A meal at the Ramova Grill, while it was open, was “just about getting fed,” reminisced chef Mark Mendez from behind the former diner’s counter, pouring his version of the classic Ramova chili into a serving dish at the same time. “I actually put chilies in my chili. I don’t think they did that, but it was a cool place,” he remarked, his voice inflected with both pride and nostalgia for the decades-old neighborhood fixture that closed last year.
He was preparing his chili for a fundraiser supporting Benton House’s food pantry—less a simple soup dinner than a feast, masterfully crafted by local chefs. But many there felt that the night transcended even the most savory of victuals. To Mark Lennon, the director of Benton House, the evening was “a way to tell the story to a lot more people, a cool way with good food.”
What story he alluded to, exactly, was left ambiguous; there were multiple narratives interwoven into the evening. One was of a transition in Bridgeport history, marked by the closing of the Ramova Grill and the partial renovation of the Benton House, a settlement house turned unofficial community center. The refurbished room we stood in had its own idiosyncratic magic, matching the crowd that spilled out from within it. Between vibrant, pastel-colored walls sat the Ramova Grill’s bar stools and booths, brought to Benton House when the restaurant closed. These were the “honorary guests” that had inspired the Chicagoist’s Chuck Sudo to plan this Soup-and-Bread-esque fundraiser .
At the same time, this evening was just one more scene in an evolving tale, a more triumphant one. As I ventured out of the room, a volunteer urgently stopped me. She wanted to make sure that I understood what this night meant in the story of the people of Bridgeport, not just in its narrative of places. She explained that it’s one built on intimacy and generosity, despite Bridgeport’s place in the middle of a city. “Bridgeport is a small village,” she said.
Chef Jason Vincent articulated the role that Benton House plays in sustaining that sense of community: “There are not too many gems like this in Chicago neighborhoods. And if you start to lose them, there won’t be much left for the next generation.”