The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, October 10, 2003

Firstly and lastly, one more lament:

Faithful readers know that I am suspicious of progress and development. Take Chicago, please.

From Soldier Field to the Starbucking of the neighborhoods, my city's charm and character is being developed out of existence. New amenities that cater to the coveted creative class (the hip and modern bars and restaurants, the gyms, the cell-phone stores) are driving out the attractions that drew us in the first place (the quirky and dirty bars and restaurants, the thrift shops, the ethnic bakeries and hardware stores).

Six years ago I spent a summer in Minneapolis. This August I returned for a visit and saw the same blanding of the cityscape that I'd seen in Chicago. The ruins of the old flour mills were now luxury condos. A corner drugstore was now a high-end "pasta bar," as seen on the Food Network. And the college neighborhood of Dinkytown seemed a little less Bohemian than I had remembered it. Only twice was I asked for spare change -- and it was by the same hippie each time.

It was on wobbly knees, then, that I walked into Al's Dinkytown Breakfast. With all the development in the neighborhood, I thought, surely Al's had changed. Al himself died just a few months ago. Would his heirs have taken the chance to cut corners or even -- shudder -- sell out?

My worries were for naught. The crew yelled and joked as always, their bodies whirling through the narrow work area like submarine stokers, obeying the orders barked by their captain at the grill. And, just as Al's son had described in the newspaper, there sat at the counter a diverse cast of patrons: "a policeman, a hippie, a musician, an architect" -- and a wide-eyed traveler from Chicago.

The magic of Al's goes beyond schtick. Indeed, I'd forgotten just how good the pancakes there were. They were perfect: thin and soft as a pillow, but with a hint of delicious crust. And since the the cook bypasses the servers and delivers straight from the grill to your spot at the counter, as warm and comforting as a quilt on a winter morning.

I don't know what Al's secret was -- my hunch is lots and lots of butter; is there anything it can't make better? -- but I'm glad it didn't go to the grave with him. I savored each bite. With each one came a wave of happiness and relief. I may have moaned in delight. I definitely purred. No restaurant had ever made me this happy on this visceral a level: none of the four-star places, none of the date destinations, none of the restaurants I went to in Europe.

The perfect meal: It's not just delicious food. I have a great meal a hundred times a year, and dozens of outstanding ones. And it's not just pleasant company, which I also enjoy regularly. In a perfect meal, food and context conspire to reveal, to show, to instruct. There must be epiphany.

Without a doubt, Al's served the best meal I've had all year, its epiphany being that not all that is good is lost to progress, if the right people are standing guard.

The best meal of 2002 came early on an autumn Sunday at the Maxwell Street Market, a weekly bazaar of tube socks, tools and car stereos of questionable provenance. Three of us waded through the throngs, making our way from one ramshackle food stand to the next. This was the first time I'd had tacos and quesadillas with fresh, handmade tortillas. It was revelatory. Suddenly I couldn't imagine ever having a taco done any other way -- it was as if, after years of applying Preparation H to my brush, I'd finally tried toothpaste instead -- and ever since, I've refused to eat any tortilla more than an hour old.

We've written about 2001's best meal: It was at the late La Cumbamba, where Sandy and I met some friends after a Neal Pollack reading. Even though William was in Colombia and his nephew was running the joint, the atmosphere was intoxicating, and the epiphany was this: "Wouldn't this be neat?"

A week later, Sandy created this blog, and we've been at it ever since. At first we focused on discovering and debating little details of the business, like cell-phone policies, how much to charge for sides and fundraising. We started cooking at the Inspiration Cafe and spent a harrowing day in a real kitchen at the Sofitel Hotel. Later our site evolved into a general forum for food and restaurants, regardless of how it related to our stated goal of opening one ourselves, and a place for me to vent my spleen about chain restaurants and other signs of progress.

But here's a dirty little secret: Neither of us were very sincere about this dream. It was a fun conceit, but we've never seriously entertained cooking school. Me, I've thought of the blog as a good way to prepare for a windfall, saving ideas the way the devout save cans for the apocalypse. When it comes, I'll be ready. Sandy tells me, however, after these couple years of research, that even if a fortune went his way, a restaurant probably wouldn't be where it went next.

What did our research tell us? Restaurants are hard work. Really hard work. And not only would our chances of success be small, but the payoff weould be as well. Indeed, every few months we get e-mail from a different professional chef (Hi, Ted!), usually to the effect of, "You morons have no idea what's involved in a restaurant. 'Big Night,' it's not." Running a restaurant in the Chicago market -- at least one with our unique sense of quality -- is a game of small returns, and we're not sure we're up for it. Our vision would probably need a smaller market -- a Dinkytown, U.S.A. -- to succeed. Right now, we're both more attached to Chicago than we are to the dream of opening a restaurant. In 10 years, who knows, that may change. Check back then.

Last week we had dinner at Lucca's, finally using a gift certificate I had bought in January. It's a gorgeous restaurant, but we both had the same reaction to the food: It was nothing we couldn't prepare ourselves. This happens a lot and, well, almost takes away from going to a restaurant. With so few places offering the dynamism of a La Cumbamba or an Al's, it's as if we're just paying someone to wash the dishes.

At Lucca's we discussed restaurants and our blog and came to a conclusion: It's closing time. We're tired. We've exhausted about all we need to say, and it's time we found new outlets for our thoughts and writing.

It's been wonderful. We've had fun exploring the industry and exchanging stories with our fans (Hi, Dad!), and we can't imagine a more enjoyable project, nor can I imagine a better co-conspirator than Sandy.

Thanks for dropping by.




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