Screw the Michelin guide and its ilk. Like the SAT or personality tests, reductive rating systems that award mini constellations, forks, spoons, or pepper shakers can never see what's in a restaurant's heart.
The endurance of these systems often encourage readers to skip the meat of a review and go straight to the final number as an arbiter of whether they should call for reservations.
Some of these systems are just plain impossible. Consider the S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants in the World. Did Gordon Ramsay U.K. really improve 11 spots in a year while its proprietor was out traveling the world berating and dehumanizing line cooks and restaurateurs? In one year, did Charlie Trotter's, which has been fine-tuning things for 20 years, really suck it up so bad as to drop from 31 to 38 and lose the title of Chicago's best restaurant to upstart Alinea?
Dining as a Game
These reductive systems encourage a foodie culture where people trade hot or important restaurant visits like sports cards, looking for that rare error card no one else has: "Dude, did you check out that spot that has the prix fixe animal eyeball menu? Only six people can get in, and it's held every third lunar cycle in front of the grave of Jack Johnson at Graceland Cemetery."
Most of all, the reductive systems ignore the storefronts, the mom-and-pop spots, and the ethnic joints, where the food and the experiences are just as singular and important to me as the experiences and food at the four-star gems. I truly believe that sitting on the hood of my Ford Escape while chowing down on Uncle John's hot links and ribs, or sidling in to melamine booths at Khan BBQ in what was once a smoky dingy cab joint, for the best chicken boti maybe in the United States is as charming, honest, satisfying, and unique as a nine-courser at the French Laundry.
These reflections were spurred by my colleague Ed Levine, who asked me to name my five favorite dining experiences in Chicago. I think the above testimonial gives you an idea where my spots derive from. Levine named his New York spots according to the following criteria:
How welcome do I feel? Do I feel well taken care of? Am I having a good time? Does the restaurant make my dining companions and me feel special? Can I easily hear what the people I am with are saying? Is the service personal without being intrusive? Does the energy in a restaurant match or even elevate my own? How does the restaurant's look and feel affect how its customers look and feel? Most of all, I want the restaurant experience to be about the food, the people I'm eating with, and me—not about the chef or the server or the sommelier.
I'd say most of Levine's criteria holds true for me too, though maybe in a more informal context. It's definitely a personal thing that won't hold for all my readers, but I like to come as I am, when I choose. It's not a "disrespect for the chef or the food" kind of thing, more of a lifestyle decision. I know some people get all snooty about decorum, but I honestly believe if I were at the Everest Room (which with alabaster and gold accents looks a bit like Liberace's palace) and the guy at the next table was wearing shorts, it wouldn't affect my dining experience, as long as he was having a good time and enjoying his food.
Likewise, the essence of food as a gathering place, an opportunity to break bread with family and friends and to celebrate life and love and culture is just as important. Though, rules are always meant to be broken. You might not expect from the discussion above that I'd pick a place like Alinea with its pre-fixe menus and utter precision. The thing about Alinea is that they're flexible enough and empathetic enough to respond to your needs if something doesn't work for you, and not from a begrudging money driven motivation, but based in the idea of truly providing the best experience.
The unifying feature of all of my choices is that the spots below represent the true personality of the driving force behind the restaurant. These restaurants make no compromises or nods to what they think people want, but reflect who the chef or owner really is, but ironically do so without ego trumping all. I'll admit naming my own "best" list is probably just as much a reductive folly as Michelin, etc. Certainly it's subjective, but at the very least my choices reflect a search for a spirit of naked passion, fearlessness, and lust for eating, cooking, and dining, and that's something I can behind.
Note: Toward this end, the chef bar at Avenues, which was a beautiful reflection of the emotional, whimsical, and hardcore independent spirit of Graham Elliot Bowles would have made this list, but Bowles left recently to open his own place this summer, and therefore the experience no longer exists.
Three years ago, I was a website designer and e-commerce manager. I was also a rabid food enthusiast. Soccer moms burning up the phone lines at Ticketmaster trying to wrangle Miley Cyrus tickets had nothing on me. I once called the French Laundry for three days in a row and endured hours of busy signals to score a reservation. I'd waited in line for five hours to sample barbecue oysters from Uglesich's in New Orleans the week it closed for good. Still, the idea of writing about my passion seemed as audacious as running for president of the United States.
My first meal at Alinea changed all that. Here was a spot where the chef hung out until 5 a.m. working on a new menu every few days or weeks after working 14 hours of prep and service. Here's a spot that eschewed tired porcelain in favor of custom designed sculptural art/service pieces from designer Martin Kastner. Here's a spot where wine pours by the glass complemented the food instead of honoring the ego of the sommelier or a wealthy patron's desire for a showy trophy Bordeaux. Here's a spot where black truffle isn't shaved by pound, but where it's gelled and stuffed into rich egg yolk pasta and it blows up in your mouth. Here's a spot where almost every aspect of dining has been challenged and reimagined. The idea that you could be so driven and disciplined to work so hard, to accept nothing but innovation as a standard was extraordinary, especially to a tired burned out corporate American. I wanted that for myself, and inspired by the example of working for a single purpose to be the best at something you loved, I became a food writer. 1723 North Halsted, Chicago IL 60614; 312-867-0110; alinea-restaurant.com
(Full disclosure: I'm a contributor to the Alinea cookbook released this fall, but the restaurant inspired a career long before I'd ever met the extraordinary folks behind the action.)
