I just got back from the big restaurant show in Chicago where I left feeling pretty good about things. There was more energy on the show floor than there's been in the last couple years and the overall mood was upbeat. Most folks I spoke with believe as I do that an emerging recovery is blooming. But as bad as the economy has been, some good did come from it. For one, it forced many to get creative.
While in Chicago, I visited several places that reflect a new direction a growing number have taken. For example, Paul Kahan, one of the country's culinary gods (he created dining meccas out of Blackbird and Avec) recently opened Big Star, a taqueria in an old white-washed gas station in the city's Wicker Park neighborhood. It's a dive (by design), but customers wait an hour or more for a seat. Damn good tacos for $3 and a big front patio that attracts a shorts and flip-flop crowd lounging on cheap furniture. What a happy place.
Rich Melman does plenty of casual restaurants, and he knows high-end as well. His L2O and Tru restaurants are as good and expensive as it gets in Chicago. But I visited M Burger, a tiny takeout spot he carved out of unused space at Tru. Great burgers, fries and shakes, all of which will cost you less than an appetizer at its attached sibling. After standing in line for 20 minutes (completely unacceptable at fast-food joints) I was greeted by a beautiful young lady in a t-shirt at the cash register. “I like that jacket you're wearing, handsome,” she said, not realizing, of course, that my nickname is Handsome (Sanson) … stop laughing. She owned that space and worked without a script. She made every customer forget they waited in a long line to hand over their money. Nope, you won't find that at Micky D's.
A third place I visited was one created by Latin culinary god, Rick Bayless. He calls it Xoco, Mexican slang for “little sister,” which it is to its highly regarded siblings Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. At 40-seat Xoco, Bayless is doing street food: tortas (Mexican submarine sandwiches) and caldos (meat-in-a-bowl soups). Crazy good, inexpensive and mobbed.
Elsewhere, other big name operators have opened great hamburger and hot dog joints in response to the brutal economy. And though some argue that culinary standards have been lowered as a result, I'll gladly argue that sometimes the best things in life are the simple pleasures. Whatever the case, these three amazing restaurateurs didn't sit on their hands when the economy took a dive. They rolled with it and created cash cows. Makes you wonder what you could or should be doing. For ideas, see our trend story on p. 22.
Check out Kahan, Melman, Bayless and some other smart folks who adapted to the shifting economy at our New Directions Conference October 24-26 in Chicago. For details see p. 34 or go to www.newdirectionsconference.com.