Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions, Part 1: 2009, the Horrible, No-Good, Surprisingly Decent Year

This year food writers in Chicago seemed to do as much writing about the act of writing about food in backchannel places like Twitter and blogs as they did actual writing about food.  Those discussions were lively, fun and not entirely closed to outsiders, but even those participating in them often felt that important pieces of the conversation were happening just out of sight.  So I invited the published-everywhere, tireless Michael Nagrant to kick some of this stuff back and forth with me here, in a more coherent form than a stream of tweets.  Also unlike on Twitter, the discussion quickly ran very long, so all this week I’ll be running it as a series of back and forths.  We start with the subject of how the year looked from the point of view of new restaurants; one of us thought it was a bad year, one of us, surprise, thought the very opposite:

MICHAEL GEBERT: Welcome to Baconland, sir. Despite the recession, it seems like we had no shortage of openings this year and really, not that many closings of places that weren’t on life support already.  If anything, we had fewer big boom and busts, like the way the year before we suddenly had a bunch of places with “brasserie” in their name, then quickly had a bunch of closed brasseries.  How did the year look to you as far as the food scene goes in Chicago?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: Yeah, I mean last January, I think everyone was all doomsday about the death of dining out etc. I can’t say I was any different. It just seemed like there was a big shake-up coming.

However, as someone who cooks at home a lot, I made the mistake of thinking everyone else does too. I think I’ve underestimated the general public’s frequency of dining out, which is to say despite the proliferation of Food Network, artisanal this and that blah blah blah, people more than ever don’t know how to cook, and thus, eat out a ton. Constrained by a bad economy, they may do it less, but they still do it. Eating out at the really high end may still be a luxury, but I’m not totally convinced eating out in general is a luxury anymore as much as it’s become a way of life and pseudo-survival. The chefs who understood that, scaled down, offered $2 tacos or $8 gourmet burgers etc and captured that market on its way down to some extent.

I also think what ended up happening, or why we didn’t see a big boom bust, is that the class most responsible for such cycles, i.e. all the foodie dilettantes with extra money, the surgeons or lawyers or investment bankers who think opening a restaurant is all about having a club house to party at or that it’s like throwing their annual dinner party stayed out of the market. They were either scared away or they just didn’t have the liquid cash for such ventures.

The folks who ended up opening anything last year were opening up second or third restaurant launches. They were established groups, who knew what they were getting in to, and thus understood how to manage a restaurant, the importance of being well capitalized, and were poised to take advantage of some of the real estate deals being offered in a depressed economy. Last year was the year of Bill Kim, the Blackbird team, the Lula team, the Frontera team, Mia Francesca folks, well-funded hotels launching restaurants, Michael Kornick, and Hearty Boys.

I do think super high-end dining was impacted to some extent. Rumors were everywhere about the empty tables at Charlie Trotters and L20 on Friday and Saturday nights. Laurent Gras told me they were down 33% a year ago. The thing is, more than any other segment, these are the best funded of restaurants and probably those most likely to survive a downturn, at least in the short term because they actually have operating capital on hand.

I also saw some of the most marvelous PR campaigns of my life last year. I mean late 2008, early 2009 was the year of L20 – Gras was everywhere, NYT, Wall Street, Esquire etc etc…when the chips were down, some people got super-creative.

That being said, there was a real thread of conservatism and a general lack of innovation in what happened. 2009 was the least inspiring year of restaurant openings in the last seven or eight for me. Not that it matters in the final equation to me much, but I wasn’t inspired by any dining room architecture, save the ceiling fresco at Cibo Matto. When the most innovative part of a new Paul Kahan restaurant is the dulce de leche milkshake, it just doesn’t feel right.

Also, the biggest thing to suffer as a result of this economy is service. Service just seems to get worse and worse, which I find counterintuitive. I mean, with the glut of out of work folks, you figure restaurants have some hungry competition for top notch servers, and yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. I mean this, no irony…when I’ve gone back to Detroit to visit my folks and ended up in a chain restaurant, I’ve generally gotten much better attentive sincere and knowledgeable service than I have at fine dining spots in Chicago. Not sure why that is.

What did you think? Excited, not excited?

