Monday, July 28, 2008

Hidden Treasures

The other night Jo suggested that we get together with a couple of friends for lunch next weekend. The mention of them sparked a thought in my usually idle bean. You see, our friends, (to protect their anonymity, we'll call Jim and Rhonda) own and operate a pizza place. In itself that's not very unusual but, what is unusual is that their place has no identity outside of the town where it lies. Now, don't get me wrong, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) that lives or ever has lived in or around their town knows and loves their pizza.
To make things even more interesting, the little "shop" isn't in town but a mile or two from downtown and has no sign or any other indication that it even exists. They don't deliver, you can't eat in, but ask anyone in the area and they can recite the phone number without giving it a thought. I could tell you what road it is on and defy you to find it although it sits only a few feet off the road in plain site. Anyway the thought of their "mystery pizza place" reminded me of a number of similar places that I had run across in the past. Unfortunately most of them fell into the evil grasp of success which eventually choked them to death. (or at least altered the quality and flavors that made them special originally) Some of my earliest recollections of such places were in downtown Chicago. There was "Sasha's" which you entered through an alley just a block off "The Magnificent Mile". Once inside you were greeted by pure elegance and gourmet food. Sasha's was noted for it's exquisite soups. A few blocks away, on Rush Street, mostly known for it's night clubs and bars, two more real treasures were nestled among the dozens of bars. The first one was simply called "The Shrimp House" and that's what it was, simply a shrimp house. It looked like a little house and it sold shrimp. Another two blocks north was, at least in my mind, the jewel of Rush Street, "The Bon Ton" which from the street resembled a little pastry shop. Once inside, you were met face to face with a display case filled with eclairs, napoleon slices and an assortment of cookies and other sugary delights. That was cool but no surprise for a place that looked like a pastry shop. The surprise was a few steps beyond the display case where there were six or seven small tables filled with "in-the-know" patrons feasting away on Kabobs and Goulash. That was pretty much the menu. Lamb or beef Kabobs or Hungarian Goulash with Spatzel. The good part was that while you waited for a table you could munch away on some of the pastries. Getting hungry? Let's head three or four blocks west. What a difference a few blocks can make. We just left the magnificence of Michigan Avenue and the glitz of Rush Street for the gloom of north Clark Street. The street is dark by comparison to it's eastern neighbors, the bars, restaurants and chic shops are replaced by nondescript store fronts and seedy hotels. The area falls just short of a "Skid Row" designation. A small neon sign in the window of one of the store fronts flickers, and a group of fairly well-dressed folks form a line along the dimly lit street. This is the home of "Ding Ho", a small (eight or ten four seat tables at the most) Chinese restaurant serving some of the best food in the area. Like The Bon Ton, you brought your own beer, wine or liquor. Glasses and openers were provided. On any given night you would probably run across artists, photographers, writers and musicians some of which were pretty famous some were just hungry. On most evenings you might notice a shadowy bearded figure at a corner table chop sticks in one hand and a pen in the other. A sketch pad shared the small table with eggrolls and some other steaming dishes. A closer look determines that the bearded diner was Shel Silvertein, the cartoonist, songwriter, kid's book creator, who ate there anytime he was in Chicago. Hey, I'm getting off track. I could go on and on about places like these in Chicago. Back in those days (the 50s and 60s) you could go from neighborhood to neighborhood a discover some kind of hidden eatery. Usually the were related to the ethnicity of the neighborhood and only known to those living in the area. But, let's get back to the truly hidden places, like my friends pizza place. I think the phenomenon more common in small town locations. Back in the 50s and 60s a lot of what are now suburbs of Chicago were actually small towns. Two such places immediately come to mind. They were both in Palatine, Illinois (which is were Jo and her family moved in the 50s). At that time once you left the municipal area you were out in the "country". Right on the edge of town was medium sized two-story house. Nothing special but if you watched it for a while you would notice people going in and coming out in twenty minutes or so with kind of a satisfied look on their faces. Aha! A house of pleasure. Upon closer investigation I discovered that it certainly was a house of pleasure. That pleasure being one of the best hamburgers that you'll ever chomp into. I later found out that the place was called Brandts. Not a big surprise considering the family that ran the place were named Brandt. They lived upstairs and had a small bar and a few tables downstairs and only served burgers. As the area grew and Palatine became a large suburb rather than a small Brandt's secret got out and as it became a "hep" place for the growing yuppy population the menu also grew expanding to steaks, salads and seafood. I'm not sure if it's still there but the last time I drove by I did see that progress had reared it ugly head. A small neon sign that read "Brandts" was in one of the first floor windows, a neon beer sign (imported) glowed in another and quite a few BMWs and Volvos were parked outside. A mile or two west on the highway was, what could have been a distant relative to Jim and Rhonda's place. This was Charlotte's. Charlotte's sold pizza and lots of it. Unlike J and R's it was fairly large and had eat-in capabilities. But like J and R's it had no signage and you could pass by without being aware that it even existed. I'm not an expert about the place but JoAnne grew up with Charlotte's and a little drop of drool forms at the corner of her mouth when I mention it. I may have been there once with Jo not too long before it fell to either the wreckers ball or a stray match. I guess I've run on long enough. Hopefully I may have caused you to remember similar places in your past. Right now I'm getting a little hungry. Too bad I don't know J and R's secret phone number. I guess I'll have to run down to Brandt's for a burger.