If I was to distill my approach to life, it might go something like: maximum effort, maximum variety of activities, for as long as can be sustained. I like what I like; I like doing it well; and I mope when the pace slows down and I find myself twiddling my thumbs. I feel guilty: shouldn't I be doing something more?
As you can imagine, exhaustion is never far away for me.
When reason kicks in, and I remember to take better care of myself, I try to find the easier way of doing things, or at least a method that won't awaken my inner conniptions.
When I have a 6 p.m. class in Chicago, for example, I make the drive into the city no later than 3:30 p.m. and find a nice restaurant or someplace to hole up in to wait out the time lag. Leaving that extra bit early spares me the crush of traffic that hits the road between 3:30 and 4.
I take a similar approach to eating out. When it was just my wife and I, sure, we could slink into some smoky eatery and bide our time or belly up to the bar until a table opened up. But with an infant along, it helps to plan ahead. And really, if we can eat with no wait, and optimum service, at 3 p.m. on a Saturday (or 5 p.m. on a Friday; or like anytime on a Tuesday...), isn't that worth easing the forehead crease a while?
In the bland suburbs of Chicago, particularly our bland suburb, my wife and I have our own favorites when it comes to restaurants, places that get us away from the chains, or if they're chains, at least satisfy a particular craving. We love our Irish pub; deep-dish pizza the odd Sunday after church (with the game on above the bar, and a tall mug of PBR for me, which I don't drink anywhere else); and on special occasions, Spanish tapas to lighten the wallet and color our cheeks with their special amontillado.
Lately, though, with the opening of a major shopping/eating/entertainment development just down the road in our 'burb, we've been hitting up a particularly satisfying high-end chain. It's a hot ticket, with tasty dishes and hand-crafted beers, and the times we've gone I've usually pulled my off-hours trick to get us seated right away and utterly blissed out at the treatment we get.
Until a few Saturdays ago. A friend of mine from Pittsburgh was in town, and headed out our way, though we weren't quite sure when. Not her fault, AT ALL -- mostly a function of frenetic weekend pace and winter snowstorm and that ever-present traffic -- but by the time she rolled in, we were head-on with the Saturday night restaurant crush. What the heck, I said. Let's do "Gordon's" place, anyway. Out here in the wastes of Cul-de-sac Land, to settle for Bennigan's, or T.G.I. Pukedays or the like, when she'd just come from Chicago, would have been pretty disappointing, I figured.
So we loaded up the car with my wife and I, my friend and her Chicago friend, and the baby, of course. We made it through the blowing snow to Gordon's, and I braced myself as we approached the hostess stand -- there was the expected crowd of bench-dwellers and pager-fondlers, like us all eager for a table. And the wait was announced as 30 to 45 minutes. "C'mon," I grumbled, "let's try another place." There are, after all, at least a dozen or so in this new development to choose from, and one across the way -- "Ted's" -- we'd never tried but heard good things about. They'd also opened a chain in the suburb we used to call home, right down the street from our beloved pub. So we headed out and bent into the wind, stomachs chirping.
As you trudge with us through the slush, let me list the ways that Gordon's had bowled us over up to that point. First, I'm a sucker for microbrews, especially when there's variety, which Gordon's has in abundance. Maybe I've been a product of Chicago too long now, but I even don't mind paying a premium for them, like the $9 LITER of Oktoberfest I guzzled this fall with my sausage, mashed potatoes and kraut/spatzel plate. JA! Gordon's food runs the gamut from hearty pub fare to steak and seafood house cuisine, done in tasty combinations and you can substitute ANYTHING, ANY TIME, no upcharge or ridiculous pouty looks from the server. The dining room is spacious, and tastefully decorated, and baby-friendly. And the servers have always been cheerful, helpful -- and you stick with the same one throughout the meal. None of this "we're-all-a-team-in-the-name-of-anarchy" crap, like something out of a recent ER episode. All in all, you feel you're getting more than you pay for, and this is why we love it. Also, we'd been pretty spoiled our first few visits, granted. We'd been seated right away every time.
