The Bongo Room turns 25: A look back at Wicker Park's beloved brunch spot | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

The Bongo Room turns 25: A look back at Wicker Park's beloved brunch spot 

“We’d just sit over pancakes and have these big dreams.”

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What is it with brunch? What's so special about pancakes and eggs that we're willing to suffer the indignity of hour-long waits, often with hangovers or small children in tow? Why are we willing to pack cheek to jowl inside a freezing vestibule, bleary-eyed and undercaffeinated when, as my mother likes to say, we could've just eaten at home? Brunch is one of those odd cultural phenomena that defy explanation. There's just something about a steaming mug of coffee, the mercy of a Bloody Mary, the cheerful din of brunching humanity; certain intangible qualities that simply can't be reproduced at home.

Of all the places to wait in line for pancakes, few inspire more nostalgia in Chicago than the Bongo Room. Opened on July 5, 1993, at 1560 N. Damen, the Bongo Room quickly became a Wicker Park mainstay, serving coffee and muffins to the neighborhood's artists, musicians, and students. As the years passed, the Bongo Room expanded to three locations (the others are in Andersonville and the South Loop), growing from a scruffy little DIY spot under the el tracks to a polished, grown-up brand. In many ways, the evolution of the Bongo Room mirrored the transformation of the neighborhood where it was born. The Wicker Park of today is a world away from the bohemian playground it was in 1993.

It's kind of serendipitous that the 25th anniversary of the Bongo Room's opening coincides almost directly with the 25th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair's first release, her seminal, girly howl. Phair was a Bongo Room regular back before anyone outside of the neighborhood knew who she was. Guyville was a paean to a certain time in the life of a girl. As someone who was a girl in her 20s once, I can tell you it's a tender time, electric with possibility and shot through with loneliness and angst, a time when you vacillate between feeling dizzyingly in control and hopelessly lost, often within the space of an hour. One of Guyville's most famous songs, "Fuck and Run," isn't just about sex, it's about being thwarted at every shortcut on the road to becoming the woman you want to be.

When I started compiling this oral history of the Bongo Room, I assumed it would follow a traditional narrative: We were small and then we got big, we had one restaurant and then we had three, we were poor and then we weren't. You know, the success story, the American dream, all the stuff we're conditioned to want. But what emerged was a story far more personal and smaller in scope: a love letter not only to the Bongo Room, but to a time in life when your friends are everything and your future is just beginning to take shape.

John Latino and Derrick Robles, the two friends who founded the Bongo Room and still run it today, are endearingly averse to the spotlight. In this era of Instagram food porn and celebrity chefs, they are refreshingly low-key, preferring to steer the focus of our interviews to a group of people who helped them along the way. And that is how this story became about the girls. They're women now, women who have, in Robles's words, "forged amazing lives for themselves." But back then, they were girls who found each other at that tender time in life and made the Bongo Room their home.

They are: Megan Stielstra, author of three collections of essays and an artist in residence at Northwestern University; Kristin Lewis, a public affairs manager at U.S. Cellular whose work centers around charitable giving to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America; Gabrielle Shelton, a sculptor and architectural metalworker who runs Shelton Studios in Brooklyn; Manao Davidson, a Los Angeles-based actor who also founded two brunch restaurants with fellow Bongo Room alum D'Nell Larson; and Margaret MacKay, who stepped back from a career in social work to bravely raise three boys.

click to enlarge COURTESY DERRICK ROBLES
  • courtesy Derrick Robles

John Latino: When we started Bongo Room, I was 26 and John was 28. I was in culinary school at Kendall and doing my externship at Pump Room, which is where John and I met. We were talking about doing our own thing eventually. When we started at 1560 Damen, where Stan's Donuts is now, we were working with someone who was already running something in that space. He ended up bailing, so we went to the banker to take over the loan. Just two guys in their 20s, young and stupid, sitting across from this banker in a suit. We thought he would laugh us out of there, but it turned out he just wanted his money. So we took it over. We didn't have permits. We didn't even tell the city we'd changed the name until a month later. None of that could happen now.

Megan Stielstra: I used to go to the first location under the el on Damen. I would eat there every day. Once I was coming back from New York, just having gone through a breakup. I was 20 and felt like my life was exploding. I called the Bongo Room from O'Hare to order a sandwich because I knew it took 20 minutes for this sandwich to be ready and it would take me just that long to get back on the train. I just wanted to pick up my sandwich, go home and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and cry. But when I got there, Derrick took one look at me and said, "Sit down, tell me what you need." So I just sat there with him and sobbed. Eventually I started coming in with a new boyfriend, and Derrick was always checking in, making sure he was treating me well. I felt like I had the Mafia watching over me. I started working there not long after.

