The clientele at La Cumbamba is a mishmash of young professionals, shaggy-looking students, cabdrivers, prostitutes, and police officers. No one is excluded, says William Restrepo, proprietor of the airy and attractive Colombian restaurant on North Avenue just east of Western. "I love a bum who can come here and have a cup of coffee and sit down in a beautiful chair. Honest to God."
The only people who may be less than welcome are Colombians themselves, though Restrepo has nothing against his home country. "I am more patriotic than anybody else," he says. "I feel my blood when I hear the anthem. I love Colombia." Yet the many Colombians who have dined at La Cumbamba since it opened in May have found reasons to criticize him. The place just isn't Colombian enough, they say; he isn't serving purely Colombian food, and there's no Colombian soda. At first, Restrepo regarded their complaints as annoying aberrations. But as the gripes mounted, his anger grew. Finally, a few weeks ago, he dashed off a letter, attaching copies to the back page of his menu. It's addressed to "The Poopy Colombians":
"Q: Why are you not located on Lincoln Ave. like other Colombian restaurants?
"A: Because I happen to live in and love Wicker Park. I enjoy the gentrification, the mixture of poor artists and pretentious yuppies. I love the American people who come here and devour my rice and beans with appreciation....I happen to own my building on North Ave. Also the prostitutes are on North Ave. The prostitutes are part of our culture and I even feed them so they stick around."
Restrepo goes on to tell the Poopy Colombians that he originally intended for La Cumbamba to be a place where poor families could eat dinner out "and be served as every human being deserves." He still holds true to this ideal. "I'm a good example of a Colombian citizen who works hard with integrity and you should be happy for me because it is also a Colombian success," he writes. "YES, I'M VERY COLOMBIAN. By the way, I LOVE AMERICA! and much more. Wicker Park, We are so cool. Amen. The William Restrepo Corporation."
"The letter is very practical," Restrepo says. "Colombians come here, they read it, and they leave."
Restrepo left his hometown of Medellin in 1985, when he was 22 years old. He'd studied philosophy, attended medical school, attempted to write a novel in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and operated a hamburger stand on the Brazil-Colombia border. He came to Chicago seeking his fortune. An uncle who lived in a flophouse on South State wasn't much help, so Restrepo went about making himself anew. He worked as a dishwasher, busboy, and horse-and-carriage driver. He operated an ice cream cart and helped out at a catering company on the weekends. He took English and science classes at Truman College. In 1989, he began driving a cab. When UIC rejected his application for medical school--he says his Colombian college credits wouldn't transfer--Restrepo had a revelation.
"I realized I didn't have to be a doctor, and I felt so happy. I realized I don't need to be a doctor for nobody. So I quit medicine, and I became a taxi driver. Nasty and rude and cocky. A loud driver. And human. I was very human. I'm very proud of what I done when I drove a taxi. It's so amazing. Seven days a week, 14 hours a day. To drive a taxi is the best thing."
Restrepo was a somewhat legendary cabbie. He had his regulars and would pick them up whenever he saw them on the street, no matter where they were going or who else was in his cab. Or he'd give free rides with the stipulation that the passengers become his friends and drive around with him all night. During especially busy convention weekends, he'd invite his customers, both men and women, to sleep at his apartment, free of charge.
"One way or another, William always leaves an impression on you," says Victoria Bianco, a painter from Argentina who was once a regular in Restrepo's cab. "And if you follow up on it, he's a really cool guy. He helps people a lot. I just went into the restaurant last week with a friend who needed a job. He gave her one. He'll help you find a roommate or an apartment. He'll give you stuff for free....I was with three of my girlfriends one afternoon. We had just jumped in the lake, and we were walking down Michigan Avenue totally soaked. William picked us up, and this other cabbie pulled up behind us looking very serious. We started giving William a massage. He made all kinds of noise and shouted to the other cabbie, 'It's so good to be a Colombian cabbie! I'm so cool!'"
All the time he drove a cab, Restrepo had a singular amibition--he wanted a restaurant. "I wanted to own my place. I wanted to love my place. I want to serve. That was my original idea--to serve. I'm like a Jewish mother. I love to feed people. Honest to God. And because I drove a taxi, I was able to hear things that nobody really would say to anybody else. I talk to busboys, to engineers, to architects, to everybody. Marketing, concierge. I pick up ideas from every place they open. I knew why they closed, why they went into bankruptcy, what's wrong with the chicken, what's wrong with the service, what's wrong with the advertising. I know so much about restaurants even though I never have a restaurant."
