Belly up to the bar
by Bix Engels
I'll admit right up front that I don't have much experience with chain restaurants-this summer, my friends had to walk me through a Dairy Queen excursion like a visitor from outer space. But I try to keep an open mind, so when a friend suggested I have a look at Bar Louie, the Liberty Street outpost of a popular Chicago-based chain, I thought, why not?
On my first visit, Bar Louie showed off its most appealing sports-bar side. It was an away-game day, and the place has eight huge TV monitors placed around the attractive, cavernous, dimly lighted room. The music is deafening, but the communal roaring, moaning, and gasping of Wolverine fans at each completed pass and heartbreaking fumble easily overwhelmed the sound track. We got in the spirit with a couple of tailgater-type appetizers. The Szechuan rib bites were meaty and succulent, although the sauce seemed at once a little too sugary, a little too salty, and a little underspiced. The Buffalo wings were dry-my goof, as I'd ordered boneless-but here again the flavors were both excessive and muted: not enough fire and too much salt on the chicken; not enough tang in a blue-cheese sauce that was more like cottage cheese dip. My drink orders weren't much more successful: I had to send back a glass of undrinkable Sauvignon Blanc, and the Chardonnay the server brought in its place was only tolerable.
On later visits I stuck with Bell's IPA-a $2 bargain during happy hour, weeknights from 4 to 7 p.m. On Tuesdays there's also a decent $1 burger after five o'clock. Trimmings are extra, so the burger tab can easily run up to $2 or even $3, but even so, you can theoretically have a beer and burger for less than $5. Of course, you'll likely spend more on drinks while you wait for a seat-when we got there around six, the place was packed. The crowd did start to thin out between seven
and eight, and as crowds go, it's an easy one here-all ages, all castes, all unpretentious.
Except for those Tuesday burgers, you won't find appealing food deals to accompany your happy-hour plonk. The two-for-one appetizer specials are limited to just seven choices, and those I tried ranged from a sophomoric hummus with pita
as squishy as Wonder bread to one of the worst foods I've recently encountered. The "loaded fries" are a huge plate of industrial-cut frozen potatoes dunked in the fry basket, topped with runny process cheese ("queso" on the menu), crumbled bacon, pickled carrots and such from a jar ("giardiniera"), and canned jalapeņo slices. I'll admit there was a certain initial junk-food appeal when it was hot, but as it cooled down and the grease began congealing in the bottom of the bowl and the pastel-colored "queso" began to gel, we were begging the server to remove it. By comparison, chicken quesadillas with cubes of grilled breast meat and a whopping side of fresh guacamole were pretty good, although they may have been buoyed by the contrast.
One thing Bar Louie always did right was service. It was invariably charming-fast, friendly, and professional. It's not a good place to eat-but as a bar, it's not bad.
401 East Liberty, 794-3000
Daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Appetizers $2.99-$10.99, burgers and sandwiches $7.99-$10.99, entrees $9.99-$15.99, desserts (for two) $7.99
Fully disability friendly
[Originally published in November, 2008.]