The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, August 03, 2001

Dad wonders whether we'll have any Greek items on our menu. I hope so. On my trip to Aegina in the spring, I plan to learn technique from my sisters, maybe a unique dessert or appetizer. To go all-Greek would be ill-advised: Chicago has too many good Greek restaurants already and we lack the proper heritage. We'd be laughed out of town faster than you can say "Does Moussaka have one 'S' or two?"

I am reminded of a story Dad has of driving across the country and stopping for dinner in Sidney, Nebraska. He tried a place named Yendis, figuring it served Greek food, but was startled to find a menu of burgers and fries where he expected spanakopita and pastitsio. He asked a waitress about the name. "Oh," she said. "That's 'Sidney' spelled backwards."

Thursday, August 02, 2001

With Chicago's nutty weather, we're sunk if we count on fair-weather fans. Let's offer a discount when it rains an inch or snows a foot. Or, free beverages: "When it rains, we pour!" We could even make Tom Skilling our celebrity mascot.

Update: Chowhound Tara reports that R.J. Grunts, the original in the Lettuce Entertain You empire, already has a variation of this on its menu: With any entree or salad, soup costs the lakefront temperature. I assume this is in degrees Farenheit and not in Kelvins.
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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

The heart unmoved by William's radio interview is a heart that pumps but icy gazpacho.

My favorite parts:

  • "I had to lock myself in my taxi for six years, 18 hours a day. I never went to sleep until I made a certain amount of money. It was like being in prison."
  • "I don't have the luxury of buying 200 chairs (that are) the same, the yuppie way, at Crate and Barrel."
  • "This is what my restaurant has taught me: Try to open every day with integrity (and) give the best I can. ... It's hard to be alive every day. Opening a restaurant is like having a wedding every day. You cannot get tired or depressed. You have to have fresh flowers. You have to have fresh food. You have to have a clean place. You have to play with whatever life gives you."
  • "I'm not too crazy about yuppies, but I guess they like some kind of pain. They come here and ask for wine menus and dessert menus and all these kind of things you expect in America."
  • "If you don't like something, just pull it out. Some people are really picky: They can't pull the chicken out. ... All the things going on with this planet -- all the beatiful things and miserable things -- and some people are so picky they can't separate the chicken from their rice! And so I pick the chicken up with my hand and eat it, and they think it's too wild! Some yuppies like this, some can't handle it."
  • "I haven't taken a day off for years."
  • "I don't want money. I want meaning."

I say we decorate our kitchen's walls with some of William's affirmations, from this interview and from Neal's story.
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Chowhound Tara also pointed us to an excellent radio interview with La Cumbamba owner William Restrepo.

The piece, which aired on a recent Eight Forty-Eight, is incredibly telling. William speaks of spending six years driving a taxi, day and night, collecting the funds necessary to buy the building at 2311 W. North Ave. -- with cash, because the bank wouldn't offer a mortgage to a lowly cab driver.

He says he's "definitely" selling the place. By this fall, apparently. He wants to move on to his real dream, building an orphanage in Colombia. He says he wants to do something "meaningful for [his] life." Does this mean he doesn't consider operating a restaurant meaningful? I sure hope not.

We'll be looking back on the things William says when we're opening our place. If it ever gets off the ground, much will owed to the lessons learned from him. With that in mind, I offer the following YANI in William's honor: Jawbone. You'll get it after you listen to the interview.
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Monday, July 30, 2001

I think what Luke's trying to say is that we're Chowhounds:

"Foodies eat where they're told; they eagerly follow trends and rarely go where Zagat hasn't gone before. Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by mere flash."

(Thanks to fellow Chicago Chowhound Tara for the link.)
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Last week, Luke and I took in a bite at Bite, a cozy joint in Ukrainian Village. I think Luke will agree with me when I say Bite is very close to the kind of place we could see running ourselves -- small, intimate, without pretension, and with a focus on the cooking. Plus, it had lots of personality. Personality goes a long way. To wit:

• The bathroom walls were hand-paitned, with little designs sprinkled about. One is discouraged to engrave dirty limericks into the wall if it means destroying the owners' art. Also, between the sink and the mirror, instead of the typical "Employees must wash hands ..." sign, was a note painted onto the wall saying the exact same message, but in someone's handwriting. It's a small detail, but it's that kind of stuff that sticks in people's minds.

• The daily specials were written on chalkboards that hung on the far wall. Perhaps it wasn't the chalkboards that made me take notice, for that's nothing new. Again, I think it was the handwriting. It had an artistic flourish, like it belonged in a mural of street graffiti art.

Neither Luke nor I possess the skills to write with any elegance. (That's what you get when you spend your whole life writing digitally.) If we decide to implement similar handwriting-based ideas, we'll either need to hire a friend to do the job for us -- I have a few in mind -- or we'll just have to hire struggling artists as our waitstaff.
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Sunday, July 29, 2001

To be a foodie:"Foodies are competitive. It's not enough to just eat well and enjoy it. You must be able to whip off commentary about the amuse-bouche at Daniel, know the bodega in Red Hook that makes the best churros and be able to recite the last five restaurants Wylie Dufresne has worked at."

Sandy and I are both foodies. Neither our vocabularies nor our coffers are rich enough for us to be this obnoxious, but we can aspire.
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Chez Panisse turns 30:"At first, Waters and some friends just wanted a comfortable place for good food and thoughtful conversation. They knew nothing about the restaurant business, managing a kitchen or filling orders for a multitude of dishes at once." Says one former waitress: "There was this aliveness. You just felt it in the air.''

Good food, thoughtful conversation: two great tastes that taste great together!
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