A Place to Hide

January 2019 View more

Pierce Tavern is a homey hangout for wood-smoked eats and boozy treats

Given that downtown Downers Grove’s newest restaurant, Pierce Tavern, is located in one of the village’s oldest buildings, it makes good sense that it’s operated by siblings with deep dining roots in the area.

Sam and Patricia Vlahos grew up in their father’s restaurants around the western suburbs. “I think his most recognizable was Jonathan’s steakhouse in Lombard, which he ran for 35 years,” Sam says. After opening Fuller House in Hinsdale in 2015, the siblings wanted to replicate the concept in other west suburban downtowns. When the historic stone building on the corner of Main and Curtiss streets in Downers Grove became available, they easily envisioned their next venture. “We grew up in Oak Brook and went to all Downers Grove schools,” Sam says. “We always wanted to do something in Downers.”

Inside, you’ll find antler chandeliers, lighting made from twisted rope, and reclaimed barn wood. As a nod to the building’s storied history as Downers Grove’s first bank and first library, there’s a column tiled in pennies and bills, plus a wall covered with books. And the place is named, of course, for village founder Pierce Downer.

The owners call Pierce Tavern “a neighborhood hideout,” even months after the September opening. The only problem? It seems that everyone wants to hide out here, fueling an hour-plus wait on weekend nights. If you can’t score a table, catch a barstool on either side of the bar, or in front of the open kitchen, for a casual date night.

The Vlahos siblings hired a bar director to create a cocktail menu unique to Pierce Tavern, and it leans heavily on spirits infused in-house. The light and bubbly Gone With the Gin features smoked rosemary-infused gin, while the Merchant Man pleases the palate with brown butter-infused bourbon, chocolate-walnut bitters, vanilla demerara sugar, and a single oversize ice cube. With a price tag of $10 a pop, the value is definitely there and I’ve no doubt shelled out more for much less impressive options at other spots around town. Sam says the cocktail program has proved so popular that they may follow suit and level up the drinks at Fuller House too.

The food menu is borrowed mostly from Fuller House, with some new dishes in the mix, such as juicy seared pork chops with peppery bacon-and-peach relish, dreamy white cheddar grits, and garlicky sautéed spinach. A domed wood-fired oven visible in the open kitchen turns out Neapolitan-inspired pizzas ranging from the simple, traditional margherita to the Sunny Side Up pie with an egg and bacon. There’s also a smoker at work, cooking low and slow to make tender meats, such as the brisket that’s stuffed in tacos topped with fried onion strings and white barbecue sauce.
Though downtown Downers Grove has seen a few new restaurants established in the past year or two, it’s still a pretty sleepy scene after 9:00 p.m. That makes Pierce Tavern’s late-night kitchen—which serves food until 10:00 p.m. on weekdays and 11:00 p.m. on weekends—just right for a bite after a movie at the nearby Tivoli Theater. Truth be told, though, I’d destroy an order of the fried calamari—with sweet chili sauce, flecks of fried basil, and spicy sambal mayo—any time of day or night.

Photos by Felicia Roumelitis and Jacquelyn Gillium