Chicago the city that loves to eat

Times Staff Writer

Virtually dissected by the elevated train tracks on Franklin and Illinois streets is a tired, old building clinging to portions of its aluminum siding noticeably weakened by years of harsh winters. Inside this precarious facade, is Gene & Georgetti's--arguably one of America's best steak houses. While poised against the century-old carved, walnut bar, manager E. J. Lenzi impatiently considers a question on what his family's restaurant means to this city, where great T-bones and strip sirloins are mistakenly thought to be commonplace. As the tightly wound, quick-witted 24-year-old was about to respond, he was interrupted by a regular patron who yelled out, "Hey, if my wife calls, tell her I left at quarter after five." A chorus of laughter rose from the immediate area as a quick time check found that all watches were approaching 6, a fact confirmed by the rush-hour rumble of commuter trains passing overhead. Despite the occasional indiscretion, Gene & Georgetti's is a place from which people do, indeed, find it difficult to pry themselves away. Within its cramped dining rooms and bars is a simple decor featuring the required Frank Sinatra photos, a boisterous, dark-suited crowd, well-made drinks, USDA-prime aged Iowa beef and brash-but-efficient waiters.

Yet, the overall attraction runs deeper. This restaurant captures a mood many say reflects the city's heart. As such, it is in the forefront of the landmarks that make Chicago a showcase for good eating.

From the exclusive dinner clubs to the ramshackle hot dog stands, food plays a major role in the life style here where entertainment remains indoors a good portion of the year. Also contributing to food's importance are Chicago's diverse ethnic groups, many with traditions that celebrate dinner table occasions.

Prolonged meals and food encounters perfectly suit inclement conditions in such a dense metropolitan area. Why, for instance, would anyone fight for too long the 40-below wind-chill factor or stifling summer humidity when there is a nicely sauced linguine or a passion fruit mousse to be enjoyed indoors nearby?

Restaurant Review to Go

Furthermore, the Chicago food experience in its many presentations is enhanced by the people's strong sense of humor. This often self-deprecating style also includes an aversion to New York's culinary snobbishness or Los Angeles' perceived glamour. Cab drivers are even prepared to good-naturedly offer restaurant recommendations and summarize the latest reviews on the ride to dinner.

"We're proud to be Chicagoans and if people want to consider this a Chicago-type of place then that's fine with me," said Lenzi, who represents the third generation of his family to run Gene & Georgetti's. "This building is built from scraps of wood that survived the Chicago fire (in 1871). I guess you can't be much more Chicago than (that)."

Lenzi said he was sure the reason his restaurant is so popular is that his family has been buying only the nation's best beef for several decades. As if he may have been getting a little too serious, he added, "Our success is due to the quality of our product because everyone knows we have the worst waiters."

Certainly, this is a city where the beef had better be good because visitors and locals alike consider the perfect steak an inalienable right, the lingering residue of Chicago's long-since-departed stockyards. But the city's culinary gifts to the rest of the country go beyond meat and potatoes to include deep-dish pizza, Chicago all-beef hot dogs mounded with dozens of condiments, a distinctive style of barbecue and the Italian beef sandwich. In months to come, highly successful restaurant format innovations developed here will also be seen in other parts of the United States.

The city's geographic location as the hub of the nation's agricultural heartland has also reinforced its food image. In fact, the corporate headquarters of several major food companies remain in this area, including Beatrice Foods, Dart Kraft Inc. and McDonald's.

The sum total of these various segments makes Chicago one of the country's most enjoyable urban food experiences. Recently, the Rand McNally publishing company released a U.S. vacation guide that rated this city as second only to New York in the number of decent eating and drinking locations.

Even so, the people responsible for some of Chicago's attractions offer divergent opinions on the role this city plays on the national food scene.

An Exclusive Club

What is often regarded as Chicago's best restaurant is a short cab ride from Gene & Georgetti's. Unfortunately, Les Nomades on Ontario Street is a private club. The exclusivity is used to assemble a clientele that will complement what is meant to be a comfortable, continental bistro, according to owner Jovan Trboyevic, a Serbian who immigrated from Yugoslavia three decades ago.

At an annual membership of $1, the device is obviously not intended to increase profits. It's more a defensive maneuver designed to keep "bar flies" from changing the nature of the place, Trboyevic said.

Trboyevic has Les Nomades running with hushed precision. His knowledge of a particular dish's nuances, a wine's bouquet or an exotic food's potential role in a meal are talents that have made him one of the city's most important food figures during the last two decades. Success is another. He created Le Perroquet 12 years ago and it remains one of Chicago's few five-star restaurants. He recently sold the operation to a pair of brothers who worked for him as manager and maitre d'.

Trboyevic was at first reluctant to deal with a reporter because of his ongoing battle with local restaurant writers which includes forbidding any Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times food journalists in Les Nomades.

"The press here can be vicious," he said, "but that's the nature of the city. They like to level everyone with criticism and then go out and eat hamburgers."

Eventually, Trboyevic agreed to discuss a city he alternately praises as "wonderful" and then condemns as "boring."

Over a meal of "some weird fish," he said that it was difficult to determine whether the nation's third-largest city had a particular food style.

"When I first opened Le Perroquet, people said that we were doing something revolutionary for Chicago: Serving fresh vegetables."

Trboyevic, credited with introducing nouvelle cuisine to Chicago, is also critical of the many theme restaurants that have been opening in the area. "It gets to be a bit plastic after a while. One minute you have an instant Cajun restaurant, the next minute it's something else."

