Hidden Gems: Old Town Social Sets the New Standard for Bar Food in Chicago

This post is part of our Hidden Gems series, which is brought to you by Basil Hayden's bourbon. Spicy, unexpected, and full of potential. Just like your plans tonight.

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[Photographs: Andrew Stamm]

When I reviewed the burger at Old Town Social for A Hamburger Today, I described the place as part neighborhood gastropub, part uberhip gathering spot and part sports bar. The sports bar part only exists when there are popular live events to show. At most times the 23 flat screen televisions are hidden behind cabinet doors, or in compartments in the ceiling. It's only a trendy hotspot late at night. But most importantly Old Town Social is always serving up good food.

I went to Old Town Social for their weekly "Industry Sunday," which is highlighted by half-price charcuterie and a "Bacon, Beer & Bourbon" theme. There are no bourbon specials, though the very well-stocked bar has about a dozen different bourbon varieties. Beer drinkers have a massive selection of microbrews to choose from, and get free bacon with every meal. The brunch menu has significant overlap with the regular menu.

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Charcuterie is getting increasingly popular in Chicago, and some of the best is coming from chef Jared Van Camp at Old Town Social. There are 16 different housemade offerings, most of which are made from heritage pork, and all are accompanied with a tangy mustard piccacilli and crunchy grilled bread. On Sundays, it's all on sale for half-price at $2 per serving.

That's lamb salame, coppa and a particularly tender sopprasatta in the top picture. On the lower right is toscano, finnochiona, mortadella—which was sliced a little too thick—and toast with lardo. The toscano, a pork salami made with red wine and garlic, was particularly noteworthy as was the garlic and fennel-heavy lamb salame.

On the lower left sits potted duck rillete along with four cheeses, of the ten options they offer. Those are not half-price, but as is the case with the meat, each cheese is delicious. We sampled the Saxon Creamery "Big Ed," the Spring Brook Farm "Tarentaise" and the buttermilk blue and gruyere from Roth Kase. Rounding out the snack-size portion of the menu are a variety of bar snacks ranging from housemade pickles to quince paste. The bar snacks are also half-price on Sundays at $1 each.

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The breakfast portion of our brunch consisted of doughnuts and French toast. The housemade cinnamon and sugar doughnuts, one of six Sunday specials, were served fresh from the bubbling oil, and had that perfect doughnut texture—a crisp exterior, tender interior. They were served with a coffee mascarpone sabayon that was good, but entirely unnecessary since the doughnuts were flawless alone.

Almost as good was the mascarpone-stuffed brioche French toast. As sweet breakfast breads go, I prefer pancakes, waffles, and cinnamon rolls to French toast, but biases aside, I really enjoyed this. The thin ribbon of mascarpone added a creaminess to the toast while the Klug Farms blueberries and thin custard sauce on top elevated the dish. The French toast was sweet and rich, but not over the top.

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While the menu definitely focuses on meats and heavier foods, there are multiple salads on both the regular and brunch menu. Feeling a little guilty about the day's gluttony, I decided to try the roasted local beet and goat feta salad—it ended up being one of my favorite things of the day. Served with pickled arugula, Illinois ramps, and a wonderfully tangy hazelnut vinaigrette, the large chunks of red and golden beets were, literally, bursting with flavor.

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We finished the meal with a couple of heavier items. Up first, the harissa duck wings served with a cucumber-mint raita. Let's take a quick step back here for a second. This is a bar. And one with 23 flat screen televisions turned on. Serving duck wings. I don't think I've ever seen that on a bar menu. Not only that, but the wings were fall-off-the-bone tender and were coated in a spicy North African chili sauce. The raita was fine, albeit a bit too thick, but there was no need to tone down the moderate heat from the harissa.

We also tried the pork belly reuben, which features pork pastrami made from Duroc pigs along with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on a very good marbled rye. While the meat itself was nice, the combination came up short. I think pork pastrami could work but the seasoning on this particular version was so weak, the meat got lost in the condiments.

I really cannot say enough good things about the food at Old Town Social. This is a bar where, after an overindulgent meal, the most negative thing I can come up with? The made-in-house pastrami, made with heritage pork, could not stand up to the strong condiments. Throw in the massive bourbon selection, and you're left with a bar that's setting a new standard for bar eats in Chicago.