It's 8:30 on a recent Wednesday evening, and the Lebanese restaurant Semiramis, on a mostly Middle Eastern strip of Kedzie Avenue in Albany Park, seems to be doing an average weeknight business. The takeout counter pulls a steady stream of customers, and a few of the dozen or so small tables are taken. The only hint that anything unusual is afoot are the four tables pushed together and topped with a grip of as-yet-unopened cans of Icehouse beer and two bottles of Andre sparkling wine. To the untrained eye it would look to be an unremarkable spread of down-market booze. But to those in the know it's a sure sign that a restaurant is about to play host to some of the most outlandish epicureans in the city: the BYO Bandits.
The Bandits' budding notoriety can be traced to a six-month-old blog that chronicles the exploits of a rotating group of young, more or less professional north-siders—led by 24-year-old graphic designer Sam Jorden and 25-year-old publicist Owen Donnelly—who've made a habit of meeting up at BYO restaurants for large dinners fueled by copious amounts of bottom-shelf alcohol. The posts on BYOBandits.com are part restaurant review and part gonzo journalism, written in a voice that oozes postadolescent cockiness and foodie-level knowledgeability in equal measures. A February entry regarding a meal at Nana—a Bridgeport eatery that describes itself as "a family-owned, organic restaurant offering choices for those who are also passionate about where their food comes from"—waxes poetic about duck confit and Meyer lemon/truffle hollandaise sauce. It also includes references to "credit card roulette"—a ruthless, chance-based method of settling a bill that's pretty much exactly what it sounds like—and to the six bottles of Andre consumed over the course of the meal. The post also refers to the restaurant's philosophy as a "focus on fresh so and so, locally-sourced yadda yadda yadda and seasonal blah blahs."
Jorden and Donnelly play up an attitude that's informed by punk and hip-hop and mildly redolent of frat boy. (Explaining that the two are roommates as well as collaborators Jorden notes, "We don't share a bedroom, if that's what you're asking.") The blog's logo is a skull wearing a stickup-style handkerchief over its mouth with a crossed knife and fork below it, and the pair like to pose for photos while wearing ski masks. They bag on their friends almost constantly and take pride in the fact that their roommate's girlfriend considers them "quote-unquote delinquents."
Read a little further into the Bandits' troublemaking—the site has a section labeled simply "Debauchery"—and you figure out pretty quickly that Donnelly and Jorden are cheap-beer-swilling fans of apparently every sport on television, but they also use their blog to rip on cheap-beer-swilling sports fans as a type, and they pepper their conversations with references to the late photographer Dash Snow and the hip-hop-collective-cum-Internet-sensation Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. That the Dash Snow reference came up while discussing a plan to fill their roommate's floor with the pages of torn-up phonebooks—what Snow liked to call a "Hamster Nest"—kind of says it all.
The Bandits' blog isn't exactly useful when it comes to getting the story on the hottest new restaurant openings, chef-related gossip, or any of the other things most foodie blogs are good for. But it's also more than a one-note gimmick.
In recent years, terms like "emulsions," concepts such as farm-to-table dining, and cuts of meat you can't find on the Denny's menu have moved from the food-connoisseur fringe to the verge of mainstream acceptance. Writing about food has become all the rage among the masses as well; amateur bloggers document their meals with a clinical thoroughness that has become a common—if still annoying—presence in restaurants. That brand of food writing's usually as stuffy and self-important as rock criticism was in the 70s—meaning it's about time its own Lester Bangs comes along.
The Bandits, fellow shock-reviewers the Chicago Gluttons, and other renegade restaurant critics have made it their mission to fulfill that noble pursuit. (The Gluttons, it should be noted, lack the Bandits' subtlety—in one of their reviews a dish of scallops and foie gras at LM inspired a lengthy and explicit pornographic interlude involving White Zombie and a strap-on dildo.) The Bandits also consider the Montreal-based Epic Meal Time crew their spiritual kin, though EMT's approach to food appreciation is more grotesque, with each episode of their video blog consisting of the preparation and consumption of an insanely unhealthy meal, like a so-called "lasagna" made out of 45 fast food hamburgers and a Jack Daniel's tomato sauce.
Yes, there's a market for this stuff. Epic Meal Time recently signed a deal with the same talent agency that handles Natalie Portman and Brad Pitt. The BYO Bandits, while not as spectacularly successful, are pulling in about 4,000 unique visitors a month, which is more than they ever expected.
The blog was born of a roving supper club initiated by Jorden and Donnelly in an effort to get their friends to eat outside of their postcollegiate comfort zone. "We get as many of our idiot friends together as possible," Donnelly explains over drinks at Snickers, a River North dive that the pair frequents. "We would just get the hell out of the place where all the midwest people go to remind them of their college bars."
