Credit: Creative Commons Credit: Creative Commons

I

used to drive around the city just looking for new restaurants. I was looking for the kind of places that usually didn’t have marketing budgets or issue press releases. So downtown was never a regular hunting ground. But last week I took a long, rainy twilight drive down Lake Shore Drive, tooled around downtown, then headed south for a Chinatown-Bridgeport carryout bang-bang at Lao Sze Chuan and Pleasant House Pub.

I hadn’t been downtown in more than a month, and part of the mission was getting out of the house while still remaining “inside.” Cabin fever was making us do strange things.

I was braced for some aspects of the grim ghostland downtown has become, but in spite of myself, I was still struck by the sight of all the destination restaurants that had gone dark: Marisol, Mercat a la Planxa, Eleven City Diner, Spiaggia,* the Gage.** 

At least Harold’s Chicken Shack was open, though empty. HFC never die. Just multiply.

And then we came up behind a long line of cars idling in the bike lane, each one isolating one or two occupants, waiting their turn to pick up Chipotle.
       
I brooded over this all night as a possible vision of a future contactless, quarantined, corporate restaurant culture. But this morning I was DMing with a chef whose independent neighborhood restaurant is closed, and for a moment he seemed upbeat, grateful to be sheltering in a secure place with this wife and dog.

Oh, he still had plenty of worries. He was dealing with some COVID deaths among his extended family, and he was wrestling with the idea of reopening his spot with contactless carryout.

“I know five people in Chicago who have gotten sick since the stay-at-home order, and they’ve all been either firefighters (1) or restaurant people doing pickup and takeout,” he reported.

“But time’s slipping away. We haven’t gotten any real help from anywhichwhere. No stimulus. Unemployment for business owners is like the Chicago Mothman—you infrequently hear of a sighting and less frequently see it. No PPP. Our landlords deferred rent until June 1 but that’s coming fast.”

I told him the story about the Chipotle rationing line, and I expected him to raise his figurative middle finger to the power structure that allows corporate chains to survive and even thrive in a pandemic, while independent spots such as his go dark.

But that wasn’t his reaction. This was: “God speed Chipotle employees.”
       
*But-but-but Caffe Spiaggia at Home is a thing you can do.

**And the Gage may be down, but dishes from its menu, along with Acanto and the Dawson, can be ordered through a new popup.

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