These Broken Wings

Like Brian Wilson, Blackbird wasn’t made for these times.

If you had said, hey, build me the best possible restaurant layout for transmitting an airborne virus without a vaccine, well, you couldn’t do much better (except maybe with their sister restaurant next door, Avec, where you might be asked to get up in the middle of biting in to your chorizo-stuffed dates so someone could go to the bathroom or shove in to the spot next to you at your communal table).

And so, Blackbird restaurant, as announced yesterday, is now closed for good.

The tables at Blackbird, were so close, that if you sat wrong, you might be accused of committing battery. I remember once getting up and shimmying between tables, worrying that my ass was going to land in a bowl of my neighbor’s corn soup. One night, I saw a lady stick her fork in another table’s panisse. She may have asked for permission. I don’t know. But, I do know both of the tables were seated separately. I don’t think these were friends experimenting with shareable plates before that was an actual thing. The tables were THISCLOSE.

But, that was Blackbird. The closeness wasn’t as much claustrophobic as it was communally soul-lifting. Blackbird was a blazing modernist box, white and gauzy like a conception of heaven or a photographer’s light box, loud with music and conversation, serving a local and sustainable menu where previously, local and sustainable meant deep dish pizza topped with Anicini Brothers bulk fennel sausage.

Before IDGAF culture became a restaurant institution, and before whatever David Chang was doing, Donnie Madia, Rick Diarmit, Eduard Seitan and Paul Kahan, pioneered it at Blackbird. If you had any doubts about that, before One Off Hospitality, all you need to know is that their original restaurant group was called 4K, as in “Four Knuckleheads”. Blackbird was this generation of Chicago’s chefs’ version of Marco Pierre White’s White Heat.

When I moved to Chicago, I was just at the beginning of my food journey. I’d spent two years after college living in Cleveland, my mind blown by Michael Symon’s beef cheek pierogi and rosemary and goat cheese “mac and cheese” at the original Lola. When I moved here, I was looking for more guys like Symon, chefs who cooked at the absolute high end, but in lo fi environments.

I was serious about food, but I was in my early twenties. Few restaurants took me seriously as a diner precisely because in those years in my baggy suit from Oaktree (big mall store in the 90s) I looked like a kid out for a meal before junior prom who had no money. And it’s true, I had very little lucre then, but what I did have, I blew on restaurants with the same abandon as Keith Richards did on smack.

I was looking for a place that would embrace me as earnest and serious regardless of my appearance or youth. I knew of and respected guys like Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter, but I’d missed their blazing juvenile insouciance, and Trotter definitely wanted me to wear a tie as a price for admission to his particular show.

I was looking for a young person on the edge. I found Paul Kahan, who had worked for Bayless, and Erwin Drechsler, a Chicago chef many have forgotten, but who was tops of the pops, back in the day, a dude who served the best high-end sherry-kissed calf’s liver I’ve ever had. 

Kahan had hoboed around on freight trains, shirked off his corporate computer training and met his culinary godmother Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. He grew up eating warm smoked chubs fresh from his dad’s smokehouse. I was in on all the history and mythology. This piece, written by one of my favorite writers, maybe the best living film writer in America, Ray Pride, turned me on to all that. Eventually I was published alongside Pride at Newcity, where I wrote imitations of his food pieces like this one about Del Toro and Andrew Zimmerman (now of Sepia and Proxi).

I still have the menu from my first visit to Blackbird. It hangs on my dining room wall (pictured above). I ordered the mussel soup (because I was and still am obsessed with bouillabaisse in any form), the diver scallops, and also because in those times my motto was “always order the organ meat or GTFO”, the foie gras, and the sweetbreads. I also ordered the wood-grilled sturgeon, the corn crepes, and the “bacon”, which was actually pork belly, but no one back then was going to order something that sounded like a pig’s stomach. Bacon, however, is always the eternal pied piper. There were also a few desserts. That must have been a huge group you had dining out, right, Mike?  Nope, just me and my wife, thus setting the stage for a lifetime of overordering.

I don’t remember all the details of that first visit, but I know that I rarely go back to restaurants, because as a writer I’m always chasing what’s new. Because of that first meal, Blackbird went into regular rotation. There were lazy lunches, random stop-bys for late night glasses of wine, and celebrations of all the anniversaries, birthdays, and Friday nights.

If you had to name one restaurant responsible for the current Chicago food scene that isn't Charlie Trotter's or Alinea, it's Blackbird. In some ways Blackbird set the path for chefs to cook well, but in their own accessible way, in this town.

When I first met many of the cooks I admire today, super butcher Rob Levitt, who has come full circle to work for Kahan at Publican Quality Meats, or Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski of Sunday Dinner and Honey Butter Fried Chicken, we’d spend hours talking about Kahan and what he was doing at Blackbird. The 4K guys were like the Velvet Underground. But instead of launching the Sex Pistols, Morrissey, Joy Division, Sonic Youth, REM, or, as Bono of U2 once said, “Every song we’ve ever written was a rip off of a Lou Reed song,” the knuckleheads inspired Mado, Schwa, Sunday Dinner Club, Vie, The Bristol etc..

