The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, June 27, 2003

To the list of advantages to working late -- more hours to bill, fewer cars to crash into me and my bike, and as of last week, a cooler, less humid ride home -- I can now add: free food. Just a few blocks into my ride last night, as I approached the intersection of Lake and Wacker, I noticed the unmistakable image of a bakery cart parked on the sidewalk. As I pulled up, it became clear that this cart, sponsored by the nearby Specialty's Bakery, had been loaded up with leftover pastries and muffins and stuff, the lot of which was now being chartiably handed out by friendly, apron-clad deli personnel.

Spotting and noshing on free food being one of my unbridled superpowers, it was only after I claimed a free chocolate chip cookie and loaf of dill bread -- a whole loaf, free! The image of me peddling home with this poking out of my bookbag must have been hilarious -- that I asked what was going on. Turns out this deli is on its first few days of operation, and as a thank-you/promotion to its new/soon-to-be customers, they were giving out free samples to unsuspecting passers-by.

Obviously, this a brilliant move, letting the product speak for itself. And in this case, the product was saying, "Mmmmm... aren't I a good chocolate chip cookie? Now you know where to get more of me, along with some scrumptious sandwiches using the very same scrumptious bread you'll be using at home for the next week. Now, eat me!" Which I did. And you better believe I'll be going back for lunch as often as I can.

I'm sure this promotion will end soon, at which point Specialty's will be hopefully donating their leftover pastries to local homeless shelters, not well-to-do Loop workers. But as a once-in-a-while practice, it's a smart one, and one we'd be wise to adopt as our own.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Another sign of Chicago's dining apocalypse, nth in a series:

In a Tribune item on yet another fast-casual chain coming to Chicago, officials of Bear Rock Cafe explain why their concept will work here: "After all, it's a hit in Orlando."

After all, it's a hit in Orlando.

Sigh. Has ever a more stinging insult been levied against our fine city?

There are reasons why Chicagoans do not ask their Orlando relatives for advice when it comes to cuisine and taste, just as Orlandoans do not ask us for advice on adult diapers and Bermuda shorts. But alas, Chicago has been Disneyfied to such an extent that a downtown visitor might as well be in -- gasp -- Central Florida.

Not that I'm opposed to wooden tabletops and antler chandeliers. On the contrary, as I noted before: "It's not knick-knacks that bother me per se; it's knick-knacks that have not serendipitously accumulated."

Monday, June 16, 2003

Now that I'm working in the Loop, the affordable lunchtime options seem, on the surface, to be plentiful but unvaried. Dozens of restaurants in walking distance from the office, and they're all either fast food or part of a food court. But if you look for them, there are treasures buried among the skyscrapers, and on a tip from Luke (by way of Nikki), I steeled myself for a trip this afternoon to Perry's Deli.

Perry's is far and away the best example in Chicago of a restaurant that embodies the character and taste of a New York deli. The walls are plastered with a mishmash of tchotchkes, seemly incongruous newspaper articles and political cartoons. The line to the counter, which snaked through the vestibule and out the door when I arrived at noon today, moves quickly. And the food -- sandwiches with ingredients piled on so generously I was full by the halfway point, leaving me enough for an early dinner -- summons happy memories of lunch at Katz's.

Perry himself is a cross between the Soup Nazi and, well, the Soup Nazi's more gregarious and cuddly cousin. He keeps a strict house (no cell phones are allowed, and if he catches you using one, he'll stop sandwich production long enough to enlighten you, then strongly urge you, then embarrass you, depending how long it takes for you to get the message) and an efficient line, but he loves to keep the crowd happy. Four times an hour he gets on the loudspeaker and offers a "stale pastry of your choice" to the first person to correctly answer a trivia question. I was too shocked by the experience to speak up in time, but I plan to be on my toes next go-round.

I say all this not only because I want everyone to know where to treat themselves to more corned beef than they can shake a pickle at. It's clear Perry and his deli embrace many of the same ethics we want in our place -- from house rules about cell phones to trivia to a picture wall of our favorite regulars. I wonder, though, having seen how aggresive Perry has to be to enforce this kind of ambience, if either Luke or I have the physical gravitas to pull it off. I guess we'll just have to work harder at the other stuff -- the right decor, the right busboys, the right busboy uniforms -- to create such an ambience that enforces itself.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

It's not good reading like New York's, but Chicago has finally put its health inspector reports online. Despite the dozens of possible violations that most places are guilty of at least a few of them, it would appear that very few restaurants fail. I searched through several Zip codes and found only a few that did. Still, this will be a good place to check next time a giant orange sticker gets between you and your favorite falafel stand.
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Dad sends the sad news that Al Bergstrom, founder of Al's Breakfast in Minneapolis' Dinkytown, has died at 97 (login: restaurant/gocubs). Here's a great profile from 2000. The place is famous for its blueberry pancakes and its narrow quarters -- 10 feet! -- which may have been its salvation. Anything larger would have attracted the attention of developers and it would now be an Einstein's or something.

Says Al's son: "At any given time you could be seated next to a policeman, a hippie, a musician, an architect." Sounds like exactly the sort of clientele we'll be after.
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Monday, June 09, 2003

Signs of the times in New York: Have a restaurant awning, go to jail.
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Thursday, June 05, 2003

Sasha left a comment asking what books we recommend to others restaurant fantasists.

Early on I blogged about "Starting a Small Restaurant." It's dated, but covers the nuts and bolts, or at least the small nuts and small bolts of a small restaurant. I see Amazon lists some similar books -- "The Restaurant Start-Up Guide," "How to Open Your Own Restaurant" and even a "Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting a Restaurant" -- but I haven't read any of them myself.

Another book I haven't read but that sounds like a valuable reality check is "Wife of the Chef," by Courtney Febbroriello.

