As soon as I get a little bit of money, I spend it on some novel dining experience. One time my brother and I hit 4 restaurants in the same night. Another time I drunkenly slammed 40 dollars on a bar counter to purchase all the little bags of chips at a bar in Pittsburgh. I've picked up a lot of checks just to look and feel cool. Nothing feels better than saying the words, "I got it.” I’m not going to mince words here: Spending money is impressive to me, especially because I usually have so little of it to manage. One rare evening in Chicago, though, I got the opportunity to do something several degrees above my pay grade and social status.
In 2014 I ate at L20, a two Michelin starred restaurant where the chef de cuisine just so happened to be our friend, Bob Broskey (the only thing cooler than saying “I got it” is “I know the guy”). My brother, Anthony, was getting married and instead of a bachelor party he wanted to have a private, drunken gorge affair of the highest quality. Anthony's best man, Rod, would also be in attendance. Rod's the type of guy that would wear a Steeler's jersey to dinner if he could. When he showed up to the rooftop of the Lincoln hotel in Chicago, I'll never forget that he ordered a Yuengling and our server just stared at him with blank disdain. Rod wasn't a foodie. He didn't care that the chefs at L20 worked with Laurent Gras or that we'd be dining in one of the best restaurants in America. My man had no clue what a Michelin guide was and I loved that he was in the mix. Not a one of us had ever been to a Michelin starred restaurant before, but how different could it be? You sit, you eat, then you leave. We were boozed up and high before we even got in the cab.
As soon as I walked through the cartoonishly large wooden doors of L20, I immediately lost my buzz. It was like being pulled over by the cops. "Oh, shit," I probably whispered out loud. There was almost no noise. Most restaurants have at least a little bit of chatter, but this seemed like a sensory deprivation tank. It was so quiet, dark, and ominous that I thought for a second this was going to be one of those scenarios where it turns out that I was the one being eaten. I was blindsided by the ambiance. The lighting portrayed a secret society and I was to be in consideration for membership. Everything screamed, “This is the last meal you will ever eat.” Also, I was having this crazy week and forgot to put on a belt before we left the hotel. I did that move where I casually had my hand in my pocket but really I was holding up my pants. We sat down. I looked at my brother, who looked at his best man, who looked at me. We all communicated telepathically. "We shouldn't be here," we whispered to each other's minds.
They bring hot towels, and the waiter presides over our table as he watches us use them. The only problem is we didn’t use them at all. We were so high that we had no clue what to do with the towels. We just looked at them, then looked at each other, then the waiter who is just standing there like a god damn prison guard. Eventually he just took them away. I imagine he sighed heavily. Immediately, I became worried that we brought shame to Bob and his restaurant. Then, the first course comes out. It's a crab chip glued to a wooden orb with an apple cider fluid gel. It tastes like Maryland, a place I'd never been. We eat one single chip, and they take away the wooden orb. My paranoia subsides. My high stabilizes. I felt elation because I knew that we were about to go for a ride. 17 courses paired with wine. That's what chef Bob Broskey had in store for us.
Anthony and I know Bob because the three of us got very drunk one Christmas Eve morning in Pittsburgh. We posted up on the back docks of a deli, at 7AM, and drank a lot of hush-hush free homemade wine brewed by the employees and served in Dixie cups. Now, I won’t disclose the name of the deli publicly, but if you contact me I will more than happily tell you where to meet us every Christmas Eve for free wine and the best meats and cheeses in the city. We got drunk, bought produce, and I think we talked to every stranger that crossed our path on Penn Avenue. Bob's incredibly down to earth. This wasn't some maniac from Chef's Table. This was Bob. This was the guy telling people at a fish market that I was John Stamos' nephew. It was bizarre to me that he was a chef of this caliber. Maybe I have a stigma that guys like him are supposed to be pretentious. My hesitance with fine dining and the chefs who produce it usually amounts to, "Who's this for?" When you start to look at the bill, it becomes clear that it’s not you or I. Artistic and thoughtful meals usually come with a hefty price tag. A lot of times it feels like cooking with money instead of cooking with love. Bob serving this type of food felt like an anomaly. Entering L20 felt like I was infiltrating high society. I was lower class trash masquerading as a wealthy man (still in poor people’s clothes, mind you). I was a spy. That’s how it started, anyway. By the end of the meal what I actually thought was, “I would be such a good rich person.”
