Bye Bye Blackbird | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Bye Bye Blackbird

Farewell to one of Chicago's most iconic restaurants.

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I celebrated my 28th birthday at Blackbird six months after it opened. I don’t remember exactly what I ate, but I know pork belly was involved, along with a red that blew open my doors of perception about what grapes are capable of. Blackbird opened my eyes to a lot of things. But I was still a dumb schmuck who knew everything, so I couldn’t just allow myself to be blown away by the experience: I thought it was a bit extra that the menu namechecked the servers’ designer suits, and I thought it was funny to compare the crowded, overlit dining room to the confines of a lab rat. I was too cool for school.

But that same year, my girlfriend and I scratched together the dollars for her birthday dinner at Charlie Trotter’s, an equally formative dining experience with an altogether different vibe. The one thing I remember most from that night was Trotter himself emerging from the kitchen and striding across the dining room, finding the briefest of moments in his busy service to shoot us a withering smirk.

We assumed he was laughing at her outfit, which I cringe to recall was a cheap sari I bought for the occasion on Devon. (Charlie was ahead of his time in a lot of ways, one of them in possessing a degree of wokeness we didn’t have; she was clearly not Indian). But, that haughty shade, combined with the supercilious tone with which the sommelier denied me a pre-prandial whiskey (Only champagne, sir), and the hushed, stifling reverence the multicourse blowout seemed to require of its worshippers, put me in my place: the Backwoods of Central Twerpistan.

That would never happen at Blackbird.

Out of the gate, Blackbird offered something for the green and insecure that could inspire a lifelong obsession with restaurants: it was cool without being cruel, stylish without airs, and casually confident in the world-class cuisine Paul Kahan and the many chefs that followed him at the pass were putting on plates.

I never ate at Trotter’s again, but forevermore I looked for chances to go to Blackbird. Ahh, the memories! There was an out-of-the-blue invitation from my friend, food writer Louisa Chu, for a special dinner featuring the experimental ensemble Eighth Blackbird, improvising music to courses inspired by The Futurist Cookbook, cooked by guest chef–yikes!—Mario Batali. I was once a judge (along with Chu) in an Asian carp cooking contest: Executive Chef Mike Sheerin served his entry during the peak of a crowded dinner service and pinched me on the cheek like a doting bubbe (I don’t think that swayed my vote but it didn’t hurt). Blackbird was the setting for the climax of the Reader’s James Beard-nominated Whole Hog Project, when Kahan, Sheerin, Nate Sears, Jason Hammel, and Paul Virant sucked down High Lifes while butchering three Mulefoot hogs, then serving them the following night transformed into head cheese ravioli with whole grain mustard pasta, roasted crepinette with plum and pinot noir jam, and muenster gerome with larded brioche.

Even sitting on the patio and interviewing Kahan for a story feels like an audience with the coolest kid on the block (Where he once offered compelling circumstantial evidence that he was the inspiration behind Taco Bell’s 7-Layer Burrito). A few weeks ago I spent an hour or so stuck at home cooking Paul Kahan’s Super Delicious, Super Simple Cabbage from the Reader’s new community cookbook. I can’t imagine this dish ever appearing on a menu at Blackbird, but the humble reassurance it supplies is very much like the effortless ease an evening at the restaurant guaranteed.

One Off Hospitality announced on Monday that it was closing Blackbird for good, another restaurant casualty of the pandemic. One Off’s newest Café Cancale is another, along with time-honored spots such as Bite Café, Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, Jeri’s Grill, La Fontanella, Chubby Wieners, for Christ’s sake, and many more—and likely many more to come.

I’ve fretted for weeks, and this week in particular, that it’s too soon to open restaurants in the middle of this disaster. But that doesn’t remove the sting of the loss of places you could feel at home in without being stuck at home.  v

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