Chicago is a city that is booming. It seems that every corner of the Streeterville neighborhood and Center Business District has a crane and a project under construction. Our restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steak, was forced to close on Saturday, July 30th after 39 years when Northwestern Memorial Hospital was forced to tear down our building for the expansion of the medical center campus. Today is the last day for the Cambridge House Restaurant at Ohio and St. Clair that has lost its lease as the building will be demolished for condominiums.

Following are two great columns by John Kass of the Tribune who has been a regular at the Cambridge House. The last one ran today, Sunday February 26th, and it caused me to take an early morning walk to the Cambridge House to enjoy a last breakfast at the counter. What I saw at the Cambridge House was exactly what I experienced at Eli’s–a dedicated staff working very hard, together, to satisfy long term customers and those fortunate few, who experienced for the first, and only time, on the last day.

The lesson out of this is support locally owned family businesses and their long term people that give it character. Althought I can’t welcome you to Eli’s the Place for Steak right now, I look forward to greeting you at the Eli’s Cheesecake Cafe at Eli’s Cheesecake World. We continue a 65 year tradition of hospitality and look forward to a day when we can return to the Magnificent Mile. 

Cambridge House caught in the middle

John Kass
Published February 22, 2006

I’ve got some terrible news: The Cambridge House is about to close. Where the heck am I going to eat lunch now?

“We’ll stay open this week, and the weekend, and Sunday,” said manager John Colovos. “But we’ll close Monday. And guess what? Forty years are gone. That’s it.”

We were in a booth in the back, early, before the morning breakfast rush. A few of the waitresses were sitting at the counter, looking our way. Paul the chef and George the floor manager looked over too.

“The people that own this building are going to make it a condo,” Colovos said. “I guess we could fight, for a month or two or three, but then what? These are developers; our lawyers say that they’ve got the law. I’m not a developer. I’m a Greek who runs a restaurant and I’d like to open up in the area again if I can find a location.”

Can’t you fight this?

“No. There’s no fighting it, and it could get ugly,” he said. “And we can’t afford that. Like I said, we’d like to open up somewhere around here if we can. We’re looking.”

The venerable snack-shop at Ohio and St. Clair has been serving customers since Dec. 14, 1967, when Colovos’ brother-in-law, John Maniatis, and John Galanos opened the place. It wasn’t designed to look like a venerable snack-shop; it is a Greek-owned restaurant, with good breakfast and snappy lunch service. It’s the kind of diner I’m comfortable in, the kind I like, a clean place with plenty of light, the kind of place offering Greek chicken on Fridays, which is the last meal I’ll ever eat there.

So it breaks my heart to hear that The Cambridge House is closing. Not only for myself and the Swede and Blind Mike, the street harmonica player, and all the other folks who live and work in the neighborhood who want an honest meal without spending a fortune, but for those who work there. For Paul and George and the waitresses, like Doris and Kathy and Toni and Dellamarie.

The waitresses are waitresses, not “servers,” not actresses with attitude. They’re grown women who work quickly and well for honest tips, in their crisp white blouses. There’s no “theme” to the Cambridge House, unless the theme is that you can eat lunch for under $10, from a plate, like an adult, and the waitresses will ask if you want a warm-up on that coffee. And my sons like it.

But elsewhere, lunch in downtown Chicago is becoming increasingly foolish and snobby, or increasingly cheap and quick, or perhaps it’s that I’m older now and I’m increasingly uncomfortable with either.

For cheap you can go to one of those cafeterias with a glass shield over the pans of food, where you pretend that no one has coughed. You can eat from a plastic trough, rooting around in the trough with your plastic fork and your plastic knife, sipping beverage from a plastic cup, nobody asking if you want a fresh cup of coffee. When you’re done, you leave the plastic trough on the plastic tray and move on. This is lunch as livestock, about one step away from supersizing it.

Or, you can pay $20 for a salad, or pay even more for a few spoonfuls of risotto drizzled with chicken broth and when you’re done eating you avoid your reflection in a mirror, because you don’t want to see a fool staring back at you.

They put some fancy name on such overpriced stuff, although no matter what it’s called it remains risotto, a fine and worthy food, only not 20 bucks worthy. It might be tasty, but it’s ridiculously overpriced.

These are extremes, but they’re out there, of overpriced meals where you feel foolish for overpaying, or plastic trough food where you feel as if you’ve grown hooves.

A friend who studies such things tells me this is a metaphor for what Chicago has become, a place of extremes, for rich and poor, despite all the ink given to symbolic efforts venerating the middle-class bungalow.

There should be places in the middle, for people in the middle, places like The Cambridge House. They’re not about atmosphere. You can’t taste atmosphere, although speaking of atmosphere, Chicago is losing another restaurant, The Berghoff. It is a culinary landmark, and I’m sure it deserves the thousands of stories being written about it, now that it’s closing, as a special place for memories of special occasions.

