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Documentary celebrates Chicago breakfast restaurateur

Ina Pinkney in a scene from the documentary “Breakfast at Ina’s.”
Ina Pinkney in a scene from the documentary “Breakfast at Ina’s.”(Daisy May Films)

When filmmaker Mercedes Kane approached Ina Pinkney about documenting the final days of her Chicago breakfast spot, Ina's, the restaurateur agreed, she says, because "I wanted to see what happened there in the last month." Kane followed the proprietor, her staff, and devoted clientele through their last days together in December 2013. The result is an affecting and inspirational documentary, "Breakfast at Ina's."

Ina's had been open for almost 13 years (Pinkney had had two similar restaurants before that). In 2001, the 108-seat restaurant's West Loop neighborhood, now home to many top eateries, was "desolate," says Pinkney. Initially open all day, Ina's scaled back to its specialty: breakfasts of "heavenly hot pancakes," pasta frittata, baked French toast, and other celebrated menu items.

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Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Pinkney was stricken with polio as a toddler and it affected her right leg and hip. Now 72, she still wears a leg brace that, in particularly moving footage, she is shown strapping on as part of her early-morning ritual. For years she has suffered from post-polio syndrome, which made the daily routine of running a restaurant increasingly difficult. Though she never hid her condition, she never called attention to it, either. "My disability is not who I am," Pinkney says. "It's not what I do."

Before the restaurant closed, Pinkney self-published a cookbook-memoir, "Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast" (it was bought by a publisher and then re-

released as "Ina's Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from the Breakfast Queen"). Divorced with no children, she says she wrote the book because, "I have no family to whom to leave my recipes. Chicago has become my family."

In 1965, at 22, Ina married Bill Pinkney, who later became the first African-American to sail solo around the world, ending his voyage in Boston Harbor. The interracial marriage — against the law in 17 states at the time — caused a rift with her parents that took several years to repair. The couple lived in New York before moving to Chicago.

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After trying several jobs, Pinkney found her passion in baking. In 1980, she opened a bakery, The Dessert Kitchen, which made special orders for private and commercial customers.

Working alone in her kitchen, she used to envision exactly the restaurant she would operate one day. "I knew what I wanted you to feel like sitting in my restaurant eating the food," she says. She opened Ina's Kitchen in 1991, in the middle of a recession. Having built a devoted clientele in the bakery, she says, "It didn't dawn on me that it wouldn't be a success."

Pinkney now writes a monthly column for the Chicago Tribune, "Breakfast With Ina." She also speaks to Rotary International groups whose mission, with the Gates Foundation, is global eradication of polio. She admits that some aspects of watching the film, like seeing herself walk in the restaurant, were difficult. "I had no idea I had lost so much mobility."

Nevertheless, "The movie has so much meaning for me because I get to share it in places I wouldn't imagine," she says, venues such as the Jewish Film Festival in the city where she greeted her "fabulous former husband" at the end of his solo sail.

"Breakfast at Ina's" will be shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 8 at 3:30 p.m., West Newton Cinema, 1296 Washington St., West Newton, www.bjff.org

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ANDREA PYENSON