It's so easy to take for granted—and I have many, many times—the marvelous transaction that occurs at a restaurant. One presents money, and in exchange, someone prepares food to order and serves it to us for our enjoyment.
The best of these restaurants are often family-owned and operated by people who devote an extraordinary amount of time to keep their businesses humming and their clients full and happy.
Signature restaurants that stand the test of time become well-known friends in a community. They’re woven into the daily lives and long-standing memories of the inhabitants. It’s no wonder that when people reminisce, they often consider the eateries where they’ve dined for special events or enjoyed a daily ritual. They enter these establishments hungrily and leave with bellies full and hearts content.
I too treasure happy memories of dining with family and friends at restaurants, and enjoy a special connection to some of those in Chicago—a city we visit often. It was a special thrill, therefore, to talk with author Greg Borzo this week about his new book “Lost Restaurants of Chicago” and sample some of the many stories of restaurants and people who throughout time served the citizens of the Windy City.
A TASTY GLIMPSE OF HISTORY
Hunker down and listen in as Greg takes us on a whirlwind tour of some of the anecdotes from the book, from fantastical eateries with unusual themes (think robots) to the ethnic influences of the city’s many immigrants—and other infusions that might surprise you.
As details unfold of these restaurants of the past, the food was one thing—and sometimes the ambiance was another. Many ideas were clever, others strange, and all provided memorable experiences for diners. Those restaurants that lasted longer, however, were most often known for the good food they served.
When it came to talking memorable meals, Greg and his family love to entertain guests by introducing them to dining experiences in Chicago. He relates a favorite spot that was at once intriguing—belly up for all you can eat desserts—and just outright funny. You’ll have to listen to the interview for the details.
Lost Restaurants is a beautiful book filled with stories offering an entertaining glimpse into the Windy City of the past and the people of those times. Step back further, and Lost Restaurants offers a perspective on the story-arch of the American restaurant evolution as well. There were quirky trends (think revolving restaurants) and solidly American-style trends (think steakhouses) that provide a window into how we ate decades ago and through the generations.
Chicago never tires of making waves in the industry, either. Greg explains how non-smoking dining may have first become popular in Chi-town, and the now extremely-popular Farm to Table movement burgeoned there as well.
All of these stories speak to the entrepreneurial spirit, too. So many ideas, so many culinary dreams pursued, and all the people who kept and keep trying. The stats are daunting in this industry. Only half of the restaurants opened survive their first year. And life in food and beverage is fraught with long hours and low-profit margins. Those facts serve to make all these stories even more amazing. Does it speak to the human spirit or to culinary madness?
HAPPY CHICAGO EXPERIENCES
I offer the caveat here that I’m especially proud to mention that Greg is my brother-in-law. We’ve been guests often in his home and dined together in their beloved city on many occasions.
My first Chicago experiences came about when I traveled with my future husband, David. It was our first trip together, and where I ate my first meal in Greek Town (South Halstead Street) in Chicago at the popular and eternal restaurant Dianna’s Opaa.
Our Borzo group sat together at a big table, where the bread kept coming and wine kept flowing. I ate my first plate of grape leaves and enjoyed my first Saganaki that evening and became thoroughly Borzo star-struck. It was then that I fell in love with the familial experience of good food and fast-paced conversations—all of this compliments of older brother Paul, who would usually pick up the check.
Sadly, Dianna’s and the once popular Greek Town area in Chicago are only memories, but like so many of the restaurants and stories Greg relates in his book Lost Restaurants of Chicago, they stay alive with the patrons who dined in them.
Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
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