Stepping through the front door of Whiskey Thief, we felt as if we were walking into a speakeasy mixed with a saloon. All of the woodwork, from the tables to the stool seats, has a reclaimed feel of farm and distillery equipment finding a second life. A row of tufted-fabric chesterfield booths runs along one side of the restaurant underneath a wall blanketed in mirrors in elaborate gold frames. The opposite wall has five private cabana booths like dining inside an oversized whiskey cask turned on its side, each with a stylish gallery of whiskey-themed black and white photos and soft orange lighting reflecting off of the gold walls and curved ceiling. In the middle of the room is an impressive circular bar surrounded by eight large flat screen TVs broadcasting the sports of the season. At the back of the room is a library lounge with shelves full of old books, casual seating perfect for small plates and drinks, and a charming faux fireplace flickering away.
We were led to one of the cabanas and quickly understood why people call ahead to reserve one for dinner. It’s a more intimate space, making for easier conversation, while still having access to the energy of the room.
The first plate to our table was the Crab Deviled Eggs, four of them lined up across a platter in a classic presentation with tempting chunks of Colossal crab meat perched atop each egg. Biting into them, the crabmeat definitely led the flavor. Elements of mustard, paprika, little shavings of Parmesan, microgreens, and an added citrus element mingle with the egg to make a wonderful sauce for the crab. The combined flavors evoke a lobster roll without the bread, chilled and tangy.
We’re disproportionately excited whenever food is presented in the hot cast iron skillet in which it was prepared, so the Bacon Wrapped Dates had our number from the moment they arrived. Inside the pan are four large dates stuffed with chorizo sausage and wrapped in crisp layer of bacon. They sit in a spicy adobo sauce blanketed with shredded cilantro and a layer of melted cotija cheese fried crispy where it met the edge of the skillet. These flavors combine in a richness reserved for the realm of appetizers. Each bite is so delectably rich that it borders on being a dessert with a spicy heat that lingers on after you finish.
The Pan Roasted Half Chicken is simplicity itself. Half a chicken is segmented into deliciously roasted parts with a crispy seasoned skin that brings a savory crunch. Two slices of sourdough bread treated with onion gravy are paired with the chicken, bringing the perfect flavor counterpoint to the succulent meat. In the center of the plate is a tangle of shredded greens, the subtle bitter tinge of kale offset sweetly with a butter sauce.
One tends to expect a lot of any dish bold enough to bear the name of the establishment, and the Thief Burger is completely up to the challenge. It arrives open face, the bottom of the bun holding a generous hamburger patty covered in a thick layer of melted white cheddar cheese curds. The top of the bun hoists a layer of shredded lettuce, a tomato slice, pickled onions, and a beautiful fried egg. You can choose to stack the two sides and try to eat it in the traditional hamburger style, but the resulting burger tower is so massive that it soon becomes a multi-napkin endeavor. Instead, I recommend a fork and knife, integrating all of the elements into each bite.
You’re bound to be stuffed by this point of the evening, but don’t miss out on the Fresh Donuts & Dipping Sauces from the Sweet Treats menu. It’s a bundle of mini old-fashioned donuts straight from the fryer with a sprinkling of sugar granules coating the outside, fair ground-perfect in a white paper bag. They come with two dipping sauces, and, although the caramel sauce is lovely, it’s no competition for the rich chocolate sauce that perfectly completes the flavor of the donuts. A finger of Nikka Coffey Grain whiskey from Japan makes for the perfect after-dinner pairing.
Whiskey Thief is located at 616 Davis Street in Evanston, 847-859-2342, whiskeythieftavern.com.