They say you always remember your first time. I remember our first time with crystal clarity, even though it was long ago. I’m not sure exactly how long, but probably at least 15 years.
My husband, Peter, and I had been hearing good things about a little coffee shop in Chicago’s Loop. There’d been an article in Chicago magazine about places where the city’s top chefs went to eat on their days off. More than half of the chefs interviewed listed this coffee shop as their favorite. A couple of local chef friends had been there and raved about it. Beyond that, all we knew was that the Greek chef/owner had changed his menu from his parents’ traditional coffee-shop fare after falling in love with the Cajun/Creole food of New Orleans and that it was on the seventh floor of an old office building on Wabash Avenue, the Garland.
There’s nothing we like more than searching out new and interesting food finds. It’s even better if they’re funky and off the beaten path. This place certainly fit that category, and we were determined to go there on our next trip to the Windy City.
The coffee shop was only open for breakfast and lunch, so we’d planned an early start to be there by lunchtime. That morning, however, Peter had to go to his office to see a patient with a dental emergency. As a result, we didn’t get to Chicago until about 1:30 p.m. We’d skipped breakfast in anticipation of a larger-than-normal lunch and were ravenous. The coffee shop had been getting a fair amount of press, and we thought we’d have no trouble finding it.
We were wrong. There was no sign on the street for the coffee shop. We started asking store clerks up and down Wabash, but no one had heard of either the coffee shop or the Garland Building.
A little after 2 p.m., Peter started grumbling — and not just his stomach: “Let’s forget this. It’s so late, they’ve probably stopped serving anyway. We’ll get an actual address and go the next time we’re here.”
“Let’s look just a little longer,” I pleaded. “Restaurants in Chicago usually serve lunch later than in Springfield. It’s got to be close.”
After a few more inquiries and a false lead, we finally found someone who directed us to the Garland Building. There was nothing to indicate there was any kind of restaurant inside, much less one that had been getting rave reviews. The directory in the building’s lobby just said “coffee shop.”
It was 2:30 p.m. as we rode the elevator up to the seventh floor. “I’m sure they’ll have stopped serving by now,” Peter sighed, “but at least we know where to find it.”
We got out of the elevator — and stopped dead in our tracks. We had to, because there was a line of waiting people that stretched from the elevator to the door of the restaurant, at the far end of the hall.
Shortly after 3 p.m. we finally got inside Heaven on Seven. It was worth the wait. The layout was similar to that of other coffee shops in older Loop buildings: a counter with stools, a glass case with an assortment of pies and cakes, and some Formica four-top tables. Any resemblance stopped there, though. It looked as if there’d been a really great party the night before — or maybe the party was still going on. It was hard to tell. Strands of purple, gold, and green (Mardi Gras colors) beads dripped from light fixtures and every other available nonfunctional surface. The walls sported colorful posters of the yearly New Orleans Jazz festival, except for the wall behind the cash register. That wall displayed hundreds and hundreds of different bottles of hot sauce. Every four-top table had a cluster of at least 20 hot-sauce bottles — lots more interesting than a tired sprig of flowers, real or otherwise. Reading the labels kept us occupied and amused until our meal arrived.
And what a meal it was! Our chef friends and the magazine article hadn’t exaggerated. It began with gumbo loaded with seafood and spicy andouille sausage and jalapeño cheese corn muffins. Then we moved on to an oyster po’boy sandwich and “angry” (i.e., very hot) shrimp pasta.
We canceled our dinner reservations for that night — but the next morning we showed up at Heaven on Seven again to feast on omelettes bulging with shrimp and more of that andouille sausage, bananas Foster french toast, and, yes, more of that gumbo.
Since then we’ve eaten at Heaven on Seven more times than I can count, both at the original place on Wabash and at the much larger Heaven on Seven on Rush that chef/owner Jimmy Bannos opened a few years later. I have to give the Rush street location a few more points for the food — not because it’s better but because the kitchen is bigger, so it can offer a wider range of specials (and also because it’s open for dinner). On the other hand, the original Garland Building location is so . . . I guess the word I’m looking for is “real.” An interior designer obviously worked hard to create a New Orleans feel in the Rush Street location, but that funky coffee-shop ambience is unique.
Springfield will get a taste of Heaven when Bannos and his crew journey here on Oct. 23 for the 12th annual Hope School Foundation Celebrity Chef Event at the Sangamo Club. Tickets cost $100 per person, and reservations must be made in advance. Call 494-8875 for more information or to make reservations.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.