Anarchists eating Gettysburgers: Farewell to a supremely strange restaurant

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So long, Abe
  • RICHARD A. CHAPMAN/SUN-TIMES
  • So long, Abe
It hasn't received the same kind of love as, say, Ina's Restaurant—not by a long shot—but the year-end closing of the Lincoln Restaurant has drawn a certain amount of nostalgic farewell coverage. It's the kind of place you think will be there forever: the Greek coffee shop with an improbable historical-Americana theme and "country" decor. A place where the hostess has bouffant hair like she's on The Lawrence Welk Show, and the dishes hilariously bear Civil War names like "Gettysburger" and "Saratoga Sandwiches" (prompting smart-asses like me to make jokes about "Hooker specials" and sitting in the "John Wilkes booth"). As blogger Kim Strickland noted, "I mean, in Chicago, if you can't count on taxes, potholes, and the Lincoln Restaurant always being there, then what can you count on?"

But, in fact, the big-haired hostess, co-owner Loula Athans, died in 2011, and places like this have been quietly vanishing for a long time. As Eleven City Diner owner Brad Rubin noted to me of the genre, old coffee shops "used to be on every corner and they're about gone. I think it's a generational thing—the parents did it, maybe they owned the building, but they worked seven days a week, and the kids look at that and they don't want to work that hard . . . they sell the place and it becomes a bank or a Starbucks." It's also true that people don't want to eat that style of food any more. They'll eat a hipster take on the style—see the Little Goat or Au Cheval—but not the real deal in a place that kind of feels like an old-folks home.

So a lot of people hit that note of "somebody ought to be keeping this alive, even if it's not me" (or in the case of the Reader's Michael Miner, "somebody ought to be keeping alive journalism that's capable of covering such closings"). I have a different, stranger take that involves the farm-to-table movement, anarchists in the early 20th century, the recent opening of the Dawson, and being an ad guy. Come along with me for the ride on (a no-longer-operating stretch of) the #11 Lincoln bus.

When I first moved here from Kansas to work in the ad biz, I used to go to coffee shops like the Lincoln Restaurant all the time. Part of it was a genuine affection for midwestern (and ever-so-slightly southern) comfort food, and part of it was the delusion that this kind of food was somewhat more real and healthy than fast food. But mainly it was just that if I was working late and my associate attorney wife was working late and I didn't feel like braving some ethnic cuisine I knew nothing about, diners were comforting in that big-city way that allowed loners to dine alone . . . together.

Eventually, though, I felt that eating American diner food—too often as industrial as fast food in its own way—was wasting the point of living in this city. One dish that turned me off of diner food was the Lincoln Restaurant's own version of a midwestern classic, chicken-fried steak. Instead of minute steak beaten into an easily chewed near-burger, it was a full slab of regular steak, three-quarters of an inch thick, coated and fried into a solid block of gray meat-based roofing material. A bad idea, a bad rendition of an honorable down-home dish, and a bad thing to do to a decent enough steak.

I mentioned anarchists and you're probably wondering where they come in to this tale. Well, the coverage of the Lincoln Restaurant's closing has often included mention of the Lincoln Lodge, the late-night comedy club that operated there. But nobody that I see has mentioned another organization that used the Lincoln Restaurant as a facility: the College of Complexes.

The College of Complexes is commonly described as a "free speech forum," which is to say, a place where you can come and give a talk on any damn thing you want. It's a pretty direct descendant of century-ago Chicago centers of free thought, alien socialist ideas, and general crank thinking such as Bughouse Square and the Dil Pickle Club, the legendary bohemian hangout in the Gold Coast where socialites popped in for a taste of life among the literati and hobo philosopher kings practicing free love, radical ideas, and free verse. The college was started by Slim Brundage, a longtime Dil Pickle figure, whom the Tribune described in a 1951 article with a sardonically bemused tone straight out of The Front Page:

Dean, head bartender, instigator, and conciliator of debate and owner of the lyceum is Slim Brundage, President emeritus of Hobo college, author of three unpublished books and a poet of parts . . . A man may speak his mind in The College of Complexes, and if he wishes he may write it for posterity for the walls are all blackboards and chalk is distributed as freely as at Bensingers. Slim himself holds forth under blackboard and back bar mirror signs such as: "It's agin the law to sell liquor to drunks, spendthrifts, minors and lunatics. Let's see you prove you ain't."

It's fitting, not to mention weird beyond measure, that a 60-year-old survivor of long-ago socialist and anarchist fervor should have found a home amid sandwiches named for Lincoln and Grant, a place whose atmosphere was about as far from the socialist cafes of fin de siecle Vienna as your grandmother's living room. Who would have guessed that such a square-looking place would turn out to be a slice of subterranean political Chicago, where Beat poet and beat cop would wind up dining side by side?

But, see, this is where I run into a problem as a foodie who believes firmly that the revolution will come when the food on your plate gets more local and natural. You could talk Trotsky and Bakunin all you wanted at the Lincoln Restaurant, but pretty much anything you ordered there came with Kraft cheese on top of it, ensuring that industrial capitalism was getting its cut from your discussions. I'm as much for the dictatorship of the proletariat as the next good bourgeois, but it isn't getting any closer talking Occupy Wall Street while eating the Man's most plastic, alienated-from-the-means-of-production food products.

So, in the end, I admire the Lincoln Restaurant for playing host to so many interesting things, but I'm bummed that the food was so relentlessly uninteresting, so not the change you want to be eating. For me that change is happening, not just being talked about, in restaurants that are serious about opposing and changing the system with what they source and serve.

Or not. When the Dawson, a vast new bar-restaurant from the owner of the Gage and opening chef Rene DeLeon (Next; since departed), debuted in November, one of the items on its menu was, as described by Thrillist, "American, comfort-inspired crowd pleasers like chicken-fried New York strip steak with greens, mashed potatoes, and a buttermilk biscuit coated in a honey butter sauce."

Yes, that's right. New York strip steak, as in a thick cut of beef coated in some orangeish breading and fried. Or not fried, since the publicity photo issued of this item pretty clearly shows pink meat that has had no heat applied directly to it. Was it slipped into a prefried coating like a hand into a glove? I don't know how to explain the photograph Thrillist ran (or how much it resembled the actual dish), but it proved that a badly executed chicken-fried steak isn't limited just to old-school Greek coffee shops. That side of the Lincoln Restaurant will apparently live on—along with, happily, the College of Complexes, which resumes on January 4 at the Powell's Bookstore in Greektown.

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