On a Tuesday night in November, diners from across the city came together in a stylish Pilsen loft to attend an underground supper club known as Tuesday Night Dinner. As befits a quiet revolution in the food world where those in the know hanker for more than a quiet sit-down affair, the organizers plied the crowd in attendance with a live band and an exposition of paintings by local artist Greta White. The sumptuous four-course meal was no afterthought, of course, but the Tuesday Night Dinner aimed to form an artistic community dining experience for all of its attendees, one that transcended the simple experience of tasty food.
Upon entering the loft, I was greeted by the heavenly smell of roasted meat, apples, and spices from a kitchen where I could see the people charged with preparing the meal. Wearing no uniforms, the waitstaff blended in perfectly with the stylish diners that had arrived before me. Most arrived in groups of two or three, but these atomized groups quickly eroded as conviviality reigned and hitherto complete strangers milled about and got to know one another over sipped cocktails or beer donated by Goose Island.
Organizer and cofounder of the event, Jacqlyn Lancaster is the director and co-founder of an art collective in Lakeview called FORTUNA, where she aims to provide artists with a safe environment to follow their passions inside a framework that supports them financially and makes their life possible. “It’s so hard for artists to get paying jobs these days, and so many people try to take advantage of artists that I wanted to create a place where their work and passions could flourish,” said Lancaster about her motivations for forming the collective. Her interest in sustainability, the arts, and community was tangible from the passion in her voice as we chatted over the buzz of the live band and the conversations of fellow diners.
Lancaster’s interest in establishing local communities lead her to help launch Tuesday Night Dinner with her friend and the group’s co-founder Jeremy Leven, a freelance chef who had been running dinners for friends for the past three years. Lancaster had been having Monday night musical potlucks at Fortuna for friends when she was approached by Leven with the idea of starting a supper club that stressed community, support of the arts, and a commitment to local and sustainable dining that was open to the public as well. Over the past year, the two have worked together to put on the dinners almost every Tuesday, with Leven as the chef and Lancaster charged with putting together the artistic and musical aspects of the evening.
In keeping with their interest in community and sustainable dining, the most recent dinners have been themed with the neighborhood in which they were located, this Tuesday’s theme being “South Side Staples.” The first course and my personal favorite was served on a Styrofoam tray in a representation of a meat packer’s lunch: hanger steak pastrami, oxtail rillette, potato cake & caper/dill cream, pickled green tomatoes, with cranberry mostarda. As Leven described, “This course is a play on the worker lunches Chicago’s meat packers and stockyard workers might have eaten.”
This was followed by Calumet Smoked Catfish, with radish/Malort coleslaw and smelt chip, a nod to Chicago’s Calumet Fisheries that have been smoking fish for more than 60 years. Smelt, a native Midwest fish, gave the course its signature local twist. After that came a woodland tamale with sweet potato mass, pickled jalapeños and a chocolate ancho-chile sauce, inspired by traditional Mexican preparations of the Pilsen neighborhood. For dessert, sesame sour donuts were served in a Chinese takeout box, a, needless to say, reference to Chinatown. As we ate, we enjoyed the musical stylings of a local band called No Goodbye, with John Buda on bass and Roman Maliszweski on the drums. Throughout the meal, the music never overwhelmed the atmosphere, but provided a dynamic background for the eating and conversation. As I was leaving, diners were encouraged to hop on the mike and regale the audience with their skills, looking like the start to a very promising jam session.