For more than 20 years, Avec on Chicago's West Loop has been a favorite of wine lovers. Originally started as a wine bar, wine is still this restaurant's main asset. The cuisine serves the flavors of the Méditerranée mixed with Midwestern influences. Food Inspiration took a taste early this month.

The concept

When it opened in 2003, Avec was the second concept of the celebrated “One Off Hospitality” group. This group represents numerous successful hospitality concepts from the Chicago food scene, including The Publican, cocktail bar The Violet Hour and Bigstar. Avec is open on weekdays for lunch, weekends for brunch and all days for dinner. Michelin awards this concept with a Bib Gourmand. A second Avec restaurant location as well as a rooftop bar more recently opened in Chicago's River North neighborhood.

The interior

The interior is warm, angular and minimalist. With all-wood paneling, on the walls, ceiling and furniture, it has a slightly Scandinavian feel. The restaurant is narrow and small. In the back left is a small open kitchen. We are there early on a Tuesday night and it is completely full. Two rows of seating have been created along the length of the restaurant. On one side it’s a long stretched high seat table and on the other side is a long row of closely spaced tables. It is not really comfortable, but it is certainly cozy. A relatively young, mixed crowd feels at ease here. The atmosphere is relaxed, the service attentive and informal. Staff wear their own clothes and the more tattoos and piercings the better, it seems. Uniqueness is celebrated.

Wine is Avec's strength

The menu

The restaurant focuses on shared dining. The menu is divided into categories: small plates, cheese, hummus, large plates and desserts. Chef Dylan Patel serves comfort food dishes inspired by the cuisines of Southern Europe, while using ingredients from local suppliers. Dishes are rustically presented and high on flavor. Roasted asparagus, fava bean sandwich, red lentil soup, charred cabbage with pistachio and dill. No doubt, there will be lots of greens on the plate. But also chicken and plenty of fish: calamari, halibut, swordfish, brandade. A real Avec classic are the stuffed medjool dates with chorizo. And in spring, there is also a lot of lamb dishes. The ultimate sharing dish on the menu is the “lamb roti feast”: a roasted lamb shoulder, good for 4 to 6 people, for $295. You do need to reserve this dish at least 48 hours in advance.

The wine list

The wine list is Avec's showpiece. An extensive and original wine selection, with much attention to small-scale wineries from South-West Europe. In addition to French white and red wines, there is also a wide selection from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Lebanon. But the selection of rosé, sparkling, beer, cider and fortified wines has also been carefully curated. We were lucky to have taste professor and wine connoisseur Peter Klosse as our table companion. Even he was suitably impressed, which is saying something. He even found a few very special small-scale wines on the menu that he himself had once purchased for his own restaurant. And so suddenly we were sitting down to a special 2014 Spanish verdejo (Belondrade y Lurton) and tasting an organic Greek Assyrtiko (Savvoglou Tsivolas Winery).

Wijn is de troef van Avec

Avec Wine Club

Especially for wine lovers, Avec has its own wine club. In their own words, “We want you to discover wines from a region you've never heard of, made from grape varieties you can't pronounce, and produced by winemakers who have a story worth listening to.” The monthly selection includes four original wines from different regions, of varying varieties and styles, with the goal of supporting small-scale winemakers. The wines come with tasting notes and food pairing suggestions. There are two subscriptions: “Drinking wines” (4 bottles for $120) and the more exclusive selection “Thinking Wines” (4 bottles for $180).

Food Inspiration’s insider tip

On Tuesdays, all bottles of wine here are half price. Lucky us, that we happened to drop in here on precisely Tuesday. We double-checked just to be sure, but really all bottles were half price. Smart move? We think so. It was completely full. Most were not ordering a typical bottle of house wine, it seemed. We too were unhesitatingly tempted by extended dining and a somewhat more exclusive wine selection. And after ordering a first bottle, a second one followed. Something you might not normally do so quickly on a weekday Tuesday.

Diner at Avec during Food Inspirations recent trip to Chicago | F.l.t.r. Chicago-connaisseur David Manilow, taste professor Peter Klosse and Food Inspirations Moniek de Jongh and Hans Steenbergen

Fancy a visit?

Avec West Loop, ​​615 W Randolph Street
Avec River North, 141 West Erie street

Open for lunch (weekdays), brunch (weekends) and daily for dinner.