The most important upscale restaurant in the history of Chicago is going to close. After 25 years, Charlie Trotter plans to shutter his eponymous Lincoln Park restaurant, which opened on Armitage when that was the far frontier of yuppiedom in 1987, in August. The news hasn’t always been good lately for Trotter, who’s had trouble expanding beyond his original restaurant and saw others who worked for him score better with the Michelin stars when they finally came to Chicago. And he’s been a bit of a punching bag for people (chefs who need a father figure to have a rivalry with, foodies who didn’t realize that chefs can be unpleasant hardasses until they saw Heather Terhune on Top Chef a couple of weeks ago), but let’s take the long view here. Which is: It’s Charlie Trotter’s world, we just eat in it.
And as with Frank Sinatra, of whom that was originally said, for every detractor there’s an admirer who counts himself lucky to have been in the same business when the guy was remaking it in his shape. The closing of his restaurant is the passing of a legendary place whose influence on our present foodie world cannot be overestimated — nearly everything about our fine dining and cheffy scene was, if not invented or solely practiced by Trotter, brought to a state of perfection and global influence at his restaurant. If your plate of ostensibly French food has Asian influences, if it came from things sold at the farmers’ market and will change when they do, if the atmosphere of your restaurant is as much art museum minimalism as restaurant glitz, if it seems normal to you to want to see the kitchen where your food is being prepared (even to eat in it), if you know the name and face of your chef, if you own a ten-pound cookbook of his dishes that serves more as a memento of the chef’s artistry than as anything you’d cook from yourself … above all, if it seems normal to you that the best restaurant in America could be anywhere other than New York City, Charlie Trotter is the reason why.
Trotter opened his restaurant at the tender age of 27 and quickly became the food scene figure of a national discovery of post–Richard J. Daley Chicago as a cultural force, alongside Siskel and Ebert, the Saturday Night Live crew, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey. His lavish cookbooks, the first of which was published in 1994, and 1999 PBS series Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter helped set the pattern for the present foodie culture. At the same time, his personal reputation as a hard-driving perfectionist working with a strong Ayn Rand influence of ambition and steeliness led to a series of management books, which popularized the idea that corporate America could learn excellence from the very different (and subtly romanticized) blue collar world of cooking and service — a notion that would have boggled the minds of an earlier generation of Don Drapers, for all the time they spent in restaurants and bars.
But if he shaped the present world, it also passed him by in certain ways. Ex-employees who followed him into high-end dining, such as Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy, went far past his relatively simple and clean food to embrace the more exotic and dazzling molecular gastronomy techniques of Ferran Adria; others such as Bill Kim and, most recently, Matthias Merges of Yusho chose not to open their own white-tableclothed establishments but to experiment with more laid-back ethnic food spots. And Trotter has never really managed to expand beyond his Armitage restaurant for very long; his Trotter’s To Go deli has only a single location, and he became better known for ambitious expansion plans that never came to fruition (in the space that is now New York’s One Madison Park, and the Elysian Hotel that is now home to Ria and Balsan) than ones that succeeded (a Las Vegas outpost lasted two years).
Trotter, a grand old man of just 52, told the Sun-Times he plans to enter a graduate program and get a master’s, and to enjoy time off with his wife of just two years, but first he clearly plans to treat the remaining eight months as a valedictory lap and to host old friends such as Alain Ducasse in his kitchen. Whatever you may think of his restaurant in recent times, on the scale of the quarter century for which it has existed, a congratulatory season is well deserved.