Clockwise from top: whole branzino, oyster chips, veal sweetbread corn dog, roasted half chicken, beef heart meatballs, smoked carrots Credit: Nick Murway for Chicago Reader

Used to be, if you worked up a hunger bending your elbow at Pippin’s Tavern, you could vanquish it with a dog, a polish, a beef, or a burger from Downtown Dogs next door. Over the 48-year history of this Rush Street Irish dive, its charms never included food prepared with deeper thought, effort, or feeling than that. For the most part, the same was true of its surroundings, just under the base of the Viagra Triangle, where corporate fast food dominates the tourist trade.

You can still get a burger at Pippin’s, but now it’s ground in-house from Slagel Family Farm chuck and topped with seven-year-old cheddar. If selling your soul at Chick-fil-A across the street doesn’t sit right, you can order a pickle-brined fried chicken thigh sandwich with housemade garlic-dill sours and pimento cheese aioli on a King’s Hawaiian bun. There’s a corn dog on the menu too, but its golden batter jackets a core of veal sweetbreads braised in liquid shio kogi and served with a spicy aioli-spiked Korean ssamjang.

From left: smoked carrots, veal sweetbread corn dog, roasted chicken Credit: Nick Murway for Chicago Reader

“I like corn dogs,” says Amanda Barnes, the veteran chef behind a radical mid-pandemic rebirth of Pippin’s. “I was downstate last summer and I was eating a corn dog, and I realized the textural similarities between sweetbreads and hot dogs—that creamy, bouncy texture. So I had a moment.”

Barnes, who’s clocked innumerable shifts in vaunted Chicago kitchens—from Moto to the Publican to Hot Chocolate—underwent a bit of rebirth herself in the middle of the pandemic. After two bruising years as the opening executive chef at the Hotel at Midtown, she was ready to hang up her apron for good. “It burnt me out a lot,” she says. “I was working 120-hour weeks to get that place open. It happens a lot in the restaurant industry where the money just doesn’t understand how an actual restaurant functions.”

Barnes caught a lifeline just before lockdown when she was asked to help out at Logan Square’s Superkhana International, where chefs Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada have cultivated a reputation for nurturing up-and-coming chefs—and in this case, an established pro. “Zeeshan called and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re overqualified to be a line cook, but we need some help.’ I wanted to see if I remembered why I did this in the first place—and it was great. We were making good food. It was super professional. And it was fun.”

Meanwhile, on the Gold Coast, the Lodge Management Group—which also owns Mother’s, the Redhead Piano Bar, and five other kitchenless bars—was forced to shutter Pippin’s (and Downtown Dogs) due to a landlord dispute. The group’s CEO, Lyn McKeaney, viewed the introduction of food sales as a means of survival, and the vacant Devon Seafood Grill space around the corner presented an opportunity for that—and to keep the Pippin’s name alive.

“I was approached by Lodge and they said they wanted to do a food-forward concept,” says Barnes. “I was like, ‘Uhhhh Pippin’s? Mother’s? Redhead? This doesn’t sound like a group I’m gonna be interested in.’ I said, ‘If you want chicken wings and hot dogs I’m not the chef for you.’”

But they insisted they were committed to a scratch, chef-driven kitchen, and despite her misgivings Barnes submitted a sample menu. When she was offered the job after a tasting, she was persuaded by Lodge’s longevity (River Shannon is the 12th-oldest bar in the city). “They definitely have the financial stability and the long-term vision to do this.”

Barnes signed on last May, and while supply-chain logjams delayed the opening for months, she and her sous chefs busied themselves with a host of preservation projects in the restaurant’s basement, pickling and fermenting the summer’s ephemeral local produce.  

By mid-November her opening menu featured most of the dishes on her sample menu, incorporating preserves and pickles from the wall of jars shelved in the walk-in. They started with the raw bar—a concept inherited from Devon—which features preserved Slagel cherry tomatoes with the Maine lobster, chanterelle conserva with the jumbo lump crab, and on the happy hour menu only, Thai chili- and preserved lime-seasoned oyster chips, made by pureeing bivalves and then steaming, cutting, dehydrating, and frying them so they puff into chicharron-like chips. “Inevitably, if you have a raw bar you have oysters that don’t get consumed,” she says. “I didn’t want to do something tired or staid like Oysters Rockefeller or grilled oysters. I wanted to do something that was a little more interesting and forward thinking.”

