From Chop Suey Houses To Saloons: What Was Chicago’s Foodie Scene Like In The Early 20th Century?
Like a lot of Chicagoans, Ann Groothius loves exploring the city through its famously diverse and lauded restaurants.
This got her wondering if Chicago has always had such a lively dining scene. So she wrote to Curious City and asked:
What was the culinary scene like in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century?
When we dug into this question, we found that, like today, Chicago had many different dining scenes, including niche immigrant eateries in outlying neighborhoods — run by Swedes, Germans, Italians, Ashkenazi Jews and Greeks.
But we’re going to focus on a part of Chicago that served people from all walks of life each day: the Loop. And we’re going to look at the era from about 1885 to 1920.
We selected five popular restaurant types that provide a window into key aspects of life in Chicago at that time — from changing gender roles to new technologies. Then, we dug up archival menus and old newspaper clippings, talked to restaurant experts and culinary historians, and got a sense of what a typical meal would have been at each of these spots. We present them here for your (virtual) dining pleasure. ... Bon Appetit!
Chop suey house
By 1910, the Loop was already home to more than a dozen chop suey houses. This was partly because the city’s first Chinatown was in the Loop — near Clark and Van Buren — but also because the nation was in the middle of a chop suey craze.
“Chop suey became immensely popular beginning in the 1890s for a couple of reasons,” says food historian Bruce Kraig. “One is because it was cheap food, and another is because it was considered exotic.”
By most accounts, this “exotic” dish was little more than pork bits, onion and celery cooked in a bland, beige cornstarch and soy sauce. But the reputation of chop suey houses, which ranged from little eateries to grand dining halls, was anything but bland.
Many were seen as risque, counterculture venues where customers could try “oriental” delicacies and briefly escape the more rigid societal norms of the time.
This is partly because some of Chicago’s Chinese restaurants were located near the vice district. Others (but not all) offered controversial amenities like music, dancing and private booths.
But the controversy was also fueled by xenophobia, as illustrated by this investigation published in the Chicago Tribune in 1911:
“CHINESE MIX SIN WITH CHOP SUEY ... Young girls with braids down their
back daily are escorted into many of these oriental places ... and are being
introduced to cigarette smoking, drinking and other evils destined to make them
the slave wives of Chinamen or drag them down into lives of more open shame.”
The restaurants faced union boycotts, City Council proposals to deny them restaurant licenses, and federal laws that already sharply limited Chinese immigration. But the boycotts eventually failed, the license proposal never passed, and a 1915 court case added “restaurateurs” to the slim list of Chinese professionals allowed to enter the U.S. Chinese-American restaurants thrived for at least another century — even if chop suey itself would eventually fall out of favor for more “authentic” Chinese fare.
For an old-fashioned chop suey restaurant today check out Chicago’s oldest continuously running chop suey house, Orange Garden.
At the turn of the century, Chicago’s finest dining rooms featured enormous menus, with steaks, chops, seafood and many European-influenced dishes, also known as continental fare. Some of these restaurants were large, handsome eateries run by European immigrants, like Viennese pastry chef Philip Henrici, who owned Henrici’s on Randolph.
Many of the fanciest restaurants were in hotels like the Palmer House, Sherman House and The Drake.
“Hotels were like corporations at the time,” says restaurant historian Jan Whitaker. “They had money so they could hire a chef from Europe if they wanted to. And many did.”
These restaurants would have been filled with politicians, magnates, business people and middle-class folks celebrating special occasions. Tables would have been decked out in linen tablecloths, China and silver, and the menu would have featured hundreds of items. While most of the dishes would seem at home on big steakhouse menus today, others like croquettes, turtle soup, pickled lamb’s tongue, canned sardines and a whole section for wild game wouldn’t anymore. Whitaker says they were supposed to project an image of opulence, abundance and customer-pleasing service.
“They were supposed to have everything,” she says. “So if a person said ‘I want X’ and it wasn’t on the menu, they would fix it for them, because the idea was to have all the standard dishes, of which there were a lot.”
One of those standard dishes was raw celery served as its own dish. Historian Bruce Kraig said it was part of a celery health craze sweeping the nation.
“Celery was huge,” says Kraig, because “it got your gastric juices going, and because it had so much fiber it was thought to have helpful benefits for elimination of waste.”
The celery fad would continue to leave its mark on American menus through the 1960s as an element of the classic steakhouse relish tray.
Despite Chicago’s lack of ocean front, the Loop hosted at least half a dozen oyster houses around the turn of the century.
“Demand was high because early settlers of Chicago came from New England and New York, where oysters were de rigueur,” says food historian Bruce Kraig.
