A new book of lost Chicago restaurants grabbed me by the gut; no pun intended

A new book of lost Chicago restaurants grabbed me by the gut; no pun intended

When I was a little girl my dad used to take me to Stouffer's a lot for dinner. Stouffer's had dainty portions, utmost cleanliness, polite and attentive and somewhat starchy  service--and very good food.  A tea room for ladies.  (For dames--classy ones, my dad may have said.)

And they served sweet rolls instead of dinner rolls.  My dad sure loved those.

Stouffer's boiled down to a ladies' tea room but he didn't care.  He loved the place; it was his kind of place.   And mine, too, as it turned out.

It's no longer in the Loop, on Wabash Avenue.  But it will stick in my memory forever, serving up myriad memories of talks with my dad--and sweet rolls--on nights I'd meet him downtown after school so we could share a dainty meal there.  Fit for dames.  Classy ones.

South Loop author Greg Borzo's new book, which I've just finished reading about lost restaurants in Chicago serves up platters of such memories for me, too.  Memories of restaurants of all kinds that dotted our town, made memories in the heart, mind and gut--and then up and left us.

Some way too soon.  Some overstaying their welcome.  And some coming and going at just the right time.  I wasn't surprised--as it seems to be happening a lot these days--that so many restaurants close as the previous generation retires and the kids don't want to be in the restaurant business.

Borzo, never making an alphabetical list of restaurants full of details about the hundreds he discusses in the book, tells little stories about long lost Chicago restaurants that are all woven together the way he wants.  Via themes.  (Including a chapter on themed restaurants.) While his chapters are geared to topics such as ethnic restaurants, steakhouses, hotel restaurants, etc., his weaving in their stories is skillful.  Like a knife on a chopping block.  So that you come away with culinary concepts that overreach the basic retelling of restaurants we lost in the days of yore.  You come away with a finished dish.

I was surprised I had no memory of so many that I certainly should have. Like Flo's on Randolph.  Where a female trapeze artist performed in a huge window when I was a teenager.  No memory of that whatsoever.  How can that be?

And I was surprised that so many memories I had were fuzzy and inaccurate when tested against Borzo's perfectly sautéed research!  I had locations wrong, years of service, decor, owners and other details about quite a few quite far afield from reality.

Memories, valid or not, that were brought back under a new emotional lens: of singing waiters (and nasty ones), spinning salad bowls, phony French food, exotic pizzas and new-fangled lasagna, Lettuce Entertain You trying just about everything at least once, outdoor gardens tucked inside the walls of the establishment--and not out on the street, steaks, potatoes, corned beef and rye.  Flaming Greek cheese and Bookbinder soup with sherry. Just a few of my favorite things.

What I loved about this book is that the landscape of my life--and the City of Chicago's life--could be culturally conjured in a way I'd never thought to organize either one.  Restaurants I went to as far back as toddlerhood in the 50s, or during my wild teenage years with goofy guys and girls I adored in the 60s, places I'd come home from college and try in the 70s and restaurants I went to regularly (and some only on special occasions) with two husbands (and dates before, in-between and after the two divorces).

Not to mention the restaurants that I took my daughter to in the various stages of her life.

Talk about gut reaction.  Whether the details I remembered about the decor or the waitstaff were right or wrong, my reactions to my trip down my very own gastric memory lane ranged from gut feelings to gut wrenching.

Some of the restaurants included closed recently and even those memories have started fading, as measured against Borzo's impeccable rundowns.

I could list some of the restaurants here and tell you why they may have closed.  But part of the charm of this book is challenging yourself to figure out why.

Did they give up on us?  Or did we give up on them?  Who was fickle first? Borzo provides clues.  And gives hints.  But more often than not, he doesn't hit you over the head with any concrete conclusions.

Sort of like a chef who never lets on what's really in the soup.

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