It felt like being back in high school -- "Can you come pick me up?"
That was the opening line of a phone call home to my wife earlier this week, when I bizarrely ended up stranded in the wilds of downtown Evanston, Illinois.
It certainly wasn't where I expected to be.
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The plot line was simple enough. A friend from overseas was in Chicago for a day. The last time he passed through the Windy City, he made the mistake of admitting on his Facebook page that he had dinner at Cheesecake Factory. Oh how I scoffed at the idea that someone visiting Chicago should have to settle for corporate supersize food. Tony, I told my friend, the next time you come to Chicago, you absolutely must call me, and I will take you someplace great.
Thus the invitation came, with a one word demand: "steakhouse." Sure, that could have translated into Morton's, or Smith & Wollensky's, or Ruth's Chris. None of those, not even Morton's anymore, say "Chicago" to me though. I immediately started parsing through menus for alternatives. Michael Jordan's new restaurant, or Keefer's, or even Gibson's, all of them sounded great, but the menus were pure steakhouse classics. I wanted a vegetable side dish, not tree stalk asparagus. I wanted some kitchen talent, not just good provisioning of high quality meat.
I made the reservation for David Burke's Primehouse. Though I had never eaten there, I had sampled their cuisine at local foodie events, and the menu was perfect. When a steakhouse is gutsy enough to also put lobster scrambled eggs on its menu as a side dish, you know you are in for something good.
With a 6 p.m. reservation to accommodate another friend who works downtown, I debated for days whether to drive or take the Metra. Driving into the city at 5 p.m. is always a crap shoot from Highland Park. Some days it can be smooth sailing, but others you get to that electric sign at Tower Road and it says "60 minutes to Kennedy," followed by the one at Touhy blaring "75 minutes to Circle." It made much more sense to catch the train, get some work done en route, and just grab a taxi from North Western station.
As we approached Evanston Central Street, one of the conductors announced "all conductors to PA." A few moments later, we were told the train would be stopping at Evanston's Davis Street due to a "pedestrian incident" at the Rogers Park station. In my day job, we often think about fault tolerance, and designing systems without a single point of failure. Experience says these accident-based delays are never short and I started to consider plan "B." Davis Street was the most fortunate place to do so, with a CTA purple line station located literally next door. I packed up my stuff and got ready to sprint to the other train.
Pulling into Davis Street, a passenger exclaimed loudly "the El is shut down, too!" Turns out that due to the proximity of a fire at Roy's Furniture on Chicago's north side, the red, purple and brown lines were all halted as well.
And, of course, there were no trains coming north on the Metra line, as outbound rush hour commuters were stuck south of Rogers Park. Both tentacles coming out of Chicago to the north were effectively inoperable, simultaneously. The failover plan had failed.
When I made the call home, my wife realized faster than I did that I was stuck. There would be no 55-day Himalayan salt dry-aged bone-in ribeye, cooked to a perfect medium rare, sitting on my plate tonight. No bus from Evanston would get me to dinner in time, no taxi could traverse what would then be extremely crowded arterials. Dejectedly, I accepted my wife's offer to retrieve me from Evanston, as no other realistic option presented itself.
Not all was lost, however. The Davis Street station is conveniently one block away from my all-time favorite suburban noodle house, Lulu's. I've been going there regularly since it opened in 1993, and the menu hasn't really changed much in two decades. I called my wife back and told her to pick me up at Lulu's. The Vietnamese rice noodle salad was healthier than the "South Side Bone-In Filet" anyway, and certainly a choice I would not regret as much as David Burke's "beer-battered onion rings with bacon mustard."
My friends relished the opportunity to tweet up a storm about their great dinner at Primehouse. However, I might have had the better end of the deal, being able to sit with my wife and younger daughter for a couple of hours instead of being stuck on a train in the middle of Evanston.