After 19 seasons and three hosts who helped Chicagoans explore restaurants across the city, WTTW has elected not to renew Check, Please! The groundbreaking TV show has been hiatus since March 2020 due to the pandemic. Show creator David Manilow and host Alpana Singh say they wanted to continue for a 20th season, but station executives had other ideas.
“We were just going in different directions,” Manilow says. “I was really happy in keeping the brand quality high... my whole thing with Check, Please! was to promote neighborhood exploration.”
Neither Manilow or WTTW were clear on the reasons behind the move, but he will seek opportunities to continue the show elsewhere. It’s the latest change in Chicago’s food media landscape. The pandemic has been turbulent seeing Phil Vettel retire from his post as the Tribune’s dining critic (replaced by Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger), the departure of Jeff Ruby from Chicago, and with the food personality formerly known as the Hungry Hound morphing into the Food Guy in departing ABC 7 Chicago for NBC 5 Chicago.
The show ceased production in March 2020 with Gov. J.B. Pritzker issuing the state’s first stay-at-home order. Manilow says he didn’t feel comfortable with resuming the show until this summer, but the station did not want to commit. Singh calls the decision “devastating” and says she wishes the show got a proper send off, comparing it to a long-running TV drama with a disappointing series finale. Singh was one of three hosts — Amanda Puck was the original host, followed by Singh and Catherine Di Orio, and then a second stint from Singh that started in 2018. Singh hosted for 12 of 19 seasons.
“I just feel so sad for the viewer,” Singh says. “I’m not trying to sound arrogant or anything — I know how much this show means to people.”
The show’s format, unveiled in 2001, featured three guests from different walks of life each picking a restaurant, with each guest separately dining at all three restaurants. None of the guests were affiliated with the restaurant industry. They would then report their experiences to the host unveiling a diversity of perspectives and sometimes, if viewers were lucky, colorful disagreements.
“That was good TV — this is just comedy gold,” Singh says, recounting one of the more animated episodes. “You just recognize this is good TV and you step back.”
The show showcased different Chicago neighborhoods. Manilow hoped it challenged people’s comfort zones, encouraging residents from suburban Palos Park to visit a city restaurant in Humboldt Park. Singh says she used to have a Friday ritual with her grandmother who felt she could fully explore the city while watching the show.
WTTW provided the following statement:
Chicago is a restaurant town, and for many years, Check, Please! has brought people from across our city and suburbs together to inspire exploration and discovery of the diversity of foods, flavors, and cuisines in our community. This upcoming season, as Check, Please! leaves WTTW’s schedule, we look forward to bringing local documentaries, storytelling, and trusted and independent news to our audience.
Though new episodes will no longer appear on Chicago’s PBS outlet, Singh and Manilow are hopeful the digital media landscape will provide opportunities for the brand to survive. Singh says restaurants need exposure more than ever as they contend with the COVID-19 environment. Longtime Chicago food writer Kevin Pang summarized the show’s influence in a social media post, writing that conceivably, it’s “done more for Chicago restaurants than anyone in town, ever.” Pang credited the show in bringing crowds to Hot Doug’s, the popular sausage shop. Proprietor Doug Sohn agrees, saying Check, Please! had a “profound effect on restaurants in Chicago.”
The Hot Doug’s episode aired in October 2004, and Sohn calls it one of the restaurant’s milestones. Chicago restaurant owners had to be ready for a rush of customers after an episode.
“It instantaneously ramped up business, there’s no doubt about it,” Sohn says.
For now, Manilow says he’s working on other projects. Singh has her hands full running her Evanston restaurant, Terra & Vine, rising to the challenge of navigating the pandemic. Due to short staffing, today she’s serving as host and bartender.
The table on the TV set where studio’s guests and hosts were seated often had glasses full of wine to loosen the room up. Singh, a master sommelier, says she stopped drinking wine after season two or three (the wine would make her giggle, she says). The show’s most famous guest was from a show taped in 2001 when a state senator named Barack Obama came on to discuss the merits of a now-closed restaurant called Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park. Manilow shelved that show for years until the end of Obama’s presidency. He thought the young state senator dominated the panel too much.
Manilow brought the show to different markets including San Francisco and Philadelphia, he also tried a companion show in 2018 called Dishalicious. The show starred Monteverde chef Sarah Grueneberg, but failed to gain momentum. Manilow says it’s hard to convince outlets to commit to a project in these turbulent times.
Still, Singh marvels at the reach of Check, Please! She’s been approached by fans countless times. She says she even has a following at correctional facilities where PBS is a fixture on TVs. Manilow says the show has led to clubs where friends get together after picking a restaurant featured on the show.
“I’ve had the time of my life,” Manilow says.