What Does it Take to Make a (Great) Chicago Restaurant?

After a year of living here, I'm still trying to figure out what makes for a successful Chicago restaurant. This city has long held a reputation for being a great culinary destination, a place to uncover inspired dishes, some of which even New York or Paris have yet to rival. And with recent attention brought on by Top Chef and Food & Wine (Koren Grieveson at Avec and Giuseppe Tentori at BOKA are both Best New Chef winners for 2008), there's no doubt that the Windy City is a serious contender in the foodie world.

But it's not always the food that makes the restaurant. Take for instance, Powerhouse in the West Loop. My husband and I dined there last week and after almost ten months of being in business, they're failing to fill the dining room on a Friday night. Yet we enjoyed dish after dish that were consistently fantastic. Beginning with incredibly tender braised pork cheeks over polenta and a Hawaiian ono tartare with homemade anise seed crackers, and then moving on to my rack of wild boar served with artisanal rice grits, a poached egg and an ancho chile sauce and Greg's grilled swordfish over lobster ravioli, we couldn't help but compliment each plate that appeared before us.

But as we sat there, in the nearly empty dining room, housed in the stately and fabulously interesting old North Western Railway power plant, I couldn't help but wonder, what is it that makes one restaurant succeed and another fail?

After almost two decades spent working in the restaurant industry, I have a profound appreciation for all the components required to bring a dining establishment to life. I started early, waiting and bussing tables in my mother's restaurant when I was 13. From there it was only natural that I would pursue more jobs in the food industry. In high school, I worked at Ben & Jerry's and Waffle House and for various catering companies. In New York, in my late teens and early twenties, I worked in probably a dozen different restaurants; gathering tips in everything from late night diners to fine dining establishments in NoHo. I've assumed almost every possible role, from expediting to washing dishes, from the hostess stand to waiting on endless tables and bartending. I've even overseen the floor as a manager. And after all this, after knowing all that I know about the ins and outs of restaurants, I'm still baffled sometimes by why one succeeds when another does not.

Most of the time, I suppose, it has to do with so many variables that it becomes impossible to place the blame on just one. There are crazy and impulsive restaurant owners who take out their stress on their staff. There are surly waiters who are pinching from the till and there are lazy chefs, too depressed to fuel their dishes with any more inspiration than absolutely necessary. There are terrible choices in location and there is unforeseen competition. When you put all of these together, you usually end up with a place that sinks within weeks. Yet, when there are only one or two of these issues present, the restaurant simply wobbles like an unbalanced table, giving its patrons an uneasy feeling that they can hardly place.

Dining at Powerhouse last week brought to mind memories of my mother's restaurant. She was one of those vibrant women who always threw the best dinner parties in her circle of friends, who pored over every issue of Gourmet, and who had that special touch in the kitchen you just couldn't rival no matter how hard you tried. She was also one of those women who was so good at cooking that everyone constantly told her she should open her own restaurant, but when she finally did, it became immediately clear that while my mother knew a lot about food, she knew nothing about running a business. It was painful to stand by her side in the kitchen, night after night, as hardly a customer graced the front door. And before we knew it, her restaurant had taken on that air of doom, the kind that makes you give the place a wide berth just walking by outside.

I know enough to know that once that happens to a place, it's over.

I don't think it's over just yet for Powerhouse, but the place is wobbling. And it's a shame. But perhaps it's Darwin's survival of the fittest. In a food city as great as Chicago, they can't all be winners. Or can they?