Saturday, January 2, 2010

Can The Little Guy Survive? A Case In Point...Your Neighborhood Restaurant

Over 3,000,000 people live in Chicago. Over 59,000,000 live within a one-day drive.30 different ethnic groups populate 215 unique neighborhoods illustrating Chicago's diverse culture.

What I love even more about these numbers is that in a city this large, the little guy can still survive. How, you ask? A case in point…the neighborhood restaurant.

So what defines a neighborhood restaurant anyway? These smaller, unique eateries, set apart not only by the chefs and their menus but also by the neighborhoods and the people they serve are what makes Chicago’s culinary influence so significant.

I love the fact that there are hundreds of neighborhood restaurants where chefs stroll though the dining room each night chatting with their customers. Comfort foods from the kitchen carried quickly to your table so as not to alter the perfect temperature at which they were cooked. Hundreds of unique dishes created especially for guests who the owner knows by name…a regular that comes to eat at least a couple times a month and brings his friends because the food is great and he wants to support his local establishment.

This regular has been in the kitchen before…after hours for a glass of wine or a newly created culinary chapter from a pastry chef who has since long gone home. Not to worry…someone told her you were stopping by the kitchen to visit with the chef tonight so she added some extra fruit because she knew you liked strawberries. You make a mental note to say something special to her the next time you are in.Wow -they take exceptionally good care of you don’t they?

First off, you don’t really worry if this place has been written up by the food critics or even if they had a not so favorable review. What do the critics know anyway? This restaurant consistently gives you what you need…great food and value for your money and an intimate relationship with the people who work here. They let you in. They are an extended part of your family. You love to eat in their dining room and they love to have you.

Even in the dead of winter, they come. Isn’t it amazing? When nobody else risks venturing out in the snow, ice and cold, a regular shows up at your front door asking if you have a table and saying so very sorry they did not call in advance for a reservation. A regular respects your operation even though there is 12” of fresh powder on the ground and only 10 people in your dining room. You respect them too. It’s never discussed. It’s mutual and in simple terms it’s just the way it is.

The regular loves it here because it’s so easy to relax. This is the place where you can take off your tie and settle in to a good drink, talk about the kids or make plans for a get-away from the certainty of another long Chicago winter. You can let down your hair and dig into the pros and cons of the new boss or talk about the menu for a special dinner party this next weekend. This is a place where the atmosphere is savored and appreciated almost as much as the food.

It’s here where every waiter is also a sommelier and can suggest the perfect glass of wine for the food you just ordered or to knock off the stress of the day. Isn’t it great that they always bring your drink before you ask for it? You love that about this place.

This is the spot that you go to when you need to chill. It’s that kind of place and you appreciate that it is in your neighborhood. You enjoy the fact that you can mosey down the street and be there in a matter of minutes. It’s so simple. You really love simple!

The chef has been known to change up the menu and thinks about his regulars when he is creating something new. You often try something different because you know him personally and appreciate that whatever he cooks will be brilliant. And it always is. You reward him with well deserved praise and when he thanks you and gives you a smile and a huge bear hug, you have sealed the deal…you will be back again next week. It’s the unspoken code that binds the two of you and makes you a regular. It’s the episode that makes this place different from all of the other places that you go to eat.

Your neighborhood restaurant can be a place for breakfast where the dining room is so small that everyone is on a first name basis before the food is even served. It is forever intimate, slightly informal and explicitly comfortable. Whatever words you use to describe it, it is welcoming and you feel so lucky to have found it. Do you tell people about it? Me…I tell everyone. Like good recipes, amazing restaurants are meant to be shared with friends and family… and anyone else who will listen.

More than just a statistic, your neighborhood restaurants is what has earned Chicago the reputation of being an astonishing food city and will continue to tell the story of why supporting your local restaurant is a huge bonus, not only for the restaurant but also for “the regular”.

Become one and I guarantee that you will no longer be just another number in a restaurant’s long list of visitors. Isn’t it great to be home?

A New Year’s Salute To All My Favorite Neighborhood Chefs!

Bon Appetit!