But the great thing about The Cambridge House is that it wasn’t for special occasions. You didn’t walk through the doors to make a statement or a memory. You entered to have a decent meal.

And so the loss of such places may even be more profound, because it signifies the loss of the everyday.

“There were a lot of us once, a lot of places like this, where you could get anything from eggs on up,” Colovos said. “And you could have your coffee or two cups or four cups and sit and relax, the service fast and good, you were treated like a civilized person, like a human being.”

And now?

“And now they let the franchises move in and the people stand up and eat from paper. Or you sit and eat from plastic boats, or you pay $20 for the continental breakfast and get ripped off. That’s what happened. And I don’t like it.”

Who would?




Before the wrecking ball, a final lunch

John Kass
Published February 26, 2006

For my last meal at the Cambridge House, I had the Greek chicken and the lemony potatoes. The Swede had the same.

There was no choice, really. It was Friday, and Friday tradition dictates the chicken. That’s why they call it tradition.

But George was with us, too, and his tradition was a clubhouse sandwich with a vanilla shake. That’s the one he wanted to have there, the last one.

“I’m a sucker for vanilla shakes here,” said George, and I didn’t argue with him. We were all quite particular in the ordering of our last meals at the place where we’ve eaten lunch for years.

Someone else across the aisle was insisting on the macaroni and cheese with the peach half plopped in the middle–although no one seems to be able to explain who came up with the peach half idea–and others had their fish sandwiches, their salads and their soups.

The restaurant was crowded, there were many Tribune people in there, and others from the neighborhood. We all lingered too long over our coffee, hugging our waitresses and the cooks and John Colovos and his wife, Georgia, and their family when it was time to leave.

There were more goodbyes to be said on Saturday. The Sunday regulars will say their goodbyes on Sunday. By Monday, the place will be closed. The wrecking ball will take it. A new condo complex will shoot up from the ground and chew off another piece of the sky and another reasonable place for a reasonable meal will be gone, and Chicago will congratulate itself on the progress it has made.

“I remember 40 years ago when I was a teenager here,” said Georgia Colovos. “I was taking cash, and the men from Channel 2 news came in, and Bill Kurtis, he started singing that song, `Georgy Girl’ to me,” Georgia said, crying. “And that’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about those times. About Mr. Kurtis singing.”

We sat down to eat, and I told George and the Swede about the hundreds of letters that have come in since I wrote Wednesday’s column about the closing of this classic Chicago-style Greek-owned snack shop.

Though I expected nostalgia, what came through in those letters was something else. It wasn’t nostalgia alone. It was a clear understanding of place and space in a city. One letter came from Ted O., the retired Chicago detective in Poway, Calif.:

“In every police district there was a place where you went for a cup of coffee in the afternoon. My partner and I would always walk to the back, to the last booth. That is where the owner sat. He was always named Pete, or Gus or Nick. We would sit with him. Talk about the business, you know, `Breakfast she is good, lunch not so good, maybe I change the menu.’ Talk about the nephew just over from the old country. The son at DePaul. `I told him stay out a da restaurant business. Be an accountant. Have a life….’

“The waitresses would stop by, say hello. Maybe need some advice. A kid in trouble, an ex who would not leave them alone. The owner would always buy the coffee. We left good tips for the `girls.’

“Sometimes we got information. Waitresses can know some strange people. But it was a way to take a break. Get away from the murder and mayhem for a few minutes. Sit and talk with ordinary people. People who liked the police. People who said, `So long guys, be careful out there.’ They meant it.

“I see coppers now in the drive-through lane. Get the coffee and the Big Mac to go. Sit in the car by yourself. How the hell are you ever going to find out anything like that?”

Stephen P., an administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it is happening to his city too:

“Unfortunately, the disappearance of such honest eateries is not limited to Chicago. Boston, too, is well down the path toward the two extremes. Block after block of the Back Bay is lined with upscale `bistros.’ Not to mention the Armani Cafe, the ubiquitous Starbucks, franchises erasing places where one used to be able to enjoy a modest meal.

“The trend is indeed part of the larger movement of the wealthy back into the cities, pushing the middle-class and poor out into the suburbs and exurbs. We only have to look at London to see our future. What can we do? Not much, I fear.”

Ward S., a former Chicagoan, wrote from the Southwest:

“I now live in Plano, TX, and the development here is going through the roof. All the great land is being sold for strip malls, townhomes, condos. I guess you can’t get away from `progress’ no matter where you go. Progress? I call it greed.”

With respect, I disagree. The franchises have money. They go into cities, find where the big political dogs are and hire their boys as consultants. Soon, one theme-park downtown looks and tastes and smells pretty much like another theme-park downtown. Greed may be a part of it, but nature is a part of it too.

When I left the Cambridge House that last time on Friday afternoon, I looked back and Georgia was sitting in a booth near the window. She had a menu in her hand, she used it to wave goodbye.