Toughest Dinner Reservation in Chicago?

An exclusive look inside Schwa restaurant

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Marcus Riley
    Chef Michael Carlson puts the finishing touches on one of his creations inside Schwa's kitchen.

    It isn't much to look at from the outside. Schwa restaurant sits on a non-descript stretch of Ashland, just south of North Avenue. The decor inside the 400 square-foot space won't land itself inside the pages of Architectural Digest anytime soon either.

    But that's not what makes this arguably the toughest restaurant to get into in Chicago. It has everything to do with the food -- and perhaps, the mystery behind the owner/chef Michael Carlson.

    It's the same Michael Carlson who GQ devoted a feature to earlier this year that read like a mini-novel. It documented his quirky, eccentric nature, and his dramatic stress-induced breakdown that led him to close and reopen the restaurant a couple of years ago, and the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol involved.

    Exclusive Look Inside Michael Carlson's Schwa

    [CHI] Exclusive Look Inside Michael Carlson's Schwa
    For the first time ever, cameras go inside Schwa restaurant to talk to chef/owner Michael Carlson, a man who's mysterious personality is often talked about as much as the outstanding food.

    But Carlson allowed our cameras inside his kitchen for an inside look at how he operates. And yes, we needed to get that nagging issue out of the way, mainly why it can seem next to impossible to get a reservation.

    "We only have 26 seats, and once they're full, they're full, and there's really nothing we can do about it. A lot of people are starting to understand that we just can't make another table in here," Carlson said.

    Carlson says that every day his voicemail gets full with about 60 reservation requests, and they answer the calls in the order they come.

    Even if you have connections, it can take awhile. Just ask local food blogger Audarshia Townsend, who visited the restaurant for the first time on the night we visited with Carlson.

    "They have a reputation for not answering the phones, so it was really hard. I tried to email, could not get through, so overall I think it's been a little more than a year," Townsend said.

    Usually that sort of demand would prompt a restaurant to add staff, but there's the rub -- Schwa doesn't have a hostess answering phones, or even waiters or waitresses. Carlson and his crew of sous chefs operate as hosts and waiters, which adds to the sometimes frenzied atmosphere. Add to that a hip-hop playlist pumping loudly through the speakers, and you have one of the most unique experiences you'll get in a restaurant of this calibre.

    "After the GQ 12-page spread ran, I just knew it was going to get easier to get in here, because you know he read it, so I just knew he was going to have a better system in getting a reservation, but it doesn't seem as if anything has changed. It seems like he has actually taking a stand against the traditional system," Townsend said.

    So where's Carlson's head at these days? He seems a bit wary of divulging too much, but defends his all-or-nothing approach to his craft.

    "Everybody does (stress out), don't they? Is it too much? No, I could probably stress out about it more," Carlson said.

    Chefs have become celebrities in their own right these days, and if he played the game, Carlson could be on track to join that Justice League of chefs who are household names. There's a reason why Food & Wine magazine named him the Best New Chef in 2006.

    He's had the offers -- reality shows and the like, and while he doesn't turn his nose up at that culture, he's where he wants to be.

    "I cook, man, we all cook. There's a place for that, and I'm glad that it's there. The average diner seems a lot more educated due to stuff like that," Carlson said.

    "We have a lot of fun. It's very manageable with what we have. I like keeping my eye on every aspect of it. Eventually I'm sure we'll move to a different space, but for right now, I'm sort of content with doing what we're doing. We have yet to perfect this restaurant, and once we do that, we'll think about moving on."

    And about that reservation? We're still waiting.

    If you don't catch Marcus trying to eat his way through Chicago, you can also find him on 24/7 Chicago: Secrets of the City, Saturday nights at 12:35 on NBC 5.