Dining In Chicago Where “Pop Rocks” And Sneakers Are Welcome

Thursday, August 5, 2010

There is a deep, dark secret that many foodies keep tucked away in the depths of their food-loving souls. Actually, it is more of a psychological obsession that hijacks all decision-making functions when one comes face-to-face with choosing a place to dine. In my case, the infatuation usually surfaces during conversations with my husband that go something like this:

Husband: “Honey I found a tapas place in Philadelphia that I think we should try.”

Me: “That sounds great . . . uh . . . hmm . . . is it . . . a . . . a Michelin star restaurant?”

Husband: “No, but it gets great reviews from Zagat.”

Me: “That sounds . . .” (Fight the urge Maria, don’t let those stars trick you into thinking that they are the only way to find good food.) “. . . great, go ahead and make reservations.” (Phew! didn’t give in this time.)

I will be the first to admit that I have been brainwashed by the Michelin phenomenon and have gone to great lengths (involving a gypsy, hypnotism, and some fried sinew — don’t ask) to subdue my attachment to this label.

Don’t get me wrong, this prestigious award has led me to many ethereal dining experiences, but it has also burned a painful, irreplaceable hole in my pocket. The “pretension” factor can also be a turn-off when it seems as if the maître d’  is checking your clothing tags (to be sure the garment is a designer brand), and requests a printout of a recent trust-fund transaction — both of which, unfortunately, I do not have — upon entering the restaurant. Still there are many laid back Michelin-awarded eateries that welcome sneakers, a quick bite at the bar, and chuckling at high decibels.

A perfect example of a non-pretentious environment with “star” potential is Chicago-based restaurant Graham Elliot. The Toronto Star recently explored the world of Chef Graham Elliot Bowles and found that he and his restaurant provide quite the “rock and roll” experience. Bowles, an aspiring rock star, believes that his customers should be entertained by both food and ambiance. Most of his staff are musicians, and it is not uncommon to hear songs such as James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and the Cure’s “In Between Days” ripple throughout this domicile of culinary brilliance.

I know you are thinking that all this is great, but one slightly important detail has not been discussed: the food. Well for starters, Graham stuffs popcorn topped with truffle oil, parmesan cheese, and chives in a basket instead of the so cliché bread basket. Chicagoans also can’t pass up “foielipops,” or duck liver lined with pop rocks, after one experience of rolling the fizzing, smooth moose playfully about their tongues; a testament to Graham’s unique ability to turn junk food favorites into gastronomic cuisine.

I’m not French, I’m not Japanese, I wasn’t born into some kind of amazing culinary background. I was raised on the junk food that kind of represents America, sadly. So whether it’s pop rocks or marshmallows or Twinkies or different things like that, we don’t say how we can make dishes incorporating weird, crazy things. It’s more like, okay, I like eating this while I’m sitting on my couch in my underwear watching the football game, so maybe we can work it into the dish this way.

And you don’t have to feel obligated to dress a certain way or order the chef’s tasting menu: a la carte and sneakers are very welcome here. “When opening this restaurant, we kind of decided to give the middle finger to all the critics and say, we don’t care,” say Bowles. “If you think we need flowers on the table to get a certain rating, then we’re not going to do flowers, we’re going to do this.” I’m so there, star or no star.

By Maria Russo


About the Author

Maria Russo is a freelance writer who loves natural wonders, good eats, ethical travel, and boutique hotels. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, USA Today.com, People.com and A Luxury Travel Blog, among others.


When Maria is not writing for her all-time favorite site (that would be The Expeditioner), she spends her time blogging about foreign jaunts and delectable food experiences for her site: Memoirs of a Travel & Food Addict. She is also up to no good on Twitter (@traveladdictgrl, @expedmaria).

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