Cafe Society


With every meal we eat, we betray ourselves. Our politics and our personal history, our deepest longings, our most private loves and hates — all of this is laid bare every time we open our mouths and shove something in.

Think about it. What beer do you drink when the choice is yours alone, and why? What's in your refrigerator right now? What food do you turn to when you're in need of the kind of comfort that cannot come from another human being; when, in defiance of Thomas Wolfe, you go home again and quail in the face of onrushing memory? And what do you look for, right away, on your first night in an unfamiliar town?

I drink Corona, Harp when it's available (which is never often enough). My last name notwithstanding, I've never been a fan of the Guinness; it's too thick, too heavy, too much like a meal in itself. I like cheap piss-water lagers and pilsners, ice-cold, and prefer the glass bottle to the imperial pint, and both of the above to the can. My father, born and raised in Rochester, was a Genny Cream Ale man, and the first beer I ever drank was one of his, filched from the fridge, drunk down fast and promptly thrown back up again into my mother's azalea bushes in front of the house. That was the last GCA I put to my lips for more than a decade. After having a similar experience with a bottle of Southern Comfort at the tender age of way-too-young, I have never again tasted a drop of that vile, cough-syrup-tasting stuff.

My refrigerator is always full of milk because, when I was growing up, we never seemed to have enough milk around. And the milk that's in my fridge is all organic, all hormone- and antibiotic-free, because it just tastes better and I am willing to pay the difference for the good stuff. At last count, Laura and I also had 23 different boxes of breakfast cereal lined up on the counter — most of it complete junk, most of it tooth-rottingly sweet and full of additives, chemicals, preservatives, what-have-you. My comfort foods are Laura's meatloaf, white-trash chicken crusted with Ritz crackers and butter, sushi, Southern barbecue, breakfast burritos and Entenmann's chocolate fudge cake that, if you leave it cut and sitting for more than a day, will literally bleed palm oil. "Pizza" means only one thing in my world: a New York thin with cheese and pepperoni. The only soft pretzels I will eat are the ones we fly back with from Philadelphia, where Laura's from. And when I go home, the only places where I really want to eat are a little bagel place in Irondequoit Plaza that makes the best bagel dogs in the world and where I got my heart broken once; Gitsis, on Monroe Avenue, where Laura and I met on the morning she arrived in town to move in with me and where I once nearly took a bullet during a fight; and Schaller's, where I spent many strange evenings during my formative years and which serves a hot sauce with its cheeseburgers that I sometimes still dream about the way a recovering alcoholic dreams of the bottle.

Like Brillat-Savarin said, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." Not who you are; that's complicated. But what: an easterner or westerner, liberal or conservative, brave or cowardly in your appetites, a child of class and privilege or (like me) a no-account punk who got one lucky break and has been milking it ever since.

A no-account punk who could never be happy in Chicago. Tokyo, sure. Mexico City, absolutely. And there are days — bad ones — when I still fantasize about collapsing back into my Rust Belt youth, getting a shitty apartment in the Flower City, a bag of bagel dogs, a stool at the closest Mick bar and a girlfriend who works the pole part-time down at the Klassy Cat. But Chicago? No way. The food would kill me. I would either explode or wither and die.

I know this because after getting a "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" letter from Biker Jim (read it in my "From the Gut" blog), I was inspired to check out Chicago, the joint opened a decade back by Luanne and Joe Margotte — uprooted Chicagoans who, after coming west, realized they couldn't live without the particular and highly specific charms of Second City cuisine, and so opened a restaurant based completely on the idea of transplanting a few hundred square feet of Chicago in the fertile soil of West Colfax Avenue.

At Chicago, the game on the radio is the Cubs or the Bears. At the counter is a stash of Fannie May candies under glass, boxes of jelly stars, boxes of Salerno butter cookies, signs for Gonnella bread (as vital to Chicago eaters as Amoroso rolls are to Philadelphians or Entenmann's cakes are to me), Jay's potato chips, Vienna Beef hot dogs. The place is less a restaurant than a cramped, cluttered, plastic-wrapped museum of Chicago paraphernalia that just happens to have a really killer snack bar attached. You can eat here, sure. But the real feast for Windy City expats (who, if the guestbook is to be believed, make up the vast majority of the Margottes' customer base) is one of the eyes and ears and chilly memories.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan