Sky Full of Bacon

The LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurant Awards and Stella Dallas

Like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, I watch the one I gave birth to from afar during LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants season. The big controversy this season is over whether LTH should be giving awards to places that have gotten a ton of publicity (The Purple Pig, Xoco, The Bristol) or are very conventional places like sports bars that already do plenty of business in well-traveled neighborhoods (Toons, Big & Little Seafood). Let me attempt an answer:


Look, when the GNRs were started— and like Stella with her baby, I was right there pushing— it was not just to call attention to some places we liked, but to draw a line in the sand of Chicago food. The media were praising whatever the latest trendy downtown place was; we said the hell with that, the real food of Chicago was in Chinatown, in Pilsen, on 79th street pumping smoke out behind bulletproof glass, in a strip mall in Westmont indistinguishable from any other strip mall Chinese. And I believe we had some influence in getting the media to pay more attention to such things, and to believe that their readers wanted them to. Yes, Moto snuck in the first year, to the puzzlement of Phil Vettel to name one, but that’s the price of the awards being semi-democratic. A few oddballs aside, the GNRs have overwhelmingly been a great list of below-the-radar ethnic dining and old school craftsmanship.

And as long as they stick to that general mission, even though the mission is accomplished by now, they’re a valuable thing. But the very fact that there’s a debate— not about whether these places are good, but whether they belong as GNRs, whatever a GNR is— is proof to me that they don’t. If you have to work that hard to find reasons to justify their inclusion, then they’re muddying the brand and making the list that much less useful to the stranger who picks it up. And let’s face it, a local food chat site is not exactly Michelin, when you’re giving awards to people who actually have Michelin awards already.

So that’s my advice, less culinary than simply marketing. Define the GNRs so that everyone can roughly understand what they mean— a more discerning and quirky list of off-the-beaten path culinary gems with a track record on LTH that no one can argue with. Edzo’s is famous but its history is interwoven with LTH, so that’s fine. Xoco– you couldn’t possibly say the same. The Purple Pig even less so. The more focused the list is, the more use people can make of it for a clear purpose. The more it seems a random assortment of divey taco joints with a few fine-ish dining spots and yuppieville bars scattered in with no apparent philosophy or reason behind their selection over any ten others seemingly just like them, the less useful it is and the more it’s just an ego trip to be able to go present a plaque to some name-brand restaurateurs. I don’t doubt that the finer points of these points will be debated ad infinauseam, but really, in the end it’s pretty simple. If you have to work to make it fit, it doesn’t.

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