Your mid-20s are a crossroads that can sometimes feel like a crisis. Even a well-adjusted twentysomething might crumble under the pressure of having to decide where their life is headed, then pack up and join a traveling circus to avoid answering that question. The same is true of some restaurants that last for multiple decades: they might stay stuck in their ways and avoid change entirely, or they might get scared of becoming irrelevant, forget what made them special in the first place, and reinvent themselves as an authentic Medieval inn serving artisanal porridge.
But Blackbird isn’t your average twentysomething. Open since 1997, it operates like it has no doubts about its place in the world or where it’s headed - and that confidence feels well earned by the complex, delicious food it serves.
If you’re at all familiar with Chicago’s dining scene, you’ve probably heard of Blackbird. It’s a West Loop classic that’s slightly older than both Google and Jaden Smith, and way older than the national pastime of Googling Jaden Smith. It was the first spot from the people behind The Publican and Big Star, two restaurants so synonymous with Chicago dining that it’s hard to believe they didn’t just show up fully formed, like Venus riding in on a soft shell. It’s also right next door to its sister restaurant, Avec, which is younger, more fun, and probably a better overall choice for most dining situations. While both restaurants are gorgeous from the outside, the inside of Blackbird feels a bit stuck in the aughts. But just because it’s a little older and more subdued doesn’t mean it isn’t still a fun option for a special occasion.
There are a lot of ways to eat here - a la carte, a six-course chef’s selection, or a reserve tasting menu on the weekends - and each is a distinct experience. But their weekday lunch is your very best West Loop option for fine dining at a relatively reasonable price. The lunch menu has some overlap with dinner, but you can order the excellent daytime-only scrambled egg toast and tender pork pavé for around $30. Alternatively, the three-course prix fixe lunch is about the same price, which means you can eat a meal catering to people in bespoke suits that hardly costs more than DoorDashing a burrito and chips to your open-plan office after fees.
Nearly everything on the menu finds a way to be more interesting than you’d expect. You'll find salty, rich entrees paired with bright, sweet sauces, and anything soft and tender on the plate is offset by some sort of satisfying crunch. The aged Rohan duck, for example, is a mix of crispy and juicy slices of meat and fattier pieces that melt like good pork belly once you take a bite. And because the menu descriptions are sparse, most of the food is served with some element of surprise. Sometimes that’s the point, like with a tasting menu course that’s listed as just “feta yogurt. cucumber. dill.” and ends up featuring a cool, refreshing dill sorbet. Other times it seems less intentional, and it can be frustrating when a server leaves the best elements of a dish under-explained. It makes you feel like a math teacher who has to take points off because the student didn’t show their work, even though they got the right answer.
Ultimately, there’s a reason that this spot has outlived Napster and will hopefully outlive Facebook. The food is beautifully prepared, and nearly every dish is unpredictable and exciting. While its hairline might’ve started to recede a bit, Blackbird still offers a unique enough experience to the city that it doesn’t have to worry about rocking a sweaty comb-over anytime soon.
Because Blackbird focuses on seasonal and local ingredients, the menu changes frequently, but here are a few of the things we ate.
Creamy, fluffy eggs set on top of what tastes like an extraordinarily rich French toast. At $5, it’s like finding a Take 5 bar in a rest stop vending machine - it has the highest cost-to-deliciousness ratio on the menu.
This is so delicately plated, with a crispy potato wrapped around the greens, that when your server starts violently carving up the thin potato barrier, you might think they’re a robot that got sand in their motherboard. But the rough tossing is necessary, combining chewy bits of pancetta, runny egg yolk, acidic mustard-based dressing, and (of course) crispy potato pieces to make this a delicious, salty appetizer.
Lightly breaded and topped with a dill sauce, this reminds us of fried pickle spears. Crispy outside, soft inside, refreshingly tangy and salty.
A strawberry-based sauce works surprisingly well with the fish. The kanpachi is soft, topped with delicious pieces of black garlic and burnt honey meringue.
A dish that’s only served at lunch, and one of the best examples of what Blackbird does well. Every texture is represented here, from the tender, falling-apart pork to the crunchy potato frizzles, and the flavors run from sweet and salty meat to a tangy and mustardy sauce.
Each bite of the duck has a different consistency - one will be tender and chewy, the next will melt in your mouth. This is the best entree we had, and if you’re a fan of duck you’re going to want to order it. If you’re not a fan of duck, order this and see how you feel after you’re finished.
You might wonder what this is doing on the lunch menu next to such interesting dishes. There are some fine touches, like a buttery melted cheddar and a sweet egg bun, but nothing that makes this truly worthwhile. You should spend your time at Blackbird eating more adventurously.