Restaurants / Openings

Warlord, Chicago’s Hottest Restaurant, is a Real Late Night Treat That Can Teach Houston and Dallas’ Food Scene Plenty

High-End Dining Without Any of Pretentiousness, Sky High Pricing Or Restrictions

BY

CHICAGO — The hottest restaurant in Chicago doesn’t have a menu and its website is more bare than an abandoned Sears. That website is a single page of all black with two lines of type and a solitary black-and-white photo. But plenty of restaurants in Houston, Dallas and Austin could learn from Warlord.

For all Warlord is not — in the heart of the city, PR produced, open three days of the week or reservations taking — it delights with everything it is. Including being one of the few ambitious restaurants in any American city that believes in true late night dining these days. One of the offshoot fallouts of the COVID pandemic is that truly late night dining with any chef power essentially ceased to exist. Right along with the once given of 24-hour grocery stores.

Even New York City’s famed Blue Ribbon — a place where my wife and I once sat a table over from Michael Strahan, back when he was still just a football player and not a $17 million morning TV star, as he devoured a steak at 2 am — is not what it used to be. But Warlord just may bring real late night dining back.

Warlord is open from 6 pm to 2 am Fridays through Mondays — and as long as you place your order by 1 am, the chefs at the heart of this unique place will cook you up anything on the menu. We arrived at 12:20 am on a relatively quiet Monday night and couldn’t have been greeted more warmly. And two groups came in after us and both got food with no trouble too.

Of course, none of these late night bonafides would matter if the food or the setting was ordinary. After all, you can still get passable late night food in Texas’ major cities. You can always go to Katz’s or the Taco Stand in The Heights in Houston for some comfort food in the wee hours. Or Brick & Bones in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood.

But let’s face it, you’re just getting serviceable food. None of these Texas spots ever will be regarded as one of the best restaurants in the city. Warlord actually is. One of Chicago’s very best restaurants — and pretty clearly its most exciting one too.

Once you find Warlord — there’s no sign outside and its glass door is covered in a heavy black curtain — and step inside, you’re in for a treat. The menu changes regularly and you won’t know what’s on that night’s docket until you’re handed the one-page menu. Which will be small — less than 10 dishes — and devoid of the long explanations that seem to be all the rage these days.

The three relatively young chefs behind Warlord — Trevor Fleming, Emily Kraszyk and John Lupton — have all cooked at elaborate high-end restaurants. The kind of place at the heart of the second season of The Bear. But they have created something very different at Warlord.

This is a place where they create nightly or weekly menus (Warlord’s menu doesn’t actually completely change nightly despite some of the hype that implies it does, which doesn’t come from the chefs) based around the fresh ingredients they have around. There isn’t a refrigerator in sight. Unless you count the glass-doored dry-aged cooler where you can see the meats and the fish that are likely to be on tomorrow’s menu hanging out and chilling.

Warlord Chicago late night restaurant
Warlord is a Chicago restaurant where the dishes can change nightly. But it’s always open late.

We sat at the chef’s counter during our meal, which is the other side of the wide marble counter from where Warlord’s chefs actually do their work. It’s entertaining to watch the dishes being put together and cooked over the big flame of the open hearth, which provides some of the brightest light in this dark, moody restaurant — and the chefs cheerfully answer any questions. One of the best things about this experience is that you don’t have to book it in advance. Or even ask for it.

Once you find Warlord — there’s no sign outside and its glass door is covered in a heavy black curtain — and step inside, you’re in for a treat

Warlord isn’t pretentious enough to have an official chef’s table. The friendly staff will sit anyone on the counter across from the chefs when there’s room. And with the buzzing bar and purple booths towards the back of the space the center of Warlord in many ways, the counter is often the last thing that fills up.

The Warlord Way

Trying a bunch of dishes is the way to go at Warlord and on this night, a simple mushroom creation turned out to be the unexpected star. A sashimi-grade salmon with a killer sauce also stood out. Another reliable star is the burger — essentially the only constant on the Warlord menu. This $16 burger is made from 21-day aged steak, topped with onions and juicier than Elon Musk’s personal life. It would easily be $10 more at a fancy Chicago restaurant or steakhouse.

Which is another one of the joys of Warlord. This isn’t a cheap restaurant by any means, but for the food quality, it is much more reasonable than most ambitious high-end restaurants these days. Most of the dishes are under $25. Unless you decide you want a 10-ounce dry-aged steak after midnight.

Some joys are worth splurging on.

Warlord Chicago late night restaurant
Warlord is a Chicago restaurant that highlights the skills of chefs Emily Kraszyk. John Lupton and Trevor Fleming.

Trekking out to this Chicago restaurant (Warlord is about 25 minute Uber ride from the Magnificent Mile corridor of hotels) in a nondescript area of the city’s Avondale neighborhood is a more than worth it. Warlord’s perch at 3198 N Milwaukee Avenue is across from a gas station and surrounded by humble stores without a designer boutique in sight. There are plenty of other interesting restaurants elsewhere in Avondale, but they have signs and aren’t open after midnight on a Monday.

Whether you go to Warlord on a Friday or Saturday night at 10 pm when there is a line down the block to get in or stroll right in after midnight on a Monday, once you step through the unmarked door into the dark, largely candle-lit space, you’ll quickly realize you’ve arrived at a worthy destination. One with real late night dining. One where service industry workers come to hang along with food-loving regulars.

Everyone is casually dressed at Warlord, including the knowledgeable servers and the list of wines by the glass is much more extensive and better than it has to be. Several Spanish selections are particularly welcome surprises. That’s the thing about Warlord. It always does more than it has to, staying open later and defying the expectations of what a place like this should be.

Yes, Houston and Dallas restaurants can learn a thing or four from the Warlord and its success.

“We’ll see you guys soon.” John Lupton, one of the chefs, calls out as my wife and I leave.

We wish.

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Tommy Kanarellis
tommyk@compass.com  970.452.9661
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