Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Life, death, and food courts

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 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.

1 comment:

  1. I enoyed this post.
    Rich Melman probably figures that now that he's made his first 500 million dollars he can take the next 10 years off. Truth is, at one time these were the first and some of the only restaurants that you could get reliably good meals at (and that your parents hadn't already taken you to when you were 11 and went downtown to see a movie in Cinerama)in Chicago. Perhaps if he were here he would say that now that his mission to improve the food in Chicago is done, (we are now at last a restaurant town!) it seems his corporate focus is more on improving the image of the "American chain restaurant". Chicago's loss has been the rest of the country's gain, I would imagine.