With all the regentrification and condo development in the area, Lincoln Square's collective yearning by its newest residents for something different has been answered in part by the opening of The Grafton Pub & Grill. This North Side German enclave now has a great place to enjoy a properly poured pint of Guinness, a shepherd's pie and a good bit of craic. What you may find surprising is that The Grafton balances their traditional Irish atmosphere with a selection of martinis and upscale bar fare, appealing to those used to bar-hopping in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and River North. While this mix of newcomers and older neighborhood types, members of the Young Irish Fellowship Club and students from the Old Town School of Folk Music sometimes creates tension, The Grafton is indeed a superb compliment to the German bars, neighborhood dives and sterile trendoid spaces elsewhere in this increasingly interesting part of the city.
The Grafton is located on Lincoln, a block-and-a-half north of Montrose and just south of the Old Town School of Folk Music. The pub's classic Irish façade of black-painted wood with gold-painted lettering and trim can be found at the base of a grayish brick three flat on the west side of the street. Cabs are plentiful in the area but, if you drive, there's a sizeable public lot with metered parking across the street. Pass through the wooden door and you'll encounter a very warm, cozy space that is The Grafton. Booths, serving as a Chicago version of the "snug," line the beige south wall with an interesting double booth area midway down. The dark wooden floor matches the long narrow bar located across from the booths. Additional seating can be found in front of the windows overlooking Lincoln Avenue and at two additional booths located just beyond the bar along the north wall. Tastefully framed photographs of Olde Eire hanging throughout the room rounds out the pub's décor. Once the Guinness has taken its toll, you'll find the toilets towards the back with the men's down a few stairs and which features a porcelain piss trough.
Here at The Grafton, a series of Irish bartenders serve expertly poured pints of Guinness in the traditional way: the two-minute pour. This technique consists of filling up your pint ¾ of the way, letting it sit for about two minutes so that the initial pour can settle, and being topped off all the way to the top (a true novelty in this town). As difficult as it may be, you will need to wait another two minutes before you drink your Guinness in order to allow this last part of the pour to quell. Otherwise, you will not experience the same balance between the creamy head and the dark body of this most magnificent brew. And for the love of God, remember this: Guinness is not meant to be served ice cold, but rather at a "cellar temperature" of 5 to 8° Celsius or 41 to 46.4° Fahrenheit, which is hardly warm as many people claim. You can tell if your pint of Guinness is served at this temperature if there is a thin layer of condensation on the glass. Only the poorest quality beers can be served ice cold and still taste good. This is used to hide their almost complete lack of taste, as evidenced by their unpalatableness when served anywhere above freezing.
Contrary to what you'd find back in the old country, The Grafton also serves up such British favorites as Bass, Newcastle, Boddingtons, and Olde Speckled Hen. Considering the legacy of the neighborhood, the Becks, Paulaner, Spaten and 20-oz. Warsteiners fit in nicely. You'll also find Stella Artois, Staropramen and Blue Moon, giving representation to Belgium and the Czech Republic. In addition, The Grafton offers a series of drinks ideally suited for a cold winter's day: The Original Irish Coffee (with Irish whiskey, brown sugar, whipped cream), Bailey's Coffee (self-explanatory), The Louis XIII Coffee (with cognac), Calypso Coffee (with Tia Maria), and The Grafton Special (with Frangelica and Bailey's–a heavenly concoction). You can also get a hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and the end-all, be-all of cold cures, the Hot Toddy: Irish whiskey, boiled water, brown sugar, lemon, and cloves. Mulled wine is also available during the holidays.
