Keeping it ‘Real,’ one bowl at a time

Last week, I experienced my first professional business lunch. Two magazine executives and I went to an upscale seafood restaurant in Waukesha, where dark mahogany wood paneled the walls and 1940s music crackled on the sound system. I cut my blackened scallops into modest bite-sized portions and tried to remember exactly how my uncle once instructed me to politely butter bread. My fellow diners and I discussed print journalism, newsrooms and, yes, my résumé. But one question that garnered the most attention was one I never would have guessed.

“Do you ever eat at Real Chili?”

Finally, an answer that required no thought. “Oh, yeah!”

The man stopped cutting his fish and looked at me. “Really? You do? That’s great! Wow. That’s great! I can’t believe you eat at Real Chili!”

We went on to compare our (oddly similar) orders — just chili and beans, hold the spaghetti — and sing the praises what has become Milwaukee’s, and particularly Marquette’s, most beloved hole-in-the-wall chili joint since it started serving up bowls of chili in 1931. The place might as well be considered a university building — the original location was the basement of the Jesuit Residence.

As I drove home, it struck me that I’ve begun to take Real Chili for granted. During my lunch, that one snippet of information seemed to tell this man more about my character than any professional credential. Why? Real Chili isn’t exactly the most glamorous or health-conscious of restaurants. It has nothing to do with status or trend.

But if you like Real Chili, odds are that you’re a fun individual. You know how to loosen up and you understand the importance of tradition.

You’re probably fun to go out with, too. When bars are closing and the dreaded fluorescent lights switch on, there’s nothing better than someone boldly shouting, “Real Chili!” to their friends, proving that closing time doesn’t mean the night is necessarily over.

After all, dining at Real Chili trumps any other spot on campus. Devouring a bowl of chili there is a highly social activity. The U-shaped counter of diner stools, some spinning better than others, is the perfect environment to meet new people, partake in friendly teasing and run into friends who are curing their craving for a bowl of grease as well. You might get a cracker fight, in which white, salted oysters rain from the ceiling. Few restaurants even look like Real Chili these days. Most make you line up and order one-by-one, completely killing the solidarity of a good night out.

I’ve been eating at Real Chili since I was tall enough to look over the counter. My dad, a Marquette alumnus, is a “Real” fanatic. When my parents come up for a visit, they always offer to take me to dinner off-campus. When my sister, mother and I vote for salads and pasta, my dad will often drop us off at the restaurant, say, “Call me when you’re done,” drive to Real and read a copy of The Onion while eating a bowl and a half of hot by himself. At first this routine felt slightly dysfunctional, but I know his love for Real is closely intertwined with his college years and memories, and I can’t mess with those.

A craving for Real isn’t quelled by much else. Even my vegetarian friends, who eat diets chock-full of tofu, quinoa and flax, adore the place. They order bowls of spaghetti and beans while tolerating a mild mocking from whoever is working the counter that night. Every Marquette student should partake in “cura personalis” and eat at Real Chili. I couldn’t believe it when I met a senior who had never been. I made him go that very night. My advice? Order the “Marquette,” a bowl of medium chili with spaghetti and beans. Remember to pile on the fixings.

Before I shook hands with the magazine executive and thanked him for lunch, he told me, “I love that you eat at Real Chili.” Yeah, that makes two of us.