Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Will you be enjoying Nantucket Sea, Himalayan Pink, or, ahem, common table salt tonight?"

     Sunday night we met old friends at a restaurant in Glenview. Gusto, an Italian place with a nice atmosphere and hearty, homemade food. Their choice; I hadn't heard of Gusto, never mind been there. But they said it was a favorite, and our experience there proved their judgment sound, starting with the arrival of the bread: fresh, warm, braided, friendly little rolls. 

    Bread serves a time-honored function in the restaurant experience. It takes the edge off the hunger that sent you there in the first place. It is a small gift of welcome from the owners to their guests for the evening. It is the first indication diners have of the excellence going on back in the kitchen.
    I limited myself to one roll, by an act of will, saving myself for the dinner to come. Though not without casting a covetous look or two at the basket, fortunately out-of-reach across the table. I was glad for that when dinner arrived, a plate brimming with rigatoni, pomodoro sauce, meatballs. Pure and lovely. When I got down to the last tube, I looked around and said, "I think I'll take the rest home."
     Everyone laughed.
     Gusto wasn't the only restaurant I went to for the first time last week. The previous Tuesday, I met a friend for our monthly strategy lunch. We usually go to The Dearborn: convenient, new, excellent food and service. But we had had to reschedule several times—busy men!—and we couldn't get a reservation on short notice.
     So he suggested Steadfast, on West Monroe. I had never heard of it, and went with the excitement of trying someplace new. In many ways similar to The Dearborn. Hip, new, or at least opened in 2016, which is new to me, since I probably have cans in the back of my fridge opened in 2016. 
     Both featured Cuban sandwiches, and I was about to order one, for comparison purposes, when I was seduced by an Asian salad with thick soba noodles, as well as shaved vegetables, salted peanuts and miso vinaigrette. I'm a sucker for soba noodles. Throw some herbed chicken on top and you're only out $18—well, my pal is out $18. He always pays, and when I tried to pay, he looked hurt—he's a few clicks up the food chain than I am— and wouldn't let me do it.
     Bread was on the menu, which is a thing nowadays, as restaurants try to find new ways to monetize the dining experience. For a while they weren't giving you bread. Some places asked, other places expected you to ask. It seemed fallout from so many people doing low carb diets, from restaurants tired of wasting bread. Now they've taken a new tack, and are trying to sell it back. Girl and the Goat does the same thing.
     "House baked artisan breads." I asked my pal if we should give it a go, and he was enthusiastic.
     The staff of life pictured above arrived. I selected the reddish bread—a roll, really. It was pleasant and slightly sweet. Beets were involved, I believe the server said. But not so good that I worried myself excessively about trying the others. One was plenty.
     Don't get me wrong. I liked Steadfast. The salad was excellent, and enough to drive me back. I wrinkled my nose a bit when I asked the waitress why the place was called "Steadfast" and she just shrugged, as if the explanation for the name of where she worked is unknowable. A mystery. If you're going to give your restaurant a quirky name, at least acquaint the waitstaff with why. If they can't do that, what else can't they bother to do? The full name is Steadfast at The Gray, by the way, named for the boutique hotel that you will explore, as I did, trying to find the bathroom. Fairly elegant, and you can get a bed for $180 a night (Not that I required one on the hike to the john; but the place is swank, and I wondered).
     I hope I'm not alone in flinching at pricy bread. Maybe that makes me Old School. I never got used to charging for water either. To me it seems another step toward the day when the napkin sommelier will glide over, snap open a case, and start brandishing swatches of cloth and raving about Egyptian cotton and thread counts and the Thai Black Silk Option and such while I hold up my palms and say, "Oh no no no, plain white napkins will do." His expression freezes, the smile dying, and he snaps the teak case shut with a dismissive clap. 


  1. Reminds me of when Chinese restaurants started charging extra for fortune cookies. I believe that terrible practice has stopped, though.

  2. I hate the word "monetize"...to me it always means "rip-off'"--The word means "converting non-revenue generating assets into sources of revenue." In economic terms, "monetize" means to convert any event, object or transaction into a form of currency or something with transferable value.

    What it means in Real Life is to find a new way to charge you for something that was formerly free of charge...air, water, bread, a side dish, checking your airline baggage...the list is endless.

    And I have never been one for the new and the hip and the shiny...nor have I ever been a foodie. Since I passed through the Portals of Geezerhood (five, ten, or fifteen years ago--depending on how you define a "geezer"), the 'restaurant experience' has become even more infrequent, both by choice and from financial constraints. As a fixed-income retiree, there's no such animal as being "only out $18" for a salad. Where I am coming from, $18 should buy you the whole garden.

    But, hey, I still patronize Pizza Hut and Taco Hell, happily and by choice, so maybe it's just me.

    1. I also am geezer enough to suspect that "monetize" is a synonym for charge more and provide less (the very old candy bar scam), but it also might be a way to recognize the hidden expense in freebies, the externalities in economic speak. Would we want to pay for air if the alternative was to breathe polluted air? To pay for water if pure water were scarce? To pay for bread rather than waste it? To pay for checking a bag if one has the choice of traveling lighter?


    2. By "air" I meant air in our tires, not in our lungs. God help us if we ever have to pay for the very air we breathe...that would be a death sentence for millions.

  3. Bread, being the staff of life, is worthy of contemplation in itself, but in this case reminded me of how one should take care trying to speak an unfamiliar language. In a north side restaurant I complemented the management on the bread and was told they sourced it from a bakery called Casa Nostra, which I knew meant "our house." With the bread basket emptied, I sought replenishment and asked if we might have a bit more of their Cosa Nostra bread.


  4. Damn, that's good writing...Lindsay Wood Davis

  5. Everything brought to the table is on the check. The old school was a basket with crackers and rolls that you hoped weren't leftovers from a previous table. Better to pay for a quality product, fresh baked bread often the best part of a meal. Finish the pasta, take home the bread, Neil


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