Flaming saganaki at Greek Islands
Most of Chicago’s top-grossing restaurants are downtown expense-account magnets whose numbers have been on concierge speed dials for eons. At places like Gibsons ($20 million last year), Shaw’s ($13 million), and Harry Caray’s ($11.15 million), success is a given, as automatic as the flow of our river. But the fraternity of cash cows also includes two restaurants I forgot existed: Greek Islands in Greektown and Bob Chinn’s Crab House in Wheeling. Apparently no one else has forgotten. Last year, without the aid of big-ticket prices or much in the way of critical praise, the pair served a total of 984,506 meals and raked in $28.6 million in sales. Neither cares if you’re wearing shorts, a tuxedo, or a muumuu as long as your credit card hums through the scanner. A close look at how these unlikely money magnets operate reveals truths about what diners seek in a restaurant—and what those patrons are willing to overlook.
Greek Islands, which occupies the entire first floor of an eight-story building at Halsted and Adams streets, seems built for mass production. It’s right off the Kennedy Expressway and virtually the first thing you see in this destination neighborhood; the breezy name and logo tell you everything you need to know. Then there’s the free valet, a masterstroke that tips the scales for the undecided and puts diners in a giddy mood before they enter. No single dish could engender more customer allegiance than the promise of free parking.
But Greek Islands’ efficient valet operation is nothing compared with the unstoppable Opa! machine inside. My recent visits stuck to the following script: A host immediately greets and seats my party in one of four airy, fish-market-themed areas. Twenty seconds later a runner pours water; 25 seconds after that, sesame-seed-studded bread arrives. Before we even open the foil butter packets, our waiter wants to take appetizer and drink orders. We’re not ready; he vanishes. We stumble through a menu that’s the length of The Iliad and stacked with boilerplate items—saganaki, gyros, moussaka, retsina. The waiter reemerges. Still not ready. The runner tops off waters, of which we have taken sips. By the time the waiter materializes again, we’re like sophomores cramming for a final. We panic-order saganaki, gyros, moussaka, and retsina, which all arrive within minutes.
Somehow the staff pulls this off without appearing pushy; you find yourself applauding their reluctance to waste your time. The meal is fast and fun, and the restaurant maintains the impossible pace because the process has been streamlined within an inch of its life. Cold dishes are not prepared to order, nor do they make any pretense of being so. If you desire, say, the trinity of cold spread samplers, your waiter spoons taramosalata, melitzanosalata, and tirokafteri out of big chafing dishes at a prep station, and that plate is yours in 45 seconds. Pita costs extra. (No one seems to mind this arrangement, perhaps because the spreads are pretty good, particularly the spicy tirokafteri sporting big hunks of imported feta.) All the while, a huge staff cranks out dishes in three separate kitchens. With constant food shipments and 10,000 square feet of storage space—enough room to house three Alineas—this is one restaurant that won’t run out of food.
But is the food any good? Not much of mine was. My table and tablemates alike groaned from a hulking pile of spongy-weird gyros; a pallid, slippery Greek salad harboring a couple of lonely Kalamatas; and a block of moussaka with flavorless minced beef, stringy lamb, and bland tomato sauce. The galaktobouriko was a hardened mass of depressing orange-and-lemon-zest custard in a sadly unfresh phyllo. Only the oregano-tinged Greek sea bass, still flaky and approachable in a potent blend of olive oil and lemon, survived the critical carnage. The best I can say for the lemon-doused flaming saganaki is it’s only $5.75 and the pyrotechnics are free. That seems to be good enough for Greek Islands, which has nailed so many procedural details that it has no reason to master the most crucial one. Its website says this is “America’s Most Popular Greek Restaruant.” I suppose if you’re doing more than 1,000 covers a night, you can spell “restaurant” however you want.
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Bob Chinn’s entryway is a baffling maze of cordoned-off lines and Hawaiian-shirted employees with headsets, its business model more Great America than Greek Islands. As if to get people hooked at an early age, Chinn’s invites schools for tours and lunches, then gives students a coupon to bring in their families. A gift shop proffers everything from Bob Chinn’s checkbook covers to Bob Chinn’s purse hangers. Customers won’t find the men’s or women’s restroom, but rather the King Crabs or Queen Crabs room. Cute, but even after a 27-ounce mai tai, I question the wisdom of entering a bathroom with the word “crabs” on the door.
Regulars at this sprawling beer-hall luau embrace the cartoonish vibe and welcome the menu’s endless choices. Do you want your shrimp jumbo or scampi? With chili, garlic, tempura, or coconut? Once you choose from countless daily catches, do you want it steamed? Char-grilled? Blackened? Beer-batter fried? It all seems designed to brain-screw newbies like me, who inevitably surrender and let the server take over. Our relaxed waitress was more than happy to do so. She was also pleased to crack our crab legs and chat about Chinn, who is 87 and still hanging around in his blue fisherman’s jacket. I feel certain that she would have given me a clarified butter back rub had I asked.
But even the staff’s sunny hospitality could not overcome flaccid sautéed soft-shell crab, over-oily calamari, and a tasteless Nigerian prawn the size and texture of a banana. I couldn’t possibly badmouth the creamy clam chowder, however, and my Alaskan red king crab legs burst with fresh, smooth meat. The surf and turf featured a tender, charred eight-ounce strip steak and an expertly broiled eight-ounce lobster tail. But I wish I had not encountered Chinn’s Chinese dishes, particularly the gelatinous black-bean shrimp and the peculiar Cantonese scallops with ramen in an abysmal, gloppy meat sauce. These are to China what Macaroni Grill is to Italy.
The obvious question is: If the food is so mediocre, why has this place had such astonishing success over the past 28 years? Am I wrong? Are more than 1,000 people a night wrong?
Neither. Like Greek Islands, Chinn’s has pulled off a more impressive trick than simply serving food people want to eat. It has created an irresistible environment that transcends food altogether. How can you not admire a restaurant with smart details like Peapod delivery, a cheapo bar menu, and prepared box lunches to go? More than one customer I talked to mentioned they like the fact that meals arrive fast; they like the endless rolls swimming in garlicky butter while they wait. They like that their mai tai comes in a take-home tiki cup and if they drink eight of them—even if it takes eight years—they’ll win a jacket like Bob’s. Details such as these linger long after memories of an unnecessary caramel fudge pecan pie, its body denser than a Pacific reef, fade into nothingness.
BOB CHINN’S CRAB HOUSE
393 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling; 847-520-3633
FYI Chinn’s tweets its fresh fish of the day to 3,000-plus followers on Twitter.
TAB (without alcohol, tax, or tip) Lunch $25 to $30; dinner $40 to $45
HOURS Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily
200 S. Halsted St.; 312-782-9855
FYI An impressive array of private rooms can handle 35 to 200 people.
TAB (without alcohol, tax, or tip) Lunch $20 to $25; dinner $25 to $30
HOURS Lunch and dinner daily
Photograph: Anna Knott