IT CAME IN A PRESS RELEASE yesterday: Carriage House, a Bucktown restaurant which had originated with a chef’s concept based on his childhood memories, then lost the chef, was now losing most of the letters in its name, closing on November 1 and returning in December as CH Bar + Provisions. A couple of my friends snarked on Twitter about “provisions” being a hot word for restaurant names despite the fact that places named Provisions almost never in fact have provisions for sale; “provisions” is just the “urban market” of 2015. (And CH is a distillery with a tasting room, so the fact that we have two bars named CH now is sure to cause confusion.)
But there was something else the story got me thinking about, which had to do with my interview about tipping with The Radler on Monday. That’s the pressure that our food scene puts on the middle-level restaurant—which is, challenging them to be as good as the high end at certain skills, while simultaneously pushing them to be as casual and affordable as the low end.
A lot of this is the hard side of very good news. Farm to table dining, which was radical and rarefied when Charlie Trotter and Erwin Drechsler did it in the 80s, is now practically expected. And that’s good! Artisanal skills—pickling, curing meat, making long-retard French bread, etc.—that were kind of arcane a decade ago have been popularized by books, and so lots of chefs have those skills now, and lots of restaurants utilize those skills. That’s good, too!
So artisanal expectations trickle down from high-end restaurants to mid-level restaurants and sometimes even to fairly casual restaurants. Except, like The Radler did, they can discover that making foods people associate with the high end, in a restaurant where the price point is expected to be lower, doesn’t add up on the balance sheet. The Radler found that maintaining enough production of several kinds of charcuterie to be able to plate a bunch of them on the fly, in a kitchen staffed for casual food, was unsustainable—and they’ve cut it back to one kind at a time. Doing those things made people view The Radler as expensive, though in fact they weren’t charging enough to keep doing them.
What would have been the restaurant of robber barons is the new face of casual dining, with a million-dollar view and similarly stratospheric prices—in an atmosphere of laying on the couch watching Archer.
I suspect something similar happened at Carriage House. It started with the idea of being a place specializing in the cuisine of the South Carolina Lowcountry, where chef Mark Steuer had spent time while growing up. Even by the time it opened, that seemed diluted and what it mostly was was a bright, sunny Southern comfort food restaurant. There was ambition and craftsmanship in the food, which I enjoyed enough to go a few times, but I suspect for the public as a whole it wound up in the same category as other places with shrimp and grits and chicken wings. And honestly, these days, it’s kind of amazing how many well-made chicken wings there are in this town, buttermilk brined, smoked before fried, Asian glazed chicken wings that put a standard bar’s buffalo wings of ten years ago to shame.
Steuer left to work with John Manion (La Sirena Clandestina) on upcoming projects like El Che Bar, and Carriage House floated along, not authentic and focused enough on its Lowcountry concept to entirely be a serious restaurant, but a bit too highbrow-feeling for the Division Street bro crowd wanting a bucket of wings and a pitcher. Switching to CH Bar + Provisions is just accepting the facts on the ground.
As it happens, I just went to a restaurant that seems to have found the sweet spot for doing casual food at a high price point, though it’s hard to exactly articulate what makes it different from Carriage House. Cindy’s, the no-expense-spared restaurant at the top of the Chicago Athletic Association, puts a grandiose glass and steel shell (which had to be supported independently of the building itself by running a steel skeleton down the elevator shafts into the bedrock below, at a cost of money-burned-by-the-truckload) over a room with a priceless view of Millennium Park.
In another age this Crystal Palace-style rooftop would have called for oysters by the gallon—and a shellfish tower is one of the things on the menu. But much of chef Christian Ragano’s menu is, surprisingly, basically Southern comfort food again, including a platter of fried pheasant that would rank as some of the best fried chicken in the city if it were, in fact, chicken. (Everything is platters; I don’t know how the single guest in the hotel eats here.) Then all of it is served on communal picnic tables and benches, as if it were Cindy’s Route 1 Ribs-O-Rama. (At least the napkins aren’t on a roll in the middle of the table.) On Yelp there are people who are bothered by this clash of styles, or at least by the part of it their butts sit on. The fact that it’s booked up weeks ahead on Open Table suggests they are in a distinct minority.
So in some way Cindy’s, what would have been the restaurant of robber barons a century ago, is the new face of casual dining, with a million-dollar view and similarly stratospheric prices, in an atmosphere of laying on the couch watching Archer. People going there are determined to eat at the low end—and they don’t care how much they have to spend to do it.
What I think this means is that we’ve tossed away all notions that there are foods for the high end, foods for the middle and foods for the low end. You can be a serious restaurant while feeling like a bar, or a bar crossed with a sauna (Avec), or a French brothel making American diner food (Au Cheval), or any damn thing you want to be, serving chicken fried steak, foie gras on a stick or any damn thing you feel like. The rules have been tossed out—but the rules for seeming like a good value to customers are still being discovered, and you may have to work hard to adjust your restaurant’s persona to match what people expect of you, and what they expect to pay for it.
Michael Gebert is, casually yet artisanally, the editor of Fooditor.
COVER PHOTO: Fried chicken thigh with chef Mark Steuer and Johnny Auer’s G&C Pantry sweet potato hot sauce, Carriage House, 2014. (Michael Gebert).
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