Billy Lawless once again swims against the stream in his newest Chitown food and drink concept.
By Christopher Tarantino
Besides being in possession of a moniker most Bond villains or comic book vigilantes would kill for, Billy Lawless is also in possession of a handful of popular bar and restaurant concepts across the Chicago area. Since emigrating here twenty years ago from Galway, Ireland, where he was born and raised, he has opened a slew of eateries such as The Gage and Acanto (both located in Millennium Park), as well as The Dawson and the foxy Italian destination Coda Di Volpe. But the most recent feather in his already crowded cap is Beacon Tavern, the six-month old Magnificent Mile eatery perched high atop the Chicago River, nestled cozily between the iconic Wrigley Building and the, uh, yuge, Trump Tower on North Wabash Avenue, just off Chicago’s most busy street. But what differentiates Beacon from the many other restaurants and cocktail programs in Chicago and in this family itself? Longtime Lawless employee and Beacon mixologist Clint Rogers explains: “Simplicity, but with a lot of culinary technique, as well. All of the concepts in the Lawless group have strong cocktail programs, but at Beacon we have a heightened attention to detail. We are able to execute because the staff is so small and we all communicate daily, so everything is prepped and fresh and no one person ever really gets the brunt of the work. Usually, people have our drinks and simply like them. That’s always enough, but sometimes they dig deeper and realize all of the time that goes into something like, say, our house-made tonic.” It also has a unique assortment of bottles of vintage spirits and wines on-hand, in what they call their Cabinet Collection. We visited the restaurant for a terrific meal and a cocktail with some bourbon from the 1950s.
Don’t let the casual-sounding ‘Tavern’ in its name fool you, the Beacon gang is far from a hole-in-the-wall. If anything, it’s simply part of Mr. Lawless’s frequently cheeky wordplay meant to draw you in, before sucker-punching you with a first-class experience as soon as you’ve let your guard down. Lawless described the classy-yet-lived-in decor as “beaten and weathered like me—with a touch of refinement.” One would never guess that barely one year earlier, the space was still a McDonald’s, until the Chicagoarm of international design firm Perkins+Will had their way with it. “As a little homage, I tell people that we source our pommes frites bags from the same manufacturer as McDonald’s. The story is completely false, but people get a kick out of it anyway,” admits Rogers. So, for the architecture firm’s first restaurant design, duo Fred Schmidt and Lara Leskaj were charged with turning what was a greazy fry kitchen and free bathroom for the homeless—or possibly Mr. Trump in a real pinch if he couldn’t make it up to the penthouse and really had to go—into a warm and rustic modern tavern for the elegant everyman, which never feels unwelcoming. The bar and dining area seat a combined 140 guests, plus a wraparound outdoor patio which the high-back booths, photo-worthy decor and open-plan kitchen only serve to accentuate.
Like Sports? try The 49ers
It only took a hundred or so years, but for a city that’s now finally home to a world champion baseball team, Beacon’s unique “49er” wine program seems like it could raise some eyebrows with sommelier sports nuts. Beverage Director Jon McDaniel chose a variety pf 49 global wines, each priced at 49 local dollars, aiming to keep the list fun without guests feeling like they couldn’t try certain wines that were “out of their league” price-wise. Known for his accessible lists and “Unicorn Wines,” McDaniel was formerly Wine Director at Los Olivos Cafe & Wine Merchant, forever immortalized in 2004 somm-com Sideways as the establishment where Paul Giamatti is “not drinking any fucking Merlot!”
Beacon Tavern also operates something affectionately known as the “Beacon Tavern Shuck Off,” a competition to find the perfect wine to pair with oysters for Chicago’s wine professionals, or amateur armchair pairers with zero shucks given, looking to make a name for themselves in the down and dirty world of wine-shellfish pairing. Allegedly known as The Dark Knight of Windy City Wine—possibly for his superhero-like power to nail a grape’s vintage from a thousand yards, or possibly because of his low, throaty growl and penchant for blowing disposable income in his own personal “Department of Wine R&D” (Research & Development)—McDaniel must be doing something right to have earned his fifth Lawless Beverage Director title.
The House of the Spirits
For collectors and wine connoisseurs, Beacon also offers a unique Cabinet Collection of vintage spirits and fine wines, including Krug Grand Cuvee, Villard Condrieu and Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir. This so-called cabinet is stocked by a company known as Sole Agents. And that so-called company of spirit-seekers is technically just one man: local-barkeep-turned-vintage-bottle-hunter Alexander Bachman. Bachman sources all of the restaurant’s classic aged-spirits himself from wherever he can. But this sounds like quite the risky game. Have they ever bought a pricey vintage bottle that didn’t exactly mature as planned, souring like a 50-year-old bottle of milk? Not according to Rogers: “Occasionally I think things are a little off in old Campari bottles, but in a good way. I’ve always been on the hunt for vintage vermouth but Alex won’t let me buy it since it never quite holds up because of its lower alcohol content.”
Beacon’s 27-year-old Executive Chef Bob Broskey comes courtesy of local landmarks Intro and Lincoln Park’s L20. Lawless praised his extensive cooking knowledge and called him “one of the hardest-working chefs I’ve ever met.” He’s also one of the happiest working chefs we’ve ever met, smiling his way around the kitchen; the complete antithesis to the bogus celeb-chef personalities jammed down our throats from most reality TV cooking shows, which comes as a very welcome change. Broskey specializes in raw seafood, which would explain Beacon’s fish-forward nature. For every one dish by land, there’s at least two by sea. But it’s not just one big raw bar. The lightly-seared scallops on a bed of billowy, savory Hen of the Woods mushrooms were some of the best we’ve had anywhere. But Beacon’s secret weapon may well be their amazing house-made focaccia bread—way better than any non-Italian joint has any right to serve—which is baked by Pastry Chef Kevin McCormick. But it’s the through line that runs through all these seemingly disparate elements that ties everything together and makes Beacon Tavern a special experience. “All of our drinks are inspired by the way Bob cooks, which is heavy on technique, but very simple plating. Case in point: our rum punch, which is a pre-batched punch, blending numerous different rums, mango puree, lychee black tea and house-made grapefruit oleo-saccharum, most of which require a few days lead time. In the end though, we want it to come across simply and clean,” explains Rogers. Mission accomplished.