John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Fat Daddy's, Fat Sam's, Fat Tony's, Fat Ricky's, Fat Boys, Fatty Magoo's... what's behind this celebration of big-bonedness?
While eating in Chicago recently I was hit with the feeling of being surrounded by grizzly bears. To the left, right, and front were hirsute, beefy men—not exactly fat but meaty dudes, stuffing meat into their mouths as if prepping for hibernation.
Granted, this was no light-fare restaurant, being known for a bloody burger the size of Mickey Rourke's fist and cow-tallow fries. And there were wispy folks, too, there and in other 'hoods. But the encounter with this particular XXL-crowd must've tripped a brain switch, because for the next few days I kept on noticing signage that read, “FAT.”
I wanted a Chicago-style dog, and found they could be purchased at Fatty's Hotdogs and Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots. Brisket poutine was on the menu at Fat Willy's Rib Shack, and several Fat Albert's shilled juicy Italian beefs. Fat Rice had a luscious-sounding Euro-Asian paella, Fat Tommy's a gut-bombing pork-chop sandwich, and Fat Cat pork-belly nachos and something called “Reuben balls.”
A search of Google Maps and Yellow Pages reveals a legion of heavyweight eateries stomping far into Chicago's suburbs: Fat Daddy's Grill, Fat Sam's Pub, Fat Tony's Pizzeria, Fat Ricky's, Fat Boys, Fatt Mustard Cafe, Fat Sandwich Company (“unexpected ingredients in large portions”), Fatty's Burgers & More (home of the “Fatcheezy Burger,” with “cheddar cheese and extra, extra cheddar cheese”), Nick's Fat Boy Restaurant, Fatty Magoo's, and more. Now-shuttered enterprises include Fatty's Fast Food and Uncle Fatty's Rum Resort. Even non-food joints want in on the game, with a Fat Tone Guitars, a Big Fat Happiness counseling service, and Labedz Ronald Fatty, attorneys at law.
Entrepreneurs must be aware of the wall-to-wall fat-feting, because variations on the word pop up in other establishments: Big Bar & Brasserie, Big Jones, Big Chicks, Big G's Pizza, Big Tony's, Big Joe's, Big Mike's Gyros, Big Boy's. A Husky Hog slings ribs and fried Oreos, Beefy's offers meat-heavy sandwiches, and Jolly Inn Restaurant & Banquet specializes in rib-sticking Polish cuisine. For folks who require trigger warnings for weight issues, this place must be hell!
All in all, I've found two-dozen operating dining outlets with some form of “fat” in their name and more than a dozen with thesaurus alternatives, not counting multiple chain locations and Chinese names. A highly unscientific survey of Google Maps produces no other major metropolitan area with this adipose extravaganza. Despite having a bigger population, New York logs in with maybe a dozen “Fats” and Los Angeles half of that. (In fact there's some evidence restaurants suggesting heft can't seem to make it in L.A., with the permanently closed including Fat Spoon, Fat Fish, My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, Fat Sushi, and The Fat Cow.) Houston is kinda corpulent with perhaps eight, while Washington, D.C., is all skin and bones with just two barbecue houses, Fat Pete's and Fat Face.
Not being from Chicago, I have to admit I'm at a loss for what's happening. I mean, Chicago doesn't even appear on the Top 10 list of most-obese U.S. cities. So I'll throw it out to any locals reading: What's behind this huzzah to big-bonedness? Is it a Midwestern thing, instilled by years of munching chocolate-slathered bacon, deep-fried Kool-Aid, and other state-fair treats? A lasting legacy of a work force of brawny meat packers and railroad men? A business trick to get diners' taste buds watering? A nod to the city's last Republican mayor and all-around large guy, “Big Bill” Thompson? If anybody cares to speculate, please drop a comment below.