There's something about coming across a newly vacated restaurant that feels like a gut punch.
Businesses close all the time in sometimes startling, often melancholy-inducing ways. (Dominick's RIP.)
But you shop in stores. You live in restaurants.
When you peer into the window of a place where you shared many meals only to find that the tables have been cleared out, the chairs stacked in a corner and the whole place dismantled like some old movie set, you may feel like a little part of you has died. A successful restaurant feels like a living, breathing organism, after all, so when the chatter of customers and clatter of dishes have become mere echoes, the silence can be haunting.
This week's big restaurant story is that Hot Doug's, the wildly popular, innovative encased-meats shop in the Northwest Side's Avondale neighborhood, will be closing Oct. 3, as per owner Doug Sohn's announcement Tuesday. The news was greeted with an outpouring of social-media grieving well beyond what anyone might reasonably expect of a corner storefront that serves hot dogs and gourmet sausages.
That's because restaurants transcend their menus; with Hot Doug's you remember the food you ate but also the experience: standing in a line that likely snaked around the corner no matter the weather, being greeted by the cheerful, chatty owner at the counter and enjoying the place's kitsch-meets-the-Clash ambience.
Sohn didn't stay open past 4 p.m. or on Sundays because he wanted to work when he wanted to work. The notion that he would close Hot Doug's rather than let someone else take it over befits his stubborn streak. Hot Doug's might succeed without Sohn — and you know other businesses will try to fill this vacuum — but it wouldn't be the same, just as Charlie Trotter's might have continued as a restaurant in some form had its late owner decided to pass the torch.
Sohn's decision stands in contrast to what Eddie Lakin has done with Edzo's Burger Shop. Lakin had been following the Hot Doug's model for his bustling, acclaimed Evanston storefront — lunch-only hours, high quality ingredients, Lakin personally taking every order— but in late 2012 he opened a Lincoln Park location, and earlier this year he extended into dinner hours, so he had to hire some managers to be where he couldn't.
At the upper end of the culinary totem pole, Alinea chef Grant Achatz made a similar decision when he and partner Nick Kokonas empowered more chefs in order to open Next and the Aviary in 2011. Neither Edzo's nor Achatz's restaurants could be mistaken for chains — and I don't think anyone would complain that what made them special has been lost — but as my colleague Chris Jones says, when a business is that successful, you must "go big or go home."
In the wake of the Hot Doug's announcement, I asked my Facebook circle: "What was your biggest bummer restaurant closing?" What followed was a dam burst of lovingly recalled meals at dozens of lost destinations.
The Blackhawk ("spinning salad; roast beef carved table side"), the Star Top Cafe ("the birth of grunge fine dining"), D.B. Kaplan's, Fritz That's It!, Belden Deli, The Branding Iron, Demon Dogs, Zephyr, Myron & Phil's, Dixie Q, Sandy's, St. Andrew's Inn ("heartbreaker"), the Helmand, Bistro 110, Heidelberger Fass, Biasetti's, Crawdaddy Bayou, VTK ("I still dream about the Citrus Curry and the Panang Curry Chicken over wide crispy noodles!"), Gladys’ Luncheonette (“The takeout beef stew, in those compartment tinfoil containers – meat, potatoes, collard greens and cornbread – was heaven to me and my wife when our children were newborns”), LuLu's, Sam & Hy's, Ina's … from the long-gone to the recently closed, the list went on and on.
And although the occasional upscale eatery got a shout-out (Gordon), most of the dearly departed were places you'd be inclined to visit frequently, to incorporate into the fabric of your life. Tribune veterans still mourn the loss of the Cambridge House at Ohio and St. Clair streets, which food-wise was no great shakes but as an informal gathering place for lively lunches among friends and colleagues was without peer. ("Good food, but the company was out of this world," wrote one.) The OfficeMax that now sits on that corner will never inspire such affection.
My mind rewound to meals of my youth, such as the bottomless spaghetti servings of Fanny's in Evanston or my first-ever smelts and salad bar at Mr. Ricky's in Skokie or my introduction to ribs at Mary's Cupboard in Winnetka or the paper-thin pizza crust of the Welcome Inn on North Western Avenue. I can still taste them all.
And I remain fascinated by how restaurants, when they work, inspire customers to take ownership of them. I always feel at home at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House on Green Bay Road in Wilmette and Lou Mitchell's on West Jackson Boulevard, and I'd be devastated if I could no longer get breakfast at either of those places. Over the years I've had so many laughter-filled, tasty meals at P.S. Bangkok in Wrigleyville that I'm constantly wishing that more people would discover it to ensure its future.
When your favorite shop closes, you may retain a keepsake from it, reminding yourself that you bought it at that place that no longer exists. But when a restaurant disappears, all that's left is the memory of those long-ago meals.
Which just so happens to be awfully powerful.
Which restaurant closings have hit you the hardest? Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org