1970 W. Montrose Ave. (4400N, 200W)
Chicago, IL 60640
"Chicago's Purveyors of Fine Food & Drink"
If you're looking for a neighborhood tavern that transcends the neighborhood and tavern-dom, Fountainhead springs to mind (literally). This Ravenswood newcomer arrives courtesy of Aaron Zacharias, better known as the proprietor of the popular Bar on Buena, one of the first local taps to try and elevate the corner bar experience. Fountainhead is the next step in the evolution. A Foodie's Fantasia, Whiskey Wonderland and Beer Drinkers Babylon all rolled into one, Fountainhead firmly places itself among the elite of Chicago's Gastropub Revolution.
You'll find Fountainhead on the corner of Montrose and Damen in a recently constructed commercial strip that mercifully replaced a block of aging storefronts, including the decrepit family pharmacy that stood on this very spot. Easily accessible by car (parking is actually doable) or the Brown Line, look for Fountainhead's hieroglyphics-like, orange-lit logo, which hangs atop the one story structure. From street level, you can also see the railings that mark the bar's rooftop beer garden, which contains a fountain—go figure.
Inside, you'll encounter a hostess rather than a doorman. Seating is first-come, first-served, and you can expect a wait at peak times. Fountainhead is best experienced sitting down, so either add your name or hover around the bar and take in the scenery until a seat opens. Though just having opened in the Spring of 2010, Fountainhead on the inside feels like it's been around for a generation. The irregularly shaped room, filled with rich mahogany and hanging fixtures emitting a warm yellow light, looks like something you might stumble upon on the backstreets of Europe. At its center is an impressive custom-built bar that features a towering liquor display that would require a ladder to reach the "top shelf." Low tables and raised booths fill the main dining area, to the left of the bar. Additional seating to the right includes a brick fireplace with prime hearthside seating for two. Beyond that lies a small alcove, which offers a few additional tables and four coveted barstools (chairs actually) via a window cut in the back of the bar. Above it all, a single flat-screen looks down on the timeless décor—as out of place as a vegetarian at Paulina Meat Market. But with thoughts of food and drink at the forefront, who has time for the idiot box?
If you have a passion for beer, you could easily kill half an evening perusing the pages of Fountainhead's informative, photo album-size beer list, complete with descriptions and tasting notes on many of their offerings. The 206 selections come courtesy of Fountainhead's in-house beer director and include not one but two hand-pumped cask offerings, 25 taps, 171 bottles and eight cans. You'll find beers from near (Half Acre 0.4 miles away) and far (Hitachino 6,300 miles west), but what you won't find is a single brew from the Big Two (InBev and MillerCoors). Prices start at a very reasonable $5 and can run to twice the most expensive entrée, but large format selections can easily be shared at the table as you would a bottle of wine. Speaking of which, you'll find a half-dozen whites and reds by the glass in addition to a short, moderately priced wine list and a shorter, though much less moderately priced, reserve list.
Fountainhead unofficially ranks 4th in terms of their overall beer selection and is up there with Sable, Twisted Spoke, Delilah's, Longman & Eagle, and Duke of Perth when it comes to whiskey. The 155 or so selections include two-dozen bourbons and three-dozen whiskeys from around the world, each offered at three separate price points: shot, drink, and neat/rocks/Manhattan. Scotches number 95 and include both rare selections and some extremely affordable, high-end options representing each of the Scotch producing regions. (If you can find somewhere else in town serving Johnny Walker Green Label for $7 a glass, let me know and I'll meet you there tomorrow.) Where's the list of fancy sounding house cocktails you might ask? With a selection of beer and whiskey this extensive, they don't really need one.
As for food, Fountainhead executes the "gastro" side of the operation as well as the pub. The menu, by executive chef Robyn Marfurt, is filled with approachable, rustic cuisine that, like the drink list, features an abundance of locally-sourced items. A dozen small plates are on hand, ranging from duck skin "fries" (which sell out early) to bacon and gorgonzola monkey bread, which I saw served to about half the tables around me. You can easily make a meal sharing these small plates ($4-10 each), but for those with bigger appetites, five sandwiches are also offered including the house-made burger, which can be upgraded with the likes of pâté or a fried egg. A half dozen entrées round out the savory side of the menu, all $17 or less, and include sides. The scallops, served atop bacon risotto, were as sweet and tender as any seafood restaurant in town, while the hangar steak was on a par with our favorite French bistro. Service is casual, but knowledgeable. The bartenders and servers we spoke with were accommodating in explaining the menu and were particularly helpful in choosing drink pairings for our food.
Show me a popular place and I'll show you a room full of good looking people. Fountainhead's been popular since the start, so expect a crowd drawn from well outside the North Center/Lincoln Square area, in addition to the enthusiastic neighbors. This is a great bar for a date, a double date or visiting suburban parents who never like anywhere you take them. Fountainhead is family-friendly, but it should be noted that children are not admitted after 8pm. Fountainhead is open Monday-Friday from 4pm-2am, Saturday from 12pm-3am and Sunday from 10:30am-2am. To complicate matters, the kitchen closes at 11pm Monday-Thursday, midnight Friday-Saturday and 10pm on Sundays. Got all that?
Easily the best bar to share its name with the Ayn Rand novel, Fountainhead is also one of Chicago's best overall, with its incredible selection of beverages, excellent fare and cozy ambiance. If you enjoy Fountainhead, I've got a couple dozen places you might want to try in the Chicago Bar Project's comprehensive gastropub list. For more information on their numerous beer tastings and food events, check out the Fountainhead website. Capital!