is worth living, a restaurant as warm and genuine as grandma’s house.