Hearty Boys: All-American Food and Wine

Steve McDonagh of the Hearty Boys knows food–even if it’s as simple as the best cracker out there.

“I don’t care who makes crackers, a Triscuit is still the best,” he said, choking on one.

Best known for their retro-take on American comfort food, the Hearty Boys (McDonagh and his partner, Dan Smith) keep Chicagoans eating well through their restaurant, Hearty, and catering company, the Hearty Boys. But Hearty’s wine list, selected by McDonagh, is equally impressive–and unique.

Featuring all-American wines from all over the country, the list makes us want to spend an entire evening at Hearty sipping wines from Arizona to New York.

“I’m a lover of wine, but I’m not a sommelier,” McDonagh said. “I understand my food, and I have to trust my palate. Our food is American, and I wanted the wine to be the same.”

And the wine isn’t your ordinary California, Oregon, and Washington varietals. There’s wine from Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin–even a bottle from Lynfred Winery in Illinois.

McDonagh said many people are “confused by” his wine list; clients want to know where the French and Italian wines are. But McDonagh says people can get those wines anywhere–and he wants to give them something different.

“I want my clients to learn something about wine and not break their budgets,” he said. “If they can have a new experience, and I say, ‘I had a wine from Finger Lakes, New York in Chicago–What the hell?’ then I’ve done my job.”

The all-American wine list is pretty amazing, if you ask us. There aren’t many places in Chicago where you can find wines from so many different states. We think our wine-blog buddies at Swirl, Smell, Slurp should feature Hearty’s list in their United Slurps of America project, which aims to taste wines from all 50 states.

If the unique wine list isn’t enough to draw you to Hearty, there’s always the food, which is inspired by the 1950s, says McDonagh.

“Dan and I both feel that the mid-century was the hey-day for home entertaining,” he said. “There was a classicism, a romance to it. Like Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven. Now, it’s popular because of Mad Men. But it was a time of really sophisticated food, a lot of experimentation.”

Hearty dishes out classics with a twist, such as Tuna Noodle Casserole (with Panko crusted ahi , saffron cream egg noodles, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, and crushed wasabi peas) and Lobster Pot Pie.

McDonagh says their food has greatly changed since the Next Food Network Star, where the Hearty Boys got their start.

“Man, I wish we were filming right now,” he says.  ” Our food is so much more honed right now because of the restaurant. The restaurant forced us to dilute and focus.”

Even though their focus is always on the food, McDonagh is always thinking about the wine.

“I don’t think there’s anything that pairs as well with food,” he said.

“I drink more wine than ever–having a son and multiple businesses–it does kind of ground me,” he said. “At 7:30, after we put Nate to bed, I love opening a bottle of wine, the popping sound, the physical bottle, the pouring–the ritual of it. I also love the texture with food. I don’t understand a Coke with dinner; I just don’t get it.”

McDonagh says he drinks wine every night, but he doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. He typically spends $10-12 a bottle–and Lush in Roscoe Village is his current go-to wine shop.

“To me, drinking wine is like going to the movies,” he said. “Afterward, I remember really liking a movie, but I don’t buy dvds, etc. It’s not about going back to the same bottle. I have a food attitude about wine.”

Although he tries new wine all the time, McDonagh says his current favorite bottle is on their menu: a 2006 Ramey Claret from Napa.

“It’s a winter wine, a sipping wine,” he said. “I think of my grandmother’s house with the fire going in England [when I drink this wine]. It’s lush and grown-up.”

We think Hearty is equally as “lush and grown-up.” Mac-and-cheese for adults. With a bottle of wine from your favorite state. What’s more American than that?


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  • Kudos to the Hearty Boys...I can't wait to get out to Chicago and check out their place. And congratulations Dan & Steve for remembering that it is delicious and refreshing, perhaps lower alcohol and higher acid wines that go best with food (especially ones from the Finger Lakes)! Not every wine list has to have oaky Chards and "big, jammy monsters". Can't wait to visit.

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