Is The Local's Really a Local Menu? Or Just a Greenwashed One?

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Seared ahi with mango— local dining in Chicago in December? Photo: courtesy The Local via Facebook.

A few months back we noted the announcement of a restaurant in the Hilton Suites in the Gold Coast called Local, from the team behind the acclaimed Chicago Cut Steakhouse, and questioned the appropriateness of the name for a place touting "Dr. Pepper BBQ Baby Back Ribs." The word "local" has a specific meaning in the restaurant world of 2012, and calling yourself that if you're not is not merely confusing (like if you called your restaurant "Italian Grill" and only offered burgers and hot dogs), but genuinely deceptive it's claiming a virtue, to at least some customers, which you do not in fact possess. Now the menu and more details about the restaurant have appeared at Eater and the question becomes, are this restaurant's claims of localness for real, or just a quick greenwashing of its image in response to the realization that media like us might start asking, what's so local about The Local?

One subtle change is that the restaurant still called Local on the Hilton's site is now called The Local, changing "local" from a descriptor to a mere name, like The Spotted Yak. As the restaurant's site explains it, "When people think of 'their local' they think of good times, good friends and a great environment." Yet they have by no means walked away from the other kind of "local"; details presumably gleaned from a press release (which we didn't get) call out local suppliers such as Slagel Family Farm, Local Folks Food, Crystal Valley Farms, and Marion-Kay Spices. But on a menu which namechecks national brands from Dr. Pepper to Apple Jacks and proudly proclaims that the Mint Ice Cream Pie is "sourced direct from Kraft Foods," it's impossible to tell which, if any, of the beef or pork dishes use Slagel beef or hogs, nor is it clear which Local Folks products could even be used on the menu, based on the items shown.

Meanwhile, Crystal Valley Farms, better known for its Miller's Amish Chicken brand, and Marion-Kay Spices are both Indiana-based but comparatively conventional distributors (Marion-Kay used to be a supplier of the Colonel's secret spices to KFC franchisees). They're good quality suppliers many restaurants use Miller's Amish chickens as a cut above industrial chicken but the restaurants that pride themselves the most on buying locally prefer chickens from local farmers such as Greg Gunthorp or T.J's as another level of improvement. (Curiously, they didn't mention Wisconsin-based Nueske bacon, which is on the menu.)

Beyond that, the menu is dotted with names that don't remotely suggest a commitment to midwestern products. For breakfast there's (besides Apple Jacks) Scottish salmon, Irish oatmeal, or a New York bagel; for lunch and dinner lobster quesadillas, lump crabcakes, Cabo Shrimp Chili, and dead of winter "local greens" including tomatoes. Any of these (except maybe December tomatoes) could be forgiven in a seriously local menu seriously local chefs like Paul Virant serve ocean fish by necessity but there's just no sign of any seriousness anywhere else to offset a "local" menu that references half the world, but not the midwest.

Add to that the fact that prices are startlingly high your dead of winter, likely Chilean asparagus will, when grilled, set you back $12, and even a side of "fresh shucked" December corn (Mexico? Israel?) will cost you $10 and it's very hard for even a generous observer to find much credibility in The Local's claim of localness.

One tell-tale sign comes if you examine the chef's resume. Though the Eater piece references The Inn at Blackberry Farm, a nationally-acclaimed locavore restaurant in Tennessee, and Dish claimed that that was where "he most recently worked," his resume indicates that he was there for less than six months several years ago. The rest of his career has been spent working for big chain-style restaurant corporations like Johnny Carino's, a Buca di Beppoish casual dining Italian concept in malls all around the west, midwest and south. (It's possible he's been back to Blackberry Farm since his resume was last updated, but in any case, the bulk of his career has been in such corporate environments. We don't blame a chef for that, but if he has a genuine commitment to locally-grown foods from his time at Blackberry Farms, it's not evident in this menu.)

We've gone into such detail on this restaurant not because we believe it to be uncommonly deceptive, but because we suspect that this kind of crying "local" for everything that has even the most tenuous connection to a locavore approach is all too common. If the Hilton wants to have a very conventional comfort food restaurant, at jacked-up tourist prices, in this particular hotel, they can do so and we're not going to lose sleep wishing for something better there. But it's wrong to open such a place and then give people the impression that it's doing the same things as other restaurants and other chefs who work harder to be genuinely local, and support farmers with better environmental and humane treatment practices, and make less money because of their commitment to it. And even if we could forgive some out-of-towners for this a little, this concept comes from the team behind a local steakhouse which we had respected as a serious place and who surely know what local means in Chicago.

If The Local has a genuine midwest foods focus, and it's just been poorly communicated to date, we invite them to tell us all about it. But if it doesn't, we wish they could respect the midwestern chefs and farmers and diners who do pay more and work harder to give "local" its meaning... and call themselves something else that's true. [Eater]