It’s a few minutes past 11am on a Saturday morning and the wait for a party of three at the Bongo Room is forty-five minutes. “Oh, that’s fine, we’ll come back in half an hour,” announces the party’s spokesman. Like the rest of the Bongo Room’s customers-in-waiting, she seems neither surprised nor bothered by the wait, which could easily last longer than the brunch itself. In fact, due to a light drizzle outside, this is actually a slow morning for Wicker Park’s hippest breakfast-focused eatery.
In a few minutes the wait for a party of three (a popular party size) has climbed to at least an hour as estimated by the host and hostess, who requested the pseudonyms of “Rodolfo” and “Honeydew,” respectively. It turns out the wait time is not, as I’d assumed, a tossed-off piece of idle guesswork. Rodolfo shows me the host’s master list, where every arriving party gets one row. Next to the name, number of people, arrival time and a surprising amount of other data goes into the predicted wait time, or “quote.” Keeping this quote as close to reality as possible is a vital skill that hosts soon acquire. “I’ve been doing this for fourteen years, so I’m pretty good at staying on quote,” Rodolfo says. Fifteen minutes or so before the quoted time, customers are expected to return from their wanderings and wait outside the restaurant. The host checks to make sure they’re here and, when the time comes, calls the party’s name no more than twice, seating them if they respond and moving on if not. Each step in this process is meticulously recorded, leaving a surprising paper trail for the most informal of meals.
Properly speaking, the Bongo Room serves two concurrent meals: breakfast and brunch, each occupying one side of the menu. The breakfast side ranges in price from $4.95 to $10.75 for the Bongo Room’s signature item, the decadent Chocolate Tower French Toast. The brunch side picks up where breakfast left off, running from $11.25 to $13.75. Like the wait times, the prices don’t seem to deter the huddled masses outside on Milwaukee Avenue, waiting in the rain for a table.
The Bongo Room opened fifteen years ago, taking over from another breakfast joint that had operated in the same space. It took about a year to catch on, says co-owner Derrick Robles, but “so far we’ve been busy about the last fourteen years.” All this success has come without a dollar spent on advertising, according to Robles: “It’s always been word of mouth. I think one of the hard things to accomplish in a restaurant is consistency, and we’ve been really really consistent because we’re always here, the owners are always here.” About five years ago Robles and his co-owner, chef John Latino, expanded into a second location in the South Loop. Despite the identical menus, the South Loop branch took a while to catch on. Three years ago a flood forced it to close for about ten months, but the second location turned a corner in popularity this year, according to Robles, who credits the “burgeoning neighborhood.” Wait times there now equal those at its northern neighbor, which is still going strong as the rain tapers off around 11:30am.
The Bongo Room’s relatively long-lived presence in Wicker Park has earned it a group of loyal customers, according to Rodolfo. “During the week it’s all people who live or work in the neighborhood,” explains the host. “On the weekend we get people from all over the city. But it’s a lot of familiar faces.” Now and then Rodolfo thanks a departing customer by name. Around 11:45am, one of a party of three at a corner table bounces over to the host’s podium. “I met Obama!” she exclaims, and shows a set of extremely blurry photos.
Of course, not everyone is that friendly. “You get all kinds of people coming through these doors,” Rodolfo reflects. “Some you actually love and would bend over backwards for, and some…” Customers enter, cutting him off. Tiffany, speaking for a party of six, accepts a quote of an hour and fifteen minutes without blinking. “I’ll let you know if I change my mind,” she perkily informs Rodolfo. I ask when the rush usually lets up. “It doesn’t,” Rodolfo says, not complaining. The restaurant stops taking down names at 2pm and closes down when the last customer leaves. (Sam Feldman)
Bongo Room (Wicker Park), 1470 North Milwaukee, (773)489-0690