Pearl Tavern, the latest Chicago oyster bar, recently opened in the former Coogan’s Riverside Saloon space on North Wacker Drive in the Loop. A former Hubbard Inn owner opened Pearl and a former Pelago chef is in the kitchen. With the influx of recent oyster bars, including the delicious Bow & Stern, as well as the plethora of steakhouses and other restaurants serving oysters as a main menu item, only those up to snuff will succeed. Based upon my visit, I am not sure whether Pearl will be one of them.
The ambiance and decor at Pearl is outstanding. The space was completely renovated from its previous iteration as Coogan’s and features dark wood and white marble throughout. Two bars – one for drinks and one for raw seafood – are the focus of the main floor. Up a few steps is a dining area with high boy tables overlooking the main floor, and booth seating along the windows that peer out over the Chicago River. The wallpaper, brass railings, and artwork give it a vintage feel. A separate private room is also open for dining when it is not booked for events.
The drink menu is comprised of a select number of cocktails, including the dirty pearl, which includes oyster brine and an oyster on the half shell at the bottom of the glass. Wines lean heavily toward the French variety.
While the oysters are delicious, the rest of the menu’s offerings are average at best. Razor clams featuring fennel, trout roe, and absinthe were difficult to eat and quite sweet. The scallops on the half shell with blood orange and sea salt were tiny and flavorless. The ceviche, flounder on our visit, was served in a mason jar and topped with slices of avocado. Unfortunately, many pieces of the fish were brown, chewy, and tasted fishy. We did not even come close to being able to finish it. A nice, bright mixture of shrimp, scallops, and a quality whitefish would much improve the dish.
Things seemed to be improving with the arrival of the peel ‘n eat shrimp. We literally licked the delicious lager and old bay seasoning off our fingers and the shells. However, the meal once again fell flat with the mussels. The flavor was lacking and the French fries did little to help the dish.
Pearl is a great spot for a glass of Champagne or wine and some oysters, but I would not recommend it for much more than that. It has only been open for a month, however, so there is room for improvement. Only time will tell if it can compete with the other oyster bars moving into the city.
180 North Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60622