Light poured into the airy, cream-toned room, bathing a well-heeled crowd in a warm golden hue. The air smelled of lobster and privilege. Everyone was drinking wine, taking selfies, laughing. One table was full of women cocktailing their way through the early evening; another had a picture-perfect family with young twins plugged into their iPads over Caesar salads. With the sun reflecting off the terrace and the Chicago River glittering just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, it felt like a cruise ship.
Then there was us. My ragged family of five, untucked, irritable, awkward, craving hospitality but desperately afraid of it. As we shifted in our white leather seats to give ourselves some space at the round table, it hit me: This was the closest I’d ever come to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Roughly three hours after Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all restaurants in Illinois closed for dine-in service by the following day, I was slated to review RPM Seafood, the glitzy new spot from Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. At best, the timing was awkward. At worst, it was homicidal. We were — hell, we are — at the beginning of a storm in which each of us represents a potential funnel cloud capable of unimaginable damage. None of us had the slightest idea what the landscape would look like when this is over.
So, no, I did not want to go to RPM Seafood.
But I have a job. A suddenly absurd job. An unnecessary job. One that feels mean and petty when the world has bigger problems than whether I liked my lamb. But a job nonetheless. So I went.
My wife suggested we take our children. At the raw ages of 15, 13, and 7, they were already sick of us and each other, but more than happy to break the looming promise of house arrest. The drive downtown was ominous and desolate, with no traffic, no noise. Lots of empty businesses. A few souls wandered here and there, tentatively peering into windows. Just 24 hours earlier, I’d shaken my head in self-righteous judgment at the sloppy swarms of St. Paddy’s carousers staggering around River North without a care in the world. Now that my livelihood was at stake, I had done a convenient 180, justifying my decision in courageous humanitarian terms. (I’m supporting restaurants! How will they survive otherwise?) But Lettuce Entertain You is no scrappy underdog. Chicago’s oldest and most famous restaurant group had the resources to pour lots of money, to the tune of $50 million, into the massive four-floor riverfront complex, which also includes Pizzeria Portofino and the enormous private event space RPM Events. An old restaurant axiom says to never open in January, but how about just before a terrifying pandemic? RPM Seafood managed both. But this is Lettuce we’re talking about. The company will outlive us all in some form or another.
“Should we valet?” my wife asked when we pulled up to the entrance. “He needs to eat, too.” It seemed ironic — now that there’s finally available street parking in River North, this wasn’t the time to take advantage of it. At the host stand, we watched as a young couple tried to walk in with no reservations and was turned away. “We’re only allowed to be at 50 percent capacity,” the hostess said gently. Social distancing. The couple took squirts of Purell from the bottle on the host stand and wandered back out to Clark Street.
“Is this your first time dining at RPM Seafood?” our gracious waiter intoned.
Our first time? It’s our last chance. But our last chance for what? To dine out as a family? To feel normal for a few hours? For me to critique a restaurant in a city that has painstakingly built itself into a thriving dining destination?
“Yes,” we said.
He launched into his spiel about the two-month-old restaurant, but the more he described executive chef Bob Broskey’s menu, which included an old-school $180 seafood tower, a $165 dry-aged porterhouse, and a $74 swordfish, the further away his words felt. It all made perfect sense in January, but January was a million years ago. We ordered and tried to relax. Usually, the five of us talk over one another in that traditional family mix of reminiscing, cajoling, and kidding. Now conversation was stilted. To make reference to the virus felt gross. To focus on anything else felt callous. “Without sports, you and I have nothing to talk about,” my 13-year-old son said, pulling apart a fluffy loaf of multigrain Parker House rolls with his fingers. He wasn’t kidding.
Around the room, people were laughing too loud. Drinking too much. Some oohed and aahed at the grilled king crab with garlic butter like they had never seen crab before; others repeatedly thanked the servers for doing a good job. Anything to take our minds off the terrible truth. The courteous staff handled it beautifully, rolling with the weird vibe, hyperaware and ever present and doing everything they could to make us forget that anything unusual was happening. But inevitably, somewhere in the room, someone would cough, the dangerous clarion hack a reminder that this was no ordinary night out.
