When long-time neighborhood eatery Sorella’s closed its doors for good following the summer season last year, Madison Park regulars began anticipating what would come next in that prime space (foot of Madison across from the Lake). Sorella’s had become tired, dispirited, and in need of a first-class upgrade. The owners, reportedly, just didn’t have their hearts in it anymore. Therefore, the opportunity fell to someone else to renovate and renew the location that had once been home to the venerable Hank’s.
Opinion is divided over whether McGilvra’s Bar & Restaurant, which opened April 3, is what was needed in the ‘hood. My wife and I, who ate there at the end of Week One, both think that owner Peter Johnson (who also operates Finn MacCools’s on the Ave) has done an excellent job of upgrading the space to create a more interesting and exciting atmosphere-- somewhat reminiscent of Hank’s. Moreover, our food was good-to-excellent, and our waiter was one of the best we’ve ever had (we eat out a lot and know good service when we get it). A neighbor of ours here in the Park and her friend were at McGilvra’s that same night, and they each had a very positive reaction to both the food and the staff.
Not everyone, however, shares this opinion. Some of the reviews of McGilvra’s on Yelp and elsewhere have been surprisingly negative (here’s a somewhat representative comment from a naysayer: “An hour after eating, I feel like I will need to drink a gallon of water to handle the ‘salt lick’ I ate for dinner”). Additionally, I talked to two other neighbors of mine (each of them a life-time resident of Madison Park) who tried McGilvra’s on subsequent nights and concluded (along with their spouses) that the food was bad (“1 on a scale of 1 to 10”), the wait staff was disinterested, and the atmosphere was loud and uncomfortable. One couple actually got up and left after an unconsummated five-minute wait for their initial order of beers.
What gives? Peter tells me he is mystified by the bad reviews on the internet site and by the unhappy experiences of my neighbors. Any new restaurant, of course, needs time to get the bugs out, he said—and they are working hard to get it right. All of the bar staff, he noted, and most of the wait and kitchen staff are well experienced. He told me there have been very few complaints made directly to him, but that if anyone has a problem with the food or service they should say so and he will do what he can to fix it. He did admit that the place is pretty noisy, but that’s principally the result of its early success. Frankly, McGilvra’s appears packed at both lunchtime and dinner, based on my own observations. Peter tells me that they have had way more business in their first four weeks than he expected. This may have over-taxed the staff to some extent, both in the kitchen and upfront. He invites everyone who felt they had a bad experience to try McGilvra’s again. He says he’s intent on having his place be a great addition to the ‘hood because he plans to be here and doing his thing for the next 15 years or so.
If you decide to make the judgment on McGilvra’s for yourself, here’s what you’ll find in the way of food: appetizers, soups, and salads (all under $10) and, in a possible nod to Sorella’s, seven kinds of pizza (including Greek). Sandwiches include the Meatball Sub and Pulled Pork, and there are burgers as well, including garden and chicken. In homage to his Irish (Northern Ireland, that is) heritage, Peter includes Guinness Beef Stew and Shepherd’s Pie among the entrees (and there are also Irish Nachos among the appetizers). The menu rounds out with fish & chips, barbecue pork ribs, spaghetti, London broil and chicken marsala, all in the $10-$15 range. I had the stew and thought it was great. My wife had a pizza and said it was good (though a little too saucy and too much for one person).
McGilvra’s appears to be rocking most of the time, and there are obviously a lot of very-satisfied patrons. Unlike Bing’s, McGilvra’s is not particularly family friendly—and if noise is not your thing, look elsewhere (I suggest Impromptu across the street, which generally looks like it could use the business). Peter says he is resisting the well-meant suggestion of one customer that he install sound-deadening tiles on the ceiling. (Some of us like raucous!) Note also that this is a bar with a restaurant and not the other way around. Peter, who worked for several years at The Attic and therefore knows the neighborhood well, says he is trying to fill a gap by providing the area with a great bar.
It’s typical for new restaurants to enjoy a lot of early success, as everyone rushes in to see whether they like the food, the atmosphere, and the service. So the real test will come for McGilvra’s after the summer season ends and the place becomes more dependent on the locals for its ongoing success. Will McGilvra’s become a neighborhood fixture on a par with Bing’s? For the answer, tune in again next winter.
In the meantime, if you’ve tried McGivra’s and have an opinion, please comment on it (or on this posting) by clicking on the pencil icon below. I’ve promised to share your input with Peter.
[McGilvra's is located at 4234 East Madison Street]