Perhaps in the age of microchips and instant everything, we need a new frisson with every meal. Or maybe in the narcissistic 80s, the age of anxiety, we yearn for the good old days when we sat in high chairs and Mommy beguiled us into opening our mouths for the choo-choo. Something has to account for the latest trend in restaurants. In the past few years, we've gone through a spate of dinner theaters in which someone is "murdered" during the first course and the murderer unmasked by the time dessert rolls around. We've had restaurants built around eras and personalities--Fedora's evocation of the 30s, for example, and Sabrina's homage to Bogart. Certainly nostalgia for the 50s must have helped ensure the phenomenal popularity of Ed Debevic's.
The latest in Rich Melman's long line of fantasy ventures is Bub City Crabshack & Bar-B-Q, and it pulls out all the stops. This time he's focused on the deep south, a blend of Texas and Louisiana: in the burgeoning Clybourn corridor, a ramshackle building that once housed auto parts has been transformed into a huge quasi replica of a southern crab shack.
Outside, windows are boarded up with weather-beaten doors. As you enter the bar, you pass through a pair of screen doors, one red, one green, both worn. and peeling, under a sign that reads "Hey Don't Slam the Door." Two large rooms downstairs and a mezzanine featuring pool tables and pinball machines make up the bar area. There's also a ladies' room near one of the exits, just below an enormous bison head, with an unusual feature. As you walk in, you see a life-sized figure of a man with his back to the door, leaning one hand against the wall and arched over a urinal. His fly is open, but the pretense stops just short of letting it all hang out.
The main dining room is enormous, seating 280 people; adjoining it are three smaller rooms that can accommodate overflow crowds and private parties. The predictable nautical paraphernalia is here--a sailfish on one wall, a shark on another, fishing net suspended from the ceiling, lobster and crab traps enclosing light fixtures. The cavernous, dimly lit interior is supposed to suggest a grubby, dank, and drafty eatery--and it does, up to a point.
But the place is virtually spotless. Floors are sanded, clean, and shiny, the temperature is comfortable throughout, and the service is a lot more accommodating than one gets in a real establishment of this sort.
Water glasses are promptly refilled, tables liberally supplied and replenished with paper napkins and clean plates. Drop a bone or shell into a bowl, and it's whisked away and replaced immediately. It's a little like Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting playing shepherdess with cleaned-up sheep.
It's the grub, however, not the "grubbiness," that's the real reason for going. Meats especially shine. Long and lovingly smoked in mesquite, oak, and hickory, baby back ribs ($9.95 a half-order, $13.95 a full) are tangy-sweet and chewy, among the best in Chicago. Aromatic, full-flavored beef brisket ($8.95) would win top honors anywhere, while barbecued chicken ($8.95 a half bird, $11.95 a whole) is as fair a chunk of fowl as I've sunk my teeth into. One can sample all three by ordering Taste-O-Rama ($10.95), a humongous quarter-portion of each accompanied by a small serving of barbecued beans and coleslaw. The zesty, robust beans can be recommended, but the coleslaw, though fresh and crisp, could have had more seasoning. If steak is your thing, Bub City has a juicy, flavorful one-pounder ($16.95); it shares a plate with virtually greaseless shoestring fries and crisp onion slices.
For the indecisive, 18 hot and cold appetizers to choose from can be daunting. The five we selected yielded four palpable hits and one texas leaguer. Steamed mussels in the shell ($5.95), darkly lustrous mollusks bathed in an intensely rich, garlicky broth, made a memorable beginning one evening. Chicken wings ($2.95) might easily put Buffalo's reputation to flight: meaty, barbecued to a succulent piquancy, they made us grateful for the extra pile of napkins on the table. Stuffed crab ($4.25) was loaded with crabmeat, herb-flecked, a first-rate dish that would not be out of place in more elegant surroundings. Skillet-crisped seafood cake ($4.95), sparked by a light mustard sauce, looked and tasted like a delicate, genteel crab cake. The blooper was barbecued shrimp in the shell ($4.95); though not bad, it suffered from too much liquid watery flesh and soupy sauce.
Soups, too, receive high grades. Crab bisque ($2.25 a cup, $3.50 a bowl) was a delicate blend of cream, butter, and corn but surprisingly skimpy on crab. The robust, aromatic seafood gumbo ($2.25/$3.50), on the other hand, had plenty of fish and andouille sausage. Among the better side dishes was Bub potatoes ($1.50)--mashed, with just enough lumps to prove they didn't come out of a box. They seemed equal parts potato and butter. Red beans and rice ($1.50) were better than any I've had anywhere, even New Orleans.
The menu did have some weak spots, however. The one fish we tried, salmon ($14.95), though it was done rare in the center as requested and was obviously fresh, was grilled and not barbecued as the menu had promised. It needed more than the anemic glaze it had to bring out its flavor, and it was not well served by the soggy red-skinned potatoes that kept it company. And though "Fresh fish guaranteed" is emblazoned on the menu, this does not apply to crab, for all four varieties on our Mess o' Crabs ($16.95)--snow, Dungeness, blue, and Jonah--had been frozen, as our waitperson reluctantly admitted. Served in a huge metal tray with overboiled corn on the cob and red-skinned potatoes, everything in this dish tasted waterlogged (except the excellent garlicky herb sauce the blue crabs were in). Skip the linguine unless you have a special fondness for ordinary, commercial pasta. We tried it with crab sauce ($5.95 a half-order, $8.95 a full), and the result was dull and overly sweet, with only the barest hint of crustacean.
Do, however, save room for dessert, especially the sweet-potato-pecan pie ($2.95). A flaky, buttery crust supports a layer of smooth, custardlike sweet potato, which is topped with roasted caramelized pecans and crowned with whipped cream. The effect is heavenly. Bread pudding with bourbon sauce ($2.50), dense and heavily sauced, comes in a close second. "Something Choclit" ($2.95) is featured at every meal; Mississippi mud pie, which we had on our most recent visit, brings up the rear on the desserts. Though properly gooey, it suffered from too lengthy a stint in the refrigerator, where it had acquired some extraneous, slightly metallic overtones. Brewed coffee ($1) is dark, strong, and satisfying.
Though there are a few wines available, beer is most people's choice, priced from $2.50 to $3. You'll have to ask for a glass if you dont want to drink it out of the bottle. I'm not sure how Marie Antoinette would have felt about that.
Bub City Crabshack & Bar-B-Q, 901 W. Weed St., is open for lunch, served in the bar, Monday through Friday from 11:30 to 2:30. It's open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 11, Friday and Saturday from 5 to midnight, and Sunday from 4 to 10. All major credit cards are accepted. Valet parking is available. For reservations call 266-1200.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.