At some point, I accidentally sent my Dark ’n’ Stormy flying across the table, showering the white tablecloth and my 7-year-old with El Dorado rum and ginger beer. The kid, accustomed to being on the giving end of such transactions, was shocked but handled it well. So did a food runner and server, who brought napkins and towels and another drink even though I didn’t deserve one. A few minutes later, a woman at the next table, obviously on a date of some sort — as if that had a chance in hell — spilled a glass of white wine all over herself, and the runner did it all over again, with a smile.
What did we eat? Oh, we had the tuna carpaccio sprinkled with diced niçoise olives, which added a sharp edge, and a classic shrimp cocktail with specimens so large and plump they burst with the slightest pressure from your teeth. But the historic gravity of the moment could not stop the New York strip from being overcharred, or the coal-roasted lobster from coming out a soupy disappointment annihilated in a lime-soy glaze. Pastry chef Andrea Coté’s hazelnut praline, bolstered with salted caramel and encased in a thin shell of chocolate perfected with the kitchen’s chocolate-tempering machine, is an instant classic. Sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy: If it’s my last restaurant dessert for a while, I’m a lucky man.
As we filed out of RPM Seafood, I had so many questions. They were not about, say, the thought process behind the peekytoe crab de Jonghe, but more along the lines of: Who in the sleek dining room already had the virus? Who, in the coming months, would lose their job and their benefits? That bartender? That runner? Me? How many of us would get sick? How could the mighty hospitality industry — a $1 trillion segment of the American economy, the lifeblood of 16 million people, and the focal point of so many more — be built on such a flimsy foundation that it could all be gone in a matter of weeks?
On my way out, I asked the manager, a young man in a tailored suit, about the restaurant’s future. He told me that RPM Seafood would not be able to switch to takeout — it was so new it had not yet hooked up with delivery vendors — but that RPM Italian and RPM Steak would be providing carryout and delivery. I wanted to ask what would happen to the restaurant’s staff — let alone Lettuce’s 5,000-plus employees. Instead, I said good night.
In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about that food runner, working his ass off, cleaning up strangers’ messes without complaint. What kind of safety net did he have? I read later that the company had reserved $1 million to aid affected employees; this may not sound like much for a company of that size, but it’s a start. Around Chicago, restaurants quickly started adjusting and finding creative ways to survive — some offered curbside pickup or delivery, while others launched GoFundMe campaigns and virtual tip jars. Still others, like HaiSous in Pilsen, shifted into mitzvah mode, giving away food to neighbors and industry folks before the inventory goes bad. Maybe, just maybe, the industry comes out the other side with a new, long overdue empathy for the chefs, servers, and other workers who don’t have access to the same safety net that so many of the rest of us do. I called Christine Cikowski, partner at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale and long a strong voice about ways the restaurant industry can improve. In the future, she expects, “we will all be doubling our advocating efforts for programs, policies, and systems that support our workers” — a sentiment that gives me hope.
When things seemed bleak after 9/11, Chicago chefs and restaurateurs dug themselves out. Streamlined. Reinvented. During the recession in 2008, they did it again. Restaurant people are survivors; they have to be. But whether you’re talking about a giant like RPM Seafood or a modest storefront joint that’s been in a family for years, it will take more than grit and heart — or a federal government bailout — to figure this one out. The threat of the new coronavirus is far more dire and widereaching, and this time we all have to get through it without two crucial comforts we usually fall back on in times of crisis: personal contact and sharing meals.
In my 23 years of writing about restaurants, plenty of dinners remain etched in my head for reasons that have little to do with just the food on the plate. Chez Joël on Taylor Street, where I had my first date with my future wife and knew she was special by the way she cut into her bloody steak frites. La Chaparrita in Little Village, where I watched my small kids huddle around a tiny table and eat the first great tacos of their lives. Japonais on Chicago Avenue, where I spotted Michael Jordan, left unbothered by other diners for the first time since 1982, and shook his alarmingly large hand. My evening at RPM Seafood, I suspect, I will remember for a long time as a moment that represented what was, and what could be.