The Making of a Restaurant

Saturday, July 14, 2001

This month's issue of Restaurant Report discusses up-selling vs. overselling. It does not, however, touch on the importance of candid underselling.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2001

As I'd planned, I pedaled down to Wicker Park last night to visit La Cumbamba. (Along the way I passed a crew filming exteriors for "Real World Chicago." Just that morning, shooting had been interupted by, well, a shooting. Such is the real world in Chicago.)

Dinner was exquisite. The arepas, dusted with a layer of queso fresco cheese, were perfect. I'm not one for hyperbole, but I honestly cannot recall tastier morsels.

Have we discussed the mechanics of La Cumbamba? William, the owner, bills the place as a "primitive concept of a social club," and everything is informal and casual. Service is sporadic but, when it comes, heartfelt. (William on this night gave more than a few embraces and backslaps.) And any menus on hand are for entertainment value only; meals turn on whatever is available. Tonight I asked William what was cooking. "You like chicken?" I like chicken. "Good. I set you up. Don't worry."

La Cumbamba has added outdoor seating since my last visit, but it's more like a small park than your typical al fresco set-up, which has gotten pretty generic in Chicago. There were hammocks, a jungle of plants and a well-pocketknifed park bench. A cat came and went, as did the young apartment dwellers from upstairs.

While I waited for dinner, a breathless William checked in on three guys at the next table. "How long have you had this place?" one of them asked. William's eyes rolled upward as he did some math. "Three years, but it was in my mind, like, 2,300 years ago." With that he darted off to another table to pour some wine.

When William came with the bill -- "Here you go," he said. "The tip is included." -- I told him I'd seen his ad in the Tribune.


"Yeah. Are you serious? That would make me very sad."

He gave a slight shrug. "You want to buy it?"

I patted my sides. "Empty pockets, but I'd love to."

"You want it, it's yours."

And again he dashed off, volunteering no more information.

I looked at the check. For a glass of wine, a large plate of homemade chips and salsa, arepas, bean soup and the chicken entree, he had charged $13. I shook my head in disbelief. The arepas alone were worth $13. Nikki says William gets by by counting on diners to tip 50 percent, as I did, but if the place is for sale because it can't make enough money, perhaps the blame lies with this honor system.

Yes, yes, the honor system is part of the charm. But would set prices be that much of a concession? I fear that William's charm will force him to sell the place to a developer interested only his liquor license. This phantom menace would remodel immediately, rename the place "Tequila Bill's" and introduce a menu of garlic fries and oysters. This is Wicker Park: Worse has happened.

Nikki's hunch, and my own, is that William isn't all that serious about selling, that this is the whimsy of a bleary-eyed father hanging a "for sale" sign on his child. I hope we're right. I'd really like to have my birthday dinner there this year.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2001

While I was volunteering in the Inspiration Cafe kitchen Monday morning -- more on that later -- I was chatting with some of the servers about how cool it would be to do this kind of for a living. I passed it off as a casual observation; it helps, when probing others for their opinions on opening a restaurant, to not reveal that I'm actually considering this line of work for myself. Otherwise, I risk getting the candy-coated responses instead of the truth.

Turns out one of the women I was speaking to was good friends with the owner and head chef of The Lucky Platter, a restaurant we've mentioned here in passing. Once, she told me, she had considered going into the culinary industry herself, so she shadowed her friend -- let's call him Eric, because that's what the Reader says the owner's name is -- around one day to see what it was like. Eric spent the entire time trying his best to discourage -- let's call her Karen, because that's what her nametag said -- Karen from becoming a restaurateur herself, saying that she'd end up miserable. Being a chef, he said, had none of the glory we all like to attach to it. He cited all the common reasons to buffet his argument: lack of social time, lack of sleep, lack of sanity, et cetera, et cetera.

If, by this point, I was again feeling down about this whole adventure, my mood was suddenly lifted at her final comment. Despite all these adversities, despite the eternal hell that he's built for himself, Karen said, Eric loved his job. He couldn't see himself doing anything else. His passion was cooking and running a restaurant -- and a damn good one at that -- so it was worth all the shit he had to put up with.

It's clear from what we've learned in the small time so far that there's a great deal of shit to put up with. But if we have the passion -- and I believe we do -- then I have no doubt the two of us will end up just like Eric in the end: frustrated, tired and crazy, but grinning from ear to ear.
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Monday, July 09, 2001

Will we put a webcam in our restaurant?
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