Gabrielle Shelton: I lived in Wicker Park. I was 18 or 19 years old, studying sculpture at the [School of the] Art Institute. The Bongo Room was under the train on Damen, and we would always go in for a coffee and a muffin before school. It was the first good coffee in the neighborhood, definitely the best thing to happen to the neighborhood. One day I went in and just said, "I want a job." So they hired me and I was the OG barista.

Margaret MacKay: I moved to Chicago 20 years ago, to an apartment on Evergreen and Wicker Park. I met Derrick the day I moved in and it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. My sister Catherine used to live on Honore and we would all go to her apartment to play board games. I had a masters in social work and had just moved from Madison. I couldn't find a job. Everything in Madison was so neat and orderly, and I was having trouble adjusting in Chicago. Then one night over a board game, Derrick said, "You need a job, I need a food runner, you need to come in on Saturday." I said I'd never worked in a restaurant, I don't know what I'm doing. He said, "You'll be fine." As it turned out, I was terrible. So I became a hostess.

Kristin Lewis: I started when I was 23 as a hostess. I'd been working at Matchbox [a bar in River West where restaurant people drank] and waited on a lot of the Bongo folks. Derrick told me if I was ever looking for extra shifts, I could come hostess on the weekend. I started off weekends and liked the hours and the people, so I moved over full-time. Eventually I schemed my way into some server shifts, then bartending. How long ago was this? 16 years? No!

Manao Davidson: I started working at Bongo Room when I was 24. It was the best job I ever had. Wicker Park was so much fun then. Kind of like New York, but you could afford an apartment with a bedroom.

Megan Stielstra: I was working there in the late 90s while I was still in school at Columbia. Tuition wasn't the shit show that it is now. I was student teaching all over the city. Working at the Bongo Room meant that I was able to take these jobs that paid no money. It was pancakes that let me pay my rent and pay off my loans. I don't know if that's possible these days.

Gabrielle Shelton: Derrick and John were the hardest- working guys, wearing a thousand hats. They did everything. Cook, serve, clean. I was their first employee, so while I worked there, it was just the three of us. They're amazing. We're still friends today.

Kristin Lewis: The magic sauce at the Bongo Room was working with your best friends, forming a united front against an onslaught of people demanding brunch. Especially in the winter. The winter could be so traumatizing. Everybody squeezing in to wait out of the cold. Trying to navigate through the masses with trays. We supported each other. We took lots of deep breaths. Especially on Mother's Day. We had to give each other serious pep talks on Mother's Day.

I loved working the host stand with Derrick. You never knew what was going to come through the door. Most people take the wait in stride, but you would get those who were horrified to find out it was an hour. We had a good cop/bad cop routine. I always got to be the good cop. Derrick told me to just keep smiling, no matter what.

click to enlarge COURTESY DERRICK ROBLES
  • courtesy Derrick Robles

Margaret MacKay: It was me and Derrick at the host stand, and I absolutely loved it. I didn't come from a world of brunching, so it was a bit of a culture shock. I would show up for work at 8:30—we opened at nine—and there would already be a line down the street. We had 70 seats, and we'd fill up the minute we opened the door. Derrick and John were so seasoned and knew all the tricks. There's an art to understanding table turns, being able to quote people accurate wait times. We had a clock so we could write down what time people checked in. So when they came up and said they'd been waiting 30 minutes, we could point out that they'd actually only been there for eight. For the most part, people were absolutely lovely. It was very rare to have people who got out of control. But when they did, we had a line: "It's just brunch."

John Latino: When I was in the kitchen, I was on the end of the line, by the egg poaching station. I touched every single plate. From the moment we opened the doors at nine, it was nonstop, turn and burn. It was exhausting.

Megan Stielstra: Derrick and John worked their asses off. And they expected the same. They supported all of the other things we did, but they always said, "When you're here, we need you here."

Kristin Lewis: Derrick and John were always so supportive of us and all of our artistic endeavors. Whenever we ran away, they would always welcome us back.

Megan Stielstra: All of us were always in and out. In 2004, I was going to Prague for a year, and when I sat down to tell John and Derrick, I was crying. I was so scared I'd be ripping their heart out, but really it was my heart that was breaking. They just looked at me calmly and said, "So are you quitting, or are you just going on sabbatical?" When I did come back from Prague, I was so broke. I called them and they told me to show up tomorrow. So I did, jetlagged, and went right back to work.

