By Michael Nagrant
“These Vagabond shoes are longing to stray…”
“New York, New York”–Fred Ebb
When New York’s food critics wake up to find that they’re “king of the hill, top of the heap,” it’s a sure bet they can’t wait to turn their eyes to the rest of the world. Such was the case last week, when Frank Bruni, New York Times chief reviewer, ate from coast to coast, scouring for America’s ten best newest restaurants (opened between Jan 1, 2006 and December 31, 2007) and JJ Goode, a New York freelance food writer, examined the nation’s best breakfasts.
Examining the rest of the nation usually means a long gaze at Chicago, though in Bruni’s case, just a wink. In his article, none of our new restaurants made the cut, though Takashi was in the top fifteen. What, no Aigre Doux, Sepia, Osteria di Tramonto, Sola, Spacca Napoli, Sol de Mexico or Smoque? These recent openings were at least as good as Takashi, though none of them met the approval of King Frank.
The last three, Spacca Napoli, et al, probably wouldn’t be on Bruni’s radar, but when he’s reviewing Thomas Keller’s “casual joint” Ad Hoc, a place that serves a fifty-dollar pre-fixe meal of fried chicken, bean salad and chocolate chip cookies, it seems to us anything should be fair game. For that price, he could have a feast at Lincoln Square’s Chalkboard (opened November 2006) which also serves great Mac and Cheese and Fried Chicken, and Chef Gilbert Langlois, who lives above the restaurant, would still be cooking in the kitchen.
Is Michel Richard’s bistro and brasserie fare in Washington D.C. (top ten in Bruni’s article) better than Roland Liccioni’s brasserie fare at Old Town Brasserie? It could be, as I haven’t been to Washington, but one wonders if Richard’s bigger national name trumps Liccioni’s?
I don’t doubt Bruni took his job seriously, but how much did his subconscious work to suppress The Windy City? Bruni says, “My trip didn’t shake my conviction that New York is the finest restaurant city in the nation, with an unrivaled range and depth of options. But it was a fresh reminder of all the exciting dining experiences that aren’t duplicated here, and it was a challenge to the smug superiority New Yorkers sometimes feel.“
If Bruni breezed in and out and only ate in restaurants opened in 2006 and 2007, how would he know about Chicago’s unrivaled range and depth of options? Hmm, someone’s displaying the “smug superiority of New Yorkers,” I think.
Bruni’s not alone in his mishandling of Chicago’s best food options. Details magazine has an impossible “best of” list highlighting the nation’s best breakfast. What makes it interesting is that author JJ Goode is not one of those insipid writers who makes his living off of press releases, as a lot of “best of” writers do. He wrote some great pieces in the recent Morimoto cookbook.
Though, he’s got some good places in here, his only Chicago pick is Lou Mitchell’s. Lou Mitchell’s, while it gets cred for its Route 66 history, serves slightly above average diner fare. Their idea of innovation is handing out Milk Duds to the clamoring masses at the door.
There are easily a handful of other independent spots serving better breakfast food in the city (see list below), and some, while not as steeped in history, still possess a great back-story. I’d lay down a hundred bucks that a vote of common “Check Please!”-like citizens and serious food enthusiasts in Chicago wouldn’t put Lou Mitchell’s on top.
Furthermore, you can look at any publication in America going back ten years about breakfast and find a rec for Lou Mitchell’s. I’d contend that food writers shouldn’t perpetuate the same-old-same-old, unless of course the same old is truly the inescapable choice, which I don’t think applies here. I think the bigger problem is, how do you change the culture of national magazines that asks writers to pursue impossible reductive articles like “Best” in America, instead of commissioning them to go out and get a beautiful story about a particular restaurant or small group of restaurants?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with best-of lists if you perform due diligence in your research. Last week I drove eighty miles to taste one taco for a “best of.” Though, I’d wondered, what if I’d driven a hundred miles, would I find a better one?
Few national magazines give out budgets for this kind of exploration, though. They should if they want meaningful “best of” lists. Rare is Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten or the New Yorker’s Bill Buford who can just hop on a plane to taste and see whatever it is they need to get it right.
Chicago’s better breakfasts/brunches than Lou Mitchell’s, in no particular order: Meli Café, Bongo Room (South Loop), Flo, Sweet Maple Café, Wishbone, Lula Café, Frontera Grill, Sepia, Ina’s, Orange (on Harrison), M. Henry, Tweet and Sweets and Savories.