When we find ourselves at a complete loss, there are three areas of conversation to which we can always turn: our commutes, the weather, and where to eat. As for the first two, we often find common ground. Everybody loves sharing tips on avoiding expressway construction and raving about summery autumn weather.
When it comes to eating out, however, things get serious: we never know exactly how stupid our friends are until they tell us that they think our favorite taco place sucks.
The mentality is everywhere. A proven way to start an Internet firestorm is through debating who has the best pizza. WGN television's "Chicago's Best TV" Facebook page recently hosted a near endless argument over the region's best thin crust pizza. Comments ranged from fanatical proclamations about what "true" Chicagoans would eat to vicious verbal attacks on pizza places commenters find sub-par.
Granted, that's the Internet, where people can and do say nearly anything. Real life, face-to-face testimonials tend to be given a lot more weight. Perhaps a more interesting way of measuring the true worth of a pizza place would be finding out which one has the best fans. In the case of in Northbrook, if the diners eating there when I visited are any indication, the restaurant already leads the pack.
Barnaby's is a Northbrook institution. People often talk about the restaurant in terms of decades, their childhoods, and memories they've made here. As I approached the counter to order, I told the cashier I had a few questions about the pizza. Another customer waiting wasn't shy about piping in.
"This is your first time here?" she asked, incredulous. "I've been going here since I was in high school! I was less than 100 pounds the first time I came here," she said, and actually patted her belly. "As you can see, I eat here a lot!" Her smile and laugh seemed to indicate that the menu here was more than a fair trade for her high school figure.
Our party that afternoon decided to try a bit of everything. We started with appetizers—the chicken wings, $6, were generously sized and meaty, and surprising in that they came breaded, instead of baked in buffalo sauce. The potato skins, also $6, came six to an order, dripping with cheddar, bacon and onions.
As we waited for our pizza, we had an opportunity to take a look around. Narrow booths abutting one another in the center of the restaurant allowed families to mingle freely, and stained glass and brass was everywhere we looked. The decor evoked memories of the neighborhood bar The Regal Beagle of "Three's Company."
We split a large pizza with two toppings for $16. The pie was cut into squares, and the crust was extremely thin and dusted with cornstarch, giving it a slightly gritty, though not unpleasant texture. One customer we spoke to described it as "bird feed" crust, and the other called it "kitty litter." In both cases, they meant it affectionately.
The Italian beef sandwich, $7, came next, and though truly gargantuan and topped with a good amount of mozzarella cheese, the beef itself was a bit dry. Thankfully, the sandwich was soon followed by the baked mostaccioli, $8. We found ourselves with a giant bowl eight inches across and four inches deep, topped with a thick layer of melted cheese.
The pasta itself was nothing notable, but the garlic bread that came with the entree evoked some pretty strong emotions. Our neighbor at the next table (the one who had earlier described the pizza as having a kitty litter texture) began to rhapsodize at the sight of it, saying it was the object of frequent cravings.
I invited him to help himself to a piece, and before I knew what was happening, three of the four pieces had disappeared.
That single act told me most of what I needed to know about Barnaby's. More so than the food, the decor, or the restaurant's history in Northbrook, the Great Garlic Bread Theft perpetrated by this longtime Barnaby's lunch-goer, revealed to me what I needed to know. I had found Barnaby's biggest and best fan.
I took a bite of the garlic bread myself, and I understood.