Richard Melman (front) poses by the salad bar in his first reataurant, R.J. Grunt's, in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood with his family.
Richard Melman (front) poses by the salad bar in his first reataurant, R.J. Grunt's, in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood with his family. Credit: Spencer Green

It’s hard to believe, but not 20 years ago there were as many gallons of ink being spilled about Ed Debevic’s as there were this past year about Alinea. Local and national press fell over themselves trying to explain what exactly the restaurant was, where precisely its “fakeness” lay, how to pronounce the name, and where the resurgence of meat loaf fit into new American cuisine. Times have changed: Ed’s creator, wizard restaurateur Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, is not the biggest restaurant story in Chicago anymore. But he is a crucial part of a bigger story.

A handful of names come up over and over when people describe Chicago’s current role as the best and most experimental restaurant city in the United States—groundbreaking chefs Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless as well as the newer chefs engaged in avant-garde cuisine, chief among them Alinea’s Grant Achatz, Avenues’ Graham Elliot Bowles, and Homaru Cantu of Moto. But Melman, whose name is generally excluded from the discussion, deserves major credit for our thriving restaurant scene, including the current emphasis on the individual chef and culinary experimentation. Believe it or not, there is a connection between the trays of meat loaf at Ed Debevic’s and the bacon on a swing at Alinea.

Lettuce began in 1971, when Melman and his (now deceased) partner, Jerry Orzoff, opened R.J. Grunts, a Lincoln Park hippie/hamburger boite. (It’s still hanging in there, a corporate talisman like that yellowed first dollar bill taped behind the bar.) Grunts was the start of a new kind of restaurant chain: every eatery Melman invented would be radically different from the ones that came before. After hamburgers came a singles joint, then seafood, then Italian. “I didn’t just want to do prints,” Melman told Crain’s Chicago Business last year. “I wanted to do original artworks.” Even now, instead of putting its energy into duplication, Lettuce tends to sell off the cloning rights to its creations, as it did with Ed Debevic’s, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and Big Bowl (which the company recently bought back). Melman is often credited with inventing the “multiconcept” chain as well as with having a magical ability to know what the public wants before it does. Each successful Lettuce restaurant has packed in the diners but also pushed the industry and the city toward new ideas: one of the first salad bars was at Grunts, the first tapas were at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!

Currently Lettuce has more than 60 restaurants under its ownership and management, including such long-term successes as Shaw’s Crab House, Ambria, Scoozi!, Brasserie Jo, Mon Ami Gabi, Wildfire, Everest, Tru, and, most recently, Osteria Via Stato. It also includes a major consulting arm and one division devoted specifically to copying existing restaurants (ICON, which brought Joe’s Stone Crab to Chicago from Miami). Because Lettuce is privately held, its annual profits aren’t public, but according to the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News, the company’s annual sales total about $305 million.

There have been, of course, failures, and restaurants that have run their course. In the early years they were places with Simpsons-esque names like Lawrence of Oregano, Jonathan Livingston Seafood, and the Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show. But the company is big enough to easily take risks, ride out the vagaries of the industry, and ultimately shut down anything that doesn’t work.

Lettuce dominated the restaurant news in this town from the early 1980s until the mid-to-late 90s. At worst, the company came to be seen as running a family of high-profit “theme” restaurants—a phrase Melman hates, and to be fair it doesn’t seem quite accurate when you put a Melman restaurant next to, say, the Rainforest Cafe—creating restaurants for lemmings who wanted to experience their ethnic or diner food on a pristine stage set. John Mariani writes in America Eats Out that in the 80s “Chicago was more of a copycat town . . . led by one of the most imaginative restaurant companies to appear on the American scene,” and that encapsulates many people’s feelings even today. No matter how sophisticated a restaurant is, the “chain” designation is like the “O” on a book jacket: if you want to make a lot of money it’s fine, but if you want to be taken seriously, not so much.

As the last decade ended, Chicago was “emerging as a cradle of the first truly adult American cooking” thanks to restaurants like Blackbird, Spring, and Lula, said the New York Times, which called Melman’s restaurants “gotta-have-a-gimmick outlets.” Not long after that the excesses of the new cuisine began to show up here, with chefs like Achatz (still at Trio then) incorporating more experimentation into their menus. The clearest beacon of inspiration for the new cooking is Barcelonan chef Ferran Adria, who for almost 20 years has been creating far-out cuisine at his restaurant on the cliffs of the Costa Brava, El Bulli. (Achatz, who has spent a week in the kitchen at El Bulli, says, “Ferran has changed everything.”) For half the year, Adria and his brother Albert work in an off-site studio, turning food inside out, experimenting with materials, methods, techniques, products, and the bounty of their local market to create innumerable forays into the “dialogue between science and cuisine,” as the Adrias put it. Typical Adria dishes (the menu changes constantly) include noodles made from jellied consomme, fruit flesh, and milk skins; foams and gelees; frozen truffles; liquid ravioli; “airs” made by solidifying aerated purees; “caviars” made of foods such as frozen melon liquid; deconstructed cocktails that play with temperature and solid/liquid state; and a dish combining eggplant and crushed Fisherman’s Friend cough drops. You don’t have to look far to see Adria’s influence in the bounty of last year’s news-making dishes from Chicago chefs: Achatz’s butterscotch bacon, PB&J (peanut butter and a single grape encased in brioche), and dehydrated prosciutto rolls; Bowles’s lamp chops with a jus made from crushed Altoids, foie gras lollipop, and pea soup served over lavender-infused marshmallows; Cantu’s edible menus, printed-rice-paper “sushi,” herb-holding tableware, and Caesar salad ice cream.

