CHICAGO — Virtually dissected by the elevated train tracks on Franklin and Illinois streets is a tired, old building clinging to portions of its aluminum siding noticeably weakened by years of harsh winters. Inside this precarious facade, is Gene & Georgetti's--arguably one of America's best steak houses. While poised against the century-old carved, walnut bar, manager E. J. Lenzi impatiently considers a question on what his family's restaurant means to this city, where great T-bones and strip sirloins are mistakenly thought to be commonplace. As the tightly wound, quick-witted 24-year-old was about to respond, he was interrupted by a regular patron who yelled out, "Hey, if my wife calls, tell her I left at quarter after five." A chorus of laughter rose from the immediate area as a quick time check found that all watches were approaching 6, a fact confirmed by the rush-hour rumble of commuter trains passing overhead. Despite the occasional indiscretion, Gene & Georgetti's is a place from which people do, indeed, find it difficult to pry themselves away. Within its cramped dining rooms and bars is a simple decor featuring the required Frank Sinatra photos, a boisterous, dark-suited crowd, well-made drinks, USDA-prime aged Iowa beef and brash-but-efficient waiters.
Yet, the overall attraction runs deeper. This restaurant captures a mood many say reflects the city's heart. As such, it is in the forefront of the landmarks that make Chicago a showcase for good eating.
From the exclusive dinner clubs to the ramshackle hot dog stands, food plays a major role in the life style here where entertainment remains indoors a good portion of the year. Also contributing to food's importance are Chicago's diverse ethnic groups, many with traditions that celebrate dinner table occasions.
Prolonged meals and food encounters perfectly suit inclement conditions in such a dense metropolitan area. Why, for instance, would anyone fight for too long the 40-below wind-chill factor or stifling summer humidity when there is a nicely sauced linguine or a passion fruit mousse to be enjoyed indoors nearby?
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Furthermore, the Chicago food experience in its many presentations is enhanced by the people's strong sense of humor. This often self-deprecating style also includes an aversion to New York's culinary snobbishness or Los Angeles' perceived glamour. Cab drivers are even prepared to good-naturedly offer restaurant recommendations and summarize the latest reviews on the ride to dinner.
"We're proud to be Chicagoans and if people want to consider this a Chicago-type of place then that's fine with me," said Lenzi, who represents the third generation of his family to run Gene & Georgetti's. "This building is built from scraps of wood that survived the Chicago fire (in 1871). I guess you can't be much more Chicago than (that)."
Lenzi said he was sure the reason his restaurant is so popular is that his family has been buying only the nation's best beef for several decades. As if he may have been getting a little too serious, he added, "Our success is due to the quality of our product because everyone knows we have the worst waiters."
Certainly, this is a city where the beef had better be good because visitors and locals alike consider the perfect steak an inalienable right, the lingering residue of Chicago's long-since-departed stockyards. But the city's culinary gifts to the rest of the country go beyond meat and potatoes to include deep-dish pizza, Chicago all-beef hot dogs mounded with dozens of condiments, a distinctive style of barbecue and the Italian beef sandwich. In months to come, highly successful restaurant format innovations developed here will also be seen in other parts of the United States.
The city's geographic location as the hub of the nation's agricultural heartland has also reinforced its food image. In fact, the corporate headquarters of several major food companies remain in this area, including Beatrice Foods, Dart Kraft Inc. and McDonald's.
The sum total of these various segments makes Chicago one of the country's most enjoyable urban food experiences. Recently, the Rand McNally publishing company released a U.S. vacation guide that rated this city as second only to New York in the number of decent eating and drinking locations.
Even so, the people responsible for some of Chicago's attractions offer divergent opinions on the role this city plays on the national food scene.
An Exclusive Club
What is often regarded as Chicago's best restaurant is a short cab ride from Gene & Georgetti's. Unfortunately, Les Nomades on Ontario Street is a private club. The exclusivity is used to assemble a clientele that will complement what is meant to be a comfortable, continental bistro, according to owner Jovan Trboyevic, a Serbian who immigrated from Yugoslavia three decades ago.