For those of us who grew up in and around Chicago, there are names of long gone restaurants that still tug at our heart, evoking memories of foods no longer served, surroundings replaced and aromas we many never smell again.
For me, that’s the allure of Greg Borzo’s latest book, Lost Restaurants of Chicago with foreword by Dough Sohn, the owner of the now closed Hot Doug’s.
Borzo, a Chicagoan historian who has written several books about the city’s bicycling, transportation and history including its fountains frequently gives tours and talks for organizations such as Forgotten Chicago, the Chicago History Museum and Chicago Cycling Club. The idea for his latest came about when he and his friends were chatting about the good times they’d had at restaurants over the years and how many were gone. His book goes further back though, starting over a century-and-a-half ago.
“My list of restaurants to research from at least a hundred people,” he says, noting that he still gets some complaints about places he left out but then with seven out of eight restaurants closing within a few years of opening, the number of those gone are overwhelming.
I ask Borzo what some of his favorite are “lost” restaurants. Some he had dined at, like The Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, a Richard Melman restaurant that opened in 1974.
“It had a dessert bar and you could get as many desserts as you wanted, like a salad bar,” he recalls about the restaurant that closed in 1883. “There’s also Trader Vic’s which was in the Palmer House. Its décor was completely over the top.”
When Trader Vic’s, a Tiki bar extraordinaire first opened in 1957, bringing it up to its Polynesian zenith cost $500,000 which included a décor boasting huge Eastern Island carved wooden heads, totem poles, canoes and massive Maori beams. It was part of the Tiki rage that swept the U.S. and Trader Vic’s had its competitors include Don the Beachcomber which featured 85 types of run and 65 different cocktails.
There are also places he wishes he ate at but didn’t such as Maxim’s de Paris, which was opened from 1963 to 1982.
“It was a replica of the Maxim’s in Paris,” says Borzo. “I went to it when it later when the building was an event space.”
Which is another phenomena of Chicago restaurants.
“Many single locations have been many different restaurants,” says Borzo.
Indeed, Bistro 110 at 110 East Pearson used to be the Blackhawk, then became Bar Toma Restaurant which is now closed.
“This book is a history book too,” says Borzo. “It reflects the character of the city through the food and showing the different income levels. Some people were going to diners, others to the Pump Room.”
Borzo and I both share a laugh about the now closed Flo’s Restaurant and Cocktail Parlor which was located at 17 West Randolph, near what is now Macy’s flagship store. I used to see it as a kid when my parents took me shopping in the Loop. It was notable because a woman in a form fitting Playboy-bunny like costume and spiked heels climbed out on a swing on the second floor balcony to advertise the place.
“I’ve eaten at a lot of the places I write about,” says Borzo. “And those that were already closed I tried to find people who had eaten there, researched old newspaper stories and searched through vintage photos.”
What: Greg Borzo talk and book signing
When, Where and Contact Information:
Thursday, January 24 at 5 p.m.
Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., 6-7 p.m. A free raffle will give away more than $1,000 of gifts: trips, tours, food, books and more.
(312) 747-4300; slpl.bibliocommons.com/events
Saturday, February 9 at 5 p.m.
The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL
(773) 293-2665; bookcellarinc.com