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Back Room

Penny Pollack

Chicago’s retiring dining editor, 70, on DIY trends, anonymity, and Italian beef

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I get really excited when a restaurant opens. I still do.

All these new restaurant models where it’s DIY and you can create your own stir-fry or sandwich or burrito—I don’t get it. To me, the benefit is to the businesspeople behind it. It’s one step away from the salad bar at the grocery store.

I was at a new restaurant in River North. I asked for a Cosmo, and the waitress proceeded to ask me what kind of vodka, did I want ice in it, and if I did, did I want it crushed or cubed, what shape glass did I want. At which point I touched her—she had a little name tag—and said, “Flo, if I wanted to make the cocktail myself, I would’ve stayed home. Just ask the bartender to make his best Cosmo.” I’m there for their expertise.

A lot of people don’t want to complain in restaurants, and I don’t know why. Isn’t it a consumer situation? If you bought a shirt at Nordstrom and it was defective, wouldn’t you take it right back?

I have hard-copy files that go back 30 years—all typewritten cards that contain the running history and changes of each restaurant. The envy of all. All that info had to be transferred to a database program. Thank God for interns.

Rich Melman made a big difference in the way we dine. He made theme restaurants. He brought tapas to Chicago. He brought risotto to Chicago. He’d bring in the good food of all the places he would visit, and he’d erect a set around it. You felt like you were walking into an Italian village.

For a long time I worked at staying anonymous. At one point I had, like, four credit cards under different names. In the end, when I shed the mask, I realized how stressful it had been. But I still don’t use my own name to make a reservation.

When I was in my 50s, I went to the School for New Learning at DePaul and took one or two classes at a time at night for five years. I got my bachelor’s when I was 60.

I can get pretty passionate about an Italian beef sandwich. It has to be double-dipped. I do not like the giardiniera, but I like the green peppers. Last year, to celebrate our 40th anniversary, my husband and I stopped at Al’s on Taylor Street and picked up two Italian beefs, with an order of fries. Perfect.

People frequently say, “I want to go someplace new.” But they don’t want to go someplace new.

My mother was a good cook, and I love cooking. The way to make a good dinner is to always have one thing that’s special. Even if it’s a hodgepodge salad of leftovers, I’ll slice up a nice ripe avocado and take a minute to mix my mother’s Thousand Island dressing. Something on your table should shine.

I’m a sucker for gadgets, but there’s nothing you need beyond a paring knife, a cutting board, a fork, and a spatula.

People do not give enough respect to the chicken dish on the menu. Chicken is the hardest thing to do right. It dries out really fast, so the timing in the kitchen has to be razor sharp. If you’re serving braised short ribs, those can keep braising and they’re just gonna get better. If you’re serving chicken, you have to take it out 30 to 60 seconds before it’s done.

If I had to pick a last meal, it would be the hamburger at R.J. Grunts. I ask for it rare. It’s thick and juicy to the very last bite.

Do not put pickles or piccalilli anywhere near anything I’m going to eat.

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