by catherine de orio | March 1, 2014 | Food & Drink
Dusek’s serves elevated tavern fare like lobster rolls, oysters, and mussels.
Pilsen has long been known as the city’s most vibrant Hispanic neighborhood, but before the arrival of its eclectic taquerias and art galleries, the South Side district was home to the second-largest Czech population outside of Bohemia. The area’s social and political hub? The majestic Thalia Hall, built by Czech immigrant John Dusek in 1892, which housed Dusek’s family tavern as well as a breathtaking theater modeled after the Prague Opera House. Inspired by the building’s storied past, partners Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden of Longman & Eagle set out to restore the long abandoned property to its former glory. “We had no choice but to go ahead and do it,” confesses Finkelman. “What John Dusek did there is just in line with our sensibilities as business owners and people.” So was born Dusek’s Board & Beer—or rather reborn, as the front sign reading RE-ESTABLISHED 2013 testifies. Thanks to its welcoming vibe and acclaimed menu from chef Jared Wentworth, the resurrected tavern (along with its subterranean Punch House and the soon-to-open performance space Thalia Hall), has once again made this address the social center of the neighborhood.
In a time of mass-produced vintage replicas, the interior of Dusek’s is refreshingly real. The original pressed tin ceilings and brass chandeliers are polished to perfection, but they still exude vintage charm, while the exposed-brick walls, wooden tables, and leather banquettes lend inviting warmth fit for a neighborhood tavern. “We took out the extraneous stuff and kept what was historically part of the property,” attests Finkelman. “We tried to repurpose most of what was there and make it authentic.” Preserved flooring from the old theater space was used in everything from the host stand to check presenters. These elements lend the place an air of both authenticity and modernity; this is not the typical towny tavern—more like its refined relative.
Dusek's is set in Pilsen’s historic Thalia Hall.
Guests can quaff from a changing rotation of nearly two dozen craft brews on draft; the cocktail list boasts brew-enhanced bevies like the refreshing combination of lemon, orgeat, orange flower water, and Becherovka with Czech pilsner. Beer plays a pivotal role in the menu as well; partner and Executive Chef Jared Wentworth earned a Michelin star with his whiskey-focused menu at Longman & Eagle, and here he does the same with the brewed stuff, designing each dish based upon how well it holds up to a pairing.
For more cocktail options, guests can venture to the lower-level Punch House. Its nautical theme (wood paneling, back-lit aquarium, and mounted sailfish) is a nod to 17th-century sailors who, Finkelman explains, “made punch to extend their rations, thereby mitigating the effects of alcohol so they could drink all day.” The menu offers eight types of punch categorized as classic (think brandy-spiked milk punch infused with nutmeg and lemon) or contemporary (Sanyal punch with curried pisco, Darjeeling tea, citrus juices, and fresh pineapple with chili flakes), as well as a handful of non-punch options—all available by the glass, carafe, bowl, or take-away growler.
The interior of Dusek’s exudes vintage charm.
The dining menu at Dusek’s itself offers some usual suspects of the nouveau gastropub repertoire (think crispy pig tails and country-fried Slagel Farm chicken livers). Diners will also discover a traditional New England lobster roll with rich chunks of meat bursting from a buttered split roll—a glimpse into Wentworth’s New England upbringing—and Alsatian choucroute, a hearty helping of housemade sausages, pork belly, and duck confit nestled atop a bed of satisfyingly sharp sauerkraut, which showcases his background in French cuisine. “The whole philosophy,” says Wentworth, “is really simple foods, really pristine ingredients well-prepared, well-sourced... just good food.”
Wentworth may tout simplicity—everything is made in house, from bread to charcuterie—but this is original, thoughtful fare: Kentucky-fried quail with foie gras cornbread; General Tso sweetbreads accented with savory-sweet sauce, pickled daikon and shishito peppers; and an inventive take on surf and turf: confit octopus and braised beef cheeks. Pastry chef Jeremy Brutzkus gains his own fans with delectably straightforward desserts like airy churros with decadent roasted anchochile-spiced dark chocolate sorbet, which pays homage to the surrounding neighborhood.
Braised beef short rib with jerky, porcini, oatmeal, smoked tomato pudding, and fried onion.
Dusek’s greatest success is that it is a true public house, with a welcoming, convivial ambience and an eclectic, wide-ranging crowd that encompasses everyone from couples on first dates to families to buzzworthy celebrity patrons like Guy Fieri, Brian Urlacher, and Brian Eno. Adds Finkelman, “We always say that you don’t really choose the project, the project chooses you.” In this case, the spirit of John Dusek chose well. In the hands of Bruce Finkelman, Craig Golden, and Jared Wentworth, Thalia Hall is already changing the culinary and entertainment landscape of Pilsen, much like the original Dusek did more than a century ago. 1227 W. 18th St., 312-526-3851
photography by galdones photography
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