What is the function of dining out? Most literally it restores, providing something delicious we didn’t have to make, which we eat in the company of people we love, or at least find interesting. It can surprise us, by pushing creative boundaries; it can be a place to see and be seen, and even offer a kind of cultural currency, like following a certain band or artist.
Lately this diversion has gotten increasingly costly for everyone involved; its working conditions are being scrutinized like they should have been all along. All of this throws the question of what restaurants are for into a harsher light.
I thought about this question on a recent Saturday at Warlord, a hipster fine-dining restaurant in Avondale that serves some of the city’s most exciting food. My two companions and I were being aurally pummeled by a dark-synth song called “Humans Are Such Easy Prey” while eating a transcendent bite of 12-day aged fatty ora king salmon paired with a perfectly ripe rectangle of cantaloupe. We’d waited two-and-a-half hours for that bite, a sensual yet restrained harbinger of the spectacular food to follow.
Was it worth it? I’m still not sure.
Chef-partners Trevor Fleming, Emily Kraszyk and John Lupton—who’ve worked in acclaimed places like Kasama and Table Fifty-Two—debuted Warlord in April and quickly soared to critics’ darling status on the back of their bold, elemental cooking, which changes constantly. Every choice, from the name and enigmatic online presence to the first come, first served-style seating and industry-friendly hours (6pm to 2am Friday through Monday) indicated we were in for a deliciously sceney night. When we pulled up around 6:15pm on a recent Saturday, a line of 30-odd people snaked down Belmont Ave. A man heading into El Gallo Bravo to grab tacos asked me to watch his bike.
“What’s going on, a concert or something?” he asked.
“No, we’re waiting for a restaurant, believe it or not,” I said.
“Well, technically we are going to see rockstars,” someone in line in front of me said, unironically.
It would take us 30 minutes to reach the host stand, at which point we’d learn we were still two hours away from getting a spot on the 30ish-seat back patio, where we could order snacks and drinks, but not dinner. Despite a few mix ups on which tables had ordered what, said snacks eventually included salty-sweet Barachois oysters and a meaty, ember-cooked maitake mushroom (priced at a head-turning $24), set afloat in sticky soy glaze, its singed feathery top showered with biting, fresh horseradish. A decorative mirror reflected the beautiful who’s who while we sipped a bracing Hemingway daiquiri with vegetal pot still rum and fresh grapefruit, and the Monks Bathwater, a beguiling, honeyed and citrusy cocktail with gin, limoncello, almondy fino sherry and anisey green chartreuse (where’d they find that chartreuse?). On the edge of a small edible garden, an industrial fan fueled a roaring fire inside an aluminum trash can, a cynical-looking accessory that raised the temperature on the patio by probably five degrees. I assume the volcanic hardwood therein feeds the hearth inside, but the team never responded to my interview request.
Around 10pm, the host led us to the three corner spots that had just opened at the bar overlooking the dining room. Unfortunately, the bolted-down stools were so far apart that we had no hope of hearing each other. We ended up commandeering the corner, each of us taking a turn standing while we hovered over the captivating food.
A delightful pasta arrived first: Fat hunks of sweet king crab tangled with bouncy angel hair and smokey trout roe napéed in fiery XO sauce with a pronounced note of dried-fish. Proteins are king here—surmisable with one look at Warlord’s focal points: a dry-aging fridge full of hanging hulks of meat and fish, and a vast, smoking hearth with burning hardwood on one end and glowing embers beneath a makeshift hibachi on the other.
An impeccable filet of seared mackerel oozed its abundant oil onto an obscured pile of sweet, tangy cherry bomb pepper mash, which imbued every bite with a Spanish memory. Mild black peppercorns capped a thick coin of mid-rare ribeye that had been deboned and bound before cooking. The richly mineral, savory meat, lightly sauced with tangy bordelaise, lacked the bacony quality I so often associate with the cut. Alongside, charred, fruity Jimmy Nardello peppers sweetly reminded us that summer’s end was near—we’d best enjoy it.
There's an outstanding burger ($18, plus $8 for fries) that’s one of few menu constants—seared and still reddish, dressed minimally in charred onions and mayo, to highlight its dry-aged funk and richness. Just after dessert arrived, a syrup-slicked donut peach accompanied by a brittle shortbread and piped cloud of marshmallow, I glimpsed two people making out in one of the booths. Maybe the carnal food and thumping music just brought it out of them.
I wondered what it would be like to work here, shouting details about the restaurant’s meticulous dry aging or screaming wine pairing suggestions (it’s a lovely, affordable wine list, by the way). Regardless, everyone we came into contact with, from the host to the servers, talked about the food and drink with genuine enthusiasm and reverence for the artistry on display.
“You wanna know something dorky?” a server asked, retrieving the empty plate while we gushed over the firmament-cracking salmon and melon it previously held. “I do sculpture, and when you put two things together it invites comparison.”
Fleming, Kraszyk and Luptonare are indeed creative visionaries, churning out serious food that bravely stands unadorned. They’re also probably bearing the additional burden of being a place that everyone who’s everyone is talking about and clamoring to get into.
Maybe if they turn the music up loud enough, they can drown all the pressure and just create. It’s magical to behold. I wish it were as pleasant to experience.
The vibe: Rich jewel-green tones and gnarly, beautiful plant life mirror the ethos of live-fire cooking and preservation. Seating includes a long chef’s counter opposite the hearth and bar seating that overlooks the dining room with deep booths. A roaring soundtrack of rock and metal-ish synth clashes with the earthy vibes.
The food: Don’t expect many constants on this fleeting, pricey menu of unfettered live-fire cooking, which is centered on dry-aged proteins like oily fish and beef. Accompanying vegetables lean into the best of the fleeting seasons, coaxed to their flavorsome max via light preserving.
The drink: Playful, bright cocktails (all $14) lean heavily on gin, herbaceous, citrusy liqueurs, amaros and fortified wines; low-intervention wines are refreshingly affordable, with a handful of under-$40 bottles.
Time Out tip: Arrive at 5:30 or 5:45pm for a better chance at nabbing a spot in the first round of seating at this no-reservations hotspot. Or wait till after 9pm, when you’re almost guaranteed to get a seat without waiting.