Featured only on the happy hour menu, Thai chili- and preserved lime-seasoned oyster chips are made by pureeing bivalves and then steaming, cutting, dehydrating, and frying them so they puff into chicharron-like chips. Credit: Nick Murway for Chicago Reader

That sort of thrift has been standard in certain kinds of chef-driven, farm-focused restaurants for decades—particularly some of the ones Barnes came up in—but it’s practically unheard-of around the intersection of Chicago and Wabash. The restaurant’s basement is currently home to a dozen different active ferments—orange and kohlrabi misos, lacto-fermenting gooseberries, vinegar made from apple scraps—some of them R&D that may never hit the menu. 

South of the Viagra Triangle and largely under the radar, remarkable things are happening at Pippin’s Tavern thanks to chef Amanda Barnes. Credit: Nick Murway for Chicago Reader

“I tell my staff, ‘If there’s an interesting ingredient that you wanna work with, lemme know and we’ll tackle it together,’” she says. “I’m like that with all my cooks, my sous chefs, servers, bartenders; anybody that comes through that door. It’s something I want to foster. I’m only ever gonna be as good as my least experienced cook.”

Last summer they made some 800 pounds of sorbet from overripe Mick Klug Farm peaches, the starring ingredient in the Teaches of Peaches cocktail; while the pickled ramps served with smoked Werp Farms carrots are probably going to last just until this season’s wild alliums start poking up from the ground any week now.

The roasted half chicken at Pippin’s is “dry-aged” in the cooler for 48 to 72 hours and served with roasted, smashed, and fried fingerling potatoes in a soy-caramel sauce. Credit: Nick Murway for Chicago Reader

One of Pippin’s biggest sellers is its roast chicken, an unimaginative necessity on most menus that here is “dry-aged” in the cooler for 48 to 72 hours, served with roasted, smashed, and fried fingerling potatoes in a soy-caramel sauce, and mounted with “a metric ton of butter.” Dry-aging is a technique typically employed with beef that Barnes adapted from her experience working with aged wild game in the UK, the process rendering the bird’s skin glassy and shatteringly crisp. It’s a time- and space-intensive method that’s already spread beyond her kitchen; Oskar Singer of Rye Humor Baking—who moonlights in the Pippin’s basement on Sundays—employed it at a recent Monday Night Foodball pop-up.

Another big seller: meatballs with polenta made with Slagel Family Farm wagyu beef hearts. “This idea that animals walk around as loins is frustrating,” says Barnes, who grew up on her parents’ cattle ranch outside of Houston. “I grew up eating like this. I wanted to do something approachable that utilizes something that most people wouldn’t eat. If I said I was gonna serve you six ounces of grilled beef heart, people are not gonna necessarily embrace that. But who doesn’t love a meatball?”

Going in, Barnes knew her approach was going to be a tough sell with some of the old Pippin’s regulars—and some early Yelp whinging reflects this. And though the remarkable things happening at Pippin’s over the last five months have gone largely unnoticed citywide compared to other late-stage pandemic openings and reopenings, she says they’ve captured a regular following from many of the residential high-rises in the neighborhood whose options for this kind of food exist only in the relatively rarefied dining room at NoMi. “I wanted guests to be able to come in, have something easy that wasn’t something they had to think too much about, and come back the next time and trust us with something a little more complex.”     

So yes, the menu carries the gateway burger and roast chicken, but for the fearless there’s a saffron-tinged potato salad with chickpea miso bagna càuda, an herbaceous Fernet-Branca semifreddo, and on April 7, a seven-course Malört dinner featuring, so far, a tuna Wellington wrapped in five spice-Malört aged bacon, a Malört twinkie, and those oyster chips, dusted in Malört powder. “I am notorious for trying to be the gateway for people to get into Fernet and Malört,” she says.

Barnes is about to become notorious for opening another sort of gateway on the other side of the Viagra Triangle, a new space in the same orbit as Lodge’s late-night Division Street bro bars.

“There aren’t a lot of options for handcrafted food there,” she says. “I’m not saying there have to be towers of foie gras and black truffles, but you can do approachable food that is delicious.”

Pippin’s Tavern
39 E. Chicago
312-982-2752
pippinstavern.com