The atmosphere at Northdown Cafe is kitschy and unpretentious. You enter through a door marked with a paper sign, “3244 N. Lincoln.” The bar / taproom greets you with a friendly, urban vibe. If you want a table away from the bar, you’ll meander back past the wait station and a couple of pinball machines into a cozier space with banquette seating and small tables.
The one thing that usually bedevils new restaurants was not present here. The servers were knowledgeable about both the beer and food menus, offering solid suggestions on suds according to the patrons’ taste preference and menu modifications based on dietary preference. Another plus? Northdown offers vegetarians more than the obligatory grilled cheese sandwich. There are also vegan options – or items that can be made vegan by a minor ingredient change. The folks at Northdown do seem willing to please your palette.
The draft and bottled beer selections were impressive; a well-represented list of local and regional ales and lagers, plus fine examples of East Coast versus West Coast brewing and hop styles. This isn’t surprising, given that one of the partners in Northdown formerly curated the taps at The Map Room. Our server offered a generous tasting of two beers on the menu we weren’t familiar with. We settled on a Three Floyd’s Arctic Panzer Wolf and a Boulevard Double Wide IPA while we pondered the menu.
The descriptions of the food were enough to make your mouth water: appetizers like pork fries, roasted garlic and white bean dip – even lamb on a stick. Sandwiches like the Short Stout (braised short ribs on ciabatta), Seitan Philly (house-made seitan, bell peppers and onions on a hoagie), plus house staples like Mac and Cheese or Chicken and Biscuit Pie set the comfort food expectation into overdrive. Such was the anticipation with the arrival of Open-face Meatloaf Sandwich, a mound of meatloaf topped with mashed potatoes and gravy. My dinner partner and I shared the vegan version of the sandwich, with seitan taking the place of beef. We also split an order of bubbling hot mac and cheese.
Sadly, most of the food we had was either over-cooked (burned seitan meatloaf) or under-flavored (bland french fries, mashed potatoes, seitan). Even the homemade pickled vegetables were oddly flavored in a way that neither my dinner partner nor I could quite pin down. Such was my disappointment in the seitan Meatloaf Sandwich that I decided to give the Pastrami Reuben a shot at redeeming my dining experience.
I’ll give them this: the fries were piping hot. Unfortunately, the sandwich missed the mark. The pastrami was dry and nearly flavorless and, for the life of me, I found neither beer kraut nor Thousand Island dressing purported to be on this sandwich. The other half of the meal was left on the plate. The only thing we finished was the tasty mac and cheese. Starch and hot cheese for the win!
Could this meal be saved with baked goods? Ever the optimists, we decided that key lime pie was in order. The pie wasn’t half bad, despite the attempts to hide the bite of the lime filling with two inches of whipped cream.
I really wanted to like this restaurant. The whole concept of locally-sourced comfort food and carefully-curated craft beers beckoned like a Siren’s song. Too bad it didn’t deliver on the food side of the ledger.
Northdown Cafe and Taproom
3244 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657-1109