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Fried chicken is a dish eaten in shame. Some nights when the urge arises, I rush to the neighborhood Kentucky-style chicken emporium in a hooded sweatshirt and tinted sunglasses, find the farthest table from the entrance and begin desecrating the contents of a bucket.
Is this because there’s no civilized way of eating fried chicken? Part of the appeal is its tactile pleasure – greasy fingertips gripping on craggy bits of skin, the bite, the crunch, the audible affirmation of a chicken fried right. The licking of fingers, the napkins turned translucent. The dish is best consumed alone, out of sight of other diners.
But the shame-ridden can eat in daylight once more. With comfort food gaining traction as haute cuisine, white-tablecloth restaurants are embracing this humble Southern dish and elevating it to fork-and-knife status. What’s more, a number of restaurants are devoting one night a week to the crispy bird, a “fried chicken night” that’s equal parts reverence to the dish and marketing gimmick.
Partly as a way to combat the economic downturn, fried chicken nights are typically held during slower service nights, when restaurants hope to bring in more customers.
Perhaps the most famous of the fried chicken nights is at Art Smith’s Table Fifty-Two, where the restaurant’s Sunday night chicken dinners were expanded to Monday nights because of demand. Paramount Room in West Town has done fried chicken every Wednesday since opening two years ago. L. Woods Tap & Pine Lodge in Lincolnwood has a Sunday fried chicken special so popular, the restaurant runs out of chicken by 7:30 p.m.
At Andersonville’s Big Jones, which describes itself as “coastal Southern cuisine,” its Tuesday fried chicken special accounts for one-third of all orders that night.
“It’s actually our busiest weeknight, which is extraordinary considering it is a Tuesday,” said Paul Fehribach, executive chef and co-owner of Big Jones.
Michael McDonald, chef at One Sixty Blue, said the idea for his Wednesday fried chicken night came only after a successful Thursday burger night campaign. McDonald tried replicating the concept with other comfort dishes (pizza, fish fry) but went with a trend he saw growing out of New York: fried chicken and Champagne (a surprisingly cool pairing; the bubbles and acidity cut through the fattiness of fried chicken).
The best versions I’ve tasted vary on the crunch-crisp spectrum, but they share a common trait: All are grease-free to the touch.
Fried chicken, cheaper than most entrees, is a good lure to bring in those who wouldn’t frequent upscale restaurants. But it’s also making decent money.