2803 W. Chicago
On the 2800 block of West Chicago, where the city dissolves into industrial anonymity, Feed catches the eye like a piece of found art. A wordless yellow sign hangs above the door like semaphore to the hungry: a black chicken perched on a red arrow, pointing inward.
Inside, Donna Knezek, one of the original owners of Leo's Lunchroom and the founder of Bite, is roasting four birds on the WondeRoaster, a 40-year-old rotisserie. Her chalkboard menu begins: "1/4 chicken, 1/2 chicken, whole chicken." One entire wall is decorated with framed close-ups of several dozen other birds--"celebrity chicken photos," in Knezek's words--and a few chickens, some with nests and eggs, have been hand painted above the molding. And then there's the chicken on the plate: salty and succulent, with the golden crackle of skin that makes a rotisserie bird so viscerally satisfying.
"Everybody likes chicken," says Knezek, who opened Feed earlier this month with her girlfriend, Liz Sharp. "I'm at this intersection of neighborhoods here. We got majorly old-school Italian over here, I got blacks to this side of me, I've got the Puerto Ricans, and then I got the yuppies moving in. But everybody loves chicken."
Knezek has been cooking in Chicago for almost two decades. Before she arrived here, after dropping out of an engineering program at the University of Michigan, she did time in haute cuisine kitchens in Los Angeles. In other words, she knows from mache. But at Feed she's pared down her menu to the point of parody: chicken, burger, Caesar salad, a daily special (Wednesday night is spaghetti night; Friday night is fish), and a dozen sides.
"I got the black beans and rice for the Puerto Ricans," she says. "And every black person that walks in the door says, 'Oh, is this a soul food restaurant?' And I go, 'Oh, OK.' I got neck bones in my collard greens."
Other sides include fried okra, a homey, comforting corn pudding, and rich and cheesy mac 'n' cheese. For dessert there's pie and fluffy, creamy banana pudding served in a Styrofoam cup, with Nilla Wafers throughout. Feed is BYOB, but the sweet tea's superb, and beer is available from the Hiawatha bar next door. Like any good meal, the food makes anything else you'd wanted before--steak, say--suddenly superfluous. "It's a lot of recipes from my mom, and my grandmother, and friends' moms and grandmothers," Knezek says, pointing to a friend sitting behind her. "The banana pudding recipe's her aunt's. They're from Louisiana. Her aunt was up visiting and made this banana pudding and I was like, 'You have to give me this recipe.'"
She pulls out a faded newspaper. There's Knezek--"when I was young and skinny"--in the September 4, 1992, issue of the Reader, balanced atop the curved counter at Leo's, a plate in her left hand and her right hand angled toward it like a game-show model. "With hundreds of ethnic cookbooks . . ."; she reads about herself and then stops to laugh. "And look what I'm doing now.
"When I was 24 years old, it kind of looked like I was going somewhere for a second--at least I thought I was." She's 40 now. "I wasn't meant to go. I was meant to have just little neighborhood joints, and actually that's good. Somebody's got to do it. And it's what I like best."
She left Leo's in the early 90s to open Bite, next to the Empty Bottle. She's still an owner of the popular cafe, but a few years ago she took a sabbatical. She blames it--and Feed--on the Iraq war.
"I got horribly hooked into watching the war and staying on the Internet all the fucking time," she says. "And I did it for two years. I started becoming politically active and I realized, it's politics. It's not my cup of tea.
"So my girlfriend said I had to get a job--or else. So I bought one. I bought the job."
Specifically, she bought something called Fast Food House and renamed it Chicken Hut 17--that's what her business license says. The final name came later after she acquired an actual feed store sign (from her friend Tracy Ostmann, who also painted the chickens above the molding), the word feed emblazoned across it in a font Knezek attributes to French's mustard. The restaurant's walls are barn red, and a slice of corrugated tin juts over the counter. A few semicommunal tables are placed around the perimeter, and there's a white piano that was dragged in from the alley against one wall.
"I wanted kind of shacky, kind of barny, kind of little-old-lady cutesy," Knezek says. "But not kitsch. It's sincere. There's no smart-ass to it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.