A Species of Hunger Native to the City

West_loop

One night not long ago my wife and I attended an Arcade Fire concert at the United Center in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. I will have more on the concert itself in a separate post. Today I want to take a look around the restaurant at which my wife and I met for dinner before the concert.

We chose a restaurant near the United Center in a former warehouse district on Randolph Street in the West Loop. The bars and restaurants along this street are mostly large establishments, many of them located in converted warehouses and factories.  Urban Belly, the place at which we agreed to meet for dinner, was the quick service side of a restaurant with the rather inscrutable name of BellyQ, as if there is a species of hunger native to the city.

Urban Belly offers a “tour of the world” consisting of “the radically delicious and the curiously familiar.” The “delicious” part of the equation rests in the Asian dishes on the menu, centered around dumplings and bowls, while “familiar” refers to the borrowing of service concepts of casual fast food chains like Chipotle. To avoid Chipotle’s mass-market cultural appropriation, Urban Belly’s website features a narrative of its chef, Bill Kim.

Kim’s story is a quintessentially American one that dives into the melting pot of cultures and experiences to create an identity that is uniquely his own. He started urbanbelly in 2008 to bring together his wide-ranging passions. Asian + American. Fine-dining techniques + neighborhood comfort. Classic dishes + joyous creativity.

The sudden hastening of language toward the end of the narrative, with text-like plus signs reconciling opposites, hints at a structure of feeling experienced by young urbanites. It is globalist, hybrid, and aspirational, but also anxious to move on to the next experience. The general vibe is cool and a little harassed.

The structure of feeling hinted at on the website is expressed most fully in the dining area of Urban Belly. The quick-service Urban Belly space is differentiated by a transparent partition from the full-service BellyQ, which has conventional booths and four-place tables. The Urban Belly space was dimly-lit, with exposed brick and concrete floors. You sat at long, shared tables fashioned from massive pieces of wood-like material. You sat on heavy wooden blocks of similarly indeterminate manufacture. They weren’t chairs. They weren’t stools. The dining area was arranged like a grade-school cafeteria situated in a gymnasium—exertion and replenishment in the same place. Like a cafeteria, the Urban Belly space is convivial but the clock is ticking. There’s no escape from the schedule.

It was a chilly night, the first truly cold night of the season. We ate pork and cilantro dumplings, ramen and pho using disposable wooden chopsticks. The soups were warming and the dim lights soothing. Still, the experience didn’t feel very intimate, and not just because two men were sitting on the not-quite stools next to us. The open spaces, high ceilings and concrete floors made it seem like customers were being warehoused themselves. Just like a grade school cafeteria will revert back to a gymnasium after lunch, after dinner Urban Belly looks like it’s designed to be an easy-to-clean industrial space. I don't think they actually do this, but the space could have been hosed down every night after closing.

The Wicker Park Urban Belly is actually in a residential neighborhood, but on Randolph Street you don’t disappear into the fabric of a neighborhood. It’s a warehouse district, close to highways and rail lines. The few residences in the area are also carved out of industrial spaces. After dinner in the West Loop you get into your car or an Uber and head someplace else. Despite its urban trappings, the West Loop is a transactional space like any commercial strip in the suburbs.

We walked around the corner in the biting wind to our car to hurry to the United Center for the concert. More on that here.

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