Still, knowing what I know now, I would trade the predicted 30- to 45-minute wait at Gordon's that night with what we learned about Ted's. We won't be going back. But I'm happy to ward you off from making even an initial visit.
As you might expect, the crowd was as thick at Ted’s as Gordon’s. This is, after all, Saturday night in Chicagoland, and if you have an idea for entertainment, chances are a few thousand other people do, too. We were told the same wait time: about 30 to 45 minutes. When they asked for the number in our party, I told them what I always tell the host staff: four adults, plus a baby. Implying that instead of the automatic “5” they’d brand us with, we could do a table for four with the baby pulled up to the side. But they began explaining to me why this could not be the case, how we couldn’t have a table for four, since we were five, etc. etc. This isn’t an issue in places like Gordon’s, or other restaurants that prepare for fluctuating numbers of parties, since they have a certain planned versatility in their dining area. For instance, Gordon’s is outfitted with several tables for four and two in the main dining area that can be reconfigured – read: pushed around and arranged with each other – to accommodate basically any size party, and right away. Ted’s, stupidly, is not. They’ve populated the dining room with a bunch of round tables for huge parties juxtaposed with tables for two and four jammed against the wall. During the course of our wait, we saw many tables for four open up, but were told we couldn’t sit there because we were five. The wall tables were out, we were told, because we’d be putting a member of our party, or the baby, in the aisle, which was against fire code. OK… the baby is still little enough to sit on our laps or between us on one side of the table, but Ted’s wasn’t budging. The manager himself came out a few times to keep me updated on the seating and to reiterate this point. Wow… didn’t go to eat for an education in the restaurant business or fire codes, just came to eat.
When we did get seated, after spending longer than the promised time at the bar (with my son taking up one of the seats… hmmmm), where the service was zombie-caliber, we sat for a long while and endured the setting of our table and the distribution of menus by two different members of the wait staff before somebody thought to take our drink and/or appetizer order. We were very interested in appetizers, and drinks, in fact since ours were empty and the baby was getting pretty squirmy hungry at this point. Ted’s is done in a western theme – didn’t mention that until now – and so part of its rustic “charm” is that you get these cucumber-type complimentary appetizers and there’s buffalo on the menu. Well, buffalo, after ample experience, I can do without, but the appetizers interested me. We were to find out, soon enough, that maybe it’s Ted’s “charm” or just an oversight of the wait staff, but the way we ate our appetizers that night was straight off the table cloth, I mean butcher paper serving as a table cloth. Nobody from Ted’s seemed to notice. Weird.
The food was less than stellar. Much. So much so that anything we brought home we basically just tossed. I can’t remember what I ordered… ooh, it’s coming back to me… beer can chicken. I’ve had better in my own backyard, which is maybe usually the case, but I have certain expectations for restaurants. You’re putting your money behind them, obviously.
There was one more surprise at Ted’s, and perhaps it had to do with the rustic “charm” of the place, but it smacks of poor, poor planning to me. The restroom stalls were outfitted with baskets of extra toilet paper, placed above the commode like you’re spending winter break at your UNCLE Ted’s, and this would be OK, if unsanitary, I guess, except for the way patrons dealt with the bottomless basket of t.p. rolls was the same way you do at your uncle’s (I’m assuming here): the fresh roll was propped atop a spent cardboard center still in the dispenser, while a half-dozen or more spent centers littered the floor. C’mon over to Uncle Ted’s! Yeeeeeee-haw!
I think describing our three-hour visit to Uncle Ted’s (that’s right… yee-haw) as “debacle” would be a little much. It doesn’t rank up there with the worst of our bad eating experiences, some at places we like that were just having an off night. But I figure my experience at Ted’s was typical of what it has to offer. And I’m too experienced – old…? – to waste my time going through it again. So we’re one and done there. And looking forward to our next trip to the ultra-mega-super-duper-urban-eating-shopping-entertainment complex. Whenever that might be, we’re dining at Gordon’s, no matter the wait.