It feels low.
Its rhythms and cliches are so ingrained, there should be a drinking game: A guest says he or she likes a restaurant because the food is "always fresh"? Drink! Whenever Singh, who told me she's never gotten entirely comfortable with the teleprompter, adjusts her facial expression? Drink! Typically "Check, Please!" guests receive $120 per show to spend at all three restaurants — more if the restaurants are especially expensive. Though there's always the possibility of a Siskel-Ebert-style feud erupting over a restaurant, gentility reigns; outward displays of disappointment and disgust are so subdued, Edith Wharton could have mined a career's worth of material.
Which is not to suggest that "Check, Please!" is stuffy, tedious or cheesy. Rather, despite being so simple, it's intimate, oddly compelling, kitschy without being amateurish and admirably thoughtful in its inclusiveness, pairing teachers and actors and police officers and retiree socialites with hipster hot spots and pizza parlors and white-tablecloth opulence and cobwebbed suburban classics. There's a strong argument here that, among Chicago food media, its view of local dining is the most encompassing and least appreciated.
For owners whose restaurants are mentioned on "Check, Please!" the show is often nothing less than a lottery ticket. Producer Jacqui Wedewer calls this "the 'Check Please' effect." Said Michael Cameron, co-owner of Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville, whose restaurant was on a few years ago: "I asked the producers, 'Give me an idea of what will happen.' They said a 10 to 20 percent increase in business, which should sustain for a few months. I thought that would be amazing. The truth is, it was an 80 to 100 percent increase in business, and we were full every single day for six months."
I heard this from every restaurant I contacted. Madieye Gueye, co-owner of Yassa, a Senegalese restaurant on 79th Street, said he was a month away from closing; after being featured on the show, "you couldn't get a seat, and it's been steady ever since."
"Check, Please!" — which started in 2001 with then-host Amanda Puck — is an anomaly, a TV show that's grown hotter and more influential with age. Since 2005, co-creator David Manilow has franchised "Check, Please!" to San Francisco, Phoenix, Miami and Kansas City public television; a Seattle edition started earlier this year. On Sept. 21, the show will host a food truck festival at WTTW's Albany Park studio. Last weekend, it held a food festival in southwestern Michigan; all 700 tickets ($150 each) had sold by late July.
I asked Manilow if I could watch him and Wedewer assemble a new season. He agreed — though I should warn: Behind the scenes at "Check, Please!" is as annoyingly cheerful and drama-free as the show suggests — it's a successful show made by contented people who love their jobs, the jerks. Yes, it was briefly in ratings trouble its first season; and Singh, after 10 seasons, is now considering life after the show. But Manilow, after 150 episodes and 450 restaurants, has no interest in tweaking the formula, shaking things up or quitting soon. Wedewer said: "David always says, 'Next summer, I move to Greece, you run the show.' But I don't think he'd be happy without 'Check, Please!' It's pretty much our lives now."
The cafe area at Whole Foods in Lincoln Park was as crowded as a Rush Street tourist bar. It was a Friday in mid-May. Manilow had posted a notice in the market weeks earlier announcing open auditions for Season 12 guests. And then more than 450 people registered within a couple of days, and those open auditions were quickly closed. The crowd (of at least 450) that arrived was a mirror image of the show: ethnically mixed, college educated, equally young and old, more female than male, with a few regular Joes thrown in.
When I found Wedewer, she was standing behind one of the five cameras set up for auditions, hoping to catch a spark of unrehearsed spunk. I could hear fragments of auditions everywhere: People saying they "keep it real," they "love food," they went to culinary school, they love new things. Wedewer, 24, petite, with a big smile and Up With People perk, was asking a middle-aged woman with a new haircut and new suit to talk about her favorite restaurant. "Wow … huh … " the woman said, seemingly unprepared for this request.
"Just tell me about it," Wedewer said, all smiles.
"It's fresh food ... " the woman said.
"Why would you be a good guest?"
"I'm obsessed with food!"
"Awesome!" Wedewer replied, never letting her smile or eyes betray the woman's slim chances. Simone Black, an intern on the show, walking past, put her camera down a moment and whispered to me: "Everyone gives the same three or four stock answers. But when people are passionate and go, 'Let me explain to you why I know what I'm talking about!' that's when we know that person will work on the show."
Holding court amid the crowd, fielding questions from fans, was Manilow. At 53, he is slim, charming, smartly dressed and a dead ringer for Jerry Seinfeld — the kind of outgoing guy who welcomes a crowd, said Joel Cohen, co-creator of "Check, Please!" and Manilow's former business partner. Manilow, son of Lew Manilow, a prominent Chicago lawyer, real estate developer and arts patron, told me: "I was raised with artists and theater people floating in and out. Jeff Koons would come to the house. I went to the Broadway premiere of 'American Buffalo' with the Mamet family. I remember once in high school, I took a class on playwriting and got stuck on the second act of what I was writing, so I called Mamet for homework help."
He went to the University of Wisconsin, produced sports at WLS-Ch. 7 for a while; in 2000, he and Cohen, a former associate producer at WTTW, pitched "Check, Please!" to WTTW. Manilow said the show partly came out of living in the suburbs and not knowing where to eat when he moved back to Chicago; Cohen said the show partly came out of "a conversation where we decided that all restaurant reviews were (expletive) and we should figure out a way to make sure the restaurant didn't know they were being reviewed." Either way, McAleer said, "I remember after they left, the programming people looking at each other: 'But that's so simple.' Still, it had public-television possibilities and came along just as we had shut down a few series."