General

At City Winery, it’s Crush Hour in Chicago

My Sept. 9 Wisch List column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

By Dave Wischnowsky

Boasting popular breweries such as Goose Island, Revolution and Half Acre, Chicago is known far and wide for its beer offerings.

But for its wine? Well, not so much.

That, however, could change thanks to City Winery, the latest addition to Chicago’s thriving culinary scene along Randolph Street in the West Loop. Although, having visited City Winery shortly after its mid-August opening, it may be wise to let the place settle in a bit before making a vist.

Nevertheless, with 179 years of history under its belt and more than 2.7 million residents capable of generating ideas, it’s pretty difficult to come up with a truly novel concept in Chicago these days. And restaurateur Michael Dorf has indeed accomplished that with his new creation.

Located inside a sprawling, 30,000-square-foot renovated warehouse at 1200 W. Randolph situated across the street from Oprah Winfrey’s HARPO studios, Dorf’s brainchild bills itself as Chicago’s first operational winery.

Trendy, but not stuffy, the wine-and-food spot is actually a spinoff of the original City Winery incarnation in New York City. And at its website, citywinery.com/chicago, Dorf writes, “CW Chicago is our 2.0. We learned a lot in NY and have improved the physical layout, the operational logistics, taken the best of our menu, programming, and put together an all-star management team.”

In early 2013, City Winery will begin producing 18 house wines that currently are being shipped in from New York. During my August visit, the malbec rosé ($12 a glass) made with Argentinean grapes was a particularly unique offering. And for those whose dates might not prefer wine, a nice selection of beer and ciders – many of them locally made – are also available and as inexpensive as $5 a glass.

The restaurant’s cuisine features Italian, French, Spanish, Middle-Eastern influences with dishes that include flatbreads, pastas, fowl, steaks and seafood.

However, the true experience at City Winery goes well beyond sampling fermented grapes and gnocchi, as in addition to a 175-seat restaurant, the venue also includes a 30-seat private barrel dining room, a 175-seat outdoor wine garden courtyard that’s intended to create a “Sonoma in the city” feel – and, most significantly, a 300-seat concert hall.

Chicago Tribune critic Steve Johnson recently wrote that the premise “beyond the winemaking and the eclectic American fare, is that it offers a more civilized way to attend a concert. You have a bite, maybe order a bottle, you sit in the same seat and watch the show.”

During its opening week, City Winery hosted the comedian Lewis Black, a friend of Dorf’s who actually named a private-label zinfandel-Syrah blend after him. The concert hall, however, is designed to host intimate musical acts, albeit perhaps a tad too intimately, according to my friend Tom Tucker who attended one of Black’s performances.

“That was the only bad thing,” explained Tucker, who shared wine and appetizers with his girlfriend during the show. “It was difficult for the busboys to get in between the tables. There were a lot of ‘excuse me’s’ being said. But, otherwise, everything else was really nice in there.”

Restaurants open (and close) often in Chicago. But it isn’t every day that new music venue boasting an established brand a connected owner open, so City Winery offers considerable promise. However, while the lineup for the remainder of 2012 features a few familiar names such as Suzanne Vega, Joan Osborne, Matthew Sweet, Paula Cole and Los Lobos, it doesn’t boast any big ones. And most artists are of the lesser-known variety.

That said, the unique concept and venue make City Winery a valued addition to the city scene. We just need to let it age a bit.