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.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

And it's all Emeril's fault: admission to culinary school is through the roof, but at least one restaurateur says "natural ability and energy are sometimes more important" than formal training.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

For my long run yesterday, I took the lakefront path from Bryn Mawr to Pershing Road, then back north to Navy Pier, where I took Grand west to Michigan Avenue and work. By the time I hit Grand, I was pretty wiped out. Then I passed a Jimmy John's delivery man. He must have noticed me looking at his shirt ("Freaking fast!" it read) because he started running with me. He looked of Andean extraction and was very fit, dressed in running shoes, khaki pants and said T-shirt. We didn't talk much, but he made an excellent rabbit, helping me cover the last few furlongs much faster than I would have otherwise.

I don't know if Jimmy John's has consciously hired runners to run its errands, but it would make sense, especially in an area as dense as downtown. A good distance runner can cover a half-mile in less than four minutes, and should be able to do so 40-50 times a day, given enough rest, nutrition and viewings of "Rocky II." A bike, which would have to fight traffic and fuss with a lock, would take about six minutes. A car would take half an hour. The only thing I'd suggest is to go all-out in promoting the practice by dressing my runners in short-shorts, singlets and NipGuards.

In fact, I wouldn't mind the job myself, getting in my workouts and at the same time earning some bread (perhaps literally in the case of Jimmy John's). Any downtown sub shops want to finance my running addiction? Will run for food!

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

One of the better ideas to come out of City Hall lately is a plan to create a "green city" on the West Side, in which the area around the Garfield Park Conservatory is revitalized with an emphasis on horticultural businesses.

National park organizations say a similar concept has revitalized areas around parks across the country, where farmers markets are set up on the periphery and attract other businesses.

"If you look at other parks, like Union Square Park in Manhattan, they started with a green market, and now there are popular restaurants all around the park," said Kathy Madden, director of the Urban Parks Institute in New York. "They brand themselves as using the organic foods they've purchased from the green market."

I hope that's the case here. One of my fondest memories of Europe is the Sant'Ambrogio outdoor market in Florence, where chefs shopped for produce literally steps from their kitchens.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Got a match? The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the demise of the matchbook as more states and cities ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Alternatives include scratchbooks (pads of memo paper shaped like matchbooks), towelettes and mints, but I still like our idea of branded patches.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Despite being almost two weeks past her due date, a pregnant co-worker has faithfully clocked in all week, to the amazement and wonder of us all. Apparently she's been walking the stairs on her breaks, in an effort to induce. Me, I wondered aloud why the favorite method of extracting baby teeth couldn't be employed to extract a baby: 1. Tie string to doorknob. 2. Slam door. 3. Light cigars. But I'm a guy. Our expertise is the first five minutes of pregnancy, not the last.

It was timely, then, to find this story, nine months in the making, in Friday's Tribune: "So, which foods do induce labor?" Intrepid reporter Monica Eng tried szechwan, Thai, Vietnamese and Jamaican with no success until Korean squid kimchi finally did the trick.

I don't think we've decided whether we'll offer delivery, but perhaps we should keep a good kimchi recipe on hand, just in case.

Eng's amazing output this month hasn't been limited to children. She's had great stuff on jibaros, under-the-El food and how to eat downtown for $5 or less, plus a fun interview with Calvin Trillin and a look back at a preschool she helped build in Nicaragua. In June, a Tribune Magazine guide to picnicing lamely ventured no farther than the Jewel deli. In July, Eng countered with a Friday section round-up of ethnic eats to go, featuring hidden Greek, Puerto Rican and Korean treasures. (Sadly, little of her work remains online.)

Many food journalists are foodies, but Eng is a bona fide chowhound, and it's no wonder she has so many fans there. Next time Trillin is in town, it's he who should interview her.
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Friday, July 18, 2003

My old roommate Mikal now lives in an alternate dimension, one in which one gets fast, friendly service at an Arby's. (It's been a fast-food-free millennium for me, but I remember Arby's being notorious for employing the mentally disabled. Friendly, sure, but oh so slow).

Kottke also has an anecdote of good customer service: a do-it-yourself change drawer. In addition to building trust, I bet the practice earns Ralph more tip money from regulars who don't feel like fussing over a few nickels.

I love the Arby's idea of the "ring if you appreciated our service" bell. We should have a "ring if you enjoyed the food" doorbell near an exit that sets off a buzzer in the kitchen. We could also have a "ring if you didn't enjoy the food" bell, which of course would return an eye-level squirt of water.
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Thursday, July 17, 2003

It's a few weeks behind us already, but Neil Steinberg's screed on the horrors of Taste of Chicago is still worth reading. (Already shuffled off the Sun-Times' site, I've linked to Google's cache of the page.) It's a perfect breakdown of what both Luke and I abhor about the whole spectacle. Why spend a sweltery, crowded afternoon overpaying for mediocre food when you can experience it in its natural setting any other day of the year? As Steinberg puts it:

You want a Taste of Chicago? Go to Petterino's on State. Sit looking at the caricatures of Chicago politicians and celebrities. Order the Potato Pancakes Sam Braverman--at $3.95, they're practically a meal in themselves, with the little brushed steel pots of sour cream and cinnamon applesauce on the side.... Order the corn chowder, or the snapper soup--it's only $2.50; I doubt you could buy a hot dog at Taste for $2.50.... Go to Russian Tea Time on Adams. Try the pumpkin-stuffed vareniky. The onion black bread is the same stuff they eat in Heaven. Get the tea-flavored vodka. They serve it in a chilled glass though, if you insist, I'm sure they'll put it in a plastic cup and you can drink it on the sidewalk.

I'm not sure how one gets to host a booth at the Taste, but even if it was possible for us to do, we'd obviously skip it. For all those people who'll miss our appearance there, we'll offer a local Taste Special: any dish on the menu, but your portion will be cut in half and your price doubled. And we'll put it on a stick.

(Thanks to Levi for the tip.)




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