One of the first things anybody asks you when you say you’re writing a book is always, “When’s it going to be done?”
My understanding is that it’s bad form in stir to ask another inmate how long they’re in for, and I feel we should treat authors the same way. My upcoming book is an oral history of Chicago restaurants from the sixties and seventies to the present day. The book is being published by Evanston-based Agate Publishing, publisher of Iliana Regan’s memoirs, Hot Doug’s book, etc., and there are definitely more interesting things I’ve found along the way than how long I’m in for. Here are a few of them.
The story of restaurants in Chicago is the story of real estate in Chicago. Of course that’s true to an extent of any retail category. But restaurants especially are trendsetters that spawn hot new neighborhoods, and they do that in a way that cell-phone stores and currency exchanges do not. This is well known by savvy developers, like Al Friedman, the inventor of River North, who specifically sought out restaurants, beginning with the original trendy (and unabashedly gay) seventies hot spot, Gordon, as a way to lure people to check out a derelict area (with cool Victorian buildings to lease and restore).
When Rick Bayless started Frontera in the same neighborhood, still far from entirely respectable, he knew that at least he could say “We’re across from Gordon,” and people would think it was probably all right to go there.
There’s always more happening than just food in restaurants. One of the best parts about chronicling the 1970s and 1980s is tracking societal trends over time, like women finding their own place in the then-very-male restaurant industry. Young women like Mary Beth Liccioni and Carrie Nahabedian fought their way into old-school kitchens like Jean Banchet’s, and wound up owning their successors—Liccioni took over Banchet’s Le Francais for a decade before buying Jovan Trboyevic’s Les Nomades (which she owns to this day); Nahabedian opened Naha where Gordon had been. Penny Pollack was the esteemed dining editor of Chicago magazine for thirty years, but when she started, her duties included sitting in for the (female, of course) receptionist during her lunch break.
In fact, looking back, everything about how the food world worked remains interesting—except the actual food. That’s because the hot new dishes of one year become a later year’s everyday food. John Terczak used smoked chicken in a southwestern soup at Gordon, which fascinated the visiting French chef Jean Troisgros. It wouldn’t dazzle anyone in 2023, but that’s because we live in the world that Terczak’s soup helped create. Which is to say…
It was a different world. Not just because it was an era when chefs could terrorize their staffs in the French style, and a considerable chunk of Le Francais’ business was businessmen flying their planes into Palwaukee airport for a seven-course meal. (Sherman Kaplan, reviewer and newsman for WBBM, said when he went to get his car from the valet at Le Francais, he told him it was a silver Mercedes, to which the valet disdainfully replied “Sir, they’re all silver Mercedes.”)
It was a cash business, then, too, and money flowed freely. When Jerry Kleiner, who opened trendy, wildly decorated eighties spots like Vivo, Marche and Red Light, wanted to go to New York to check out what was hot and happening there, he would grab however many inches of cash he thought he’d need from the safe and toss it in his bag. Meanwhile, Red Light manager Simon Lamb recalled taking staff meals out to the hookers working Randolph Street and in return for feeding them, asking them to please move along to the next block or two. Having received a free dinner from one of the hottest reservations in town, the ladies of the night were happy to relocate.
History starts, but doesn’t stop. When I was sketching out plans for the book, I knew what my starting point was going to be: Chef Louis Szathmary’s The Bakery. Szathmary wasn’t so much a classic European chef as a guy who played one on TV, complete with a huge belly and an equally imposing mustache. He made a then-scuzzy neighborhood called Lincoln Park a dining destination, his regulars and fans ranged from symphony conductors to Frank Zappa, and though he died in 1996, enough people who’d known him were still around to be interviewed. I could have picked an earlier point… but there’d be nobody around to talk to.
As for how far into the present the story goes, that was settled for me when, right after I signed my contract, COVID hit. I’d had the idea of videoing all my interviews; now I couldn’t even meet up with people in person. (Though fearless Penny Pollack and I met outside, an interview set to the music of every garbage truck in Streeterville.)
More than the practical aspects of not getting or giving COVID, it seemed an awkward time to, say, ask Donnie Madia how Blackbird became such a hit, right at the moment he was deciding to close it. In the earliest days of the lockdown, I sidestepped by reviving my Fooditor Radio podcast as Fooditor Radio Is All Dressed Up and Has No Place To Go, figuring I was doing the interviews for the last chapter by documenting the lockdown in real time. From there I started interviewing people like Gordon Sinclair and Jean Banchet’s widow, Doris, whose restaurants were long gone and thus were not going to be sensitive about the issue of closing.
But restaurant people are resilient, and it wasn’t long before COVID was just another thing you adapt to, like the city tearing up your street. By the time I sat down with Rich Melman (in person!) in 2022, COVID wasn’t even important enough to come up as a topic—there were more interesting things to talk about, like if Lettuce had ever had an outright flop. Yes, but not in endlessly creative and inventive Chicago: the flop was a Vegas version of Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!