Manao Davidson: Even after I had other things going on, I still wanted to be there and would work on the weekends. I remember a fellow actor coming in once after I had some success and saying, "What are you still doing here? You're supposed to stop now." But I didn't have any family in Chicago, and the Bongo Room became my family. I didn't want to leave them. To this day, they've all remained my very close friends. Derrick and John were like my big brothers.

click to enlarge Derrick Robles, Gabrielle Shelton, and John Latino - COURTESY GABRIELLE SHELTON
  • Derrick Robles, Gabrielle Shelton, and John Latino
  • courtesy Gabrielle Shelton

Gabrielle Shelton: They took me out, helped me navigate dating, kept me in line. They let me know if I got bratty.

Kristin Lewis: We really were like a family. We would have monthly dinners, all the staff, at different restaurants around the city. We also had lots of fun finding bars that were open when our shifts ended at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Manao Davidson: At four o'clock when the shift was over, Derrick and John always bought the first round.

Megan Stielstra: One of the best things about the Bongo Room was you're done at 3:30, having a drink by 4, and home in bed by 8:30. We hit Matchbox a lot. John and Derrick came with us. At work, there was a line. There was a clear sense of leadership. But when we stepped out of the restaurant, they were our friends. They were also role models. They were just like us. They had a dream. Looking at Derrick, he was only a little bit older, he'd been in the same position as me just five years before. He'd worked his ass off and was having all this success. And he was so accessible, sitting right there next to me with a martini.

John Latino: We love our staff. Knock on wood, we always have great staff. But nothing will ever be like that core group. We were all in our 20s then and always hung out. But now we're getting older, and the staff still stays in their 20s.

Megan Stielstra: Wicker Park was so cool then. The Bongo Room was the morning place. We'd see all the bartenders who served us after our shift come in for breakfast after theirs.

Manao Davidson: We saw everybody there. Did I know the musicians? Yeah, I dated all of them. [laughs] Everybody hung out together at Subterranean, Empty Bottle, Rainbo. Everybody knew everybody in Chicago back then.

John Latino: Idful Records was right down the street where the Violet Hour is now. We got all the musicians. Liz Phair came in all the time.

Gabrielle Shelton: Idful Records was right down the street and everybody recorded there. All the musicians would always come in for breakfast and lunch. And coffee. Coffee all day long. I had a couple regulars who were the best tippers, and one of them ended up becoming really famous. It was Fred Armisen. He was in a band called Trenchmouth at the time, and they were the big rock stars of the neighborhood.

Liz Phair would come in a lot. She'd just recorded Exile in Guyville, and Rolling Stone interviewed her at the Bongo Room. I waited on them and they ordered blueberry pancakes. Later, when I read the article, there was a line like "The waitress brought us blueberry pancakes." And I thought, there it is, my 15 minutes. And it's blueberry pancakes.

Megan Stielstra: When Myopic was next door to us on Milwaukee, I'd walk out after a shift, packing cash, and go in and spend so much money on books. It had a huge influence on me as a writer.

Margaret MacKay: I worked at the Bongo Room for eight or nine years. Even after I got a job in social work, got married, had a child, I would still drive down from Uptown to work on the weekends. The neighborhood is very different now. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing. I remember that the park was dicey when I lived there, but I kind of liked that.

Manao Davidson: When I was in Wicker Park, the warehouses still had artists in them. I remember going back years later and being like, "Is there really a Marc Jacobs here? I got mugged outside this building!" That's just the cycle of gentrification, though. A group of people moved into a crappy neighborhood and make it great. Then everybody wants to live there.

Gabrielle Shelton: I went back to Wicker Park last October, and it's changed quite a bit. When I lived there, I remember there being artists and tons of musicians.

Megan Stielstra: Wicker Park feels like a different continent to me now.

Margaret MacKay: I have three boys, and I live in Evanston now. I run into people all the time up here who used to go to the Bongo Room around the time I worked there. They'll say things like "My husband and I used to go there all the time!" They're just like me in that they used to live in the city at a certain time in life, and the Bongo Room is really iconic for them. For me, it was my first time in a big city. I was just coming into myself. And I found this place where I was able to form so many relationships. I found my core group of friends. We were inseparable. It was the best years of our lives.

Kristin Lewis: We were just girls when we started. I loved that they became my family and continue to be my family.

click to enlarge COURTESY MEGAN STIELSTRA
  • courtesy Megan Stielstra

Megan Stielstra: What was special about the Bongo Room was we pooled everything, shared everything. We kind of had this warrior mentality. Before we even knew each other well, we knew we had to help each other. If one person fell, we all fell. I met many of my greatest friends at the Bongo Room. You know, we'd just sit over pancakes and have these big dreams. And now it's amazing to see what so many of these women have become.

Margaret MacKay: It truly was the most amazing time of my life. I don't think John and Derrick realize how many friendships they brought together with this thing they built out of a carton of eggs and a container of milk.   v

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