DOG GONE DELICIOUS
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
They say it all began with a pooped pooch. Who’s to say what percentage of the story is fact, fiction, or pure marketing brilliance? All I know is that’s it’s a charming little origin story that involves a dog named Mattie, a roaring fireplace and one of my favorite past times. Once you hear the story, it helps explain why so many people, from San Jose, California, to Fairfax, Virginia, are lining up eat at Lazy Dog restaurants, one of the fastest-growing restaurant empires in the country.
It all happened, years ago, in a cozy living room somewhere in the mountains. What’s undeniable is that Mattie the Dog was cold and wet and tired, chasing the same thing we all want after a long day spent trudging through the snow: a long nap by a warm fire.
Poor dog had no interest in anything but an afternoon snooze. Forget playing catch with a Frisbee. Or gnawing at his favorite bone. Or staring out the window, watching a parade of twinkling snowflakes pirouette down from the clouds. At that moment, all Mattie wanted to do was find the warmest spot in the den and drift slowly into a doggie dream.
So that’s exactly what ol’ Mattie did, body splayed near the fire, like a shaggy throw rug. Eyes sealed. Rib cage slowly heaving in and out, no doubt dreaming of strip steaks and hamburger meat.
It just so happened that, at that very moment, Mattie’s owner, Chris Simms, sauntered into the room and stopped dead in his tracks.
Here—right before his eyes—was an image he wished he could freeze-frame for all eternity. He’d been raised in a restaurant family, so he’d devoted more time than most to deciphering what makes people happy. What do they like to eat? Where do they like to eat? How do they like to eat? What makes people feel content? Here was the answer, laying right there in front of him: his faithful companion looking so untroubled, so completely tranquil, laying there by the fire. What if he developed a restaurant that made people feel just like that. Cozy and warm and satiated. Meals by the fire. Someplace that made people feel like they were vacationing in the Rockies. Or Yellowstone. Now that, he thought to himself, would be a restaurant with universal appeal.
Flash forward to the present, and there are nearly 50 Lazy Dog restaurants scattered across the country, including one of the concept’s newest outposts in Oak Brook, all of which are inspired, by that irresistible image of Simms’ dog Mattie dozing by the fire.
Simms designs all his Lazy Dog restaurants to look exactly the same. Same wilderness lodge motif. Lots of exposed stone. Crackling fireplaces. Wooden trusses. Long, slender columns of tree trunks that act like accent walls. And, of course, dog imagery everywhere you turn. Dog statues guarding the kitchen. Dog portraiture. The outline of cute paw prints embossed onto tables. And in the case of Oak Brook, a dog bone hidden somewhere in the building—I wouldn’t dare divulge its location—that was signed by every member of the restaurant’s opening team.
It’s all very Yosemite. Very Bierstadt. Some restaurants brands are built on the strength of their chefs. Or affordability. Or novelty. This one is built around—and steeped in—a mood and a mountain fantasy, all built around a campfire chic menu, that’s hard to resist.
In essence, Lazy Dog’s menu asks us the following: What would we want to splurge on after a day spent hiking our calves off through the Rocky Mountains? For me that’s good old-fashioned “skillet” fare, which is what Lazy Dog does best. Oak Brook boasts an impressive assortment of crispy and crunchy appetizers. Try the candied bacon bejeweled with bits of brown sugar and red chili flakes. And fried hushpuppies stuffed with so many fixing (mashed potatoes, bacon, jack cheese, onions) that they’re closer to croquettes than cornmeal fritters.
There’s nothing overtly fancy or avant-garde here. But that’s what makes it appealing. It’s like eating at your local country fair. Consider the kitchen’s fried deviled eggs. Addictive as sin, those things. Deep fried egg whites topped with a conventional sweet-mustard cream. I appreciate the fact that there’s no jiggle, no mushiness, to these little devils. They crunch like chicken skin when you bite into them but remind you of Labor Day lunches and family picnics spent with the family closer to home.
Truth be told, the menu is so expansive that it encompasses just about every definition of comfort food you can imagine. For better or worse, the offerings are pan-global in nature.
Kung pao bowls. Tex-Mex salads. Spaghetti squash and “beetballs.” Sesame-crusted ahi tuna. And an array of “road trip” bowls that include curry chicken platters and Korean bibimbap.
So it’s best to think of the dining room as one giant multicultural potluck. But the very best dishes tend to be the cowboy offerings. A BBQ ranch burger laced with a spicy smear of chipotle ranch. And the bison meatloaf, as smoky as it is moist. And of course a flaky pot pie stuffed to its crust with roasted chicken and a gravy so thick it would give a bisque a run for its money.
Your server will likely remind, on multiple occasions, that Lazy Dog runs a scratch kitchen, which means all of its sauces (from BBQ sauces and hot sauces to gravies and marinara) are made in house. That’s impressive, and certainly helps explain why there’s a degree of nuance and subtlety in dishes where other chains would rely on nothing but salt and cream.
But the real allure of the place is derived from its ambiance. It’s warm. It’s simple. It’s rustic. It’s comforting. And for a couple hours, in the middle or at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve escaped way up high to some mountain retreat, where the grub is good, the nights are long and there’s always a cozy spot near the fire waiting for you to claim as your own.
Although Lazy Dog offers its own beer club, which gives members dining discounts and ships them craft beers from around the country every quarter, its cocktails are smooth enough to give everyone a mile high.
New York Sour: The sort of drink that’s built for cabin living. Bourbon, lemon juice, agave. A little sweet. A little sour. All topped with a splash of merlot to keep things rich and fruity.
Wild Blueberry and Lemon: A dangerous drink. All brambles and blueberries with shot of pineapple juice and a heavy pour of Tito’s vodka. Think mountain sangria in cocktail form.
Lazy Dog is located at 1775 22nd St., in Oakbrook Terrace. Call 630.526.4308 or visit lazydogrestaurants.com.