It’s always a good sign when they give you the worst table,” said Jeff Ruby, Chicago’s newly anointed chief dining critic. He and I had just slogged our way through snow, ice, and wind to a respected River North restaurant, where the hostess had seated us at a tall platform with hard-backed chairs near the bar. From my perch, I could see into the cozy main dining room, with its soft, inviting banquettes. I’m sure there were vacancies. . . . But never mind. Ruby (who operates anonymously) was happy to suffer to get the common experience. “Let’s see what they’ve got,” he said.
This month (see Dining Out), Ruby takes over from Dennis Ray Wheaton, whose thoughtful criticism in these pages for more than 20 years helped put Chicago dining on the world map. If Wheaton (who will continue to contribute to the magazine) had an eclectic resumé for the job—Oklahoma roots, U. of C. Ph.D. in sociology—Ruby arrives by his own serendipitous route. After growing up in Wichita, he brought an M.A. in journalism from the University of Kansas to Chicago in 1997. On a whim, he applied to be the magazine’s dining assistant. Not because he loved food—“I came from a background where food was just fuel so I could go out and play baseball”—but because that was the only job open, and he liked to write. Since the dining editor, Penny Pollack, held to the rule that it’s easier to teach a writer about food than it is to teach a foodie about writing, she hired him.
For 13 years now, Chicago’s readers have appreciated Pollack’s dogma. Ruby is the award-winning author of our back page column, and he’s produced features about everything from Midwestern ballparks to a helicopter rescue team. Meanwhile, he’s learned about food. He has contributed countless reviews and features, and, with Pollack, he has co-written Dish, Chicago’s popular e-mail newsletter, and a book, Everybody Loves Pizza. Throughout his dining coverage, Ruby brings his writerly eye for detail, exploring not only the food but also the crowd, the décor, the ambiance, the style of a place. “You have to notice everything around you,” he says. “When you’re reviewing, you have to keep your head in it all the time.”
Sounds serious, but Ruby is hardly humorless. Take his reaction to lunch at that River North spot (out of charity, the restaurant will remain unnamed here). The skate wing was mushy and the porterhouse coated with a concoction so salty that both of us gulped water. After we’d trudged back to the office through the January weather, Ruby sent me an e-mail: “I feel like I wandered in a desert, not a snowstorm.”
Chicago’s diners are in for some fun.
Fashion means travel, and not just to the shows in New York, Paris, and Milan. Chicago’s fashion director, STACEY JONES, oversaw a photo shoot in the Dominican Republic for one of this month’s fashion features. “For spring, it’s important to show at least one location that gets people excited about spring and summer,” she says. The feature, Bounce & Float, shows sports-inspired—but definitely not sports-appropriate—couture. “We’re not advocating playing tennis in heels,” Jones says. Shoots like this are a thicket of logistics, with people, equipment, clothing, light, and timing to be coordinated. It’s exhausting, even on a trip to the Caribbean.
“I need a vacation,” Jones says.
For Belle of the Blog, LUCINDA HAHN (right) and the society blogger Candace Jordan (left) hit half a dozen events together. As they got to know each other, Hahn came to understand how Jordan’s personality propelled her from small-town Illinois to the fancy parties of Chicago. “She was so friendly and approachable and nice,” Hahn says. “You can see why she’s been so accepted.” Hahn left some evidence of her days of limos and Champagne: a few pictures on Jordan’s blog (“I was not prepared to be photographed”) and an unpublished one with two Adonises that Jordan called Hahn’s “future husbands.” (Oh, and one of the Adonises called Hahn for a date.)
Photography: (top) istockphoto.com, (Jones) Jack Perno, (Hahn) Erika Dufour