What’s more Chicago than a salad with onion rings?
I know you’re thinking, “Deep dish pizza.” Or “a hot dog with relish and onions and mustard and all that other stuff Chicago dogs are supposed to come with.”
But that’s Cliche Chicago, the foodstuffs that once represented the city and, to some, still do. Even an idol of granite is worn away by excessive worship. Every time I hear a radio commercial for a bank trying to pander to the locals by invoking either deep dish pizza or Chicago dogs, those icons seem a little more dubious, inauthentic, corrupted.
Maybe you had to be where I am when looking at my salad: The Palace Grill on Madison, opened in 1938, with its chrome and red vinyl, its black and white checkerboard floor, yet true to its name as the residence of royalty. At least a particular kind of Chicago royalty: hockey players and cops, due to the proximity to the United Center, for the former, and for the latter, across the street from the Office of Emergency Management, plus various cop credit unions and training facilities nearby.
I’m the least coppish, most un-hockey-like person imaginable. But even I take on a certain swagger ambling into The Palace. Of course, the welcoming presence of George helps a lot — George Lemperis, the owner, whose cousins bought what was then a 19-stool Skid Row diner in 1955. George makes intense, almost feverish eye contact — really, it’s like he’s about to punch you in the face — then offer a firm handshake as if we were sealing a real estate transaction.
“I’m meeting so-and-so’s guy,” I drawl, naming a Chicago politician.
“I’ll give you a little privacy,” he replies, ushering me to a table in the corner. I kinda loved that — a small square room, no place is private. But here, this is our VIP corner, under the Denis Savard jersey.
I order coffee, while George carries on a loud conversation with … well, everybody.
“I don’t know if you guys know it, but the Cubs are playing today!” he shouts. “The Chicago Cubs … are playing … today! This lady, she says she’s going to see the White Sox play, and I said, ‘The only place you’re going to see the White Sox play is the golf course…'” Or words to that effect.
George slides into the chair across from me, asks about my kids — reminding me that the younger boy was, at one point, going to work back in his kitchen. Also very Chicago: we got history; you sorta owe me. I ask about his kids. Reciprocating. It’s all about connections. For that reason, even though new restaurants aren’t considered classic Chicago, they should be. Sunday night I ate at Stephanie Izard’s exquisite Girl & the Goat on West Randolph, and every single person who learned this — and I made sure lots did, trying out my new line, “I didn’t even know ducks have tongues…” — asked the same thing. Not about food. Not about service. But: how long did it take to get a reservation? Sussing out my spot in the pecking order. Prompting me to serenely pick an imaginary mote of dust out of the air, pretend to carefully examine it, and idly observe. “Not long. Couple a days. I know somebody…”
The guy I was meeting showed up and George hopped up.
The next day, I was curious to learn George’s take, so phoned him. Onion rings on a salad—whoever thought of that?
“We had a combination of four or five different people,” George began. Then the spin came to him — also very Chicago — and he changed course, improving. “My daughter Christina, yeah, she’s the one that does all the new stuff. Yup, the truth is, that’s her touch. I would never come up with that creativity. I cannot take credit for that.”
What’s Dad Daley’s line? “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons and help them, then what’s the world coming to?”
And daughters. I had half a mind to call back, interview Christina, catch her contradicting her dad on the onion ring issue. But that’s a lot of journalistic firepower to direct at The Palace Grill’s black & bleu salad, and part of being a Chicagoan is knowing when to push, when to ease back. I’d hate to say something to make me less welcome. It really is a very good salad.