I’m having trouble remembering exactly what happened that night. Maybe it was too long ago, or maybe I just blocked it out of my memory. That’s what people do after traumatic experiences, right? They subconsciously block it from their memory? That sounds good. Too bad that hasn’t happened yet. I wish it would.
It was, bar none, the single most uncomfortable dinner of my life.
It was Saturday, October 3 and I had decided to go see Zombieland with a few friends. The movie was enjoyable and everything I hoped it would be, nothing more or less. The movie let out around 10:30 p.m. and I decided that the group was hungry and we should swing by and get some food on the way back.
Enter the birthplace of my nightmares called What the Food.
For those of you who don’t know, What the Food is the new restaurant in the 800 block of Clark Street, across from Quartet Copies. I had heard the location was cursed (in that no restaurant has ever really strived there), but I didn’t believe it.
We noticed the shoddily made Fed-Ex Kinko’s advertisement outside the restaurant and I somehow coaxed my friends into trying the place out. I pulled open the door and followed them in. Matt Connolly pointed out the “CASH ONLY” signs written in scrawled-on Sharpie on the back of tax forms and I immediately began to question the establishment. Emily Kellner pointed out that only about two lights were on in the whole restaurant — two dim overhead chandeliers — and that the main room resembled a basement dungeon.
The waitress came over and handed us each two different menus, one that appeared to be hastily printed off from Microsoft Word and a larger, laminated menu that would have seemed legit had it not been from an entirely different restaurant. She hands us the menus and then walks to the back of the shop, picks up an old 1950s era rotary phone, sits on a stool, and just talks into the phone while staring at us for what feels like a good five minutes. She lovingly cradles the phone in both hands, how you might hold an infant, but to her face as if she were about to devour it.
The head chef came out of the kitchen and introduced himself and half-jokingly, half-angrily told us he was getting ready to go home until we showed up. He laughed and asked my roommate, Stephen Ling, if he was Chinese or Korean of Filipino or what have you. All of us were uncomfortable at how forward the chef was being, but Stephen responded that he’s Chinese, and the two shared a few words in Mandarin before the chef brazenly told us to ignore the menus and asked us what food we like. He said he wanted What the Food to be a sort of home cooking away from home type of establishment for students. We all balked at answering such a general question — “what food do you like?” Seriously?
We gave him our orders (he doesn’t believe me that restaurants in Evanston make sweet and sour tofu) and he decided to whip us up whatever the hell he felt like. Our waitress returned and took our drink orders, informing us that they ran out of ice. I matched eyes with Vanessa Dopker, sitting across from me, and we were both thinking the same question (taken as a direct quote from my Twitter, the archives of which I kept during the encounter and became a major source of inspiration for this story) — “How does a restaurant run out of ice? Can’t you, you know, make more?” The lack of ice also cued us in to a possible lack of freezer, something we didn’t want to know about in a restaurant.
It was around this time that I realized a major source of the ambience, or lack thereof — there was no music playing at all. Usually restaurants have some background music or white noise playing for you to sort of filter out, but this place was deathly silent. There was no background music and we were the only party in the restaurant. So when we were silent, a deafening hush fell over the grounds and when we talked, our voices carried to all corners of the building. We had to watch what we said, knowing full well that the waitress could hear everything and (presumably) relay the information through the old rotary telephone.
Matt asked the chef where the restroom was and he paused and responded, “Northwestern.” Then there was a really blatant, uncomfortable, three-second pause until the chef laughed, slowly putting a hand on Matt’s shoulder, and pointed in the back corner. All of us grimaced and died a little inside. Matt got up to use the restroom and when he returned, he told us about the cobweb-covered ladder in the corner leading up to the attic, a scene straight out of a horror movie. Matt also pointed out after we toasted jokingly “To Friends!” that this is how every trailer for a horror movie starts — a lighthearted toast followed by scenes of axe murderers and knife-wielding maniacs.
As we waited for our food to arrive, another group of students passed by the window and began reading the menus taped up outside. Matt got up and went outside the restaurant, telling them how uncomfortable it was in there and how they should just keep on walking. They glanced in at us and I was subtly giving them the universal signal for “bolt.” We were all a little afraid Matt was going to seize the opportunity and bolt himself, leaving us stranded.
Our food arrived and the dishes looked like variations of the same meal — the chef ignored “what foods we liked” and made whatever he wanted to with chicken, fish and tofu as the only substitutes. I pointed out that mine tasted like cigarettes. Soon everybody else thought their dish tasted like cigarettes. We ate quickly in silence and when the check came, we split it evenly and left without saying a word.
We gathered our things, walked past the big storefront window (out of their line of sight) and just bolted. We all just sprinted as fast as we could and as far as we could, fearing for our lives and our safety but thankful that we somehow made it out of there. We sprinted right through Sherman, ignoring the DO NOT WALK sign, and regrouped outside of Einstein’s. We all embraced in a cheesy group hug, the bonds of friendship strengthened by the terrible ordeal.
I think my friends still blame me. I said I was hungry after the movie and when we passed What the Food, I convinced everyone to try it. I’ll admit the name lured me in. It’s interesting advertising, to say the least. I think they still blame me for the worst dining experience of their lives.
But I stand by my decision. If I hadn’t chosen to enter, I wouldn’t have this story to tell.