In 1993, Restrepo bought a bombed-out building in Wicker Park and began to renovate it slowly. He rented half-finished rooms to art students and bought the building next door. Then he purchased another place in Humboldt Park. He started to pull chairs, tables, and paintings out of alleys. He went to estate sales and auctions. Gradually the ground floor of his first building began to look a lot like a restaurant. He dug out an eight-foot-deep basement by himself, he says, lifting out two buckets of heavy mud a day. He worked constantly. As the restaurant began to take shape, Restrepo decided on a name.
La Cumbamba is Colombian slang for jawbone. Restrepo says he thought of all the rich people who used to get into his cab: "These ladies with the big jaws who live in Lake Point Towers. 'Excuse me, please, don't look at me, you're a taxi driver.' 'Would you be my friend? Would you go out with me?' 'No. Just shut up and drive. You are a taxi driver, and I am a lawyer,' or whatever." Someday, Restrepo vowed, he would ignore these people right back.
"One day," he said, "I will have my Cumbamba."
La Cumbamba has a homey feel. Its decor includes maracas, a human skull, hand bones, taxidermied turtles and goat heads, a wooden camel, Inca figurines, and a painting of a Greek Orthodox priest drinking ceremonial wine. There are tablecloths and candleholders, exposed brick and a tile floor. Comfy hammocks surround a patio full of tables. The food is simple, tasty, and cheap: rice and beans, salads, empanadas, cheese-coated corn patties called arepas, and sancocho, a Colombian dish that in Restrepo's kitchen comes out sometimes as a soup, sometimes as a stew, and other times as a variety platter.
Nothing costs more than $8. Restrepo peppers his menu with amusing descriptions, calling hummus "a delicious and healthy Middle Eastern dish cooked by an American yuppie." For $3 you can get the "Foreplay appetizer--Fresh portabella mushrooms crossing a river of Balsamic vinegar with a touch of sensual cherry wine and naked rosemary on top of a big rock waiting for him."
The only real problem at La Cumbamba is the service, even though Restrepo seems almost desperate to please. Ever since opening night, the pace has been hectic ("I got so sick," Restrepo says, "the doctor had to come twice"). He darts from customer to customer with a discomforting energy, lighting candles, kissing hands, taking orders, uncorking bottles of wine that patrons have brought in themselves. He mops voraciously, meets with people interested in renting his apartments, and still finds time to discuss anything from the art of purchasing buildings to his favorite passages in Dante.
Food can take a while to arrive. Recently Restrepo placed a party of five at a lovely table in the basement. Two hours later, when he and his employees were closing for the night, a member of the party came upstairs and sheepishly asked for more water. "I forgot about them," he says. "They were looking pretty skinny down there in the basement.
"I have 200 million things to do. I must answer the phone and sweep and mop. Then I have to pay taxes. So many taxes on everything! I always wanted a place where I could have people around and live. That's the paradox about me. I don't enjoy life. I work and work. I love people and I love wine and I love these things. I wanted to be like Dante, to go shoeless and be in the corner with a bottle of wine looking at people pass by. I always wanted to have the balls of a bohemian, but I'm not doing nothing about smelling the roses. I'm trying to let people have those things, but I'm killing myself inside."
Lately Restrepo has taken to dragging a grill, a few beers, and his girlfriend Allison to the corner of North, Damen, and Milwaukee, where he distributes arepas for free. The corner is significant to him. Within the last few months, the neighborhood has lost two venerable and inexpensive restaurants: The Busy Bee and Friar's Grill both closed after being bought out by high-rolling investors. La Cumbamba, Restrepo says, will take up the Busy Bee's mantle. In the spirit of old Chicago, he has attached a subtitle onto his restaurant's name. The awning now reads, "A Primitive Concept of a Social Club."
"I want a place where people feel comfortable. People come here and say, I have a problem. Maybe I'm going to Africa. Let's do business. I want to take Spanish lessons, German lessons, or organize a safari to Central America. I can help them because I like ideas. I have so many ideas driving a taxi. I would like to try to help people develop them. That's it. I am feeling like an onion. You know the first skin, I peel, and today I feel more fresh. Tomorrow maybe I buy another building. I feel like an onion, and maybe one day I realize I'm not an onion. I'm a garlic. I get to the bottom.
"Last night, a couple came and I served them dinner. They said, we just want a little bite. I didn't know them at all. They were eating still when we closed. I told my guys who work for me that I was going to go out with them and with Allison. I said to the couple, 'Look, I'm closing the door. I'm turning the lights off. I'm shutting up the kitchen. Leave through the back door, close it, and shut the gate. Don't worry. The bill is $12.' They were so grateful to me. They couldn't believe it. And then, yesterday, only yesterday, I realize that this restaurant is one of a kind. Because this restaurant is going to be history." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Nathan Mandell.