December 2020 View more

It may be harder than ever these days to find someone of a certain age who can claim a personal recollection of the dearly departed automat—the “futuristic” self-serve restaurant concept consisting of a roomful of coin-operated, food-dispensing vending machines that thrived among urban curiosity seekers until the mid-’90s. But almost everyone heading into the third decade of the 2000s can identify with the concept of self-service.
From the growing proliferation of cashierless checkout lanes at the grocery store to the near-universal expectation of self-service gas pumps, the DIY model is well baked into the modern retail firmament. Any gas station employee tapping on a driver’s window to ask “Regular or premium?” these days would likely be met with a panicked response, rather than a smile and a cash gratuity.

Given this general societal acceptance of self-service, then, the notion behind a place like Tapville Social should come as no surprise. A rebrand of the former Red Arrow Tap Room that occupied the same downtown Naperville location for the past few years, Tapville Social (216 S. Washington, Naperville, 630.536.8739, not only embraces, but doubles down on the concept of self-serve craft libations—adding wine, cider, and whiskey options to an already robust beer selection among its 48 self-pour taps, all while adding a more ambitious slate of food offerings to the mix. From bites and shareables to greens and sweets, classic menu items are approachable.

“Tapville Social is about spending time with friends and family without the distractions of a contemporary restaurant,” says CEO Joseph Tota, who continues to run a Red Arrow outlet in Elmhurst and has recently expanded the Tapville brand to a number of franchise outlets across the country. “Tapville provides a one-of-a-kind guest experience. We see it as the model of the future.”

BYOB (Be Your Own Bartender)
That model will seem fairly straightforward to anyone who has spent time in a modern arcade or the slot room of a casino. Rather than placing an order with a waiter or waitress, Tapville patrons can help themselves to anything from a wee nip to a full glass of their favorite craft beverage, including local beer options from the likes of Solemn Oath, Metal Monkey, and Pollyanna, among others—or even build their own flight of samples—by swiping their prepaid “pour card” at one of the self-serve taps that line the room. When it comes time to eat, everything from shareable appetizers to full entrées can be ordered from the comfort of one’s table using a similar self-select system or mobile app. (Table service is available upon request.)

While such a setup tends to cut down on the human interaction with the staff at Tapville, Tota says the restaurant lives up to the “social” in its name by not only allowing families and friends to spend more time focusing on and interacting with one another, but also by hosting more programmed communal events such as special wine and beer dinners and trivia nights.

Don’t Forget to Eat
From the name to the rows of taps, the spotlight at Tapville may shine largely on the patron-curated beverage program, but there’s more than a little to be said for executive chef Jacob Smith’s kitchen as well.
We started with an order of the garlic-herb cheese curds, here served with a roasted tomato-butter sauce in lieu of the traditional ranch dip. For the entrée course, we traded bites of the well-prepared pork chop, which came topped with a wonderful apple compote and accompanied by two cheddar-scallion grit cakes and a generous helping of Brussels sprouts (a side order of the roasted potatoes proved a worthy complement). On Tota’s recommendation, we also sampled the fried chicken sandwich, served with honey butter and green goddess slaw on a fluffy brioche bun (still emblazoned with the old Red Arrow logo). The bread pudding with apple bourbon sauce, meanwhile, was the smarter play from the short dessert list, far outshining the better-in-concept-than-execution cookie dough egg rolls.
Can the Tapville Social concept last longer than the automat did? Well, the year 2020 has certainly forced many of us to become more self-sufficient. But compared with having to teach the kids in the living room or hazard a bathroom-mirror haircut, pouring oneself a beer doesn’t sound like the worst self-serve idea in the world.

Photos courtesy Tapville