Today must be the most bittersweet day in Charlie Trotter’s life: he’s packing his knives, closing his eponymous restaurant, and starting his life as a graduate student. But as one journey ends, another begins, so is the cycle of life. Countless media outlets have been talking about his life, professional career, and next steps.
Me? Well, let’s just start back at the beginning..
Let me backtrack about, oh, almost a decade. There we were, Jeffy and I, at Lincoln Park High School, but a block away from 816 West Armitage Avenue. There he was, Trotter, Principal for the Day, as he was many times before. The man was great, spending time in our school and giving back to the community. He was known for inviting students for a free meal at his restaurant, one that Jeffy had the opportunity to experience many moons ago…and I’m still green with envy because I never got my invite.
Then, with the blink of an eye, the announcement: Trotter’s is closing. I went twenty-five years without dining there. It took a closing announcement to finally get me there, and the wife and I (yay, we finally got married!) were pretty excited to experience what we assumed would be one of the most influential meals of our lives.
We arrived at Trotter’s, and never having been there, I was intrigued by its design. It is really a home, gutted and staged as a restaurant. Walking through the dining areas brought thoughts of Old Money, something that I will never have. In all honesty, it felt a little dated, with loose wallpaper and dim, yellow lights. I figured they weren’t concerned with buildings and grounds because they’d be closing soon. So I brushed it off.
We sat and were greeted by our server, who explained the two menu options and available beverages. The four of us (my wife, another friend, Jeffy, and I) sat for quite some time, waiting for our service team to come back to take our meal and drink orders (NA pairings for the table, and a glass of reisling for myself and the opening courses). After maybe ten minutes, our service team came back and we ordered. Finally, our meal was about to begin.
I’ll give it to him, Trotter was an innovator. But in today’s booming Chicago food scene, he’s slipped a little. This meal was dubbed “The Last Supper,” because it was the last meal my wife and I had together as unmarried people. We wanted something grand, so the menu seemed perfect. Three of us ordered the Grand Menu, which seemed very earthy and organic. My wife, however, has a more particular taste, one that excludes game and red meats. The kitchen was very good at accommodating their menu, creating a completely different one for her. Much kudos.
Here’s where it gets a little interesting…
Minutes go by, and I’m talking like twenty, before we see our service team again. Diners seated after us already have food. On our tables? Butter.
Tempted by hunger, I almost ate the butter. But lucky for us, someone comes by with a bread roll. The four of us devoured it. But really, it was bread, and we wanted something else.
The bread guy noticed that we licked our plates clean and brought another type of bread. The four of us stared at each other, unsure of what was happening. Then we ate this other bread. We must have tried a half-dozen rolls. Is this normal for Trotter’s? Hmm..
Happy to be at Trotter’s, but confused out of our minds, we sat for nearly twenty minutes between courses. At first we thought “Maybe this is how Old Money-fine dining is…” But really, a four hour meal could have easily been shortened to two and a half.
The food itself was okay, with only one dish that truly shone bright: hamachi + green tomato juice + kalamata olives + avocado sorbet. An interesting dish, indeed. Maybe it was the olives, which I am not too fond of. Maybe it was the avocado sorbet. Something about this dish literally made me stop, chew slowly, and think about what I was eating. Other than that, much of the menu, which was broken into thirds (seafood, meat, dessert) was, with all due respect, forgettable…and it really upsets me.
Our service team seemed to be more concerned with people that appeared to be more, how do I say this correctly, mature than us. To their defense, we are mid-twenty-somethings that look more like we are in our late-teens and early twenties, but really, service is service. It should be delivered equally across the board. My wife’s drinks, particularly water, were filled a whopping one time during our four hour dinner. We could not flag anybody down for a glass of anything.
Maybe I set the bar too high. But was it really that high? Trotter was the place to cook. It was the place to stage. It was the place to learn what it takes to work in a successful kitchen. It is the place that brings us some of our favorite chefs in this city, and cities across the globe.
Do I regret going to Trotter’s? The answer is two-fold. No, because it’s still Charlie-freakin-Trotter’s. It’s the birthplace of legends. Yes, because I think I went at the wrong time. Maybe it would have been different a year ago, five years ago. I have a feeling that during its prime, this place was crazy. Progressive beyond its years.
Yes, Charlie Trotter’s is closing. But all across the world, we can experience what it is, was, and will be through the people that this man taught. Thanks, CT.