We get lists all the time, and most of the time, even if they have shiny bait in the form of Chicago names on them, we just don't care enough to give the list-creator publicity. So you think Yusho is one of America's 25 hottest restaurants, magazine from New York? Get in line, pal. But sometimes one is so out of left field that you can't help be fascinated by it. And that was the case with OpenTable's "Diner's Choice" list of the top 100 restaurants in the U.S., based on some algorithm of user rankings divided by value and multiplied by relative quality around them, or something like that. Although many famous places make the list (French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Daniel, etc.), only one restaurant in the Chicago area does. Alinea? Les Nomades? Gene & Georgetti? Nope, it's... Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse in Downers Grove. Of course, you say. And so we were all set to raise the Grub Street eyebrow at how some steak-on-swords joint in Mallburbia beat all these big city swank joints in OpenTable users' minds. And then we spoke to general manager Nelcir Muller to see why he thinks his restaurant earned the top ranking in all of Chicagoland. And by the end of our conversation... we started to believe that in some sense, OpenTable users are right.
"This is actually our second consecutive year winning the award," Muller explains. "Of course, I have to give the thanks and the congratulations to our employees— it is not one person."
Chama Gaucha is a three-chain restaurant (the others are in Texas); it opened in 2009, taking over the location of another chain, ZED 451, in Downers Grove. We asked him what set his restaurant apart from other Brazilian steakhouses in the area: "I think the fact that we are still a small company. We are more family style, more traditional. I believe we have passion in the heart, and we pass it along to all employees. We care about our customers, we want every time you come to be better than the last time."
We asked him what they do if a guest has a bad experience. "We always try, if we have the information, to go back there and try to make it better. I'm very hands on, I spend as much time in the dining room as I can. We will do something to try to bring them back to give us another chance. You know, our competition is not only other Brazilian steakhouses, but we compete with other steakhouses, with Italian restaurants— we believe it is the quality of the food and the quality of service that brings people back. Our employees are very devoted to making our guests feel at home."
We asked, gently, if he'd made an effort to get his customers to comment on Open Table. "We don't encourage it, but we're glad to see that the reviews are pretty good, it brings in new customers. We do very little advertising, it's mostly a word of mouth business." Does he ever get tired of meat? He laughs and says, "To be honest, I'm a meat lover. On my day off, I cook it at home. I have a passion for it, I guess."
It's impossible in cold type to fully convey the warmth with which these things were said. Much of it sounds like what every restaurateur says, sincerely or not. But Muller says it with such passion that you can instantly believe that his guests are treated with a welcome and care that sets his restaurant above the others on Butterfield Road and throughout that part of the western suburbs. Gourmands may not find it imaginable that a Brazilian steakhouse could outrank the Michelin stars of our dining scene, but we can believe that when Muller's customers are at Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse, it feels like the best restaurant in Chicagoland to them... and that some of those stars could learn a thing or two from a trip to Downers Grove for meat on swords.