All that jazz might seem worlds away from the huge a la carte menus of simple, familiar dishes you’ll find at a midlevel Lettuce joint, but Melman’s empire includes longtime chef-driven destinations (Everest, Ambria) and even experimental menus (Tru). And the rosters at places like Alinea, Avenues, and Moto owe as much to Melman as they do to Trotter: Lettuce has provided a means of keeping culinary talent in town—with the company’s general professional opportunities, certainly, but also with corporate jobs that provide income during the inevitable transition periods in chefs’ careers. Melman has been able to offer midlevel employment solutions in the all-or-nothing restaurant world to talented chefs who need a break from its harsh demands or aren’t quite ready to dive into launching their own place. Mary Ellen Diaz, for instance, worked as a corporate Lettuce chef after burning out at North Pond Cafe; Gabriel Viti served two years as a Lettuce chef before stepping into the head chef position at Carlos’ and eventually opening his own restaurant.

Even more important has been Melman’s influence on the average Chicago restaurant-goer. The newly knowledgeable and adventurous diner is, according to Charlie Trotter, the biggest difference between being a restaurateur now and when he first began. “People were intimidated back then,” he told me last year. “Now . . . they’re more savvy and understand things, which is great for all of us who are trying to cook and push the envelope.”

Lettuce restaurants have played a role in bringing diners out and encouraging them to try new things, but they’ve also prepped us, with their rich theater and painstaking attention to detail, for the excesses of the new cuisine.

Every one of Melman’s restaurants is sewn from whole cloth. Each is a carefully designed dining experience, modeled at the smallest level to re-create the feel of a French bistro or 1950s diner or what have you; there are heavy layers of varnish on the woodwork at Shaw’s, just like at a Baltimore crab house. All the set direction and mood setting has led critics to call Melman the Steven Spielberg or Andrew Lloyd Webber of dining; descriptions of the Lettuce dining experience often include the word theater. But Melman has said over and over that his main inspiration comes from the kitchen. “I don’t say to myself, ever, ‘I want to do a place that looks like a zoo,’ and plan it all out, and then at the end say, ‘Well, what kind of food can we serve?'” he told a public radio reporter in 1996. “It’s the other way around. I start with the food.”

Achatz and Bowles say similar things when they’re accused of experimenting with their food just for shock value. And on some level, the micromanaged world of the new cuisine—like Alinea’s appetizer with the hot potato suspended above a specially designed bowl on a pin that you slide out to drop it into the cold potato soup below—isn’t unlike the carefully designed set of a Lettuce restaurant. The sassy waitress at Ed Debevic’s, too up in your business, isn’t that different from the server at Moto, required to tightly direct how you should sip, chew, or slurp each course to best effect. The difference, of course, is that at the haute restaurants the special effects are mostly gastronomical. The food itself is theater.

At Moto every dish is explained to you in detail by a lab-coated waiter; at Vong’s Thai Kitchen, another Lettuce holding, you don’t really want to know how your food was made. You want to sink into the dining experience without thinking about it. The Lettuce world is fun but safe. You know you’ll be well looked after, and that the food won’t be terrible; in fact, chances are it will be good and it might even be great. The experience will probably cost a little more than you wanted, but it’ll feel special.

The new cuisine is challenging, but it’s also fun in some of the same ways that Melman dining is fun. It doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as the media does—how could it, when the food explodes and gushes and vaporizes and elicits squeals? Melman’s restaurants have helped diners expect and enjoy fun while dining. When I asked the Adrias to sum up the various tenets they use to define their role in the new cuisine, they said that their cuisine turns on two major axes: investigation and playfulness. “The latter means understanding that gastronomy is part of life and, as in life itself, one shouldn’t lose the spirit of playfulness, irony, pleasure, and pursuit of happiness,” they wrote in an e-mail. Rephrased with a less philosophical bent, this could be on the wall in a Lettuce kitchen next to rules about slip-resistant shoes.

Melman is now only chairman of Lettuce, having relinquished the positions of CEO and president to his protege, Kevin Brown, in recent years. Melman is a “free radical,” according to Brown, able to explore new ideas more unencumbered in an era in which you could argue that Lettuce has started to lap itself in the exploitation of nostalgia: it recently purchased the Magic Pan, the chain of crepe restaurants from the 70s. Melman has often said that he doesn’t like “thinking big.” He makes his progress by “taking a small step, making sure the ground is firm, and then taking the next small step,” he told Crain’s in 1993. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, courtesy Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.