I love tapas, and there are a surprising number of tapas restaurants in Chicago. I’m going to review a few of them here, for your general amusement and, perhaps, to entice you to try one of them.
Tapas (as I’m sure you know) are small plates from Spain, which are typically shared.
439 N. La Salle Street (Red Line Chicago Stop)
Ok, you walk into a wall of people and yell something at the hostess, hoping she will hear you. She yells something back and, if you’re lucky, will start walking you to a table. If not, you stand around waiting and staring at your hostess, who might literally explode at any second. (No reservations on the weekends, you see). If it seems from various hand signals and garbled exchanges that you will need to wait for some time, you hit the bar. Which bar, you ask? Take your pick- there are three in the restaurant. After some sangria you are feeling much more jovial and you approach the hostess once again, eyebrows raised, hopeful smile… YES! You are seated! And then the real fun begins.
This place is a strange hybrid of disco (Spanish music videos blare from oversized TVs), bar, and restaurant. It is loud and vibrant. The food is really delicious. I actually adore coming here because you can’t help but enjoy the crazy atmosphere and get carried along in the rush for an hour or two. It is an excellent place to go for dinner before doing something else later in the night- all that energy should at least get you dancing for a while. If crowds are not your cup of tea, try this place on a weeknight when it will be much quieter.
The food it typical and tasty. The tortilla expañola (a potato omelette) is the best one I’ve had so far in Chicago, and the mejillones (mussels) are absolutely fantastic in their garlicky broth. Prices are reasonable, though alcohol will quickly add to your bill.
Mercat a la Planxa
638 South Michigan Ave
This new restaurant gives a more upscale take on tapas. Located in the Blackmore Hotel, Mercat focuses on tapas from Barcelona and the surrounding area of Catalonia. Accordingly, many tapas on the menu are listed under their Catalan names, while only the traditional tapas from Galicia and Andalucia retain their Spanish names. The specialties are, of course, the seafood and meats grilled “a la planxa”: seared at high heat on a hot plank over the fire. The scallops done in this way are phenomenal. Mercat also offers a great selection of vegetable dishes, making this a great spot for a group comprised of vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
This place is more pricey than most tapas places. It is an ideal spot for a fancy date, a celebratory dinner, or a place you might want to get your parents to take you when they come visit. The atmosphere is more laid-back and feels more like a restaurant than Iberico. The sangrias here are also pretty tasty- rather than the fruit-laden winey punches, they involve only a few complimentary flavored fruit and are often steeped with herbs for a more complex flavor.
Emilio’s Sol y Nieve
215 E. Ohio St.
Emilio’s is located conveniently close to Navy Pier, making it a good place to go post IMAX (or post tourist-posing) that is not completely overrun. While enjoyable, it was not as memorable as either Iberico or Mercat. One huge exception to the mediocrity were the datiles con tocino: bacon-wrapped dates. Even if you think you don’t like dates, you have to try them. They will blow your mind.
I am also including this place because it has outdoor seating in the summertime. I went in the winter, so I couldn’t experience this but I have a feeling that the deck would add exponentially to your dining experience. Tapas, wine, Chicago sunset…
Happy eating! If you try these places out, let me know what you think!