Just work today. Then I drove back to Chicago. I have a hotel, tonight, near O’Hare, one I’ve stayed at before. Tomorrow I have a late afternoon flight and hope to get up and out early, go downtown and explore a city the way I like to; on foot, taking pictures and covering plenty of ground.
I found a really cool, old school Continental steak house right around the corner from my hotel. Café la Cave. It so reminded me of a place my parents would’ve loved back in the 1970’s. It was classy, dimly lit and was decorated to look like a cave inside. There was blue lighting around the bar area and the bar was crowded with martini emboldened folks who were all fabulously middle aged, fabulously dressed and all seemed to know one another. One man spoke loud enough for everyone in the adjacent dining room to hear, as I gather it, he’s on the PGA tour. The tables were all appointed with not one, but two white linen tablecloths and there was more silverware on my table than diners in the dining room and patrons in the bar. It’s at moments like these that I’m grateful my mom taught me etiquette and what all the different knives, forks and spoons are for.
My parents were a bit older than most of my friends’ parents. They both had previous marriages and divorces and found each other a bit later on in life. Funny how some patterns repeat. I was sort of a last chance baby, and that’s why there’s only one of me. We didn’t ski or boat or camp, we didn’t golf or play tennis or belong to a country club. My family dined out. I ate escargots at the age of eight, and loved them. I’ve had a passion for food, fine dining and dining adventures since childhood. My father was French, and so we usually ate French or Continental cuisine. One of our favorite restaurants, now long gone, was in San Rafael, California, in Marin County, La Petite Auberge. We referred to it as “La Petite”, for short. On weekends, there was a strolling accordionist and the roof opened up to the stars. Around the dining room, inside, grew wisteria. The ambience was dark with golden, flickering candles at each little table. The tables were close together, but still seemed so private and intimate. We often met friends or extended family there and we’d gather in the bar until all were accounted for, then we’d be seated. The bartender, the maître d’, and the waiters all knew us and greeted us whenever we arrived, sort of like “Cheers” and Norm, but in French. I remember them all well, I always thought they looked sort of like my father; darker complexion, dark eyes, dark hair, and like they enjoyed their food and their drink a wee bit more than they should.
La Petite Auberge served all the classic French fare; sweetbreads, liver and onions, calves brains, and of course, steaks and chops. I always liked the lamb chops and to this day won’t usually pass up lamb chops on a menu. They made a Caesar salad, table side that I remember fondly. Why is it so thrilling to have food prepared table side? I guess because it’s all sort of a spectacle, even if everyone else is having their food prepared table side.
I was in Cincinnati with a group of folks from work a year or so ago. We went to a Eddie Merlot’s, a fantastic steak house together. After a rich and filling dinner we perused the dessert menu and found three different desserts that were prepared table side and set ablaze. We ordered one of each, to share around the table. Out rolled three carts, three waiters and there were three flaming desserts, table side, at once. Best thing ever!
Tonight, having read the menu on my Open Table app before making my reservation, I decided to have the Steak Diane, prepared table side, drowned with cognac and set ablaze. It was fantastic! I had the green salad before the entrée and the seasonal vegetables as an accompaniment. I skipped the wine, because of my “daily budget” for my company expense report, and because I have a couple of partial bottles I need to kill back at my hotel. I’ve packed home open bottles of wine in my luggage before, but always feel extremely lucky when the bottle and my clothes all arrived home in their desired form. I’m out of 2-gallon Ziploc bags, anyway. I also elected to skip dessert, though I did enjoy reading the menu. I have some exquisite chocolate back at the hotel to go with my wine.
It’s because of these fabulous, unique, independent, local restaurants that I abhor large, corporate, conglomerate dining venues. You walk into an Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill, Cheesecake Factory or Bucca di Beppo in any city and the menu has all the same unoriginal, routine offerings. You can totally forget what city you’re even in. When I experience a city, I want to experience the local dining scene, even if it’s Formica tables and paper napkins, it is a part of the community, part of the town’s atmosphere, and it is someone’s passion and dream to prepare food for others. Tonight’s local restaurant was a gem and totally worth driving past fourteen chain restaurants to find. So, my Friday night is off to a good start, and so, too, is my weekend.