I was talking to a group of polyamorous friends recently when a woman made an interesting comment. She likened lovemaking with men other than her husband to fine dining—different, exciting, and occasionally exceptional. By contrast, she said, sex with her husband was like returning to her favorite restaurant—comfortable, consistent, and deeply satisfying. “Like an old shoe?” I asked. “Like the best old shoe you’ll ever own,” she answered. I looked at my feet and knew exactly what she meant, being loyal to the death to my Portuguese Mephistos. But was there a restaurant I was as comfortable in as I was in my shoes? It took only seconds before El Niagara came to mind.
My wife, Kathy, and I moved to San Diego in the early 1970s where our love of Mexican food became an outright addiction. Returning to Chicago in 1977, we traveled from one suburb to the next searching for a Mexican eatery we could call home. It took a year and a lot of sampling before we stumbled across El Niagara in West Dundee. There wasn’t a hint of fine dining in the way their food was prepared or presented. Neither was it as “authentic” as many of the dishes we’d consumed on both sides of the border. But we ignored that with portions so large, the nachos and cheese enchiladas dripped over the edge. Better still the food was good—really good—nothing less than a delight to consume. However to get to the food, customers had to brave circular stairs leading to the dining room in the basement, bizarrely comprised of wooden treads suspended by steel chains that shook perilously on trips up and down. We loved it!
Our daughter, Natalie, was a few weeks old the first time we took her down the rickety stairs. From her car seat propped on the table, she took in the smells, mesmerized by the colorful lights hanging the length of the bar. Two years and dozens of trips later, she’s learned to drop quarters into the jukebox, playing and dancing to Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five, over and over and over again. As happy as the owners were to see us arrive, they were just as happy I’m sure when we finally vamoosed.
Within a few short years, Kathy chose to leave, I moved to a different town, and El Niagara burned to the ground. It certainly felt like the end of an era.
But to my surprise, the family that owned El Niagara had another location in my new town of Woodstock—no wobbly stairs, no dimly lit basement, but the same great food and a few familiar faces. Miraculously, they were still in business, and so was I.
Girlfriends followed, including Rachel my second wife, each enjoying the simple pleasures of El Niagara. Then more kids arrived—four to be exact—Natalie joining the gang every other weekend. One by one, babies were propped on tables and toddlers were squeezed into highchairs until eventually the crew was old enough to drive me to the restaurant. We were a family that loved to celebrate—kids opening in plays, debuting in bands, competing in math and music, receiving acceptance letters to schools. Where did those celebrations take place? In the back room of El Niagara—the only room that could handle the bunch of us.
But it was in the main dining room where Rachel, the kids, and I sat having lunch an hour after court on the day of her and my divorce. I toasted her, telling the kids that Mom had done something very courageous—that as difficult as it is to make changes in life, at times change is best. It’s then when you need to stand up for yourself and make the tough decisions that have to be made. We all clinked glasses and dried a few tears, knowing that by standing up for ourselves, we’d all be okay.
It wasn’t just my kids who grew up in that restaurant, it was the kids and the grandkids of the people who owned it. I watched one generation after another, learning the family trade working evenings and weekends. They started as young teens, calling me “Mr. Hallenstein,” and continue into adulthood, transitioning to “Craig.” They got married and had babies, who in turn eventually joined the business. Why wouldn’t El Niagara be my comfort restaurant? In addition to food, drinks, and atmosphere I enjoy, I’m surrounded by family even when I go alone—theirs having long ago become part of mine.
So close had we all become after thirty-five years that when I suggested variations to their menu, they didn’t take offense, but were instead willing to try—guacamole with no onions (I’m allergic to onion); pork nachos instead of beef, chicken, and shrimp (I have a thing for pork); and most recently bunuelos. “Bunuelos?” Jose repeated, wrinkling his nose. “Fried dough covered with cinnamon sugar and honey,” I told him. “A scoop of ice cream in the middle would be great as well.” Ten minutes later, I was staring at a masterpiece. “We sampled it in the kitchen,” Jose said. “Yum!”
Three years ago, Natalie and her husband, Jon, headed east, settling in State College, Pennsylvania. With their two daughters and dog, they created a rich life, but have yet to find food to quell their cravings for El Niagara. So each Christmas and every time I visit, I supply them with gallons of hot sauce and pounds of cheese, packed in ice in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Then it was my turn to leave. I headed to New Orleans in February this year but return every month, checking on clients and a couple of kids. Each time I arrive, the kids head for the car, knowing where we’ll land a couple minutes later.
I considered the woman’s comment and decided I agreed. Despite the thrill of an occasional hot fling, a new pair of shoes, and a three hundred dollar meal, nothing on Earth quite compares with the people, places, and things that make us feel comfortable.