Though the area surrounding Steppenwolf has long had some serious restaurants (think Alinea, Boka, Balena), what it’s lacked—especially after The Black Duck closed in 2014—is a low-key neighborhood spot. Enter Willow Room, which opened this past fall and has since proven to be a cozy respite from winter.
Situated in its owners’ former The Black Duck space (a charming 1880s corner tavern), the Willow Room is everything that its neighboring restaurants are not—in the best possible way. The decor is positively welcoming: Brass globe fixtures and inky blue tufted banquettes add comfortable class, while the restored exposed-brick walls host gallery-style displays of vintage works of art. Downstairs, the lounge is a darker, moodier interpretation of the main dining room. Together, they fill the neighborhood’s casual yet polished void, with a menu to match.
That menu offers a half-dozen standards—pasta, chicken, a burger, etc.—which taste anything but. The pasta is a delicate hand-rolled tagliatelle on a bed of spicy sausage, mushrooms and turnip greens, drizzled with pecorino. It rivals pasta dishes served at powerhouse Italian spots around town, and for good reason: Willow Room’s chef, Marissa Janz, was picked directly from the line at Nico Osteria. Similarly, she takes seemingly simple dishes like polenta and adds a balanced richness with just a handful of ingredients—in this case, a poached egg, chevre and flavorful hen-of-the-woods mushrooms soaked in chile-onion vinaigrette.
Starters include safe bets like raw oysters and charcuterie, but trust your server’s recommendation to try the roasted cauliflower. It’s Middle Eastern–inspired, spiced with zhug (Middle Eastern hot sauce), textured with pomegranate seeds and enriched with buttermilk. Then there’s Janz’s delicious flatbread, which is smeared with rich skordhalia (a kind of potato-based hummus) and layered with soppressata shavings and broccolini relish and a poached egg.
We skipped dessert in favor of a nightcap from the menu’s list of classics, which includes the seldom-seen Bee’s Knees—fitting, given that Willow Room is just that.