We both read and enjoyed Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," although it's mostly limited to the rarefied world of New York cuisine and one has to wade through the author's relentless chest thumping.

I'm no fan of its author and it has nothing to do with restaurants, but Po Bronson's "What Should I Do with My Life?" seems like a relevant choice for anyone thinking of leaping into any great career unknown.

Speaking of books, food writer Calvin Trillan will be in town this weekend for the Printers Row Book Fair. I'm thinking of bringing him a juicy Italian beef from Mr. Beef (Hello, surname envy!) and asking him to sign my book by dribbling on its title page.
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Wednesday, June 04, 2003

If you live in Chicago and think you'll be hungry sometime tomorrow, consider eating at one of the restaurants that'll be participating in Dining Out For Life. 150 restaurants across Chicago will be donating all or part of tomorrow's profits to organizations that help people with HIV/AIDS live a more comfortable life. There are lots of already great restaurants on the list -- Andalous, Flo, Kitsch'n and Little Bucharest, to name a few -- and their participation in this program only serves to raise their stature a few more notches.

The two Chicago-based programs that D.O.F.L. benefits are AidsCare, whose mission is to "assist those living with advanced HIV/AIDS in the Chicago Area achieve a higher quality of life through housing, care and support service," and Chicago House, who "create a compassionate and caring community for homeless and low-income Chicagoans living with HIV and AIDS." Both are causes well worth the effort and money.
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The Times notes the suburbification of New York dining: Despite thousands of cheaper, tastier alternatives, chains are gaining ground in Manhattan, and ever-ironic hipsters are embracing the kitsch value of bland, mass-produced food. I blame Mayor Bloomberg. If Rudy still ran things, every Applebee's in town would have long ago been shut down for "quality of life" violations.

Coincidentally, this morning I saw that a Chili's is going in at Ontario and State, not far from the new Red Lobster. But maybe there is a silver lining. Just as Navy Pier is an excellent tourist corral, fleecing visitors' of their money but keeping them far away from residents, the chains make sure that tourists aren't crowding up our more worthy restaurants. It suggests a zen koan for the postmodern snob: If someone visits Chicago to shop at the Gap, eat at Olive Garden and get drunk at the Hard Rock Cafe, have they still visited Chicago?
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Tuesday, June 03, 2003

The Fuel section of Chicago's own Gapers' Block is currently dedicated to a discussion of readers' favorite restaurants. The answers are expectedly varied, with at least one mention of the late, great La Cumbamba, obviously a favorite of ours. Notice I say a favorite -- there's no way I could pick one restaurant over all the rest. (Oh wait, I already did.)

I like seeing discussions like this, if for no other reason than they always supply more entries for my to-eat list. I already see a few on this particular discussion that I've never heard of: Tiffin, KiKi's Bistro, and Alice and Friends. If there are people out there who think these particular places are the best restaurants in the city, then I think I at least owe them a visit to see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, June 02, 2003

Although some beer snobs (Hi, Jeff!) will say that glassware should be specific to the kind of beer served -- fluted glasses for Belgian, tall glasses for Weissbier, pilsner glasses for pilsners -- I may insist that we serve ours in frosty mugs.

This weekend I paid a long-awaited visit to Hellas Gyros. Not only was my gyro the best I'd ever had, but Hellas is a rarity among gyro shops, taquerias and other food dives in that it has a liquor license. You draw your own beer from a cooler near the front, and one of the three swarthy, paper-hatted chefs pulls you a glass mug from a freezer behind the counter. It was precious. Bottled macrobrew never tasted so good.

Most restaurants and bars use standard pub glasses. They're cheaper and easier to stack and clean, but lack character. I know of only two bars that still use glass mugs: Rosa's Lounge on Lincoln (frozen) and Carol's on Clark (not frozen). I would classify both establishments as endangered*.

I should explain why it's taken me so long to visit Hellas, despite its convenient location between my home and my El stop. This is a special time for me, the fifth and final week of the eating binge I allow myself between marathon training sessions. Most binge-and-purge sessions cycle in less than a day. Mine take six months. When training and thus in purge mode, I get pretty neurotic about diet -- no ice cream, no fried food, limited fat and alcohol -- but during long runs I like to make a mental checklist of the forbidden foods and restaurants I will indulge in after the coming race. Hellas has been high on that list ever since I moved in January.

Fogo de Chao, the all-you-can-eat meat extravaganza we've blogged before, also was on the list, and I paid a visit last Thursday. I've been reluctant to post about it, however, mostly because, well, my performance wasn't up to snuff.

I prepared for my meal just as I would train for a race. First I did my research, scouring reviews and online postings to develop a strategy. Wednesday I fasted, and Thursday morning I had a breakfast just big enough to ensure I could bike downtown without passing out. I arrived at noon with nowhere to be until 2:30. At $25 a plate, it was imperative that I get my money's worth.

Unlike La Donna, Fogo de Chao celebrates and encourages excess. Within seconds of first flipping my card to green, I had three guachos pointing their meat-laden sabers at me, offering serving upon serving of sirloin, mound upon mound of mignon. It wasn't long before they had me on the ropes. After 20 minutes I was dizzy. At 40, I started to sweat and pant, one of the few times eating had become an aerobic activity. Finally, after only an hour, one or two hallucinations and at most three pounds of meat, I had to throw in the napkin and concede I wasn't the eater I once was. Humbled and defeated, I exited, slightly wobbly, with a bursting belly and a bowed head. There was no joy in River North. Mighty Luke had struck out. Oh, to be young again.

* Yes, I realize that wonders like Rose's and Hellas are endangered precisely because too many people my age are abusing their bodies by running marathons when we should be abusing their bodies by drinking beer and eating gyros.




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