Thursday, August 30, 2018

A restaurant should be beautiful

Calavera, 1438 W. Chicago Ave.

     A successful restaurant is like a stool, in that it rests on three legs.
     The first is the food, of course. Delicious, unusual, satisfying—something good you can't make at home.  I'm sure somebody can make Thai beef & broccoli at home, but me, I'm heading for Star of Siam.
      The second is service. The person bringing you the food should be brisk, effective and, ideally, show a little flair. Fall down on this aspect and the first doesn't matter—the food at Greek Isles is great, but will have to be savored in memory, since we're still never going back. I wasn't even there when my wife and her sister were handled rudely by a waiter. Just her description was enough. Besides, Athena is practically next door. 
     Bad service turns customers away, while great service, on the other hand, cements love for a place. I went to The Dearborn, a new, airy bistro at 145 N. Dearbornfor the first time a few weeks ago. Pretty good. I returned Wednesday and our server, Matt, did something both appreciated and rare, if not extraordinary: he waved me off something on the menu. "You don't want that," he said, making a face. Then when he brought our drinks, and set them down, the table wobbled, slightly. He apologized, rushed off, and returned immediately with wedges, kneeling down and bracing the table. In 40 years of eating out I've never seen a waiter do that. And so The Dearborn enters the rotation of My Places.
     And finally, the one that gets forgotten: the atmosphere. The Dearborn must have paid a fortune on glazed tile and fancy light fixtures and exposed beams. You're happy just sitting there; the fact they serve you food is a lagniappe, an added bonus.
     That third leg is one that I pay particular attention to, since those opening new restaurants too often don't. There is a space a block from my house in Northbrook that has seen three, count em, three restaurants come and go in five years. The first, My Pi, served pizza that wasn't anywhere near Lou Malnati's just up the street. The second, Agave, was a Mexican Restaurant that couldn't hang its own sign straight. The place had bare walls—maybe a single colorful paper mache lizard, maybe a sombrero. That's it. I remember sitting there, on my one obligatory visit, thinking "Who would start a Mexican restaurant and not decorate it?" The third, Drumstix, fell short on both food (fried chicken should be crisp) and decor. The tables were metal painted to look like wood; no doubt the idea was to create that warm farm house feeling while saving a few bucks. I pressed my fingers to that cold metal table and thought, "A year, tops" which was about right.
     Which explains why this colorful report from Block Club on Calavera, which opened a month ago, made me resolve to visit the place as soon as I could. 
     "Calavera" is Spanish for skull, and is a prominent feature in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, brightly decorated, often rendered into sugar and intended to remind us of the sweetness of life and the colorful personalities of our beloved departed. They aren't considered morbid, but whimsical, just as the holiday is not really a festival of death, but of the circular nature of life. 
Sandra Rodriguez
     The restaurant was entirely empty at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday, and we were greeted by owner Sandra Rodriguez. We started with guacamole and homemade corn chips, then moved to a selection of enchiladas and chicken breast with mole. I got a glass of horchata. 
     My lunch mate thought the chicken was terrific and loved the mole. I'm not a food critic, and it wouldn't be fair judge a place after only one visit, particularly one that has been open for just a month. The chips were warm and thick, the mole complex, the horchata served in a jar with a light sprinkling of cinnamon and a note of rosewater. Otherwise, ... well, I'll withhold judgment, except to say that I hope in time the food will be as finely executed as the artwork. 
    Besides, you should decide for yourself. We sat there for an hour and not a blessed soul walked in the door—just as we were leaving, at 2 p.m., a lone diner appeared. That isn't right. Every person takes a shot at their dream, but it doesn't matter how good the food may be if nobody stops by and eats it. So if you are in the vicinity, please consider visiting Calavera, 1438 W. Chicago Avenue. Admire their paintings and grouped incidental objects, say hello to Sandra Rodriguez and get something to eat. Let me know what you think. I certainly plan to circle back and continue my investigation.


      

10 comments:

  1. You should know that the Dearborn was opened by Clodagh and Amy Lawless, sisters of successful restaurateur Billy , proprietor of The Gage, Scan to, Beacon Tavern and the Dawson- their one and only venture stepping away from working for big brother and dad- Billy Lawless Sr who also has an interest in his sons restaurants.I'm so proud of the ladies- going it on their own and successfully. They DO subscribe to the family rules on great customer service where every customer is made to feel special.

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    1. I liked The Dearborn better than The Gage, though I'm not sure why. They're similar spaces. I've eaten at The Gage maybe half a dozen times, and it just never satisfied the way The Dearborn did.

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  2. Neil, I know you were trying to be nice, but your review comes off as damning with faint praise, regarding the food anyway. It sure wouldn't motivate me to go out of my way to visit this place.

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    1. The challenge was how to write about a restaurant whose decor you liked but whose food, alas, didn't wow you. If that's what you took away, well, I can't say that you failed to grasp my intent. I just tried to do it softly, for the reasons I outlined. We are all works in progress.

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  3. Have to go to Calavera one of these days, if for nothing else to find out what they mean by "pinches tacos."

    john

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    1. I think "pinches" is vulgar slang. It's probably meant as a joke.

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    2. That's the only way I've ever heard it, "pinche cabron," for instance. But like a lot of other bad words, it has an innocent meaning as well, and perhaps the artist who made the sign knew only the innocent meaning and not the "vulgar slang" use. Or maybe he/she did and used the word as a pun. I know enough Spanish to raise this issue, but not to resolve it.

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  4. Neal: re The Gage- that was Billy's first restaurant and tho the food and service are good, it is to me too big and crowded and noisy. Next door at his Italian themed Acanto it is a different story- tho I much preferred it when it was the calm, muted , French style " Henri" - named after Louis Sullivan and featuring muzak of Edith Piaf. Dearborn is closer to the ambiance of Acanto - only bigger.

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  5. Just noticed the dann " correcting" mechanism changed my reference to "-ACANTO . resto to " Scan to". Took me six tries just to use the correct name in this comment.

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  6. Just curious, Neil: have you previously described a bad experience at Greek Islands that I missed?

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