Cost: Normally around $15 per person
A salad bar can be an enticing thing. My roommate Ricky will go somewhere just because the salad bar has good cottage cheese. My good friend Bobby lived off of the salad bar at I.T. for the entirety of undergrad. Well for the last 39 years and 11 months in Lincoln Park, the place with the salad bar (in addition to some excellent burgers, shakes, and fries) has been R.J. Grunts.
I've been to a ton of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants on JEC (mostly due to the excessive amount of gift cards my parents seem to have on them at all times). My favorites so far have been L. Woods, Joe's, and Cafe Ba Ba Reeba (and my least favorite was M Burger). Well for their 40th anniversary, Lettuce Entertain You and their recent James Beard Award winning founder Rich Melman are celebrating with a whole series of deals in the month of June at their first restaurant, R.J. Grunts. They contacted me to give Grunts a try in honor of the anniversary (accordingly there will be no Pearl rating at the end of this post). So last Friday night, the Ericas and Schneider joined me for dinner.
R.J. Grunts opened in 1971, and things still look much like they probably did back then. The walls are lined with pictures of women from the 70's (mostly less burly versions of Donna), and there's no shortage of Jim Croce music. The restaurant has a bar area and a contorted dining room of sorts. They keep it pretty dim which tones down the general busy feel of the place, but it also made me look like an idiot when I started taking pics of the food.They take reservations, and sometimes the line gets a little long (nothing awful, but I'd make a reso if you know ahead of time). They're also open till 2 am now if you've got some late night hunger. I think the slogan is something like, "Do you Grunt in the night?" and I'm not sure how to feel about that (but it's probably a solid way to coat an alcohol ridden stomach or just fill a general late night craving).
It was a mild 65 degrees out that day which may seem inconsequential to you all, but based on their deal at Grunts, that's how they determine the price of the soup ($0.65 per bowl). The appetizers are in the $5-8 range. The salad bar is definitely a big draw and is unlimited for $10.95. Most burgers and sandwiches go for around $9. Portions are large, and it's safe to say that we all left feeling uncomfortably full (but you know... in a good way).
We started things off with an order of the Nachos Nirvana. It was a pretty standard loaded nacho dish and was on the sloppier side of things (that's how it should be). If anything though we ran out of chips before toppings. In retrospect I would've gotten the Buffalo Chicken Nachos.
The Nachos Nirvana
For the main course Schneider got the Turkey Burger, the Professor got the Gruntburger, Erika Schmidt had the Buffalo Wrap, and I had the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. Now although this wasn't the Ron Swanson Turkey Burger, Schneider still fell in love. The key here was the sun dried tomato mixed into the turkey meat. The Professor was a big fan of his burger commenting that this was one of his best onion string topped burgers he's ever had. I think Erika was a bit overwhelmed by the buffalo sauce on her wrap, but I didn't share the feeling. My sandwich was soaked in this spicy, buttery deliciousness. For our sides, we all either got Sweet Potato Fries or Cottage Fries. They went for extra crispiness with their Sweet Potato Fries which I thought was a nice change of pace from the "meatier" fries I'd been getting lately.
The Buffalo Chicken Sandwich and Cottage Fries
The Turkey Burger and Sweet Potato Fries
The Buffalo Wrap
For dessert we had the Hot Chocolate Chip Cookie with Ice Cream. It's pretty similar to the one they serve at Lou Malnati's, but I think R.J. Grunts gets the win. The cookie was hot, slightly gooey, and big enough for all of us to share.
I know I made a big deal out of the salad bar and none of us got it. To me most salad bars are the same unless you're at an Argentinian steak house where they're trying to get you to fill up on the non-meat items. The big deal with this one is that it was one of the first in Chicago.
There's clearly a reason that Grunts has been around for almost 40 years now. I'm a big fan of the 70's music, but it's clearly all about solid sandwiches, burgers, fries, shakes, and one killer cookie dish. Like I said before, there will be no Pearl rating, but it's absolutely worth your time to try it out.