In what some feel is a shameless effort to cater to younger neighborhood denizens, The Grafton also serves a "Lincoln Park" type martini menu that includes the Sapphire (Gin Sapphire with Blue Curaçao and blue cherry), Cosmopolitan, Vodka Caipirinha (with brown sugar and lime juice), and the latest favorite Appletini. Many consider a proper martini menu to be against the true nature of the Irish pub but, in my experience, you'll find the same thing going on in Ireland. What we think of the traditional pub in the Emerald Isle is also yielding to trendy, sterile spaces that focus on serving Guinness Cold, Budweiser and cocktails. Fortunately, The Grafton maintains a traditional Irish pub-like feel while layering on a level of sophistication, which attracts more women and guys that don't really like Guinness. My advice: if you don't like this new breed of Irish pub and the black leather-jacketed crowd, with their Amstel Light and Appletini consumption, that it attracts–just sit back, relax and enjoy your properly poured Guinness rather than worrying about those that like different things than you do.
On the other hand, you will find that The Grafton attracts a fair number of literary neighborhood types. As the editor of Chicago's The Tap Magazine, Matt Richmond, pointed out to me: "[The Grafton] is also one of the most literary bars I've ever hung out in. There are people reading and working at the bar and I have been in countless conversations about books and writing with the patrons. There is a literary element and common interest in literary discussion to be found in a large portion of the regulars." This apparently was far from the original design of the pub. However, because of the implied association between a good Irish pub and literature, (consider Dublin's Literary Pub Crawl that includes such legendary pubs as The Duke, McDaids and Davy Byrnes), the bar naturally attracted a well-read clientele even though this was not the original intention of the owners.
Either the Guinness or Harp perfectly complements the selection of traditional Irish fare mixed in with American favorites, such as what you'll find at fadó, Cullen's and the Irish Oak. For appetizers, choose from chicken tenders, onion rings, garlic bread, potato skins, and smoked salmon served with cucumber, red onions and capers on Irish soda bread. A standard selection of soup, salads and chili can also be had. Classic Irish entrées include fish & chips, beef & Guinness stew, and Granny Anne's Shepherd Pie. They're good but not cheap—expect to pay a hefty $10-15 per order. You'll also find the same tired selection of non-Atkins friendly $8-10 sandwiches you'll find everywhere else along with meatloaf and Penne Arrabiatta (pasta with spicy tomato sauce with a touch of cream, prosciutto and peas). You can top it all off with a Bailey's Milkshake, banana hot fudge sundae or homemade apple pie for dessert.
In addition to alleviating your urinary needs, the back room at The Grafton serves as its performance space. Musicians perform four nights of the week in front of patrons seated on two overstuffed sofas in front of a stone fireplace. Mondays feature open mic night, in the same tradition of Winner's Sports Bar & Grill, which immediately preceded The Grafton. On Tuesdays, a trio from the Old Town School of Folk Music called "BLT" performs. Wednesdays and Sundays feature live Irish music with Jim De Wan and Bohola (Pat Finnegan and Sean Cleland), respectively. There are also a few televisions around the room, but they are often turned off so that the craic (conversation), food & drink and music become the focus of your experience at The Grafton. You'll also find a blissful lack of pool tables, Golden Tee and video poker machines. Unfortunately, loud club-like music is de rigueur on Friday and Saturday nights.
Irish owners Billy Lawless and Malcom Malloy have done well for themselves since The Grafton opened in May 2003. They have created a tastefully designed Dublin pub in a neighborhood that badly needed one. This is a far cry from both Winner's Sports Bar & Grill and the gay bar "Rainbow Room" that used to inhabit the space. Now, people who want good food, a well-crafted drinks selection and a comfortable but lively atmosphere now have more than just the Daily Bar & Grill and the Chicago Brauhaus to choose from. In addition, The Grafton, presumably named after Dublin's Grafton Street pedestrian mall, has become Lincoln Square's first bona-fide Irish bar that rivals that of some of the best traditional Irish pubs in the city (like Hidden Shamrock, Cullen's, Chief O'Neill's, Galvin's Public House, and Reilly's Daughter), and those leaning towards more popular, trendier version of the original (like fadó, Celtic Crown and the Pepper Canister). My advice: head to The Grafton for drinks any time of the week, especially after a meal at one of the local German places like the Brauhaus or the Huettenbar. For more information, check out The Grafton Pub & Grill website. Fáilte.