Says Jorden: "People kind of latched onto the idea that there's a lot more to explore than just fucking Duffy's and the Wrigleyville bars that most of the people we associate with hang out at."
The group initially targeted BYO joints for practical reasons. "We were interns making $10 an hour," says Jorden. "The best way to combine going out for an eat and having a night out was to bring Icehouse with you, you know?"
After launching their blog in October with a two-paragraph review of Big Star (which ironically isn't a BYO spot), the Bandits have posted increasingly longer reviews every week or so, and in the process they've found a voice—sardonically funny yet knowledgeable, and highly entertaining. "Jacked up on scotch and Groupons, we ventured to Sabor Saveur to check out a restaurant vaguely endorsed by the Michelin guide" is how they open a review of the Wicker Park French-Mexican fusion spot. They've also got a Twitter account, which recently documented their quest to find a place that would serve them a Rumple Minze julep. (The finally scored one at Frontier.)
While most of the blog's attraction is its entertainment value, BYO Bandits functions pretty well as actual restaurant criticism. The Bandits know their food, and the limitations of the BYO-only concept, combined with the pair's contrarian streak, keeps them from writing about, say, gastropubs that have already accumulated bales of press.
Their reviews are odd in a way most food writing isn't. An entry from March documenting the Bandits' second trip to Vee Vee's African Restaurant barely mentions the meal. ("To put it honestly, we spent more time prodding many of the dishes with our fingers, credit cards and André bottles than we did actually eating it.") But for all of its mock pathos the review really distills the way that little things—like a bad meal at a place where we once had an excellent one—can affect us in such big ways.
The blog's obvious hook is the big drinking, and despite the Bandits' proclaimed allegiance to cheap shit they tend to mix it up, qualitywise. At Semiramis Donnelly, Jorden, and five friends show up with 12 cans of Icehouse (a mix of regulars and tallboys), a six-pack of a Blue Moon seasonal, part of a growler of locally brewed Revolution beer, the two bottles of Andre, and a six-pack of something called Milwaukee Special Reserve. For an outing to Turkish Cuisine in Andersonville back in February they brought an entire five-gallon keg of Daisy Cutter, the hoppy pale ale from local microbrewery Half Acre that's become a cult favorite among beer nerds. In a nod to Internet hip-hop culture they refer to it as their "high-low swag."
They're also big eaters. Our waitress at Semiramis regards our group and the pileup of bottles accumulating on our table with more than a little skepticism before Donnelly tells her to bring out one of everything from the appetizer menu except for the salad. After that she seems considerably less distrustful, to the point of waiving the restaurant's corkage fee. "How could I even keep track?" she asks.
Despite the image they project, in person Donnelly and Jorden are unfailingly friendly to the waitstaff, which makes for interesting stories. "There's this place called Little Saigon up north a ways," Donnelly says, "where the guy insists you call him 'Uncle.' There's a faded poster of Michael Jackson on the wall that's probably the coolest thing you've ever seen, but he won't give it to you for anything less than a couple thousand dollars—because a hundred dollars won't change his life, in his words. He tells you increasingly varying stories of fighting on both sides of the Vietnam war. Apparently he got laid a lot because he was a pilot and he got some girls pregnant and then came here an opened a restaurant."
"He loves talking about whipping his dick out," Jorden adds. "That's kinda how we bonded."
Their convivial nature makes for interesting eating. "Ordering arbitrarily and at the hands of other people we stumble across great ingredients," Donnelly says, recalling an experience at a place in Chinatown where the waiter suggested they try a dish with the Sichuan peppercorn sauce ma la. "It makes your mouth numb and your body tingle and wonder if you got poisoned," he says.
"And keep in mind this is our first time to Chinatown," Jorden continues. "So‚ you know, maybe this is what is supposed to happen in Chinatown. We had asked them to turn the jukebox up so we thought maybe they were getting back at us for disrupting their silence."
At Snickers their friendliness paid off when a Polish bartender introduced them to a palette-confusing shot that combines vodka, raspberry liqueur, and hot sauce. In Poland it's apparently called a Mad Dog but in deference to the fortified wine brand the Bandits have rechristened it "the Pissed Dog."
The Bandits are now tiptoeing toward acceptance in the Chicago foodie scene. The Chicago outlet of the online lifestyle magazine Refinery29 recently listed BYOBandits.com on their "Ultimate Chicago Blogroll," and they've been getting invited to "kinda more stuff than we should," in Donnelly's words, including restaurant openings, though they couldn't swing press passes to WhiskyFest despite their best efforts.
They claim that cushy opportunities like invites to openings aren't any threat to the Bandits' edge. "It just might mean we need to step up our capers a little bit," says Jorden.
"As far as being taken seriously," Donnelly explains, "it's not really a huge issue of ours."