Sunday, February 22, 2009

Geja's Cafe

In the 1970s, my parents and I would go every so often to a fondue restaurant in Chicago called Geja's Cafe. Here I had my first experience of fondue, that communal cooking ritual that became a fad in this country in the sixties and grew in popularity through the next decade as well. If you go to Geja's Web site, you might see their warning: "As always, please remember that Geja's does not allow children under the age of 10 in the restaurant." I have no idea why they say "as always," since this restriction was definitely NOT always in place. I was only turning ten later in the year of 1979—the year we left Chicago to move to Los Angeles. I'd been enjoying dinners at Geja's for years by that point. What I remember from my childhood is bubbly, gooey cheese, popping oil, fruits and cubes of pound cake dipped in chocolate. I loved those long, skinny, two-pronged forks; I felt somewhat grown up being able to cook my own food. But I also have another memory of Geja's. When I lived in Chicago later on as an adult (my parents now back on the East Coast), I saw Geja's in a different light. Geja's now stakes the claim of being Chicago's "most romantic" restaurant—so much so that it is more like a romantic cliché (though I don't mean that as a negative comment on the restaurant itself). It is a hot spot to take a date, and as a result nearly impossible to get into on the weekends, unless you're willing to go early to put in your name, leave for a few hours, and then come back to wait some more. I have no recollection of it being like this when I was a kid, but then again, romance was not on my radar when I was still in single digits. I went exactly once as an adult (not a weekend night!): it was with my father when he came to visit, for old times' sake. It was a fabulous trip down memory lane; we were immediately transported back about twenty years to the comfort of the familiar, the family tradition of exchanging ideas and tidbits of conversation while dipping and swirling our food in a shared pot. It took us a while to realize the two features that would linger in the fabric of our minds and clothes, though. First, that the people around us (wait staff included, we're pretty sure) were making assumptions about the nature of our relationship, failing to see it automatically as father-daughter, but rather as something colored by the general ambiance of the restaurant: a May-December romance. This was both funny and a bit weird. Mostly funny, because my father and I can talk about things like this and laugh. I wish I remembered what it was, specifically, that clued us in (we both came to the same conclusion, and we are decidedly not paranoid personalities), but for the moment, I don't recall. The other feature of the evening that we did not realize until after we'd gone out into the chilly air, returned to apartment/hotel, and hung up our coats in the closets: you cannot visit Geja's without coming home in a perfume of smoking oil. Dry cleaning is pretty much mandatory. But for all that, it was worth it. Geja's remains a great childhood (and adult) memory, and a good place to eat. I'm only sorry that there are no subsequent generations who will have this experience etched into their earliest, under-ten memories . . . free of romantic associations, if not free of smoke.

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