Food Arts presents the October 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Gordon Sinclair, for sense and sensibility.
When Sinclair opened Gordon 20 years ago in a seedy Chicago neighborhood, between a dirty-book store and a currency exchange, his friends thought he had lost it. Today that neighborhood is River North, the SoHO of Windy City, home as to many as 50 "significant" restaurants, according to realtor Albert Friedman. And even still, Gordon shines- It's more elegant and refined than just about any place else, gracious, grown-up restaurant. No matter who the chef is, the 150-seat Gordon has always been a highly personal restaurant.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Sinclair globe-trotted through college, picking up three degrees at three universities. He was working at a large New York City public relations firm when, in 1972, a psychic prophesied: "You will open a restaurant and be just like...a Sherman Billilngsley...an Elaine Kaufman...a Toots Shor!"
Back in Chicago, while working in PR at the Tribune, he took a part-time maitre d' job at Eugene's to see if he liked the business; almost immediately he began planning his own place. At the urging of a friend, he leased what had been the H&T restaurant at 512 North Clark. The rent was #350 a month. "Had I known what little I knew," Sinclair says, "I wouldn't have mustered the courage. Thank the Lord stupidity paid off." He moved a few doors south, to the present location, in 1983.
Sinclair always made his own rules. When other kids had lemonade stands, he sold veggies from a cart he wheeled around with roller skates. At Gordon he built unisex bathrooms, splashed them with provocative art, and loved every letter of complaint. When cell phones became a ubiquitous irritant in his dining room, he instituted a check-em-at-the-door policy-and provided an answering service. When Michael Jordan opened a huge sports bar one block west and unfurled an Air Jordan banner from the roof, Sinclair superimposed his head on Jordan's body, printed postcards, and—voila!—he had a theme for that years anniversary party: Air Gordon. He started wearing baseball caps years ago and is seldom seen without one, even in black tie.
Sinclair's taste is rampantly eclectic, his sense of style impeccable. Somehow, when he used a galvanized hardware store pail in place of a wine bucket—as he had one year early on—it looks right. When wall scones didn't arrive in time, he popped brown lunch bags over bare bulbs, loved the way they looked, and left them there. His passion for music, theater, art, and fashion are all evident in his restaurant which he is continuously tweaking.
Over the years, Sinclair has been involved ins even other restaurants, most recently Cafe Gordon in the Tremont Hotel which he opened but no longer runs. But Gordon has always been his first love, along with his committee work in the art and food worlds. In 1990, he bought a 10-acre farm 65 miles from Chicago, where he grows organic produce for the restaurant and provides rural R&R for friends, family, and staff. Resnet, the restaurant reservation system in which he is a principal, should be operating nationwide by the first of the year.
With talented chef, Keith Korn in the kitchen, Gordon is perfectly poised for its third decade. According to Tribune critic Phil Vettel, who gave the restaurant three stars in February, "Gordon remains very much on the top of his game." And yet, Sinclair says it's not the good reviews or the customer compliments that he finds most rewarding but, rather, watching his employees make positive life changes: giving up smoking, returning to school, reuniting with estranged relatives, learning the importance of keeping their word. " All those other nice things come in baskets," he says. "But it's the thing that comes in thimbles that are most precious. And there hasn't been one of the close to 2,000 employees I've had that I haven't learnt something from."
Indeed, Sinclair collects people, loves to mentor, knows when to let go, stay in touch. His proteges—Charlie Trotter, Carrie Nahabedian, John Terczak, Daniel Castro, Michael Kornick, Stewart Parsons, Ron Blazek, Didier Durand, Michael Foley, Noel Comess, Mary Cech, Norman Van Aken, Cory Schreiber—run some of the country's finest restaurants.
"Gordon showed me how a restaurant could work as a stage," says Schreiber, chef/owner of wildwood in Portland, Oregon. "And how it has a responsibility to the community. With Gordon I learned that a restaurant is much more than a kitchen."
So with one million artichoke fritters served, any advice to impart? "I stay in shape so I have the endurance to be here," Sinclair says. "And I drink a glass of champagne every day."