18 December 2009

I Blame the New York Times!

(Photograph copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

The Boy, as most of you know, is only home on weekends. Over the years, we've adjusted to this nicely and I generally arrange things so that he can spend that time relaxing. Given that he generally works a 70 to 75 hour week, I figure it's only fair for him not to have to bother with things like lugging a vacuum around and braving a grocery store on a busy Saturday. It works. This frees us up so we can go out for dinner, shop in our neighborhood and do whatever it is we WANT to do, rather than noodle around with boring chores.

Now, one thing we both love about living in Chicago is that it's a city of neighborhoods. If you don't live here, it's hard to know what I mean by this. It's sort of like living in a big city composed of a whole bunch of small towns. There are height restrictions for building in most of the city, which means that no building is permitted to be more than four stories high and there are a lot of mixed use properties. There are a lot of buildings that are retail at ground level with residential space above, for example. I like this a lot. It keeps things relatively civilized. I've lived a downtown canyon or two in my time and I have to say that it's very alienating.

To get back to the neighborhoods... See, Chicagoans are very attached to their neighborhoods. In each little area, you can generally walk to anything you need. There's a pub, a couple of bars, half a dozen restaurants, a clothing store or two, some art galleries - you name it, you can find it in your neighborhood. That's why, when you hear someone talk about Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Andersonville or Humboldt Park, everyone else nods. We know what that means, and since Chicago is also a city that drives, we've been to most of those places to try out new restaurants, for example.

This is all background. I figured I'd best include it because it leads into a very angst-ridden situation where we live.

A couple of weeks ago, The Boy was reading his Sunday edition of the New York Times, when he bellowed, "Goddammit, there they go again!"

I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "Look at this! Just look! Some bobo reviewer blew into town and reviewed our favorite restaurants again!"

He read off the review and sure enough, there was a whole lot of glowing, almost worshipful text about a couple of places, Kuma's Corner and Great Lake Pizza, which has not only been given glowing reviews by the Times, but GQ and a couple of other national magazines as well (Yes, it IS that good).

"Oh, fercrissakes!", The Boy muttered, "NOW look what's gonna happen! More goddamned fat suburbanites in freakin' Dockers are gonna be taking up all the seats! We can't get a decent meal in this neighborhood as it is with all those idiots and it's only going to get worse!"

We'll leave him muttering for a few minutes. I was actually kind of amused by this. The Boy has always sworn he's going to grow up to be a curmudgeon and it's really starting to show.

Chicago is renowned for its restaurants. Some of the best eating in the country and in a couple of instances the world can be found here. We have a lot of famous places and chefs here. All you have to do is Google places like Avec, Alinea, Schwa, L20, Bin 36, Xoco (Rick Bayless' latest), Urban Belly, NoMi, Moto, Tru and so on (it's a LONG list) to know that in this town we take our food seriously. Naturally with all of the super-famous places come a lot of places that are not so famous, but are also really, really good. This is where the neighborhoods come in.

Our house is on a street corner that is the exact convergence of THREE terrific neighborhoods; Ravenswood, Lincoln Square and Andersonville.

All three of these neighborhoods are within walking distance and all three have their attractions, the most important of which are food related. In the past three or four years though, some magazine gurus and a few newspaper gurus have decided that where we live is "edgy" and "sophisticated" and have been beating the world over the head with reviews of all of our favorite places. It's maddening. We adore the Hopleaf Bar , for example. It's our local. It's where we go when we're done with the day's zooming around and want to stop for a drink before making dinner. They also happen to make the most delicious mussels and frites I've ever had, bar none.

Then, the Hopleaf got Reviewed. I think it was Food and Wine magazine that mentioned it, but don't quote me on that. I could be wrong. The next time we went in...well, you know what happened. The Boy's "fat suburbanites" were all over the bar and bitching that they couldn't get reservations in the restaurant (they don't take reservations) and had to wait instead. Every time the crowd dies down a bit, another reviewer shows up. It's maddening.

"It's not just the Hopleaf, though is it?" The Boy was on a roll, "No, it's every damned place in MY NEIGHBORHOOD! I KNOW it's an edgy neighborhood! That's why I LIVE here!"

He was irked. He's irked every time this happens. I can't say I blame him, either. Lately it seems that every restaurant in all three of our neighborhoods has had a glowing review in a national forum. In the past year or so, we've had reviews for Ann Sather , A Taste of Heaven (Made notorious by a sign that the owners put up requesting that little children stay seated and use their "inside voices" in the restaurant. Parents were furious, other patrons ecstatic), Bistro Campagne , Cafe Selmarie , Chicago Brauhaus and most notoriously Hot Doug's . One of our favorite stores Scout was also reviewed in a shelter magazine not so long ago. I have to congratulate the guys that own it - they deserved the review. A bunch of other similar furniture and vintage stores that have moved in to the same area, which is good for all of us, especially in this economy, but still!

