|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. Dearborn, for 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.
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.