I’ve been calling the number for about seven years now. Every time the automated voice tells me the mailbox is full, then hangs up. Until last weekend. I hadn’t called in at least half a year but then I saw an article in Chicago magazine about how the writer passed up an earlier chance but had finally made it to the restaurant for a meal. I call the number right after I finish reading. The answering machine picks up with a message to leave your info and that they’d call back. I tell the machine I’d been trying to get through for seven years and that any reservation at any time would do. A couple days later there’s message on my phone from Schwa asking what they could do for me and to call back. I wait a whole day before doing so.

The guy on the other end asks if tonight is too soon and whether I have any dietary restrictions. I say no to both. He asks me to call back if I find someone to come eat with me, that there’s room enough for one more diner. I try a couple friends but strike out. I’ll have to go solo. Eating alone is one of my favorite things but a meal at Schwa seems like a thing you should share. No matter. I take my sketchbook, get on my bike and pedal to Wicker Park.

“Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done,” a guy with a beard in cammo shorts and Crocs says by way of greeting. The room is dimly lit by Edison bulbs with bottoms painted over with metallic paint to further weaken their glow. The walls are two-tone. Black till about eye-level, then a warm cream the rest of the way up. A couple of chandeliers of bulbs arranged like cellular clusters and a couple plants decorate the windowsills at the storefront. The same guy who welcomed me in opens the cheap bottle of pinot I’d brought and pours me a glass of water. When he hears it’s my first time he smiles and asks, “You ready for this?”

The first thing he brings is a wooden stand with three white felt Christmas tree air-fresheners. A couple minutes later he brings a glass of bourbon and a glass of iced-tea. The idea is to smell each of the differently-scented trees, then take a sip from one of the glasses; a way to trip up your senses. An older woman at the next table comes over and asks to see what I’m drawing. Turns out she’s a retired art teacher. One of the kitchen guys takes a look as well. I draw pretty much everywhere I go, especially when I’m alone, which is most of the time. It’s a way of documenting my life. The sketchbook is as close as I’ve got to a diary. The advantage of drawings over private writing is that they’re meant to be seen by others. I’ve been showing my art for as long as I’ve been making it.

I’ve disliked fish and seafood my whole life but I tell myself that I would eat everything they put in front of me tonight. This is not a place you choose from a menu. In fact there is no menu. No waiters or busboys either. The guys that bring out and explain the food are the ones cooking it. There’s a piece of octopus, an oyster, and a fish-fry among the dishes that came my way. I won’t lie and say I loved these but this is as close as I’ve ever come to appreciating the flavors of the sea. Over and over each dish is like its own little conversation. Sweet and bitter, crunchy and smooth, soft and hard, subtle and bold, each ingredient on each plate has something to say to its neighbor. The sequence of dishes has a narrative quality as well. A couple of airy pastas are followed by earthbound escargot and mushrooms, the contrast giving the feeling of flight followed by landing. Pop Rocks and oatmeal make you feel like a kid again. This is cuisine working like literature.

The best part though is that no one is putting on airs. The cooks and the dinners know that this is no everyday meal but everyone’s just doing their thing and enjoying themselves. I give my neighbors the rest of my wine as they’ve run out and I have to pedal all the way back to Bridgeport afterwards. They’ve been here many times but talk about each visit as if they’ve hit the lottery. I was seated at 8pm and it’s now past 10pm and little miracles keep appearing on the table in front of me. This is one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever had but seems like the deal of the century. I don’t know if every night in this little storefront on Ashland is magic. You probably have to be open to it for it to work. But I start thinking about calling the number again minutes after thanking the guys in the kitchen for a remarkable meal and saying goodnight. Hopefully they answer before another seven years passes and someone I know will want to come along next time.