Reader’s first food critic was a diabetic student with an appetite for the unknown
he Reader has covered food and dining in Chicago throughout its half-century of existence, but not as consistently or comprehensively as music, film, theater, or most other arts – certainly not every week when I became a hungry editorial assistant a long time ago in ’95. At the time, there was a very occasional visual feature from Leah Eskin called The Purloined Menu where she was reviewing restaurants by annotation. And before that, freelancers like Jody Stern and Don Rose (better known as The Political Madman) contributed rare reviews to the calendar pages under the heading Restaurant visits. And in the 1970s, an annual Cheap Eats guide has collected lists of short capsule reviews. It was not until 1999 that we launched the Reader Restaurant Finder, a huge capsule database, which we started publishing weekly as reviews and longer stories.
And I understand. In the 1970s and 1980s, food and restaurants in general were nothing like the cultural phenomena they are today. I wasn’t there at the time, but I guess in Chicago the food scene was pretty dark.
Where was it? By 1971, Louis Szathmary’s The Bakery had a national reputation for its fine cuisine. The Pump Room always attracted celebrities like flies to a baked Alaska. And two guys named Rich Melman and Jerry Orzoff opened a place called RJ Grunts, the first property of what would become the Lettuce Entertain You empire.
It wasn’t exactly the steak and potato town we were laughing at, something the Reader obtained from day one. At the bottom of page six of the inaugural October 1, 1971 issue, the newspaper ran a column called Eats, written by University of Chicago undergraduate student Sally Banes, who unbeknownst to her readers was diabetic forever.
In this first review, Banes covered a Japanese Lakeview restaurant called Naniwa, framing the room with a melancholy culinary memory of her first visit as a wise young lady quietly enjoying her teriyaki – “rich and orange-brown on her bed of green lettuce. pale “- in the company of more talkative male friends. In this medium, she ticks off vivid descriptions of decor, service, flavors and textures, and keeps an eye out for the budget-conscious reader, concluding with a reminder on the price of empowering women:
“Since this wonderful and innocent holiday, I have chosen to trade the lady’s childish clothes for the rewards and responsibilities of equality in social situations. And I sometimes worry that while I’m delaying ending a conversation, my friends will eat all the teriyaki.
It was time, man. The kid was with it.
When Sally Banes died of ovarian cancer in June 2020 at the age of 69, she was mourned and remembered around the world. But it wasn’t for his culinary writing. Banes, of course, was the famous dance historian and critic, the author of eight scholarly books that left culinary and Chicago writing behind some 45 years earlier.
“She was a renaissance person,” says Joy Robinson-Lynch, her best friend at the time, who was a regular member of her restaurant review cohort. “She had a food sophistication that was not common among students. She loved to eat but she was also a low budget student. According to Robinson-Lynch, until he arrived in Chicago, Banes’ diet and insulin injections were carefully regulated by his parents. Like most freshmen, she was suddenly free to indulge in forbidden appetites. “Once she was out of her parents’ control, she just ate,” says Robinson-Lynch.
Banes wrote some 20 Eats columns between this first Reader question and mid-1973, traveling the city in search of little-known spots, off the beaten track. Robinson-Lynch remembers getting the job while working at Plants Alive, the houseplant store where Reader owner Bob Roth was also employed. Neither can remember who presented whom, but Robinson-Lynch remembers that Banes’ first draft was not up to par, and Roth sent her back to the stake with a directive to study the critic Mimi Sheraton, who was then reviewing restaurants for Voice of the village. “She got it right away,” Robinson-Lynch says, and Roth accepted her rewrite. “She started writing these really smart, well-written plays.”
In the middle of Chicago’s so-called culinary desert, Banes discovered a Serbian nightclub, a Polish buffet, 24-hour bakeries, and Green Planet, a trendy new vegetarian restaurant. “Finally, finally! We were getting a little bit of civilization in Chicago, ”she wrote, but ultimately found it way too expensive.
“The reader only paid ten, maybe $ 20 for those parts and didn’t reimburse her for the money she spent on food, ”says Robinson-Lynch. “So she had to find places to charge him. She found out that every ethnic community in Chicago had a club and you could go there and have an inexpensive meal. I feel like every weekend we were at one. (Roth does not remember how much the Reader paid Banes.)
Some of Banes’ finds are still around in one form or another. There was the friendly Syrian bakery of Back of the Yards which would later become Ziyad Brothers Importing, whose yellow-labeled boxes and jars can be found in almost every Middle Eastern supermarket and grocery store in the city.
One evening, two of his ‘long-haired male friends’ were given the cold shoulder at the bar at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap, but Banes and Robinson-Lynch were treated with chivalrous respect at the now 91-year-old red sauce restaurant. . (Robinson-Lynch, from New Jersey, remembers breaking the ice by loudly dropping the names of some infamous East Coast gangsters.)
One of those long-haired male friends was Bob James, Banes’ boyfriend at the time, whose first name appears in a number of Eats cameos. “I just remember how difficult it was,” he says. “Describing food is very difficult. It was easy to use those adjectives.
But Banes figured out how to bring the buffet to life in Valois: “A study in brown sits in front of you, starch and meat, sienna, ombre, orange, pumpkin, yellow, beige, cream – punctuated only briefly by salad of pale green cabbage. “
She recounted a sizzling seduction by quiche Lorraine at Casa Bonnifeather in Lincoln Park: “The quiche had arrived. It submits to it, gets lost in its grip, its massiveness and its crust. She walked away, turning to the thin, cool, moist cucumber slices, but came back, coming back again and again, to the quiche.
His praise of the budget steakhouse George Diamond’s leads with a vision of the city that summons the ghost of Carl Sandburg: “The sprawling queen of the Midwest, strong, bulky and unsophisticated, her fat rolls clad in gray snow.” ”
By the middle of 1973, production of Banes’s Eats began to slow down, and by October her credit as editor-in-chief for the food faded from the header. His latest review, of a Loop restaurant known for its “server campers”, describes a near brawl between a waiter and some straight diners “intent on protecting their masculinity at all costs.” Banes recommended the pecan pie, and this: “If you tend to be tense in homosexual situations, avoid Flo at all costs, but know that in our liberated society to come, you will be more and more tense. Examine your own head.
None of the friends and colleagues I spoke to can recall exactly why Banes abandoned the Eats column, which other writers took up from time to time. But Robinson-Lynch remembers a play from the beginning of 1973 in which she describes a delirious desire for a thousand leaves at the end of the evening, which worried her friend. “It scared me because he was someone who shouldn’t eat sugar.” Banes began to carefully monitor her blood sugar around this time “and it may have helped her move from writing about food to other things.”
In 1974 Banes co-wrote Sweet Home Chicago: The Real City Guide, published by Chicago Review Press. It contained eight pages of short restaurant reviews, but as a writer she was heading for her life’s work. By this time, she had also signed a contract to write what would become her first dance history, the 1987s. Terpsichore in sneakers: post-modern dance. Eventually, his own performances would be covered in detail in the Reader, and in early 1974 his signature reappeared. The first of many dance revues to come, this was a performance by Hello Goodbye Hello by Daniel Nagrin’s working group and was titled “An Evening of Sexual Anguish”.
Meanwhile, the only food-related content in this issue was a half-price brunch coupon for Ratso’s.. “At the time, I would say the dance scene was probably more interesting,” says Mike Lenehan, longtime editor. If the memories of friends and colleagues of Banes on his passage as ReaderEarly food reviews are a bit hazy, that’s only because his later work overshadowed him.