I was skeptical about the "Free Limo Service" promised by the sign over the Little Bucharest Restaurant on Ashland, and I wasn't alone.
"People think it's a joke," says Branko Podrumedic, the owner, when I call for reservations. "It's something that people really don't want to believe." He promises the limo will be at my door at 6:30 sharp. Maybe he'll be driving, probably not. "Either me or a driver who speaks no English."
I'm not falling for this. There's no free lunch, right? And sure enough, Podrumedic wants to know where I live and how many people are in my party--if there are only two it's a $25-per-person minimum, and if we're out in the suburbs there's a charge for gas. Aha. But there are four of us and we live in the city. "It's free," he says. "We only have that you are supposed to have a dinner."
Seems reasonable, but then "limo service" can mean just about anything--an old taxicab, a '79 Newport, something with a soft suspension and a rancid odor.
Podrumedic can sense my resistance. He's heard it before. "No one else has this service, that's why it's so hard to believe. It takes us sometime 10, 15 minutes to tell people it is a free limo, no gimmick."
It's still hard to believe, even when the white stretch limo with "Little Bucharest" painted on the side pulls up in front of my place and a man in a gray suit gets out and opens the back door.
"You told me it wouldn't be that good, but it's awesome," says my son Sam, who is 13 and doesn't have much life experience. Yet he's right. It's the real thing, with plush seats, a portable TV, glass flutes, champagne (something called "Mileniul III"), an assortment of beer, and a cassette player hooked up to the stereo. We watch Seinfeld and check ourselves out in the vanity mirrors. The sound system's cranked--"diamond in the back, sunroof top, digging the scene with a gangster lean, ooo-ooo"--and the driver says nothing! He can't speak English!
This is the best time we've had in months. We can't get over it. My son Marty wants to buy the car, but he's nine and also doesn't have much life experience. We don't have to buy the car! I tell him. We just have to buy dinner!
Podrumedic is at the restaurant and asks about our trip. We ask if we can take a side trip to Toys R Us. Some customers do get a ride around, he says--they go to bars after the restaurant closes, and he has driven tourists to see the sights: Lincoln Park, Navy Pier, Buckingham Fountain. He also has dinner-theater packages. "We pick up people from home, drive them to restaurant, drive them to theater, pick them up. There's no better deal in universe."
The service has a lot of regulars who were once skeptics, he says. "Whoever does take one, they do make repeats. They call us back, there's no question about it." Most of the regulars are families, older children taking their parents out for a special occasion. The car seats 6 comfortably, 10 if necessary; the largest party to arrive at Little Bucharest in the limo numbered 12. People from as far away as Barrington have used the service, but most live in town.
Before he bought Little Bucharest a dozen years ago, Podrumedic was in the pizza business, but he could have been in public relations. The restaurant gets plenty of attention: there's grape stomping and ox roasts at its annual Taste of Romania festival, plates and glasses get smashed at the bar on Saturday nights, and "holy water" is served out of a tube to one and all. (Podrumedic won't say what's in his "holy water"--it could be slivovitz or grain alcohol, but whatever it is it packs a punch.) The restaurant is listed with several of the big hotels, as well as on the Web site of the International Monarchist League ("democracy functions better with royalty," the league says) as a place that offers "all monarchists a warm welcome."
The limo has brought the restaurant more recognition. "When I go around town now and I say, 'Little Bucharest,' they go, 'Oh, the one with the free limo!' It's really gotten into their head." But the limo wasn't even his idea, Podrumedic says. Four years ago, a customer browbeat him into buying one.
"Right there at table 14, an old man comes in with a wife, and I think it was a nice Jewish guy, and nice talking, we're talking a lot, and he goes, 'You gotta buy my limo.'
"'What do you mean?'
"'I gotta get rid of it.'
"'No, no, no, you have to buy.'
"'What are you talking about?'
"He goes, 'You better take your people in a limo--no one else does it.'"
Podrumedic bought the customer's brown limo, and a year and a half later he replaced it with the current white stretch. He hired the driver. "George, he's family. He's a nice guy," Podrumedic says, reminding us to give George a tip. The limo can get busy, so reservations are requested but not required. "Usually we'd like to have a reservation, but if someone just call, why not? If customer wants, God bless."
The food's pretty good--goulash, paprikash, ribs, sausage. At the end of the meal, the limo's waiting at the curb. We do the same things on the way back that we did on the way there, only louder. George seems a bit harried, but still doesn't say anything--he must be used to loud Americans.
The next morning the phone rings. At the other end is a guy spieling quite a deal: two free round-trip tickets worth up to $600 for watching a 90-minute video. He just needs a few minutes of my time to explain the details of this offer, good for up to one year, for flights to the Bahamas, Las Vegas...
I hang up on him. What am I, a sucker?
Little Bucharest is at 3001 N. Ashland; call 773-929-8640.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.