By Frank Chlumsky
Another era? Yes, indeed!
Browsing at a local antique store, a friend saw an item, lying face down at the bottom of a large glass bowl. It turned out to be an old menu for Fritzel’s, a Chicago landmark restaurant that operated from 1947 until 1972 at the corner of State and Lake Street in Chicago’s Loop. A new addition for my menu collection that numbers well over a hundred! Looking through them is like looking at a diary of my life.
I remember Fritzel’s. I remember it well. The food was great! Irv “Kup” Kupcinet, Chicago’s legendary entertainment columnist, held court during lunch there every day and on one memorable occasion, I was even his guest. But that’s a story for another day, and this isn’t just about Fritzel’s.
Dear to my heart is a menu from Ireland’s Oyster House, another Chicago landmark (sadly gone) where my dad took me for the first time on my eighth birthday. The overwhelming impression it made on me at that age made Ireland’s my birthday present every year until my early 20’s. I like to imagine what the waitstaff must have thought as they watched an eight year old ordering oysters on the half shell and enthusiastically devouring steamer clams and Maine lobster. Ireland’s had all male waiters. They wore starched white jackets and a badge noting the number of years each waiter worked at the restaurant. They were real pros back then, and I would marvel at how the waiters would come from the kitchen with as many as six platters stacked on their arm. Some of them had been there for as many as 30 years, pointing to a time when waiting tables could be a viable occupation rather than just a temporary stop on the way to an acting career.
And then there were the busboys. As a youngster, much to my father’s chagrin, I had a running battle with the busboys to see if I could finish a glass of water before they
could fill it up. It always amazed me how they would appear, seemingly out of nowhere, right after I would take one sip from my glass.
I loved that restaurant so much that on the day I got my first car I drove – by myself – to Ireland’s, where I ate – by myself – savoring the meal with utter delight. Thinking about my career, I have no doubt that Ireland’s was probably the reason for my entry into the culinary profession that would occur some fifteen years later.
Back to my menu collection, and more nostalgia, I also have a menu from The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant that recalls my very first trip to New York back in 1977. I have four more menus from that same place (they’re printed daily) that remind me of the happy times I had there, sitting at the counter, in October 1982, September 1983, September 2005, and February 2015. This place has the largest selection of raw oysters that I have ever seen, numbering 27 on my last visit. Needless to say, I look forward to adding even more of these menus to my collection since I have a personal rule of not visiting Manhattan without a visit to that seafood mecca.
Sadly, many of the restaurants represented in my collection no longer exist. Maxim’s, Chicago’s first real French restaurant, where I worked as a student cook in the 60’s, is no more. Also gone is Philander’s, patterned after Ireland’s, where I was the Executive Chef from 1979 until 1987. Na Ka No-Ya, The Azuma House, and Kiyo’s, the first Japanese restaurants that existed in Chicago, are all also closed. So too is The Swedish Club, where you could see opera performed by puppets. Café Bohemia, known for wild game, Heidelberger Fass, for German food and Barney’s Market Club, featuring 3-pound lobsters, were all special and are all sorely missed.
It’s been said that nostalgia takes us to a place where we ache to go to again, and that’s just what I do when I go through my collection. I ache. I ache for the menus and the food of my era and even more; I ache for the mindset of the cooks that I worked with at that time. I’m old school, as they say, and while I realize the course of progress, I can only lament the passing of a style of restaurant that was once universal but no longer seems to exist. What I miss most of all is the consistency that was the foundation of these restaurants success.
It’s consistency that makes the mouth water with expectation that one can repeat the pleasures experienced on the last visit. But where is it? The emphasis I see today seems to be on creativity, which, in my opinion, begs the question: Does the concept of creativity belie consistency? Young chefs want to be considered “artists.” The artist has the desire, the need, to always come up with something new. Repetition is anathema to the artist, but repetition, consistency, is what kept me coming back to all of those restaurants represented in my collection. What brought all of the repeat customers to my own restaurants? The consistent quality of food and service.
All of my life, my favorite thing to do has been dining in fine restaurants. You never had to ask me twice. Today, I am hard pressed to come up with a place that can meet my expectations on my second visit. After a half century as a chef, restaurateur and teacher, perhaps the best advice I can offer to the modern cook is to step back and think about the importance of consistency. Or maybe I am just under the sway of what food writer Nigel Slater says, “The most successful seasoning for what we eat is a good pinch of nostalgia.”. Another era? Yes, indeed!
Frank Chlumsky, former chef instructor from Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts, has spent the last 50 years in the culinary profession. Chef Chlumsky has owned restaurants in Michigan City, Indiana and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He was also the Executive Chef at Philander’s Restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois and the Saddle & Cycle Club in Chicago. Chef Chlumsky lives in Forest Park, Illinois where he writes about cooking and cooks for pleasure.