GEBERT: Well, I’m pretty excited by the high/low combinations popping up.  Not that I think any of them is perfect, but I guess I felt like some of the high end openings of last year (say, Brasserie Ruhlmann) were like a repeat of the 80s, from the Donald Trump feeding Nancy Reagan’s social set with decor by Mario Buatta era of moneyed glitz— literally, of course, in the case of Sixteen, which actually is in a Trump property.  And as a devoted subscriber to Spy back in the day, been there done that.  (That also may reflect my own increasing unwillingness to drop the wad on $400 meals of dribbles and powders, in favor of the let’s-cook-every-frickin’-thing-on-a-naturally-raised-pig school of Vie, Mado, The Bristol, etc.)  I mean, we nearly had a restaurant with the ultimate stuck-up-WASP name, Town and Country.  If nothing else, the recession prevented that.

So anyway, even if Belly Shack has the phoniest graffiti in town, and charges a lot (relatively) for a kogi sandwich I compared to the future kogi pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, there’s something really appealing about guys from that world descending to earth and battling Subway and a million bar burgers and pizza deliverers for a place in the hearts of people who want change back from a $20.  As I commented on your most-important-restaurants-of-the-decade piece, I see this as the real area of excitement over the next couple of decades, young Asian entrepreneurs creating Asian fast food concepts that reflect their own cultures much more deeply than Panda Express or La Choy canned chop suey does, yet with a Disney/Blade Runner-esque feel to them that cannot be called authentic in any traditional sense.  Like Beard Papa, that opened last week— I mean, who knew we were lacking a national cream puff chain?  I’m not sure I’m even sure what a cream puff is, exactly.  Yet go read how CrazyC salivates over the first dozen she bought at LTHForum.

I think this is a heartening development not least because, as you say, the high end foodie world isn’t even the tip of the iceberg, it’s the ice cube on the top of the tip, and the iceberg is still megaboxes of frozen crap from Costco or Jewel.  I was surprised, but not really, some months back when I mentioned Alinea to another dad from my son’s class, and he’d never heard of it.  Big deal, except this guy does marketing research for arts organizations, he’s as versed on high culture in town as anybody, he’d be astonished if I’d never heard of Barenboim, yet high food culture just isn’t on his radar in the same way.

I don’t want to jump ahead to the media discussion portion, but for me so many of these issues are interlinked— the importance (or not) of four-star dining, the importance (or not) of reviewers for Establishment media, the increased attention paid to the diversity of ethnic dining, the increased attention I pay to bloggers and food sites where they talk about low-end dining.  They’re all part of a broadening of how people look at dining, forged initially by people like Calvin Trillin and the Sterns and then greatly accelerated by the internet.  And to me that’s had a huge influence on everything, from once hoity-toity media deigning to acknowledge that such dining exists, to chefs being unafraid to play around in low-end genres.  Ten years ago, Wolfgang Puck started selling pizzas in airports, he was a whore.  Now Paul Kahan starts selling tacos in a dive bar, and it’s the cutting edge.  And, not coincidentally, it’s accessible to a lot wider swath of Chicago than Blackbird is.

Even though I felt like a lot of Big Star was No Big Deal, there’s one thing there that absolutely shows the value of high end chefs entering a low end genre, and that’s the pork belly taco.  There are ten million taquerias in Chicago, but it took Kahan and Co. to put pork belly on one.  (Yes, I expect it happens at carnitas places all the time, but I don’t know of a place specifically selling pork belly tacos.)  That’s because small Mexican businesses are all conservative, they’re all about hewing to tradition.  The great ones are the ones that hew to tradition without crappy American foodservice compromises.  But it took chefs from high end dining, where novelty is a selling point, to shake it up and innovate something like the pork belly taco.  So that intersection of high and low is, again, the place for me where the real excitement is happening.

I’m less concerned about architecture, though I enjoy that and, in general, think it’s an upscale restaurant’s job to put on a show from the moment you walk in.  I can’t think of a place where I’ve walked in and found the room boring that I didn’t find the food boring too. (Powerhouse, for instance, was one recent failure where an underexciting meal started with prophetically bland decor.)  But I’ll go along with you that we didn’t see much excitement at the high end, but I’m okay with that.  Broadway was safer than ever, but Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway were pretty damn exciting.

TOMORROW: Nagrant explains why I’m crazy

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