Mary Madison's joint in Auburn Gresham is the Cajun-Creole version of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It's one of those places where every single thing on the menu is extraordinary and slightly magical, where the swampy brown etouffee is smoky and indulgent, where the fried green tomatoes are toothsome and tangy. You keep ordering and ordering and wait for her to slip up, but the sweet potatoes, aka Creole Candied Sweets, have the lulling perfume of a spice plantation and the red beans and rice would make any Monday in New Orleans right.
Some people have mistaken the long wait for food as a service mis-step, but the truth is Madison cooks everything from scratch, sautéing off the trinity at the drop of the order. There's no warm and serve à la minute pre-cooked BS going on here. She cooks like you and your momma cook, only ten times better. She's as good as anything in the Big Easy, I guarantee. From Leah Chase to Paul Prudhomme, they'd all love her. Madison is about feeding the soul, and she usually comes out of the kitchen after a meal to make sure yours is satisfied. 1525 West 79th Street, Chicago IL 60620; 773- 994-6375; cajunjoynt.com
Eating at Burt's Place is like indulging in a post-coital smoke, a heavily ice cubed deep glass of fine bourbon, and a few slices of the finest pizza around while Chet Baker or Ella Fitzgerald croons a lullaby in the background. In other words, my own personal version of heaven. From the ham radios to the giant wire whisk hanging from the ceiling to the wooden trivets hanging from worn dining tables, Burt's is the land that time forgot, but never should have. Burt's is a place of languor where you slink in to the booths and exhale burden away.
The place is an emporium, an apothecary, a diorama of the wants and desires of its principled proprietor, Burt Katz. Katz makes each Sicilian bakery style pie by hand in decades old seasoned steel pans from ingredients he picks out each morning. Katz hasn't shaved his Professor Dumbledoresque white beard since he quit his last corporate job in the seventies, and he takes orders on a rotary dial phone, only having once used a cell phone at the behest of some local foodies last year. Burt and his wife Sharon treat the newest customer to the third generation Burt's visitor as if they were the oldest of family, not as a schtick, but because they love what they do and who they do it for. 8541 North Ferris Avenue, Morton Grove IL 60053; 847-965-7997
I watched the original Karate Kid 43 times the year it came out on video. Blackbird is my culinary Karate Kid. Regarding high-end to super high-end restaurants, I've dined nowhere more and with such consistent and satisfying results. Though, at this point, saying you love Chef Paul Kahan, at least in Chicago, is like saying you loved the Thriller album in 1984. Find me someone who didn't.
But my love goes way back. If Chef Kahan was still expediting on a daily basis or working the line on occasion, he's the guy I'd send my kids and grandkids to train under if they wanted to become chefs. He'd teach them that the essence of life is about pork, pork, and more pork, not taking yourself too seriously, but also treating your food, the quality of it, the sources of it, and the preparation of it as if your life depended on it.
Even now that he's focusing on all his restaurants, the spot hasn't lost a step under Mike Sheerin. In fact, it's better in that it melds Kahan's vision with Sheerin's whimsy and wit. And à la Ed Levine's criteria, if you want energy, this is the energizer bunny of electric restaurants in Chicago. In this same vein, you'll also find Kahan protégé Paul Virant and his spot Vie. I like to call Virant the one-room schoolhouse of old school chefs, a guy who pickles, preserves, and cures like a pioneer. It was a close call between Vie and Blackbird, but Blackbird was my first love. 619 W Randolph Street, Chicago IL; 312-715-0708
Hot Doug's Sausage Superstore and Encased Meats Emporium
Hot Doug's is kinda like the Masa of encased meats. If owner Doug Sohn can't make it in, like earlier this year when he broke his leg in a camping accident, he closes the place down. He plays the music he wants, keeps the hours he wants (10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.), and decorates how he wants (condiment slathered Britney Spears anyone?).
However, that doesn't mean you don't have tons of choices. You can keep it punk rock with a basic windy city salad dog, featuring caramelized meats—the best example of its kind in the city—or take your sausage upscale style with choices like Blue Cheese Pork Sausage with Toasted Walnut Mustard Cream and Fiery Apple Salsa or Quarter-Pound Beef Knockwurst with Horseradish Mustard, Applewood-Smoked Cheddar Cheese and Bacon Lardons. And the basic hand-cut skin on fries are probably the best in the city, but for some that's only if you skip the sea salt dusted duck fat fried weekend only option. 3324 North California Street, Chicago IL; 773-279-9550