By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Having Racinesclose by was the best sort of convenience. And I mean the old Racines, the one at Ninth Avenue and Bannock Street on whose grave a retail/condo complex is being built. It was a neighborhood bar that always seemed to be part of the neighborhood no matter where you were from, the kind of place you could go when you didn't want to think about where to go. No matter how you were dressed, you were dressed right. No matter what time of day it was, you could always get a couple cold ones and a burrito. And if those couple cold ones turned into a couple more? Well, there were certainly worse places in town to be when the day started getting away from you.
Did it help that Racines' original location was within staggering distance of the Westword office? Absolutely. And while my job makes it impossible for me to be one of those regulars at a restaurant where everybody knows my name, I felt comfortable with the Racines folks, nonetheless. I drank their beer; I ate their nachos; I soaked in their hospitality; and I generally comported myself like an annoying houseguest who never knows when it's time to leave. The little tray below the cup-holder in my car is full of boxes of wooden matches advertising Racines and its sibling restaurants, because Racines had a big smoking section, and I always appreciated that.
But after almost twenty years in the same spot, Racines closed (not willingly, mind you, and not without a fight), and for almost a year, there was nothing -- nothing -- to take its place. Of course, there were still Dixons and Goodfriends, the other two restaurants in the micro-empire owned and operated by David Racine, Lee Goodfriend and Dixon Staples, but they're both good for their own reasons, not for the reasons I liked Racines. And sure, there were plenty of other bars around, plenty of other places to get a burger and a beer, but none that felt the way Racines did -- like everyone's own private Cheers, rummy regulars and sass-talking bartenders included.
But on May 10, Racines finally reopened in its own building at 650 Sherman Street. And it came out of the gate like it hadn't lost a step in eleven months. It helps that Racines holds on to employees like no other house in town -- keeping about 80 percent of its back-of-house staff, 30 percent of its servers and half its bar in the family during the hiatus so they could be plugged right back into their old gigs in the new space. And it also helps -- a lot -- that the new Racines was quickly packed with former regulars who'd been waiting to get back into their old routine.
"That was tough," says John Imbergamo, a restaurant consultant who works with the Racines triumvirate. "The people -- you just don't know if they're going to come back. After eleven months, you figure they probably found somewhere else to go. And maybe they became fond of that somewhere else, you know?" Still, you don't build a place that seats 270 if you don't have some idea that people are going to remember your name. You don't staff a floor to handle 270 seats through at least six turns without having some faith that you were missed while you were gone. And you don't build your own parking garage without believing you're going to need it.
And the new Racines needs it. "Breakfasts have been just okay," Imbergamo says. "But lunch and dinner? Balls to the wall." In its first week, Racines did numbers 35 to 40 percent greater than in the old days. Early in the week, it was running a fifteen-minute wait on the books at lunch that turned out to be closer to half an hour, and Wednesday dinner had a wait at 5:15 and was still on a wait at 9:15, four hours and three full turns of the dining room later.
That dining room is new, but it doesn't feel new. It's big, but it still feels small. The decor is eclectic in the way that your grandma's basement is -- full of mismatched colors and patterns, lampshades that look like burlap, smooth edges and non-threatening landscapes, a style that would've been hip in the '70s and has now come around to a retro cool, missing only a few macrame plant hangers to put it totally around the bend. And everything -- from the benches and fixtures rescued from the old spot to the new tables and big, new bar -- seems like it belongs here, like it evolved organically and grew in exactly the right spot.
Racines' menu is big and deep with burgers and burritos, steaks, salads and breakfasts served all day -- not exactly simple, but comforting because it's essentially the same as the old menu. To change anything would've pissed off someone who'd been eating that item every day for the last twenty years, and the one thing -- the one rule if there were any rules -- was to not piss off the regulars. Imbergamo says he asked the partners if there wasn't some loser on Racines' board, some dish that didn't sell well, something, anything, that could be dropped so that something new could be added. "And every time I came up with something to take off," he remembers, "someone would come back and say, ŒOh, but Arnie was here three times a week, and he loved the stuffed squirrel sandwich,' or something like that. Everything they had on the menu was someone's favorite."