Breakfast with Ina Pinkney

Turning tables: Former Ina's owner as customer and critic

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Ina Pinkney

Ina Pinkney who closed her beloved breakfast lunch spot in the West Loop late last year shares breakfast with Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / March 24, 2014)

For a retiree, Ina Pinkney doesn't sit around much. Pinkney recently closed her beloved breakfast/lunch spot, Ina's, going out with a grand finale on New Year's Eve, capping a restaurant career that spanned 22 years in three Chicago locations. In the three months since, she has moderated and sat on panels, speaking about women chefs and the restaurant industry in general; joined a memoir-writing group ("some pretty damn accomplished people there," she said, admiringly); made a fistful of TV appearances; lent her name to a charity or two; and tirelessly promoted her one and only cookbook, "Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast," which came out late last year.

Late last month, Pinkney attended a special Sunday brunch at Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook; chef/partner Sarah Stegner whipped up signature dishes from the cookbook, while Pinkney schmoozed with customers. This Sunday, she'll be at Cicchetti as a special guest of that Streeterville restaurant's inaugural brunch.

"I told you, before I become a relic, I have to make hay," she explained.

Still, life is different. The pre-dawn wake-up calls are in the past. She can dine late.

"The other day I was out till quarter to 12," she said. "I didn't even know there was a quarter to 12."

And, of course, she's free to dine wherever she wants. So what would be more fun than to invite the Breakfast Queen (a nickname that makes up in accuracy what it lacks in modesty) for some morning meals?

So for a few fun mornings last month, it was breakfast with Ina and me (introduced, when necessary, as her cousin Ira).

As you might imagine, Pinkney has some pretty firm opinions on breakfast.

"Breakfast is a one-course meal," she said. "So the one course you're bringing out has to be special. For me, the first thing, it has to be delicious. A lot of food is OK. But if it's not delicious, why bother coming back?

"I need a place that's peaceful and thoughtful," she said. "Where the food feels like someone made it just for me. There has to be an aesthetic — friendly but not too friendly, cheery but not too cheery."

That said, Pinkney, like so many others in the restaurant business, is pretty much a dream customer. Everything is a "please" and "thank you so much." She'll notice the negatives — she notices everything — but focuses on the positives.

The first phrases out of Pinkney after she sits down are "latte, please," and "could you please turn the music down?" Those two requests accommodated, Pinkney is a happy camper.

Well-prepared baked goods bring her joy. She thinks restaurant music should be lyric-free, because they interfere with conversation. And she wonders what the deal is on breakfast potatoes.

"I can't figure that out," she said. "When did potatoes become the go-to side on so many plates? They're everywhere."


It's clear that Pinkney has high hopes for this restaurant; one of her regular customers, one with a trustworthy palate, told Pinkney, "This might be the new Ina go-to place."

The meal starts out promising enough. The dining room, a converted loft space on Orleans Street, is sunny and cheerful. Numerous semiprivate alcoves make this an ideal destination for group breakfasts. (Serious groups can rent the Board Room, with has a 10-seat granite table and AV and Wi-Fi capabilities.) Indeed, there are two sizable groups dining and conferring as we arrive, and in consideration of that, the music has been switched off.

The menu, which is huge, makes a point to emphasize the restaurant's commitment to local and sustainable products.

But the opening bite, a sampler of mini pancakes (buttermilk, red velvet and banana), fails to impress.

"I don't trust anything called red velvet," Pinkney said, "because it's all red dye."

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