(For those that are interested, Hot Doug's not only makes the best hot dogs on the face of the planet, they also famously flouted the moronic (and thankfully temporary) ban on foie gras bylaw that Chicago City Council was dumb enough to pass a couple of years ago. Doug, bless the man, continued to make his justifiably worshipped foie dog and pay the fines that he incurred. Sadly for those of us who like GOING to the place, it was also very favorably reviewed by Anthony Bourdain on his show "No Reservations" last year. Now if you want to go there, you have to join the lineup at 10:30 in the morning and stand in the cold until you can get in. Sigh. Anthony, I'm a fan, but dammit man, you've highjacked my hot dogs! )

I could go on. And on and onandonandon... but what's the point? I know that a lot of neighborhoods in a lot of cities have gone through the same thing. The people that live there have pretty much the same thing to say when the trendsters show up and start blocking the sidewalks and taking up all the good seats in their favorite bars. I'll let The Boy have the last word...

"Next time another damned reviewer shows up someone should... toss him in the nearest puddle! Yeah...or steer him to Rogers Park or something."

(You do realize that I've deliberately left some places out, right? I have SOME loyalty, after all.)


  1. If The Boy lived in my area, he'd be even more upset (like we are!). It was bad enough that Bellingham, Washington made it in AARP as one of the top ten best places to retire, but recently it made it in the New York Times as one of the best places to visit! It used to be such a lovely small town. You could go to the bagelry (yes, a genuine New York style bagels)or the Cookie Cafe and be pretty sure of bumping into someone you know....

    But now, our town has become huge! This didn't stop the New York Times for describing the natives usual occupation as cayaking!

    PS: I used to teach in Vancouver, I wished I could have settled there. It's one of my favorite cities....

  2. PS: neat doll photo! Love the poignancy, the dead butterflies, the harsh geometric pattern underneath them... Your photographer's eyes see things that cannot be expressed in words... And the composition is perfect!

  3. That was a neat shot, but full credit for the display has to go to Todd, owner of the Four-Sided Gallery on Clark Street. He's the real artist.

    If you ever come here, you have to wander past all of the galleries and nifty vintage stores in Andersonville. It's a classic neighborhood - you can furnish your house, get art for the walls, fill the wine cellar and get the snacks for the housewarming party - all without getting into your car.

    This is why I have to laugh at people who seem to think that Chicago is some monster-behemoth of a city and deride it for being "impersonal" and "cold". Only the temperature is cold and like the slogan on Chicago Magazine (I think) says, "If you're bored, it's not our fault!"

  4. Messy, I know what you mean re Hopleaf. We used to go there a lot, but the past several occassions we had to have last minute venue changes b/c the damned crowds meant way too long of a wait. Now we just won't go b/c you can't really get in. It isn't JUST the national media, though. This happens thanks to Check, Please! too. I mean it's great when well-deserving restauranteurs get recognition, but it often means the loyal clientele can no longer get in the doors. Uptown for years was supposedy on the verge of a boom, but they always petered out. Sadly, I think it's definintely coming, b/c in 2009, suddenly there are 50 people getting off at the Sheridan stop with me, rather than the usual 8.

  5. Grrr. The good news is that the Hopleaf will be taking over the space next door that used to be an Italian restaurant. They hope to be serving lunches there, too.

    Ok, there are strategies to getting in there for a meal. Week nights are good. Try and be there either before 6 or around 7:30 - that's roughly when the tables turn. Fridays you have to get there early, but the kitchen opens at 5. If you're willing to eat early, between 5 and 6 is the best time to get in. If I'm planning to go on a Friday, I just skip lunch and have an early dinner.

    Saturdays are a bust. I've been there on Saturdays, but we don't even bother trying for a table. Usually it's just a stop on our way home from running errands. If you call ahead even a few hours though, you can generally get a table at Ante Prima, just a couple of blocks up Clark, and I like the place. It's good basic Italian and I adore their winter menu. They also have a reasonable wine list that won't break the bank.

    Sundays are good, actually. If you time it to be there by 6, you're good. That's another "skip lunch" kinda day if you're up for it.

    I know, I know. A whole lot of people freak at the very thought of eating before 7:30. Tough. We've gotten into some places that most people whine they've never been to at all just because if it's worth it, it's worth going a little earlier than the big crowd.