I had a weak moment the other day and went to a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant. I've always felt that Lettuce Entertain You has singlehandedly made Chicago a B+ restaurant town by marginalizing the dining experience with cutesy tongue-in-cheek themes and even cuter names (Lawrence of Oregano and Johnathan Livingston Seafood tie for Most Heinous).
Shouldn't the theme of a restaurant be good food? I know that sounds completely crazy, but why not? A small neighborhood restaurant where the chef reports to no one, least of all a board of directors, might actually do well. I know we'd be giving up waitresses disguised as wiseass bobby soxers and menus rife with clever lines from the clever in-house ad agency, but it just might work.
We ended up going to Foodlife which, at its inception a dozen or so years ago, was an interesting idea that took on traditional food courts. It offered a multitude of stations, each with a different type of food. Mexican, Italian, BBQ, two types of Asian.....it was pretty much all there, along with the requisite salad and dessert stations. Foodlife promised to be a United Nations kind of food experience, even if it was dumbed down by corporate culture.
In the beginning, the food was well-prepared. The vegetables were colorful, the meat was fresh, and sometimes, the choices were even a little inspired. But last week, sad, pathetic salmon filets sat in pools of cloudy oil and old pasta curled at the edges waiting to be sauced and plated. I was witnessing the slow death of Foodlife.
It's not as if I feel any outrage. I mean, when was the last time you ate at a Lettuce restaurant that wasn't completely rote? Caesar or bibb lettuce salad to start, plainly prepared meat and a small selection of predictable vegetables for the main, and Boston cream pie for dessert. It's like eating at an expensive nursing home for well-to-do Gold Coasters.
I must confess there was another reason I ate there: I found an eight year-old $100 Lettuce Entertain You gift card in a drawer and it was still valid. I now have $53 left on the card. That's enough for two lobster rolls and two diet cokes at Shaw's, the semi-precious jewel in the LEYE crown. It's no Pearl Oyster Bar, but it'll do.