Among the city’s most famous were the Boston Oyster House, Race Brothers New England Oyster House, Chicago Oyster House and the famous Rector’s Oyster House at Clark and Monroe.
In Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, one of the characters dines there: “Rector’s with its polished marble walls and floor, its profusion of lights, its show of china and silverware, and, above all, its reputation as a resort for actors and professional men, seemed to him the proper place for a successful man to go.”
At first, the oysters — usually Blue Points — were shipped here through the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, then later on daily trains from the East Coast.
Eventually, their popularity — and safety concerns over shipping perishable seafood during the hot summer months — led Illinois legislators to institute a seasonal ban on oysters in 1901. This might explain why oyster houses had such broad menus that also included game, roasted meats, steaks and even milk toast (toasted bread with warm milk poured on top).
Chicago’s oyster houses thrived well into the 20th century. But their fortunes changed by the 1920s when overfishing, environmental degradation and disease hit East Coast oysters hard.
“By [then] the oyster beds were so polluted that many were killed off and the craze for oysters diminished greatly,” Kraig says.
For a similar experience today, try Shaw’s Crab House.
In the early part of 20th century, Chicago had about 8,000 saloons. To stay competitive, they started offering something popular (and controversial with temperance advocates): free lunch with a drink.
“Right outside the stockyards there would have been a line of bars where you’d get your drink and they’d give you a free hot oyster for lunch,” says historian Danny Block, co-author of Chicago: A Food Biography.
In the Loop, first Ward Alderman Hinky Dink Kenna gave beer drinkers hot soup and unlimited bread at Workingman’s Exchange on Clark. In 1913, two saloons went broke after giving away too much liver and onions.
“Some of those hobos spend a nickel for a glass of beer and eat 20 cents worth of liver,” one Clark Street saloon owner told the Tribune. “Do you get me? That’s why I had to close up.”
But one of those saloons, Berghoff Bar, is still open today. And its spokesperson Colleen Silk says their bar gave away free lunch — corned beef sandwiches — because it was part of their licensing agreement.
“As a recent German immigrant, [Herman Berghoff] had a hard time getting just a liquor license,” she says. “He could only get a retail license, and that required him to serve food. “
Today a beer and a corned beef sandwich at the Berghoff costs about $20. But back around the turn of the century, Silk says, guys at the bar “could get a Berghoff stein and a corned beef sandwich for a nickel and corned beef sandwich and a pint for a dime.”
Since respectable women were not seen in — or often allowed in — bars at the time, this cheap lunch was pretty much only offered to men.
For a similar experience today, men and women can go to the century-old Berghoff Bar, where you can also still get corned beef sandwiches and a beer for about $20 — not quite a dime.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the demographic of Loop diners was changing. Women were flooding the central business district as shop girls and office workers — partly because their tiny fingers were thought to be ideal for the typewriter, a newish technology that businesses were increasingly using.
And since respectable young women could not take part in the cheap saloon lunches, progressive women’s groups stepped in to fill the need. They started opening low-cost lunchrooms, including one near Jane Addams Hull House, and “suffrage restaurants” in the Loop.
“They would be up on a second or third floor in these buildings in the Loop,” says restaurant historian Jan Whitaker. “So girls and young women who worked in stores or offices and had very little money — because they were horribly paid — would get these simple lunches.”
Eventually these low-cost lunchrooms would give way to even bigger cheap lunch joints called cafeterias that kept prices low by eliminating servers and tips. One of the largest chains was Thompson’s Cafeteria, with more than a dozen locations in the Loop by 1910. To keep customers moving, Thompson’s sat its diners in one-armed schoolroom desks that didn’t encourage lingering. Typical lunches included tongue sandwiches, sausages and chicken a la king with toast.
Nowadays, when it comes to quick worker lunches, those cafeterias have been replaced by fast food restaurants with counter service. But the model still survives in institutional settings and places like Manny’s and Valois.
For a similar experience today, you can grab lunch at one of the only cafeterias left in the city, Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen.
More about our questioner
Ann Groothius is a marketing specialist at a downtown automotive company. She lives on the Northwest Side and grew up in the south suburbs.
She and her husband Austin like to check out new Chicago restaurants almost every weekend, which inspired her question.
“I love this city and am always fascinated to learn more about it,” she says, “hence the history question.”
Ann was intrigued by all the movements and factors that helped shape Chicago’s restaurant scene at the turn of the century, but was pretty surprised that liver was the happy hour chicken wings of its day.
“That’s so crazy,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like the most appetizing thing to me today to have liver and onions, but I guess they had to get people in the door somehow.”
Monica Eng is a Curious City reporter. You can follow her @MonicaEng.