Some of these theme outlets incorporate tenets of the California cuisine with its emphasis on grilling, lighter sauces and presentation.

"California cuisine is wonderful to cook at home or on the terrace, but it is not a restaurant cuisine. It's not much different than what you'd do in the backyard," he said. "And replacing flour with ground nuts? Who are you doing a favor?"

If anything, having Le Perroquet and Les Nomades in Chicago has allowed some of the city's other dinner rooms to serve the fine foods expected in world-class restaurants. In fact, Trboyevic said that while presiding over Le Perroquet he often would see competing restaurant owners and chefs eating in one of his booths. Then within days they would be offering some of his more innovative dishes at their places.

With a hint of resignation, he continued. "We are moving to an anthill society (of sameness). I suppose we (Le Perroquet and Les Nomades) will retard the collapse of fine eating by, oh, six months."

If hesitant to praise the city on the record, Trboyevic is obviously enamored of his Les Nomades clientele, whom he occasionally invites to sit with him in the club's elegant-but-simple lounge of straight-back benches where wine is always served in stemware placed atop china.

After hosting a particularly erudite group one night, Trboyevic refused payment for the few rounds of drinks despite his regulars' pleas to offer compensation.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'll get you next time when you ask me what type of wine to order with dinner."

Greek Food

Over on Halstead Street, in a section of the city known as Greektown, Chris Liakouras enters his restaurant, the Parthenon, with authority. The burly Liakouras brushes nuisance aside and deals only with the mostly financial matters at hand. He commands the staff and his attendant entourage with the military focus of a Greek general.

A pioneer of what is now one of Chicago's biggest neighborhood attractions, Liakouras said he would just as soon have impacted the food scene in Los Angeles.

"When I got out of the Army in 1955 I only had $68. Los Angeles was my first choice of a city to settle in, but I didn't have enough money to get there. So, I went to Detroit for a few years and then came to Chicago in 1958," he said.

At the time, the Halstead area featured little more than a delicatessen with a few tables and a corner bar. Liakouras saw the need for a restaurant offering a full range of Greek foods and wines. Then in the mid-1960s, he opened the Parthenon in an area apparently starved for gyros, dolmades, moussaka and retsina. He was quickly followed by other entrepreneurs. Today there are 10 restaurants teeming with patrons, music and saganaki, Liakouras' famous flaming cheese appetizer. On weekend nights, the area fills with revelers.

"Greek food is now really big in Chicago," he said. "And in terms of prices, it's also about 25% to 35% less than the Chinese and Italian places."

Business Hot on Cold Days

Echoing a sentiment of others, Liakouras said that business even can be quite good during the coldest days of a Chicago winter.

"When the temperature is below zero and there's snow on the ground, this place is lined up with people waiting to eat," he said.

Offering an explanation for why Greek restaurants in the area always look as if there is a large-scale celebration in progress, he said, "I think the climate here is one reason that you drink more wine and whiskey than in other places."

The Parthenon on an average night seats about 300 people for dinner and sells so much of the lamb, beef and pork mixture known as gyros that it has to manufacture the three-foot-high pressed roasts in its kitchen rather than purchase them from the apparently prospering gyros wholesalers.

Parthenon business manager John Zardis said an added attraction of the city's first Greek restaurant is its noise level.

"It's always very loud here and people like that," he said. "Unfortunately, one of the reasons for the clamor is because these waiters keep yelling when I'm trying to talk."

Whether Liakouras will be able to realize his original goal and export some form of the Parthenon to Los Angeles is uncertain.

"We were looking for a place in Los Angeles, but we would have to spend big money to open something out there," he said.

One Chicago-based food concern with little trouble expanding is Lettuce Entertain You, a firm which operates two dozen different restaurants in this area and plans on franchising many of them to the rest of the country.

The company's most innovative entry is Ed Debevic's, an almost cartoonlike version of what a 1950s-era diner might resemble. Debevic's, crowded day and night, is a sensation on the corner of Wells and Ontario streets. Richard Melman, president and founder of Lettuce Entertain You, attributes part of his success to Chicago.

"Food in a highly dense urban market is a way of life," he said. "It is a social situation as much as it is an eating experience."

Melman recently opened an Ed Debevic's in Torrance and will be adding another in Beverly Hills later this year.

"I think Chicago always did have a (food) style," he said. "This city is as diverse as they come and has restaurants that are as good as any in the country. Los Angeles might have 10 diners now, but Ed's will match any of them. . . . I think Chicago is underrated."

A good source on the question of whether the food of Chicago is unappreciated by the rest of the country is city newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who owned a part interest in a now-bankrupt Chicago-style hot dog stand in Milwaukee.

"Every area experiences national trends rather than local ones, but each city does make a contribution. Philly has those strange sandwiches (cheese steaks) and Chicago has thick-crust pizza," he said. "But let me tell you something, the pizza that was popular here years ago was the thin-crust style. The people that didn't know anything about pizza started calling the thick version 'Chicago-style.' I guess they were yuppies."

Royko is chairman of an annual barbecue rib-cooking contest and offered some controversial opinions on Chicago's reputation as a hotbed for ribs.

"Chicago is a fair rib town. It's a great rib town in the black neighborhoods and there are some great joints in those areas. But the whites don't know about them and don't go there anyway.

"In the white areas of town, it is not a good rib town. Besides, anyone that knows anything about ribs could do a superior job in their backyard on a grill.

"Hot dogs we do better here than anywhere else," he said.

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