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The 'Check, Please!' effect

Successful Chicago restaurant show sets the table for its 12th season

Christopher Borrelli

September 6, 2012

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Popular WTTW-Ch. 11 restaurant show "Check, Please!" is among the most successful locally produced series in Chicago television and an oasis of public television reasonableness in an otherwise frenetic restaurant scene. The series begins its 12th season next month. In the meantime, it will be reruns up the wazoo. Once a season is finished, its episodes are replayed Friday nights (the show's traditional time slot), then again Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It's rerun often, said V.J. McAleer, WTTW's vice president of production, for the obvious reason that it is among the highest-rated shows on WTTW, occasionally the highest rated, with 150,000 weekly viewers. Somehow, though, if you have a DVR set for "Check, Please!" three airings a week seems wrong.

It feels low.

Perhaps it's because devotees of "Check, Please!" will attest that they watch every one of those reruns. I TiVo "Check, Please!" and a handful of episodes have become as familiar to me as episodes of "The Brady Bunch." I was at a wedding recently and could not place the name of a woman I thought I knew — until I realized she had been on "Check, Please!" Even the premise, stated each week by host Alpana Singh, rings like a mantra in my brain: "Hi, I'm Alpana Singh. This is the show where regular people from all over Chicago recommend and review their favorite restaurants. Here's how the show works: Every week we have three guests, each recommends his or her favorite stops, then the other two go check and see what they think."

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."

'Simple' format

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."

The show — a co-production between Manilow and WTTW (though Manilow owns the rights to the show and its franchises) — started at the dawn of foodie mania, the Food Network and the explosion of interest in chefs. It was also, to use a word heard often during auditions, relatable — Yelp.com without snark or anonymity. Said Bridget Rose, a commercial producer at Leo Burnett who was a guest last season, "I was shocked people told me they saw me on the show. I knew people watched it, but it had felt like I was the only one."

The tryouts

A couple of weeks later, Manilow and Wedewer were huddled in the conference room of the "Check, Please!" offices, standing before a table and wall strewn with index cards, each bearing the smiling face of a potential guest and scribbled comments — "Japanese … librarian … high voice … doesn't eat seafood … talks a mile a minute … " The scene looked like the sunniest episode of "CSI" ever. It was early June, the new season was scheduled to start taping soon, and Manilow and Wedewer had to pair guests for the next 12 episodes.

"This woman likes Volare," Wedewer said, studying a card.

"This woman thinks Volare is the greatest place on planet Earth," Manilow agreed.

Manilow and Wedewer are the "Check, Please!" staff. Their offices are on the top floor of a brick warehouse in Lincoln Park. On one wall, there are lists of restaurants — restaurants that agreed to be on the show, restaurants "being difficult" and restaurants that refuse to do the show (most are bustling, high-end hot spots without reservation systems, therefore unprepared to withstand the "Check Please" effect). On another wall, hundreds of possible guests. These come to them in several ways: Since January, more than 3,000 people have applied to be on the show through its website. Manilow's wife, Mary Kenney, executive director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority, has been known to suggest people she runs into. As has Manilow. And of the 450 who turned out to audition? "Maybe 50 would do OK," Wedewer said. "But only 15 or so would become serious pigeons" — meaning only 15 could carry a show if the other two guests got quiet.

Manilow and Wedewer were hunting pigeons.

They weigh rudeness against spunk, ethnicity against ethnicity, favorite restaurant against favorite restaurant. They consider class differences, job differences, age differences, visual differences. They are up to their ears in white female attorneys and real estate agents who live in Lincoln Park, they said. They flip so quickly through the stacks and stacks of aspiring guests, they shuffle so relentlessly through the blur of faces, mixing and matching, the exercise quickly gathers an unintentionally brusque shorthand, sounding like a near-parody of inclusiveness. Arranging rows of cards, Wedewer, going for the broadest combination possible, stared at what they had: "We got two whiteys and a black guy here. Or, we could do Asian, Asian, whitey. Or maybe, Mexican, whitey, Asian?"

Manilow looked at me taking notes and said, "When we get to the point where it's three nice people who wouldn't seem to be normally sitting together at a table and talking about food, then I think we have a good show."

Of course, pairings don't always work. "We have come to realize that, no matter what people tell us, only about 20 percent are actually opinionated," Manilow said. Early on, Manilow booked a lot of friends and friends of friends. One such friend of a friend was then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. It was the fifth episode, and Obama spoke at length about Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park. The other two guests rarely spoke at all. "I remember trying to get them to talk," Puck said, "and David's voice in my ear, 'You realize this isn't going so well, don't you?'" The episode was shelved (only debuting in 2009, after the presidential election).

Wedewer excitedly queued up for me the only other episode of "Check, Please!" that's been shelved. It was shot last year. A guest got very drunk during the taping, slurred his words, turned to the camera and yelled:

"THIS CAMERA IS LOOKING AT ME!!!"

It would be great television, a tawdry, surprisingly quasi reality-TV moment on WTTW — a vaguely unhinged, odd-behaving man imploding on a local public-television food show is something, we can all probably agree, everyone would like to see. But that's exactly why you'll never see it on "Check, Please!"

Where's Alpana?

The first episode of the 12th season of "Check, Please!" taped in early July. WTTW's Albany Park studios were chilly, the concrete production hallways largely empty. This is where Singh comes in. She eats at each of the restaurants featured on the show; and being a longtime Chicago wine and drinks expert who grew up in the restaurant business, she is here to offer industry experience, Manilow explained. Otherwise, she's not involved much in the production: "Half the time, I think I forget I even do the show," she told me.

At the taping, she took her seat and explained to the first trio of guests that "a perfect day is when I don't have to say anything, when you guys have a conversation." Off camera, Singh is startlingly funny, lively, very chatty, talking about her appearance on "The Today Show" ("Hoda is so beautiful in person") and disarming guests' nerves so completely that when the taping began, casual table conversation slid seamlessly into the actual show. On camera, though, she's notoriously awkward, admittedly wooden. Manilow pushed her to improve.

She has — about the moment her time on the show is winding down, she said. She's 36 and has been hosting for a decade, she explained to me later. The show has been a platform and occasionally a headache: She became director of wine and spirits for the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group in 2005 partly because her local celebrity had become a distraction in the Everest dining room, where she was the head sommelier.

This month, nine months after leaving Lettuce, she's about to open the Boarding House, a restaurant on Wells. In a month, she and Manilow will discuss whether she'll return next year, whether she has the time.

For fans, it's a potential crack in the routine.

At the taping, though, for the time being, it was still the old team. Wedewer hovered at the side of the stage scribbling — "dessert," "summary" — on cue cards. Manilow, standing in the control room, looked satisfied. He had an actual argument going. A female guest explained the food at her favorite restaurant, Andies, an Andersonville staple, was fresh, varied. A man across from her said the atmosphere was fine, the location pretty, but his lamb shank — "it actually sucked salt out of my mouth."

Manilow barked a laugh.

The woman gasped.

"I find that so hard to believe," she said, flustered, adding that the restaurant's vegetables "come straight from their garden … " Seemed like it came from the garden, the man answered, "the bad part of the garden."

Manilow clapped his hands once.

At the end of taping, Singh stood and sighed. Manilow left the control room, walked into the studio and shook hands. Wedewer sidled up to him: Guests are here for the next episode, she said. Manilow nodded, straightened his sports coat and left. "Good show," he said over his shoulder. I'd definitely watch it twice.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli