I've been thinking a lot about tourists and where they eat this month, which led me to ponder the most touristy tourist-trap tourists visit in Chicago. After about ten seconds of thought, I had my answer: Ed Debevic's.
This faux-diner in River North employees a fleet of young waiters who dress in 50s garb (think Happy Days), adopt an intentionally surly attitude, and occasionally jump up on the counters and start dancing. It's something of a field trip rite of passage, and like most people, I first visited on a school trip. I was in 5th grade at the time, and the restaurant was a highlight. After hours wandering around museums, here was a place where we could actually have fun.
What I'd never heard was anyone discuss the food. And why would they? Obviously, it was more about the theater than the food, so why worry? But two things convinced me to give it a shot. The first was a sign on the side of the building advertising Eisenberg hot dogs—a local brand I hadn't seen many other places. Second, a whole host of new restaurants were trying to recreate the diner experience in Chicago (including Little Goat and, to a lesser extent, Au Cheval). Perhaps one was hiding in plain sight. I knew the food wasn't going to be spectacular, but maybe you could walk in, sit at the bar, and get a solid bowl of chili.
The Tourist Ruse
Plus, I realized that I could convince my fellow writers to dress up like tourists. I was joined by Dennis, clad in his best Chicago-themed sweatshirt (which he bought for $10 from Walgreens), and Josh, who went the Hawaiian shirt route. Also along for the ride was Chelsea (she took all the pictures), my wife, and Josh's son, Elliot.
I was also legitimately scared of visiting on my own. I could just imagine getting ripped by some waitress while trying to take a picture of my food. But if I went in a group, and we looked like every other tourist group in the place, then we'd blend right in and hopefully no one would notice.
There's no downtime at Ed Debevic's. Every encounter with the waitstaff, from ordering drinks to getting your food, is an event. This is no place to play it cool. We donned the hats, clapped our hands, and tried to get into the spirit of the place. Everything happens quickly. One second you're gawking at the crew dancing to "YMCA," and the next second your food is placed in front of you.
The menu is as straightforward as you'd imagine. Appetizers are mostly fried. There are a lot of burgers. But you can also find a whole section dedicated to diner classics and even one for chili.
In my wildest dreams, I had hoped that the food would be nothing more than solid, even though I assumed that it would be frustratingly average. If only we were so lucky. Instead, we encountered dish after dish that were almost comically bad.
To get the whole ugly breakdown, click on the slideshow.
And yet... we still managed to have something like a good time. It helped that we were all in costume and tried to make the most of the experience. Elliot, Josh's son, seemed to genuinely enjoy the show. While it can be it's own form of torture for an adult, there's no doubt that it's appealing to kids.
Still, it's kind of astonishing how bad the food is. Mediocre is one thing, but failing to execute every dish is another. Serving decent food for large groups can be done. If you don't believe, just walk a couple blocks east to Portillo's. Heck, even McDonald's is better. But neither of those places have waiters dancing on tables. Until that day, I suppose Ed Debevic's will also have a place.