Blackbird was such a success that it hoovered up nearby rivals like a killer Dyson vacuum. If you couldn’t get into Blackbird, you were so disappointed that there was no way you were going to drown your sorrows in the empty dining room of the random restaurant next store. That space next to Blackbird turned over so many times, you thought it was haunted. Salero, finally had a longish stay, but even it closed. One of my jokes during this pandemic was that that empty restaurant space next to Blackbird was having its most successful run ever the last three months, because it didn’t have to compete with Blackbird anymore. Not that I believe in The Secret, but, now in retrospect, I want punch myself in the mouth for even thinking thoughts that invoked what has come to pass with this closing.

In some ways I don’t become a food writer if Paul Kahan and Blackbird do not exist. He was a hero before I grew old enough not to believe in heroes. The inspiration from what he and Donnie and Rick and Eduard did made me want to somehow work around this industry, whatever form that would be.

After eating at Blackbird, and seeing the young 4K guys blazing it, serving Michael Jordan or Billy Corgan on any given night, I almost thought I could do anything. Though I was designing e-commerce websites then, it made me think maybe I could stage and become a cook too. I was like Remy the rat getting lit on Auguste Gusteau’s book, Anyone Can Cook!. And I could cook, but I loved writing more, so I quit my job and started to freelance. 

The problem was no one knew who I was, so 99% of my pitches got turned down. I started my own website Hungry Magazine in 2005. I didn’t want it to be a ubiquitous blog. I wanted to do something no one else was doing, so I also started podcasting long form interviews with chefs on the site in 2006 (if only I’d waited ten years to podcast. Timing is everything).

One of my early guests was Paul Kahan. We met at the bar of Saltaus (Elske currently inhabits the space). Kahan hopped over on his bike after a shift at Blackbird. He was tired, but he treated me with the respect and attention deserving of Tribune top critic Phil Vettel (something no one else has ever made the mistake of doing for the rest of my entire career). The reality is he likely thought I was just a mouth-breathing fanboy living in my parent’s basement and these recordings would never see the light of day, because he told me every detail about his new concept The Publican in our interview. 

I put the podcast up, and I got calls from a handful of Chicago’s major food editors. They all started the same:

Them: “Who are you?”

Me: “Um, Mike?”

And, also because I didn’t really know anyone in food media back then except Vettel and his Sun Times counterpart Pat Bruno, I’d also follow that with:

“Who are you?”

They’d then say, “Why did Paul break the news about his new restaurant to you?”

Me: “I don’t know? I guess because I asked?”

I was naïve. I didn’t know breaking news was even a thing. I WAS just a fan. But, the establishment was not happy with this particular blog boy. Some of them reprinted my scoop and didn’t credit the podcast, just as the major dailies often continue to steal news from Block Club Chicago or Eater without a mention.

I had just left a job where I was miserable precisely because I never felt I could speak up or say what I was really feeling without getting in trouble or admonished because of the entrenched norms and hierarchies and rules in place in old school corporate America. I had promised myself when I left, that whatever I did next, I would always be truthful to others and myself, so I’d never be wound tight with regret and insecurity as I was in that last job.

So, I emailed those publications who had reprinted my scoop, and said something like “If you’re gonna steal my stuff, maybe we can work together instead?” This is precisely how I landed my first pieces in Chicago magazine and Time Out, which then led to me mouthing off about other things, including a glamour shot centerfold of Grant Achatz on the cover of the Tribune’s Sunday Magazine that I felt undermined the seriousness of what he was doing as a cook. He and Nick Kokonas liked the fact that I cared as much about their brand as they did, and they invited me to contribute to the Alinea cookbook.

None of this happens however, if I’m not obsessed with Blackbird.

I didn’t love everything that 4K and One Off did. They had some sexual harrassment incidents as a group. Right now, there are some allegations that One Off has also not been the best or most inclusive restaurant group in Chicago, something that if true, is disappointing and merits change.

I do know that in my own personal interactions, the team has often exhibited integrity and respect that I didn’t expect. Madia is one of the few owners who ever called me after a challenging review to talk about it. He often said he understood where I was coming from, and even when he didn’t, he respected my opinion. One time when he got a great review, he told me that he knew it really meant something, because he knew from experience, that I was not giving out participation medals and backslaps.  This is something I appreciate even more now, as in the last few years I’ve seen chefs I admire, chefs who I believed to have the highest integrity, for whom I’ve written a poor reviews, go and talk trash behind my back.

And so, I am aggrieved, with the news of Blackbird’s closing, that I can’t visit one more time and say a proper goodbye. Then again, I am lucky, that it is only a restaurant, and not a life. 128,000 families have lost their loved ones to COVID-19, many of them never getting to see their beloved one last time. This disease, and this world, takes so much, and often in a way we can never plan. That Blackbird was inspired by Chez Panisse, which still feels as vital as it did fifty years ago, made me believe it too would last as long. I met Anthony Bourdain at Blackbird for the first time in the private dining room on the second floor. He too is no longer here.

Tonight, so many have told me Blackbird was the backdrop for their marriage, the birth of their children, and even for the celebration of lives lost.  All I can tell them is to treasure the things you love, visit them if you can, and hold them tight, because you never know when that blackbird will fly into the light of a dark black night.