Barclay's American Grille

Carleton Hotel

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It's a tricky balance for Barclay's American Grille. 

The brand-new restaurant — it opened in November 2009 — has the same owner, the same chef, and is in the same space as one of Oak Park's legendary dining spots. How do you make it fresh and different, a place that turns heads and attracts new heads, while paying homage to its Philander's heritage?

What to do? What to do?

Mike Fox, owner of both Barclay's and its home, the Carleton Hotel, decided to keep the bar, which over three decades was really the soul of Philander's. Sure, now the bar has a ring of flat-screen TVs, but it's still the signature octagonal and right in the center of the place. He kept some menu favorites: Grilled Apple Pear Salad, Pecan Crusted Salmon, the Ribeye sandwich, and the New York strip, to name a few. OK, the New York strip now comes with barbecued sweet potatoes, but they're still mashed and superb. He kept the well-trained wait staff, whose casual but intense service will clue you in on the other select dishes that carried over. And he kept, for the history buffs among us, the name: just chose to focus on another part of it. (See our note on who this Philander Barclay fellow was anyhow.)

Everything else? 

Change!

Beyond the bar, the space has had an expensive and wholesale makeover. New seating levels and spaces have been created. From the walls to the upholstered booths to the woodwork to the wonderful layers of comforting lighting, the place is brighter.

The menu, revised with notably more affordable dishes (gone is the Dover sole), shines with creativity that lets you know someone fun is in the kitchen. Kudos to Chef John Tuttle for his nimble turns. 

He's working the wood-fired grill on everything from ribs to pork to chicken to steaks, and stirring originality into everything. The baby back ribs come with four house-made barbecue sauces: strawberry, Southwestern, peach jalapeño and, yes, coffee. Appetizers include such novelty as Sweet 'n' Spicy Duck Drummettes and such temptation as Beer Battered Bacon. Why? Why not? 

You can atone with salads that are generous, such as Barclay's Chopped Salad, and with seafood from sustainable fisheries, such as the Pretzel Crusted Rainbow Trout. You can mini-size with four tiny — and shareable — sandwiches: a choice of pulled pork and black angus, to mix or match. With sides, you can be good with grilled asparagus or you can follow our lead and opt for Game Chili Tater Tots. 

Desserts range from the amazingly light Bananas Foster Crème Brûlée, to custom flavors of gelato from Mancini's (rum, for one), to the gravity-defying Jumbo Cookie Ice Cream Sammie. It actually creates gasps.  

It seems inevitable, though, that Barclay's will become known for its extraordinary burgers. When you start each variation with 10 ounces of certified black angus beef, only good things can follow. The Barclay Burger features thick-sliced applewood-smoked bacon and the Southwestern version of the house barbecue sauce. The Goatee Burger adds on sweet grilled onions and herbed goat cheese. Then there's the American League Burger, a sandwich coming out of a South Oak Park back yard circa 1967. There's Dad piling on the American cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion. 

So much to indulge in.

What to do? What to do?

Ask for a doggie bag and find another pampering touch: a Barclay's carryout tote — the kind of extra you get at an upscale chain restaurant, but printed with the name of an independent hometown establishment. 

After just a few months, this place feels likes Barclay's, not a madeover Philander's. It's got aspects of a sports bar. There's a Blackhawks vibe building here. But it's also the place to head to with the kids. A good spot just for two. High-end enough to bring out-of-town company.

The balance has been struck.

Who was Philander Barclay?

Philander Barclay is one of Oak Park's most notable early citizens. No, he didn't found a bank, run the schools or amass a fortune. He kind of ran a bicycle repair shop, and allegedly had a drug habit that likely killed him. So we remember him, why? Because of his pictures. 

Philander Barclay took hundreds of pictures of Oak Park. From the wood-frame stores and businesses along Lake Street, to the horse-drawn fire wagons, to panoramas of open fields spreading out from what is now Oak Park Avenue and Madison.

Barclay's has retained a few of Philander's pictures as part of the décor but has now added the image of a bicycle sprocket, which turns up both the walls and the menu.

Reader Comments

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Mark from Oak Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2012 11:56 AM

I love the food here, and the microbrews are really great, as well. But what keeps me coming back is the quality of service (they are serving up a storm!). The wait staff are friendly and personable and really take care of you.

CJ from Oak Park  

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 10:30 PM

Just dined here for the first time. Great atmosphere and wonderful service. Food was terrific. Already planning to return, looking forward to it!