CHICAGO -- In the shadow of Trump Tower or the Wrigley Building, depending on the time of day, sits a new restaurant you'd do well to keep on your radar.
Beacon Tavern carries a Wabash Avenue address, but it's accessed most easily via the walkway that stretches west from Michigan Avenue, between Wrigley's north and south towers. For years, the restaurant's space was home to McDonald's. It's fair to say that the look and cuisine have improved significantly.
"We pretty much gutted it to the studs," said owner Billy Lawless, whose restaurant holdings include Acanto, The Dawson and The Gage. "Every bit of electric, plumbing — nothing was salvageable. But the location — it's like a mini-oasis just off Michigan Avenue."
Oasis is an apt description, though nothing about the stark exterior hints at the comfort that awaits. You might be taken aback as you enter and encounter the large and frequently ear-splitting bar area, but once you reach your table, the noise level drops dramatically. The dining space is broken into segments, adding to the intimacy, and the palette of deep blue-gray walls, dark emerald upholstery, weathered-wood furniture and gleaming white trim is soothing and inviting. Tall candles add warmth to the low-key overhead lighting. Nothing about the look or feel suggests a restaurant that's less than a year old.
Executive chef Robert Broskey's menu is similarly comfortable and familiar, but his dishes contain twists and surprises to which the menu barely alludes. His peekytoe crab dip is essentially a crabcake in spreadable form, softened with cream cheese, topped with breadcrumbs and served with a bag of Utz crab chips. Shrimp toast is presented vertically, beginning with a brioche base topped with shrimp and lime-dressed greens, surrounded by truffle-butter sauce. As a bonus, a quartet of deep-fried shrimp heads are served on the side; the shrimp-butter-brioche combo is luxurious, no doubt, but I'll take the shrimp heads by themselves any time.
The blue prawn dish is the star of the raw bar. The prawns arrive under a pretty blanket of tomato, watercress and grated horseradish, and peppadew peppers (not mentioned on the menu) provide bursts of acidity and moderate heat that really make the dish come alive.
Broskey gets whimsical with his "Nibbles" menu section, which features a relish tray (pickles, veggies, pimento cheese, Ritz crackers) that could have been stolen from a Wisconsin supper club, and baked-to-order "cheddar bay biscuits" that are an homage to (and very reasonable facsimile of) the cult-level biscuits at Red Lobster.
The fries here are worthy of the previous tenant, arriving hot enough to singe your fingers. They make fine accompaniments to the fish and chips (deep-fried hake alongside batter-fried cornichons), as well as the massive, half-pound Uncle Eric's Roadhouse Burger (named for grill cook Eric Weathersby), topped with Hook's cheddar and barbecue sauce, piled high with two tricycle-wheel-size onion rings and pretty much defying polite eating. (Broskey suggests compressing the burger by hand, but warns, "You've got to get mad at it.")
Other main courses skew toward heavy richness as well, but we are in winter; presumably, lighter fare will emerge in a couple of months. For now, pay attention to bucatini with lobster and a curried sauce americaine, and the hearty lamb shank over a brothy mix of braised lentils, pickled onions and fine herbs, helped along by a sprinkling of fried sunchoke chips.
Executive pastry chef Kevin McCormick, merely 27 years old, is a name to watch. He manages a few nifty desserts, including a nice individual lemon tart with crunchy meringue and hazelnut ice cream, and a tall tart tatin topped with clotted cream, alongside a scoop of tart, green-apple sorbet and a bit of vanilla creme anglaise. McCormick's signature dessert is the banoffee pie, a classic English dessert of banana and toffee; McCormick's version is a whole pie ($20) that will sate a party of four, and features a shallow pastry base crowded with piped pillows of banana and caramel pudding, curved pieces of tempered chocolate that Broskey calls "chocolate Pringles," thick-sliced bananas, almond toffee and candied almonds.
Good cocktails, eight draft pours (five from Chicago), a good selection of liqueurs and a thoughtful wine list that includes an assortment of half-bottles make Beacon Tavern a good place to imbibe. And for the after-work and skipping-out-early crowd, happy hour (3-6 p.m. Monday to Friday) features a short list of discounted cocktails, beer and wine, along with a few bargain-priced nibbles.