The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, October 04, 2002

Wednesday night at Rose Angelis, our waiter's delivery had a very strange cadence to it. Not the delivery of the food -- that was just fine, on time, hot, and complete with plate-on-arm balancing -- but his delivery of the night's specials. As he would finish describing an item, his voice would drop in pitch and trail off, auditory code that he was finished with his part of the conversation. He'd stare at us for a second, silent, and a moment before I'd say, "Thanks, we'll think about it," he'd start up again with another special. Every. single. time. It was bizarre. It was, as Sarah noted, like he was one of those interactive video kiosks. Press here to hear our appetizer special. Press here to hear our fish of the day. Except he was pressing them all, on his own, one after another.

We've talked extensively about important qualities for our waiters. I didn't think it'd be necessary, but here's another one: Don't talk like a freakin' robot. Be human. Recite the specials like they're juicy pieces of gossip you can't wait to tell your new friends at the table. Waiters are meant to personalize the dining experience, and we should only hire the ones that fully understand this.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Last night Levi and Stacey invited folks over for chili and baseball. To cut down on dish washing, I brought a few sourdough bread bowls. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any sourdough spoons.
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Tuesday, October 01, 2002

There's a great narrative in this week's Reader, told by Fern Taylor Bogot, who happens to be a Inspiration Cafe volunteer. Bogot is describing a photograph taken at a 2000 Passover meal:

The person who is eating on the left, her name is Ina. She's a chef who has an incredibly positive reputation in Chicago. In a few months Ina is opening a new restaurant, and I'm going to help her. We'll feed many people and make them very happy ...

Our restaurant will be called Ina's. It'll be Ina's recipes, Ina's menu. We'll have somebody in the kitchen creating that stuff, and we'll both be in front, welcoming people and schmoozing. But I'll also be in the back working with the community: whether that means the governmental community -- 'cause Ina's got friends in high places -- or whether it means the unions, because they're in the neighborhood, or the housing projects, 'cause they're in the neighborhood, too, or the new loft people or the wholesalers or the truck drivers or the corrugated box plants or the police station. All those people are different communities, and they'll all be eating with us.

When I used to go to Sterch's on Lincoln Avenue, I was always in awe of Bob Smerch -- that people would come into this bar and pay money just to be in his presence. I like the idea that people will pay money to be in my presence. I don't have the energy to have a garden party or a dinner party every week. But having a restaurant, having someone in the kitchen who can create French toast for Table Three because I suggested it to them, that will be wonderful.

Make people happy, work with the community: Sounds a lot like our philosophy.

Speaking of good reading, I just started Calvin Trillin's excellent "Tummy Trilogy." If Trillin hasn't been acknowledged as the patron saint of all things Chowhound, he ought to be. After spending so much time reading the Chicago Chowhound board, reading Trillin feels like discovering a great river's secret headwaters. It's amusing to read his marvel at a computer wonk, circa 1974, who has created a database of 400 -- 400! -- New York restaurants. (He concludes that the database is a complete failure. "There was no provision for schmaltz. Nothing was said about French fries ...I decided to give the machine at least one try. 'Tell the thing to type out the name of a three-star French restaurant with moderate prices and a headwaiter who believes that accepting tips is unethical,' I said. Lamport said the computer was not programmd to do that.")

In one chapter he talks about restaurateurs he's known. His father had a place ("Mainly as an outlet for his poetry.") and now his cousin Nardy has one ("He uses it as an excuse to publish a newsletter about the customers."). Trillin talks about the dreamers who, like his relatives, think they're cut out for the business:

An amazing number of people ... want to open a restaurant. They know a couple of remarkable recipes and they like to meet people and it all seems so easy that the failure rate for new restaurants is 65 percent the first year.

On Sunday evenings in [Fats] Goldberg's Pizzeria, a lot of people talk to Fats about their ideas for starting a restaurant ... "People have a funny idea about what owning a restaurant is like," Fats says. "Their idea of running a restaurant is naming it after themselves and then coming in to buy a round of drinks before they go to the theater."

The note about Trillin's father reminds me of our ideas for a daily menu. In his case, it was a new couplet every day, something along the lines of "Mrs. Trillin's pecan pie, so nutritious and delicious/ Will make a wild man mild and a mild man vicious."

Could we write a poem every day?

Of course we could - ay!

If we name our place Infinite Jest (my current favorite nomen-nominee) we could do a daily limerick:

We're two men of infinite jest
We haven't a minute of rest
      Our place makes us busy
      But the food makes you dizzy
It's unparalleled in its zest

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Monday, September 30, 2002

Normally, Critical Mass rides end in a neighborhood park, offering Massers the chance to relax and talk about the evening's accomplishments. But Friday's ride ended, strangely, at the T-style intersection of 18th & Halsted, in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. We were famished after riding 20 or so miles, so Bob, Sarah and I stopped for a bite at the comfy-looking Chela Joe's Cafe, which faces 18th Street from Halsted, and lorded over the intersection on Friday much like the ride's finishing gate.

Here's how the routes for Critical Mass are determined every month: Anyone who'd like to suggest a route shows up at Daley Plaza with hundreds of maps and passes them out to the riders waiting for the Mass to start. Shortly before we take off, someone with a megaphone polls the audience on the preferred route. Biggest cheer wins. As I recall, only one route was proposed for September's ride -- it was the "Latin Mass," so titled since it cut through many of the city's Hispanic and Italian neighborhoods. (It turned out to be a great ride, exposing me to streets and 'hoods I'd previously only read about.)

We've suggested discounts for customers who arrive by bike. Let's take it one step further and actually try to steer bikes to our door. We pick a month that won't see a lot of competition among proposed Critical Mass routes and show up at Daley Plaza with our own. It's a path that just happens to finish up directly across the street from our front door. In our window is a poster advertising our bike discounts, along with a special promotion for Mass riders. Say, a free lemonade with your meal if you show up after the ride with a copy of the map.

When a group of 500 cyclists suddenly appear, en masse, tired and looking for food, and we're the first thing they spot, we'll be sure to attract at least a few dozen new customers.




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