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New Publican Tavern Is Raising The Bar For Breakfast At O'Hare

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 5, 2016 6:55PM

The exterior of Publican Tavern. Photo by Anthony Todd.

As soon as I learned that The Publican, that temple of sustainable meat and seafood that has been happily stuffing West Loop diners for years, was opening an O'Hare location, I had no choice: I immediately booked a cross-country flight just to have an excuse to eat there.

Ok, that's not entirely true. By a happy coincidence, I happened to have a trip scheduled that left Chicago two days after the new Publican Tavern opened. How could I resist a visit?

I was a bit nervous, in all honesty. I learned in the days before Publican Tavern opened that it wasn't going to be operated by One Off Hospitality, but by HMS Host, the airport concessionaire. Branded airport restaurants are notoriously mediocre (see: the Wolfgang Puck Cafe that Publican Tavern replaced) and between the rushing people with suitcases, the high prices and the low quality induced by a captive audience, I estimated less than a 50 percent chance that this would actually be good.

I'm glad to have been proven wrong. While it's obvious that One Off isn't running the show (for reasons I'll discuss below), all the important Publican notes are being struck, and O'Hare dining just got a serious lift.

Publican Tavern is in Terminal 3 after the security gates, so you can't dine without actually going on a flight. It's arranged like a typical airport restaurant: bar area, "inside" dining area and "patio" out on the main concourse of O'Hare. We were sat in the "patio" area, so we had a view of the bustling terminal and harried travelers going by. When you're sitting back in your chair with Publican bacon and a mimosa, not being one of those harried travelers is a wonderful thing.

I visited for breakfast, which is a mutated version of the regular Publican brunch menu. They've got the waffle with honey butter and jam (freshly made), a version of their famous red wine poached eggs made with red wine hollandaise, a mushroom scramble instead of mushroom toast. It's like a lite version of a greatest hits list, re-jiggered for fast airport service.

The Publican benedict. Photo by Anthony Todd.

Publican fans will feel right at home. The classic patterned china, the Publican napkins, the font on the menus, the wide-based water glasses; all the Publican touches are right there. If you hate Starbucks (or just want a better option), they're serving Sparrow coffee. During my visit they had a Publican-exclusive Ethiopian blend, and I bet you won't find a better cup of coffee in that airport. They have a full bar, including Violet Hour signature syrup and a good selection of local spirits. Since it was 7 in the morning, I stuck to a (well-made, not overpriced) mimosa.

Breakfast was executed well. The Publican Benedict (the aforementioned take on red wine poached eggs) came with a lightly dressed arugula salad and a huge mound of La Quercia prosciutto. If they're not using Publican Quality Bread, they're using a darn good substitute, because the sourdough toast was perfect. The classic "butcher's breakfast" with fried eggs, toast and breakfast potatoes was exactly as it should be, and the signature Publican bacon, made with Burton's maple syrup, was about the best bacon I'd had this year. At O'Hare—who would have thought?

On to the downsides, for there are some. The prices aren't low, as you might hope at an airport restaurant. My butcher's breakfast, which despite all my gushing was really a bacon, egg, potato and toast platter, came in $17, while the Benedict was $14 - not crazy for a high-end brunch, but definitely on the high side. The service was a complete and utter mess, which is the part I attribute to One Off not running the whole show, but I'm going to tentatively forgive that because the restaurant had only been open for about three days when I visited. If it's still a mess in a month when I return, they're just being sloppy.

The real elephant in the room is this question: Would I rather eat at Publican Tavern or Tortas Frontera? Tortas Frontera is so awesome that saying that it's now a toss up between the two is a compliment to Publican Tavern, but if I have the time to actually sit and eat a civilized meal, Publican Tavern will probably get my nod. The seating area is better, the coffee service is wonderful, and there are no mall-style beepers involved.

But competition is good, and if Publican Tavern causes Frontera to up their game (or another high-end group to capitalize on the opportunities at O'Hare) so much the better. In the meantime, I'll have another round of bacon.