Friday, September 24, 2010

Historic Restaurants of Chicago

I don't think anybody would dispute the claim that The Berghoff is Chicago's most historic restaurant. This German beer hall opened in 1898, was granted Liquor License No. 1 after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, and served continuously until the family decided to close it in early 2006. It was reopened shortly thereafter by Carolyn Berghoff, the fourth-generation family member at the helm, who added diversity to the menu while retaining many of the Teutonic staples. Unfortunately, the restaurant has little to recommend it beyond history and beer. The food is best avoided. I had the jagerschnitzel (Pork cutlet, sautéed with mushrooms, bacon and Jagermeister infused sauce, flanked on either side with caramelized root vegetables and spaetzles), which wasn't too bad, but the root vegetables were awful and the spaetzle was a veritable salt mine.

My dining partner, the wacky conceptual artist and poet Bradley Lastname, was seriously disappointed by his pappardelle ai funghi. An even greater dissapointment was the limp and cloying apple strudel. Even though the place was almost empty on a Friday night at 8:45 it took an eternity for somebody to seat us and the service, by bored automatons, was no better than the food. Granted The Loop is pretty dead in the evening, but you'd think a Chicago institution would have some business. I have to assume they fare better at lunch, unless everybody has figured out by now that the food sucks.

If not for my beer flight, 4- or 5-ounce servings of five different house brews, I'd have nothing nice to say about The Berghoff, which is clearly coasting on name recognition.

Lou Mitchell's, a classic lunch counter, coffee shop, diner, what have you, is on the National Register of Historic Places in its Route 66 section. There are always long waits, made easier by the complimentary donut holes and Milk Duds passed out to the hungry, queued multitudes. Actually, if you don't want to wait for a table, especially if you're solo, you can get a spot at the counter pretty quickly. I had planned to have my last breakfast in Chicago there, as it's a stone's throw from Union Station, but, alas, they were closed for Labor Day. But I did eat there some years ago and had an excellent mess of scrambled eggs and sausages and hash browns, served up in a skillet.

Army and Lou's, a soul food restaurant on the South Side, opened in 1945 and is one of the oldest black-owned restaurants in the midwest. It was one of Mayor Harold Washington's favorite spots. I went with pianist extraordinaire Billy Foster, who drove up from his home in Gary, Indiana to join me at the Chicago Jazz Festival that day. I always enjoy Billy's company, but I also appreciated the ride, as it saved me an hour-long bus ride. I had no idea Chicago was so long from north to south until I checked the CTA trip planner. It was 9 miles from my hotel on East Wacker down to 75th Street, and there's lots more Chicago north of Wacker.

My smothered pork chops, for a whopping $10.95, came with a delicious oxtail soup and a choice of one side. I figured ordering mac and cheese on top of smothered pork chops would be coronary overkill, so I went for the healthy choice, creamy cole slaw. Everything was delicious except the mediocre rolls and dry corn bread.

So, I smothered my arteries. So what?

If you're visiting Chicago I highly recommend a meal at Army and Lou's. It's worth the trek.

And definitely skip The Berghoff. Or stop in for a quick beer and eat elsewhere.


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