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Bar Eats: Chief O'Neill's is the Irish Pub 'You've Been Practicing For'

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[Photographs: Josh Conley]

After graffiti and the word "okay," Irish pubs would probably net the bronze medal in the event of Things You Can Find Almost Anywhere. I actually thought they were more of an American fanboy kind of obsession until I started seeing them in places you just wouldn't expect. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mongolia.

There is something special about a good one, though, right? What it is precisely is tough to put into words. Sure, there are the physical descriptors—soft light, hardwood floors, proper pints, and historical Irish paraphernalia. But the great ones have something else: a warmth they emanate, a feeling they evoke. It's the intangibles that make all the difference, and you can find them in Avondale at Chief O'Neill's.

Started by two Irish musicians in 1999, the pub is named after Daniel Francis O'Neill, a preserver of traditional Irish music. Dubbing itself "The pub you've been practicing for," Chief O'Neill's has something for everyone. The front room houses the bar and several tables, a couple TVs, a fireplace. The back room is a bigger, more open dining area, a second fireplace. And then there's the massive outdoor patio behind that. Sure, they have the requisite list of whiskeys, Irish drafts, and even a featured local brew to slake your thirst. But my advice is go for the drinks, stay for the food.

The fish and chips ($14) is absolutely dynamite. The cod is thick and moist, but with a sturdy, almost meaty texture to it. The breading is evenly coated and crunchy, with a bit of salt. The chips are steak-cut, generously salted, perfectly fried, winners. And the mushy peas are the bass player of this trio; they don't get the attention and magazine covers; all they do is rock out with buttery, savory goodness.

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The Guinness infused meatloaf ($14) is another blue ribbon entree. It is moist and bursting with rich flavors, courtesy of veal, pork, and beef. And though "bacon wrapped" is a bit of a misnomer, the bacon on top adds some smokiness without dominating. Onions and garlic really come through, and you can see bits of minced onion and carrot throughout. The mashed potatoes are simple, creamy and buttery, and the gravy is stout and peppery.

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Irish lamb stew ($20) is not something you see on a lot of Irish pub menus, which may explain the price tag. The braised lamb is just as tender as can be, with individual chunks big enough to share. The savory porcini mushrooms come over the top of the lamb, only to be balanced out by the sweetness of the carrots. The barley provides a unique texture and some earthiness. And while this dish certainly won't win any beauty contests, it is hearty, bone-warming fare.

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Irish soda bread is what they start you out with. Made in house, these mini-loaves are sweeter than most soda bread I've had, with the nice touch of caraway seeds. It reminds me a bit of pound cake more than anything, but slightly less dense. Save some, it makes a great dessert.

Maybe a better question than what makes Irish pubs so appealing is this: Why are we so drawn to them? There is a mystique to them for sure, and I am in love with that mystique, the idea of the Irish pub. Having a pint with my mates after a hard day's labor. The Cheers thing of knowing everyone, belonging somewhere. In no way does this resemble any facet of my reality. But Chief O'Neill's makes me believe it is. Sometimes that's all you need.

Chief O'Neill's

3471 North Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618 (map)
773-583-3066
chiefoneillspub.com

Josh Conley spent one Christmas on Easter Island out of sheer irony. When he's not eating and drinking, he can usually be found belittling his kids HERE.

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