Back in the more hopeful month of June when I was newly vaccinated, a few friends and I drove up to a lakehouse on the Illinois-Wisconsin border for the weekend. The real reason for the trip, though, was a meal. Specifically, we'd booked dinner at the Wilmot Stage Stop, a 173-year-old supper club — or steakhouse, depending on whom you ask — inside a historic inn in western Kenosha County. Incidentally, it would become my first indoor meal at a restaurant in more than 15 months.
In case you were wondering, the Stage Stop did technically pass supper-club muster, meeting many of the key requirements put forth by my Milwaukee-native friends and their nearest and dearest via text.
"Carpet, lots of meat, cheap and strong old fashioneds."
"Basically, a casual steakhouse."
"Living room/den vibe. Bar first, bread second, meat third."
"Steaks, drinks, relish tray [absent]."
"Ice cream cocktails. Full stop."
But this isn't really a story about supper clubs. Instead, I want to talk about the feeling that eating inside that old whatever-you-call-it elicited, which reminded me of what restaurants are really for.
As we passed through the double doors into the lively, carpeted (check!) bar, I hesitated momentarily, my mask dangling off one ear like some fabric hoop earrings you buy at an art fair and instantly regret. Half our party was already there, beckoning us toward their corner post at the square-shaped wood bar. Undoubtedly, one of my favorite features of supper clubs is that they're implicitly progressive. Even if you show up right on time and your table is ready, you always start at the bar — with a round of sweet brandy old fashioneds if you're serious.
Stage Stop exterior (Photo provided by Maggie Hennessy)
I ordered a dissentient Manhattan on the rocks, and we talked about the sort of nothing you only talk about at bars, such as what it would be like to be a singer with just one hit song. Hazy evening light poured in through the windows and tinted everything golden.
Eventually, a host led us through a narrow hallway to our table, situated across from the live-fire hearth where chefs churned out hulking steaks topped with rounded scoops of butter. Throughout the dining room, all kinds of occasions were taking place — from the special to the mundane. At the table next to ours, a large party of twenty-somethings clinked condensation-beaded Miller Lite bottles in celebration of something I couldn't hear. Beneath a framed flyer for the old Wilmot Hotel, a dressed-up older couple sipped Cokes with their filet mignons. A preteen wearing basketball shorts looked annoyed when his parents asked him to put his phone down as the salads arrived.
Our waitress deposited six huge laminated menus along with baskets of warm milk-bread rolls and a brick-shaped pound of butter for each end of the table.
"Ooh, you can add a lobster tail to your steak for $9.99!" my best friend Maggie cried.
I excused myself to appease the new-since-2020 demon who insists that hand sanitizer will never be as good as a thorough hand-washing. As I furiously scrubbed between my fingers, a woman smiled at me in the mirror.
Stage Stop menus (Photo provided by Maggie Hennessy)
"I drove here from Racine with my teenage boys," she said. "I used to come here every week when I was little. It's so nice being back."
"What a nice tradition you're restarting!" I replied, smiling back.
Some 20 minutes later, I was happily sawing through my gristly ribeye and slathering my baked potato with sour cream and chives and (more) butter. Our words tumbled out over one another, and we laughed so much that at one point I wondered whether the restaurant even had music on. When the waitress came to clear our plates, she asked if we wanted to-go boxes for the butter. "People do it all the time, hon," she assured me.
Going out to eat is a luxury. You pay two or three times for the same wine you'd buy at a shop and drink at home. Sometimes you over-order and waste food (especially when you haven't dined out in over a year). The people who cook for and serve you are too often underpaid and overworked for mostly thankless labor. And ever since the pandemic, this luxury now involves a much more tangible calculated risk for all involved.
The nuances became clearer to me about a month before our Stage Stop sojourn. Two weeks to the day after my second Pfizer shot, I dressed up and walked to Webster's Wine Bar, one of Chicago's oldest wine bars and my favorite in the city, for al fresco dinner by myself. The Centers for Disease Control had just declared that fully vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear a mask inside.
White Wine and Oysters (Photo provided by Maggie Hennessy)
"I'm vaccinated," the GM Charles said, gesturing at his unmasked face as I entered, masked, to request a table on the patio. "This is a thing I'm trying. Let me know if you're uncomfortable, and I'll put it on, but I figure we all have to get back there some time or another."
It was the kind of upfront honesty we so rarely got in life's surface-level exchanges pre-COVID. I wondered where he was mentally after spending months in a dark, empty bar packing up bottles of wine to go, then queasily inching back into reopening as the city's hospitality workers slowly got vaccinated. Meanwhile, I'd been holed up working from home, ordering groceries and washing my hands 'til they cracked.
I sat at a corner table overlooking Logan Square plaza and fell a little in love with everyone walking by in their summery outfits. I cried when I hugged Catie, the server, artist and DJ I've known for years, who waited on me. I ordered oysters and crunchy fried Japanese eggplant that burned my mouth, and I drank probably four glasses of wine — each of which was described to me with luscious verbiage like "savory and juicy" and "crisp and salty."
The experience couldn't have differed more from that of the Stage Stop, where, sure, we were apologetically shuffled back to the bar for dessert because they'd overbooked our table. But as we passed around silky Brandy Alexanders while the bartender regaled us with his (numerous) ghost sightings at the old inn, the joy, connection and collective shoulder drop were the same — and just what the six of us needed.
In one of my favorite email exchanges of recent memory, I asked friend and longtime Chicago chef and restaurant owner Scott Worsham (of coastal Spanish eatery mfk) what he thinks a restaurant is for.
"I'm so happy someone finally asked me this question," Worsham wrote. "The function of a restaurant is, for me, a gathering place for friends new and just met, loved ones, family, weddings, wakes, parties and more parties — it's supposed to be a part of the fabric of the neighborhood it's in. For me, a great restaurant is a miracle. It takes so much to make it work every day — it's almost impossible."
A restaurant is just a place you come and pay to eat and drink — a tiny vacation from your day-to-day. Maybe your luxury is eating surf and turf in jean shorts, slurping oysters and sipping muscadet from delicate stemware, introducing your kids to your favorite childhood restaurant or sharing ghost stories over ice cream cocktails. Technically, all of it is non-essential, and it takes so much effort to go off without a hitch. It always involves some risk, too — that something won't be cooked right, that the restaurant will be understaffed and overbooked, that someone will contract or pass along a virus. So why take such a gamble?
To relax, laugh, celebrate and eat something delicious; to connect, to care for someone and feel cared for — to feel the joy of being human.
More by this author:
- Observations from a Chicago Dunkin' Donuts
- A love letter to all the produce I haven't picked
- The nourishing joy of simmered whole chicken
- At Bombera, Oakland's Chicano cooking heritage is the future
- How to brew a better French press coffee, according to an expert
- Do not rage-cook mapo tofu, and other emotional kitchen lessons
- Tortilla española, mi cariño: An ode to the simple, perfect Spanish omelet
- My favorite, simplest eggplant parm (Yep, this recipe is as easy as it gets!)