This week's episode of No Reservations took place in Chicago, and except for Anthony Bourdain's jab against Chicagoans--where he said something like, "These are not small people"--it was one of the better chronicles of the Windy City's tasty offerings. Local super-journalist and cook Louisa Chu served as Bourdain's fixer and she definitely knows her stuff.
Reportedly, while they were here, Anthony and his crew ate at the Ramova Grill in Bridgeport, but no mention of Chicago's supreme diner made the air. It should have. If you loved the segment on the die-hard irascible Burt Katz and his pizza at Burt's Place, you would have loved a segment on the Ramova.
Founded in 1929, it's the diner ideal--a place Edward Hopper, painter of Nighthawks, would have loved to be buried underneath had he known about it. Ramova is also a greasy spoon that once housed, and probably occasionally still does, greased palms, as it stands a few blocks north of the 11th Ward Democratic headquarters (the political birthplace of the Daley clan) in Bridgeport. It's not hard to imagine old committeemen hunkered down in the high-backed wooden booths, filching swigs of coffee and plotting patronage moves under the cover of cigar smoke.
The decor is straight out of the 1940s: chrome-trimmed, red vinyl lunch counter stools sprout from the floor like a row of tulips. The refrigerator in the back room is a true icebox, with white curvy doors, thick chrome compression draw latch handles, and an inch of jagged ice lining the interior. The steam from the grill fogs the plate-glass window and hisses like a reptile in winter.
The menu is focused and sparse: burgers, pork chops, liver and onions, fries. Homemade in 50 gallon batches, the chili is saucy with a sprinkling of meat, beans, and a sweet tinge of cinnamon and allspice balancing the heat. Served with a side of shredded cheese and diced onions, this concoction is more Cincinnati-style than steak Tex-Mex brew. It's actually my favorite chili in Chicago.
There's a wooden booth holding a payphone, the only phone in the grill, in back. Customers phone their takeout requests on this line. In the middle of the call, a waitress might yell to confirm an order for pork chops, or maybe jaunt back to call her friends and tell them that everybody's favorite foul mouthed former chainsmoking food celebrity is in the house. Though, that's probably not likely, as she's probably more jaded than Bourdain, and could care less.
3510 South Halsted Street, Chicago IL 60609 (map)