Thursday, October 20, 2016

South Side Communal - Eating at Chicago's Legendary Valois

Consider this the culinary last stand of a golden age of American dining.  Consider this the fucking Alamo.  Because almost nowhere else do places like this any longer exist.  Places that effortlessly celebrate, with an unflappable—and unwavering—generosity of portion size and heart, the convivial confluence and comingling of a spectroscopic multiplicity of class and culture over the once-sacrosanct shared experience of the deeply delicious, deeply affordable, hot meal eaten at a square Formica table among fellow diners with whom we might otherwise, in our own socially myopic lives, have precious little traffic.  Black.  White.  Rich.  Poor.  Students.  Day laborers.  Windsor-knotted portfolio managers.  They’re all gathered here, in this shining last bastion of a soon-to-be bygone era of American restaurantism, blithely unaware of anything approaching too-cool-for-school gastronomic irony, and happily impervious to hirsute hipsters and the douchbaggery of frat boys and popped-polo-collar bros now endemic—and with the seeming ubiquity of a near-biblical pestilence—to most big city food scenes.  Not here.  No way.  Not here on South Side of Chicago.  This place will suffer none of that.  Why?  Because it doesn’t have to.  Because this place is the one, the only, Valois.


Opened in 1921, Valois (which the local South Side Chicago-ese patois requires you to pronounce as Val-oiz) is an ethnographic study in Eisenhower-era dining milieu and the-future-is-now gastronomy of post-war America.  Valois is also a cafeteria in the best—and truest—sense of the word.  Enter through the East 53rd Street egress, join the s-shaped line (because there is always, always a line at Valois, yo), and behold the menu board mounted above the service line.  There, you’ll discover such hallowed dine-o-classics as the chopped steak sandwich and the perennially-venerable patty melt on rye.  There are opened-faced sandwiches, of course—hot turkey with mash [sic] potatoes, for one—and breakfast, always breakfast, served all day; omelettes [sic] pancakes, and breakfast meats in their forever-glorious and sundry forms, all at low, low Carter-era prices. 

[To wit:  despite the undeniable scrumptiousness of its culinary offerings, spelling is evidently not Valois’ forte.]

And as dazzling in sentimental wonder as the selection on the menu board might be, it’s the daily specials served up from the steam table for which South Sider Chicagoans line up and clamor, enduringly.  For there, behind the fogged-up glass of the age-old metal pass, are piles of pre-seared T-bones and New York strips (and brought up to serving temperature with a few, well-spent moments on an incendiary flat-top grill).  There, too, on the steam-heated line, are heaps of baked chicken, pre-fried catfish, and barbeque ribs—all of it a bona fide cornucopia of comfort food hall-of-fame classics.

For my meal at Valois last week, I ordered a time-honored cafeteria favorite:  I ordered the roast beef.  With my order came a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and carrots, and a roll.  What I received after my order was served was a platter of food the size of a small dog bed and weighing as much as a boat anchor.  And, yes, the baby-shit colored brown gravy might have been straight from the jar; the mashed potatoes might very well have been reconstituted from dystopian-resistant dried potato flakes; the peas and carrots might have tasted, however vaguely, of a BPA-lined industrial-sized can.  With that said, however, I will avow, with a preacher’s deep solemnity and a missionary’s mighty zeal, my meal at Valois was—if not finest in culinary accomplishment in recent memory—then certainly the happiest in many months well-crowded with gastronomic merry-making contenders.  But how, you ask.  How could Valois—given its limited culinary capability and scope—be so insistently popular with South Side eaters, and—now—one of my all-time favorite places to eat in the food-lovers Brigadoon that is the megalopolis of Chicago? 

That’s easy.

Because the food of Valois attains a nirvana-like state of deliciousness in ways that other contemporary restaurants sired amid the zeitgeist of the post-post-modern culinary world of Food Network fetishism simply can’t.  Because Valois occupies—nearly alone—the liminal space of middle distance in the gastronomic world that is both unfettered by food trends (bone broth, anyone?), and purely undaunted by that mirrored Orwellian funhouse of culinary doublespeak wherein diners prattle on and on about “flavor profile” and “mouth feel” and “uniformity of chew.”  Because the food of Valois feeds you—fills you up—in ways that are almost Aristotelian in their nourishment of the soul so rarely—if ever—found beyond the four walls of your own mother’s kitchen.  Because the food of Valois is served by a standing army of Greek men—young and old—outfitted in standard-issue polyester snap-whites and peaked, paper hats.  And because—and this, perhaps, above all else—Valois is among the very last of its kind: a final holdout of cafeteria-style communal dining, whose penultimate mission, however tacit or implied, is driven by the provision of wonderfully tasty, deeply comforting, food priced affordably for any who should crave an open-faced sandwich smothered in gravy, or a slice of banana cream pie. 

Go to Valois while it’s still there.  I urge you.  I implore you.  Because nothing this good ever lasts forever.

Your link: Valois