As you know from my recent post I don’t stray too far from my Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants because of the fabulous benefits we get in terms of discounts as employees. Every once in a while we wind up someplace else as a result of a request from friends or a good tip. In the last week I have explored twice. Once with much reservation and tonight with great success. So here are two stories of dining outside our normal comfort zone with differing results.
Last Friday night we went out with a group of six to one of the hottest new restaurants in the city. I will refrain from naming any names because my Mom always said if you don’t have good things to say then don’t say anything at all. In this case I at least won’t name any names but if you delve deep enough into our Facebook pages you will know. Let me say this. Our dinner last Friday night had many wonderful aspects. The energy was tremendous. The place was packed. Our server was knowledgeable and personable. The cocktails were delicious and a few of the food items were memorable. That being said there were a number of miscues. I am always so grateful to work for a group that understands it is not only important to have a good concept, but also to have a system that will allow for the ability to execute that concept. In my mind, the place we ate last Friday had too many moving parts. There were multiple floors. Drinks that had dozens of ingredients that made for long delays in those drink’s delivery. Food coming from multiple stations that meant things would arrive at different times and in different states of quality. In the end dinner for six left us $500 poorer and with a few misgivings in that our first bottle of wine took 20 minutes to arrive, we got our entrees in part and parcel with a 20 minute span from start to finish, a few drinks were cleared before we finished them (although with credit they were replaced at no charge) and two of the exact same side dishes arrived in totally different stages of quality: one piping hot and delicious and one ice cold and terrible.
Tonight was a whole different story. You see on Sunday night I tuned into a local show that was traveling up and down Western Avenue visiting food establishments that had a unique flare. I love these kinds of shows! They visited a breakfast joint in Beverly, a hot dog stand just above North Avenue and then an Italian place at 24th and Western called Il Vicinato.
Il Vicinato has been in existence for over 30 years. It was founded by a guy who cooked at another restaurant at 2501 South Western Avenue called Febo’s that opened in the 1950s as far as I can tell. Febo’s was famous for their ravioli among other things. They closed about 20 years ago. Il Vicinato on the other hand continues but not under the original owners but rather a Latin American gentleman who bought the restaurant from the original family many years ago. So here you have an Italian restaurant run by a Latin American family in a totally off the beaten path Chicago South Side Neighborhood. It is the perfect story for a Chicago classic!
The show I saw on Public TV highlighted the Chicken Vesuvio and the classic recipe handed down from a few Italian families and at least one Latin American family. In that I’m a bit of an Chicken Vesuvio buff I though I needed to venture down and try it out on some night in the near future. On a typical Wednesday I hit an appointment at 4:00 p.m: usually a Chiropractor, Dentist, therapist or the like. After that I try to catch a 5:45 p.m. yoga class before I teach my Yoga Sculpt class at 7:30 p.m. Everything went as planned tonight until I got out of the class I took at 5:45 p.m and the studio manager came up to me and told me they had to cancel my 7:30 p.m. class last minute because of a conflict of schedule with teacher training. I was very sad for the students that would come for class and be turned away. I was very delighted on the other hand to have a free night that I wasn’t expecting. I thought for a few minutes about which Lettuce restaurant I might go to for my bonus night off, but then it occurred to me I was only a mile and a half from the place I was thinking about only earlier today with a few co-workers. I thought I’d drive down and at least give it a look.
Southbound on Canal to Cermak. Westbound on Cermak to Western. Left on Western and I felt like I was in a different universe than the Chicago that I am oh so familiar with. I did a U-turn on a deserted Western Avenue at 25th and pulled up in front of Il Vicinato with a feeling of uncertainty and a desire to drive straight away to Big Bowl for a Pad Thai at 51% off. My gut was to take a look though and boy am I glad that I did! I walked into a restaurant that was maybe 20% full. After standing in the lobby for a minute a waiter came up to me and said “Sit wherever you want.”
I looked to the right and saw a bar area with tables that reminded me slightly of the front room at Gene and Georgetti’s (except that it was mostly empty). To the left was another dining area up three steps that had maybe 6 tables seated out of 30 or so available. For about 37 seconds I though about bailing and going back to one of my familiar haunts in the loop but I stuck to my gut and decided that what brought me there should at the very least get a full chance to explore. I sat at a table in the bar and started looking at a menu. There was a table of six lawyers next to me talking shop. The bar had two residents, one that turned out to be the bartender’s brother and another a lady that was a local who ran a social club at 23rd and Oakley. My waiter brought me a glass of white wine and I soon began to realize I had made a very good decision!
I came for the Chicken Vesuvio, but since I had roasted chicken for lunch I was open to any other possibility. In that I am still gluten and dairy free I suspected that the options in an Italian restaurant would be limited. I even texted my buddy Kregg and told him where I was at and he texted back, “Good luck with your diet in that place!” As I was sitting at my table in the bar watching the Bulls vs. Pistons game and enjoying a glass of Chardonnay I looked up and saw a dri-erase board that said special of the day, “Filetto de Vitello”. I did what any curious diner would do in this age of technology and I dialed up my Yelp application on my Iphone. Go figure the first of 47 reviews I picked up about Il Vicinato says, “The Veal Filet is one of the five best meals I have ever had in Chicago.” I needed no other persuasion! I had a simple but wonderful Italian salad with my glass of Chardonnay. My main course was five slices of Veal tenderloin cooked with white wine and garlic to a perfect medium. On the plate were two delicious roasted potatoes and five spears of sauteed broccoli in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes. As I got about half way through my entree I started chatting with the only two people at the bar and the bartender. The tender’s name was Colette. Turns out she has worked there for 26 years through both owners and she told me stories about how the family’s Grandmother would make ravioli at Febo’s a few days a week and at Il Vicinato on the other days just to keep everybody happy. The guy at the bar was the tender’s brother as I said. The other person named Donna runs a social club that I mentioned before. What I didn’t mention is that after chatting for about ten minutes they invited me to their Super Bowl party at the private club called the West Side Club. Just mention their names and I would get right in. Now this is not a “Country Club like” private club, but rather a club of real people who meet someone and welcome them into their world after a quick sizing up and a few friendly exchanges. While I was getting ready to leave two guys came back into the bar. They had been waiting for a cab for a long time. I asked them where they were going and they said “The Marriott on Michigan Avenue.” I told them I was the Maitre D’ at the restaurant across the street and offered them a ride back. They turned me down because they didn’t want the cabbie who drove down there to get them to miss a fare. This to me is a perfect example of what sets Chicago apart from pretty much every other place in the world. People that are fair, true and honest!
My meal was delicious. The company even though I was by myself was welcoming and fabulous. Every once in a while you trust your gut and wind up exactly where you are supposed to be at a given moment in time. Tonight was one of those nights! Even more it only left me $40 poorer including salad, sides and two glasses of wine including tip!!! I can’t wait to go back to Il Vicinato with other friends or co-workers, to try the famous Chicken Vesuvio, and to once again see my new friends Colette, Donna and Ben. In Chicago it’s all about the neighborhood and the people. What an amazing night in a very simple place. As I like to say, “finding the goodness in the ordinary is far more valuable that finding the greatness in the extraordinary.” That my friends is True Chicago!