Feature photo by rbman
Throwing coins from pockets, angry hands filled the night air with streams of copper and silver, hostile gestures symbolizing payoff. Once indifferent as reluctant gods, streetlamps transformed as the riots sullied their apathetic wan. Hanging over the drama, they became PIXAR lamps beaming down with all the theatrics of manned spotlights on the black and blues of uniformed Greenwich Village police and their plain clothed counterparts. These officers and their once acceptable actions were brought out from the shadows on a day that Allen Ginsberg referred to as “the day the fags lost their scared look.” We now refer to this event as the Stonewall Riots. October is LGBT History Month, and I was assigned to feature an LGBT restaurant. With such reenactment drama in my head, the choice of where to dine became much more complicated.
Chicago is blessed with not only the diversity of LGBT-friendly establishments but entire LGBT neighborhoods. Eating at a restaurant in one of these neighborhoods would probably meet such simple criteria as I was assigned. But how far does this go? If I featured a McDonalds in Boystown, would that be enough? Or what if I ventured outside of an LGBT neighborhood and dined at a restaurant passing muster by virtue of its credentials on an LGBT website? Such questions began to materialize due in part to the inherent complexity of the LGBT Movement pointing toward why we still need an entire month devoted to understanding just what happened and what is still happening. Hunger – I was craving a burger – helped along the decision-making as I chose as my iconic LGBT restaurant Chicago’s Hamburger Mary’s in the very gay (and lesbian, bi, trans, and queer) Andersonville. Like the dilemma, other considerations also helped me make my decision.
Looking a little like a lovechild of the Roaring Twenties and the Disco Era of the 70’s and early 80’s, Hamburger Mary’s is so gay. Really. Actually, I’m not sure what that means anymore except that like porn, you know it when you see it. Television sets adorning each wall featured a black and white movie. Photos of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and other such Hollywood iconography hung in other key locations. Reds and purples, some of them in velvet, tassled and swagged light fixtures, walls, and anywhere else they could dangle. A disco ball, like the all-seeing eye, kept watch over the entire room. A lone pillar bejeweled with red mirrored tiles provided an added flourish of flair. The entire motif flirted with gaudy and unforgivable decorative relish overwhelming the most forgiving of the hungry. However, something was keeping everything from evoking that sensory overload that, like a Japanese cartoon or my hair in the wrong light, presents an opportunity for a seizure. What wasn’t so mysterious was Jason, the incredibly attentive server who was patient with all my questions and helpful with suggestions that made my night go from good to great.
Starting with what I feel comfortable in describing as the gay version of the Roy Rogers was the Ginger Rogers Martini in which the cola was replaced with delicious vodka infused with ginger. Jason was careful to mention that martinis are $2 off on Wednesdays. While not Wednesday, my drink still tasted quite delicious and exciting as it paired very well with the Asian Lettuce Wraps with Chicken I ordered for an appetizer.
Like the mysterious balance tempering the décor, this appetizer flirted with failure and won. Too much glaze on the chicken can not only overwhelm but steep the wonton ribbons into a mush. Indeed, there are perils to this little aperitif. Thankfully, the sauce arrived in moderation. The sweet, unmistakable savor of Hoisin, the subtle heat of ginger, the pungent sulphur of garlic – it doesn’t take much to delight. I just loved how this paired so well with my Ginger Rogers, a pairing reminding me to not overlook spirits as a food-pairing accompaniment although spirits will never be as sensitive to food as wine. It was about this time I noticed the chicken was not only tender and juicy, it contained no growth hormones or antibiotics and was purchased from a supplier who practices humane treatment of both winged and hoofed critters – menu knowledge as useful as any of the entrée descriptions. After all, as Mary says, “You are what you eat.” And really, who wants to be an antibiotic or a growth hormone?
The Mighty Aphrodite on a multigrain bun with a side of regular French fries seasoned with salt, pepper, and 17 other spices – I kid not – arrived as my main course care of Jason’s expert recommendation. My palate was unable to suss out the complexity of the French fry spices although I thought I tasted some basil. The burger wasn’t as complicated although for a burger, it had a lot going on. Stuffed with black olives, spinach, and oregano, it could have been served on a stick, and I would have been just as happy. The melted Feta cheese on top, however, made this burger’s name truly appropriate. What’s referred to as a “desirable rancid flavor” along with a tinge of bitterness and the heft of creaminess played so well against the crisp onion and leafy spinach. The multigrain bun also proved inert enough to not distract yet was delicious in that naughty bread way. Yet again, another example of the roll, pitch, and yaw of this place striking a balance.
Full and barely able to see as my body succumbed to food coma, I scanned the room. I squinted at the door of The Attic, an upper level I avoided that night because a fundraiser for someone in need was taking up the space. I thought about their guest bartenders and how they were mixing drinks in the name of a cause. I looked around the Rec Room at their homebrewed beer tanks and thought about the close relationship religion has with brewing beer and how that made so much sense. I looked around for all the plants and thought how it was strange there were no plants. And then I remembered the ferns.
Mentioned in her origin story was Hamburger Mary’s reason for emergence: “a rebuttal to the fern bars of the late 70’s and early 80’s.” I had never heard of a fern bar – think Tiffany lampshades, lots of wall art, and, well, ferns – until this document came across my way and actually forgot about it until the bill arrived in a ruby slipper. With all the subtlety of a drag queen, things started to make sense.
Some argue the Stonewall Riots happened because of Judy Garland’s funeral. In particular, never before had so many members of the LGBT community been together but together and in a terrible mood. After standing up to the Law, they created what anthropologist Marvin Harris refers to (and this is from the research of John Lee) as “‘institutional completeness’—the ability of contemporary liberated gay men or women to go through life using businesses and services dominated by or dedicated to homosexual needs.” Before this completeness included a comprehensive offering of restaurants, the fern bars ruled in that boring, tepid way that ferns and stain leaded glass can rule…ok. My theory wasn’t sound, lacked peer review, and basically all the trappings of reason. But the mystery of Hamburger Mary’s still felt decoded to me. Down to the check presenter – Ruby shoe – there was thought and care behind everything in a way that honored the LGBT movement while still having fun doing it. And fortunately, great food happened, too.
5400 N. Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60640
Dining Room/Rec Room
11:30am to 11:00pm
Weekend brunch every
Saturday and Sunday
From 10:30am to 3:00pm
Wednesday: 8pm to 2am
Thursday: 8pm to 2am
Friday: 8pm to 2am
Saturday: 8pm to 3am
Sunday: 8pm to 2am