THE CHICAGO RIB SHACK
THE CHICAGO RIBSHACK: A MEMOIR FROM H2
I have just moved down from my home town of Rotherham, four A' Levels in hand and am about to begin three years of Theological navel gazing at King's College London.
I already have a passion for food. It is more enthusiastic than knowledgeable (some may say it still is, to which I eruditely reply "bite me") a passion shared and surpassed by my older brother known to you here as H1.
During my first weekend away from home, he invites me to have dinner with him and chooses The Chicago Rib shack in Knightsbridge. I can still recall every detail of the meal. Although, for DH that is not an astonishing fact as our family can just about recall every bite of food that has ever passed our lips. They provide the guideposts to our family history.
Excellent ribs, the best onion loaf I have eaten, before or since and cold beers with exotic sounding names like Rolling Rock and Coors. It was a great evening finished with, if I recall a visit to see "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" one of the films from Steve Martin's "funny" period. I didn't enjoy the film mainly because, the Rotherham lad in me which I have never quite killed off, was worried that two men sitting together in a cinema might be considered "odd"
Subsequent visits to other restaurants in the chain, The Chicago Meatpackers and Pizza Pie Factory were equally fun and the food good, despite the fact that pizza is officially snot on toast. The owner, Bob Payton was often on hand as a server (which I am told he did at each place at least once each week to make sure standards were being kept high) and food was reasonably priced, an important point for a student of small means.
Then, in the early 90's Payton died in a tragic motoring accident on the road to his home near Cambridge. His death, I believe was mercifully quick, but the chain died a slow lingering death and my last visit showed a tired, listless operation waiting to be put out of its misery, which it was shortly afterwards.
So, now it is back. Same chef (sort of) and just across the road from its original site
Part of me wants to love it. Part of me wants H1 to report that his visit was a Proustian madeleine moment, A La Recherche De Ribs Perdu if you will. But, part of me expects it to be dreadful. It was one of the first of its kind, but was of its time. Now there are too many ersatz American restaurants where people wear 'flair" and hunker down at the tables before offering you a pornographic sounding cocktail.
Their food may not be as good, but people's expectations of such places are so much less thanks to the grim arrival of places like TGI Friday and Planet Hollywood. Let us not forget that London restaurants are oh so good at living down to people's expectations.
You can never go back. It is like meeting your once lithe, slim college sweetheart at a reunion only to find that she, like you, is now plump, filled with cynicism and showing signs of wear and tear.
I expect it to be appalling. But, I shall be very sad to hear that it is.
Read below to see what H1 thought of his meal there.
From keyboard man in a rock'n ska band
To haulin' boss crude in the big rigs
The Chicago Rib Shack was one of the first (if not the first) restaurants where I took HS for a meal when he came down to study in London back ’82. In those days it was a bit of a fixture for me on the dining circuit along with Bob Payton’s other gaff, the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. At the cheaper end of the market there wasn’t really much choice aside from dodgy curry houses, pasta joints, wine bars etc. Bob Payton’s places promised a bit of excitement: American Sports on the TVs, imported beers and, very un-English this, good service.
Roll forward twenty-six years and ‘The Shack’ has been relaunched. Of course these days things are not so simple so an agency was employed to run a campaign on Facebook and drip feed rumours of the restaurant’s imminent return. It seems to have worked though as the agency claim there were 3,000 bookings taken for the opening 72 hours.
When I visited they were still in soft opening mode which didn’t mean I got a discount but did mean I got to eat with fewer people. I can’t remember a lot about the décor of the site’s previous incumbent, Mocoto, but it’s now all exposed brick, dark wood and tables reclaimed from the original Rib Shack which I was surprised to learn limped on until the early nineties.
So what’s the food like ? Well, first, it’s best to bear in mind that the best BBQ is to be found in TX, USA. A few years ago during a DH does Texas road trip I was lucky enough to go to towns like Lockhart where fantastic Q can be eaten, by the pound, at several hangar-like temples to the art. The devotion to Q is pitched at religious levels. Even New Yorkers attempts are seen as utterly risible. So no pressure there then.
As it turned out everything was much as I expected (a common theme these days although I always hope for a surprise) and I’d be surprised if much had changed since my last visit all those years ago.
Aside from ribs there’s all the usual staples that you’d find in similar ersatz joints majoring in Americana like Big Salads, Burgers and Steaks although one or two unusual items stand out like the Suckling Pig.
Since I was planning to go long on ribs for my main course I skipped starters and went for an Dry Martini instead. Ah, the pleasures of the liquid starter.
Of my two types of ribs the Beef ones were better. Though lacking a deep beefy taste the short ribs were moist and tasty and didn’t fall too easily from the bone which I understand from devotees is a good thing. I’ve had better ribs in London at Bodeans but that was five years ago and I’ve heard that it’s not so great these days. The BBQ sauce was good although, in the Texas manner, I prefer it on the side. Other Bits - spiced cubes of potato – were moreish and a pleasant change from chips. The chunky coleslaw was a lot better than the gloopy norm.
My combination platter was not so successful. The Baby Back Ribs were dry, ameliorated somewhat by the sauce, unlike the chicken where no amount of dousing was going to improve matters. I left most of it. The Brisket was cut very thinly and was characterless in taste. The pulled pork was better but you have to really like their sauce as it was over everything. My Other Bits (oo-errrr) in this dish weren’t so good and were slightly cold.
I really wanted to keep in the spirit of things and go for something like Apple Pie or a Banana Split but having two main courses did for me (I tried, I really tried). I did have some decent ice cream – it’s wonderful how a few minutes improve the appetite - but two scoops did seem a bit, well, mean. The prices are not exactly bargain basement either but this is Knightsbridge not some shack in West Texas.
I have to say it’s not an auspicious location for a restaurant. The aforementioned Mocoto and Oliver Peyton’s (no relation) Isola both crashed and burned on this site. It’s also not on the main drag where Harrods is so passing trade may be limited. The owners seem very confident though, when booking you’re confronted with a long list of T&Cs:
Bookings made between 6-8pm Monday - Sunday have a strict 2 hours at the table.
Bookings made between 12noon -2pm Saturday / Sunday and Bank Holidays have a strict 2 hours at the table.
We will be re-allocating this table to other guests after 2 hours.
Your meal is served to you efficiently and comfortably within 2 hours; but do please be on time for your Table!
Our bar will be open for you to enjoy, so arrive early for your table and stay behind for some drinks after dinner.
Bookings made Monday - Sunday 8-10pm
It is highly likely that your table will not be available before 8pm if you do arrive early, you are welcome to enjoy drinks in the bar.
If we are running a few minutes late with your table, don’t worry as you will always get at least 2 hours at the table to………etc etc ad nauseum.
So let’s hope they get enough custom to make table turning a necessity. It would look a bit silly being turfed off your table in an empty restaurant. Mind you, not as silly as me wearing my bib - it's house rules I was told.