Review: Bel 50
738 N. Clark St. 312-496-3948
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start
Timothy Jandovitz was having lunch in France two years ago when the idea hit him.
"I just kind of had this 'Aha!" moment where I was like, 'Waffle. Sandwich. Waffle sandwich.'"
It was as if all of his experiences with waffles—from binging on sugary Liege-style waffles in Belgium to spotting a waffle shack on a Vermont ski slope—spontaneously baked together into one great idea. He was going to open a restaurant selling waffle sandwiches.
After nearly two years of research and experimentation, Bel 50 opened last week in River North. The promise of more than a dozen waffle sandwiches both sweet and savory was all the incentive I needed to clear my schedule and eat there for lunch, dinner and dessert.
This is kind of like eating a really big taco
That was my first thought as I bit into a sandwich. The waffle bread itself is thinner than a traditional breakfast waffle and, to my surprise, not at all sweet. Crispy, almost flaky around the edges and soft in the middle, it proved a great base for the smoked salmon sandwich ($8.95), which channeled all the flavors of my favorite bagel with chive creme fraiche and wispy slices of cucumber and red onion. The amount of filling was thinner than I expected, but the waffle bread didn't overwhelm the fillings and vice versa.
The buttermilk-fried chicken waffle sandwich ($7.95) already is proving to be one of the most popular, Jandovitz said. I was hoping it would be the sandwich version of Art Smith's heavenly Southern-style fried chicken and waffles at Table Fifty-Two. Honey mustard and slaw add some zing and crunch, but because the bread isn't sweet, it doesn't have the same salty-sweet flavor combination that makes chicken and waffles so satisfying. With both sandwiches, the side that faced down against the wax paper-lined basket lost a little crunch due to trapped steam, but I was amazed that the waffle held together through the last bite.
Help a girl out with some waffle fries
Truffle tater tots ($3.95) and sweet potato fries ($2.95) do the job, but carrying the theme one step further and adding waffle fries as a side dish choice wouldn't be overkill in my book.
Don't skip the sweet stuff
Bel 50 serves its dessert waffles split into two pieces, which is pretty awesome for two reasons. One, the soft, creamy fillings—creme brulee custard, lemon curd, cheesecake mousse—don't squish out everywhere when you try to eat them, which is a pretty amazing feat of waffle engineering. Two, you easily can split one with a friend, which is a good strategy when you've already stuffed your face with a full savory sandwich. The tiramisu waffle sandwich ($7.95) filled with light-as-air mascarpone cheese, chocolate mousse and a hint of espresso, was a fun twist on the traditional Italian dessert.
I'll be back for breakfast
Considering my breakfast most mornings consists of an Eggo slathered with peanut butter or Nutella, eaten while running out the door, I'll probably steer clear of sandwiches that feature either of the spreads plus bananas ($4.95-$5.95). But I'd totally stop by for the bacon-cheddar-egg ($6.95) or maple butter ($4.95) versions and an Intelligentsia coffee. Though breakfast sandwiches are served all day, it's too bad that the shop is only open in the morning on weekends.
Bottom line: Bel 50 definitely has the cure for the common sandwich. Ingredients are high-quality for a price point that's similar to Corner Bakery or Panera, and considering the time Jandovitz spent studying fast-casual successes such as Chipotle and Potbelly before opening Bel 50, I wouldn't be surprised if it blows up big time. If and when it does, Chicagoans will be able to say that they tried it first.
Reporters visit restaurants unnannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeats
FAST FACTS ON BEL 50
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday; 8 a.m.-midnight Saturday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Good to know: Gluten-free waffles are available, as are three salads for the completely carb-averse.
Look for: Daily specials on a small sign at the counter.
To drink: There's a nice lineup of natural sodas—like Oogave's watermelon-cream—as well as beer and wine.
Wait time: During two visits, my order never took longer than 5 minutes. A decent number of diners swept through for lunch, but the place was nearly empty during dinner.
Where to sit: In the front, communal tables lined with orange cubes for seating work for lunch with a group. Grab one of the tables with silver chairs to linger with a glass of wine or beer.