Quay Tao beams confidently when speaking of Portage Park. It's not just broad-shouldered folks and probably the last Dairy Queen known to man. "It's a hidden gem and it's only a matter of time before people find out," Tao says before noting the area bungalows, Portage's Olympic-sized pool and genuine residents. His affirmation birthed The Portage, a gastropub in the heart of the park taking comfort food to a level of comfort the neighborhood gyro huts and Mexican dives cannot surpass.
"It's really important that people are at ease, that we’re giving the complete package," says general manager Neil O'Mara. "It's not enough to have good food, not enough to have good service, but for people coming through our door to feel as though they’re coming into our home."
This home involves a shy space parted into many nooks. A group of middle-aged women embrace royal red banquettes spread before light ash walls where segmented brassy mirrors hang. A bone-white plank ceiling draws natural light from a panoramic window; an unspectacular view, really, more so an invitation to the number of dog walkers, joggers and cyclists.
Sidelining the main floor, a granite-topped bar equipped with a flat screen engages talkative locals excited with questions for the server beyond. At back, a library attracts wi-fi users opting for alone time. The inlet’s rust-colored walls draw dark wood mirrors, bell-shaped lamps and a built-in library with mostly city guides, self-help and thriller titles. And finally, an alfresco dining section lures an easygoing crowd enveloped by flagstone and layered wood.
The menu, classic American with a Southern curveball throughout, takes pub eats up a notch. Start with duck-fat fries – hand-cut fries cooked in duck fat and served with malt vinegar aioli. Entrees include adobo pan-roasted salmon and southern fried chicken with coconut rice. The grilled skirt steak is a celebration of flavors including juicy cuts of meat, roasted tomatoes, mashed sweet potatoes (in lieu of roasted potato confit) and chimichurri sauce. Desserts like homemade apple pie with lemon ginger ice cream complete the experience.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: David-Anthony Gonzalez