By: Mark Loehrke
Does every dog really have his day? The truth behind this age-old folk expression may be debatable, but in downtown Naperville, at least, there seems to be no shortage of canine contenders looking to make a go of it. While the old Grumpy Bulldog may have moved on, a little more than a year later another breed of beer-loving pooch—the Wise Boxer—has arrived in the space formerly occupied by the BlackFinn Saloon.
With a bloodline that includes the popular Jimmy’s Grill just around the corner, the Wise Boxer seems poised to target a similar clientele—diners during the lunch and dinner hours and bar crowds at night.
While clearly focused on the red-hot craft beer phenomenon –with dozens of selections available on tap or by the bottle, from the well-known standards to the more local and obscure – this pour house has put just as much effort into the kitchen as it has the libations. True to the breed standard, this Boxer is also a good family fit—always helpful in a town like Naperville—with an inviting atmosphere and plenty of options for the hungry little pups.
The room itself has not changed dramatically from the BlackFinn days, with a handsome bar lining one side of the main floor and flat screens of all sizes dotting the walls throughout, including tableside minis in the booths. There are two additional floors as well, suitable for hosting additional diners, large groups, and those looking for an al fresco experience. The décor sits right on the border of eclecticism and schizophrenia. You might find yourself dining under an image of the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima, a framed sports jersey or, like we did, a portrait of Mayor Pradel.
But while the surroundings may feel familiar, the notable difference between the BlackFinn and the Boxer is the latter’s attempt to put itself forth as a restaurant with a bar, rather than the other way around. The menu was still somewhat under development on our late-summer visit, but the intentions of the two-sided slate featuring sandwiches, salads, burgers, pastas and a number of fish and meat entrees were clear—this is no longer a place for run-of-the-mill bar food.
Pleasantly surprised by the wide-ranging menu, we dove right in with a delicious crab cake appetizer, the two thick patties drizzled with a just-spicy-enough chipotle mayo and served alongside a healthy portion of well-dressed mixed greens. From there we diverged to separate areas of the main fare, mouths watering as we passed some very interesting reads on the burger roster along the way. The chorizo-infused Calle Ocho left a particularly tempting impression.
We ultimately settled on a summer fling penne packed with fresh onions, squash and mushrooms in a light basil and garlic cream sauce on one side of the table, and an intimidating boxer chop on the other—a 16-ounce Flintstones-worthy bone-in number abetted by apple chutney. While the pork itself was moist and flavorful, it was almost upstaged by its co-stars on the plate—some perfectly steamed garlic broccoli to the left and a decadently rich portion of au gratin potatoes in a cast-iron skillet-for-one on the right. It’s worth noting, of course, that cheesy potatoes are a pretty hard thing to screw up, but even so, this version was borderline transcendent—not every day food, mind you, but definitely a don’t-miss guilty pleasure to share with the table—or not.
If the Wise Boxer is evidence of downtown Naperville going to the dogs, you probably won’t hear many complaints, this is a canine conversion done right.