The “new” Little Bucharest Bistro is in culture shock. Instead of simply embracing its Romanian roots, it attempts to appeal to its vision of the “mainstream American” customer and the result is an unfocused menu served in a baffling dining space. Ultimately, the Bistro doesn’t know what it wants to be – A restaurant? A bar? A dance hall? — and its confusion overshadows the best of what it is – an excellent place for traditional heavy Romanian food on a brutally cold February night.
Perhaps a little bit of an identity crisis is understandable. The original Little Bucharest Bistro opened in 1970 and held its own until closing its doors in 2004. This new place is an attempt at a revival and aims to appeal a broader dining audience in the Irving Park area. But Little Bucharest Bistro is not a mainstream sort of place, and it loses some of its soul when it tries to be.
Several things about our dining experience struck an odd note, and I had trouble distinguishing between what was possibly cultural influence vs. what was simply a carryover from doing business in the70s. I mean, should there really be a TV in the dining room? Were we sitting in a dining room or a banquet hall with a dance floor? And the stained glass decorations on the walls… are those traditional? I wish I’d had the chance to go to the original place because part of me wonders if the only difference between the old space and the new is the addition of modern furniture.
Another thing that struck me as weird was the pile of cards on each table advertising the musical acts playing at the restaurant each night of the week, much like you’d find in a bar. Underneath all of these cards, we found a collection envelope for the “complimentary music,” and the printing on the outside suggested we leave 10 dollars. Huh.
One of these cards also touted that you can get a free limo ride to and from the restaurant. A limo ride! That appears to be a Little Bucharest tradition, and the limo itself was parked outside with a bright orange Little Bucharest sign on the side (which I found very amusing).
I freely admit that I’m a novice when it comes to Romanian food – I’ve had very little and have no idea what an authentic Eastern European dining experience would be like – but I found myself craving more of the traditional favorites on the menu and wishing those were the only focus. Things like truffle fries seemed out of place on the menu, and the Greek-like dip and white fish we tried were weak. The braised short rib goulash, however, with paprika, tomato ragot and garlic mashed potatoes is absolutely fantastic! The chicken schnitzel and the roasted red peppers were also the best I’ve tried, and the stuffed cabbage with beef, pork and rice was a spicy treat.
Fill up on the goulash and skip dessert. The jelly filled apricot crepe and the chocolate crepe garnished with real Hersey’s aren’t worth saving room for.
Little Bucharest Bistro
3661 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618-4325
This was a media dinner and we dined free-of-charge.