At a place like L20, so much damn thought that goes into each dish. If you love food, you're going to pick up on those thoughts. You're going to see exactly what the chefs are trying to communicate without saying it. The lobster minestrone, for instance, tasted like the ocean. As I slurped the consommé I thought, "This is like drinkable sea water." Later, when Bob said, "I wanted it to taste like the ocean," I felt validated in understanding his intentions. Fun story about the minestrone: Each little vegetable - the carrots, celery, all of it – is cut so small and shaped like the tiny ditalini pasta that you would see floating around in soup. "I give that job to whoever I hate the most at the time," Bob said about the precisely cut micro circles. Without a doubt, cutting those vegetables takes the discipline of somebody fresh out of culinary school who is willing to take a beating just to obtain some sacred kitchen knowledge. What the minestrone made me realize is that that fine dining is cooking with love, but it’s not the love of your grandmother, it’s a love and appreciation of high art.
At about 9 courses in, our friend, Rod, turns to us with agony and says, "I'm so full." I looked at my brother, then our friend, and whispered, "Rodney, I don't think you understand. We have to finish this." There was no wall for me or my brother. We knew what had to be done, and we helped Rod finish his salad gourmande soon after. The salade gourmande was one of the heaviest dishes of the evening. It was a precise, tweezer-constructed French "salad" of foie, haricots verts, truffle, and mojama - a Spanish salt cured tuna. It was snorting umami off a broken mirror. It almost felt like a joke to give us a salad course this heavy. "You're serving them foie two courses in a row? Why?" That is apparently what chef Matthew Kirkley said to Bob as he prepared our dinner. Bob knew what he was doing. He knew Anthony and I were pirates like him. There wasn’t going to be any empty plates, even if it meant discomfort. Being too full from foie and jamón ibérico and truffles and geoduck is as intense as it sounds. “My body is filled with….treasure?” I can still feel the time sensitive mussel tart melt away in my mouth like some sort of decadent seafood candy. I can remember the smells and tastes like they were something I ate a thousand times after baseball practice. I had to question my upbringing. "Wait, did I grow up near the ocean?" In a word, L20 was memorable, even moreso because I knew that I'd never be back. It was a vacation. I wasn't married to eating like this.
The bill was close to $800 and it should have been way more. I think we estimated $1,400 or something. Point is, this wasn't affordable even with the "I know a guy" discount. We paid and tipped not nearly as much as we should have. I think it was a cool 20% but when somebody gives you a discount of $600, that warrants a lot more than industry standard. We were scum, and we didn’t belong. Bob invited us to see the kitchen, then I used the bathroom (hilarious to me that people use toilets at high-end establishments). After three hours of eating and drinking, the host finally waved us a cab. I took it back to a friend's apartment. It was towards the end of this wonderful week in August that I spent doing shows and connecting with somebody I hadn't seen in almost 10 years. We were both going through bad break ups and found comfort in each other for the week. I was too full to have sex and thankfully she was asleep by the time I got back. I crawled into her bed. The next morning, as I was packing, she said, "I’m not really ready for you to leave yet." I felt the same way. We talked about seeing each other again, but it never happened. It wouldn't have made much sense. That week was so good, I haven't been back to Chicago or seen her since. Matter of fact, I haven’t seen Bob or been to another fancy restaurant either. Maybe that’s what fine dining is - an unsustainable, but perfectly in the moment Summer fling.
L20 closed less than a year after our visit - but Bob’s new restaurant in Chicago is Beacon Tavern