February 25, 2006

Chicagoans have been talking about the impending closure of this venerable 107 year old Chicago institution since the announcement back in December. This being the last weekend it would be open, I decided to make one last trip.

I caught the Metra train in, a great deal at $5 roundtrip on the weekends. It costs $6 for the first 20 minutes at the nearby Sears Tower garage if you drive. Arrived at Chicago's historic and beautiful Union Station and walked the seven to eight blocks east along Adams Street (the westbound lanes of old Route 66) to The Berghoff.

I had heard horror stories about the waits, often two plus hours. Arriving an hour before opening, I hoped I wouldn't have to put up with them. Wrong!!! Evidently, a lot of people had the same idea. The line was already to the end of the block.

I briefly considered not going in and videotaped the outside and line and took a lot of still shots. Their sign is truly a classic, one of those old hang-over-the-sidewalk ones. The blues sound of "Sweet Home Chicago" wafted from the sax of a street performer, but when he launched into "Lonely Street" that practically brought a tear to my eyes. This stretch of Adams definitely will not be the same along here come Tuesday, February 28th.

The looming Sears Tower stood off to the west with a lot of white smoke from the heating plant coming off the area between the antenna towers. Today was definitely a crisp one with a deep blue, cloudless sky. Unfortunately, this scene now brings back some uncomfortable memories.

I noticed a few people going into the Berghoff bar which is located next door and followed them inside, only to encounter ANOTHER line. Espying an open stool at the bar, I quickly claimed it. The line was for patrons with reservations, those who had made them when the announcement was first made. They had no longer accepted reservations as of the beginning of the month.

The $3.75 price of a frosted mug of Berghoff's beer was a bit shocking, but this is downtown Chicago where exorbitant prices are more the norm than anything else.

The bar will be closed for awhile as well, but will reopen with a new name. Hopefully, they will keep the interior the same. It is old world classic.

The place cleared out when those with reservations went in at 11:05, 25 minutes before opening time for the restaurant. The only coasters were those with the name of the Berghoff Cafe, located at O'Hare Airport. I imagine the Berghoff ones quickly disappeared. One of these Cafe ones was dated and made its way into my pocket. As it turned out, it was my only souvenir.

There were lots of pictures being taken of the interior along with "We were there" group shots. There was an older gentleman wearing a golf hat sitting at one of the massive dark wooden booths along the windows. He was conversing with a small group of friends and having one last sandwich and brew. You just had to wonder what was going on in his mind.

Four women from the same family came in and sat down by me. Three had also come in by train from Crystal Lake and had met the fourth who lives downtown. They were not aware that they were on Route 66 until I told them. After getting a variety of Berghoff beers, they ordered the spinich dip and put it on rye bread. They'd been coming since 1984. One had flown in from Colorado. Later, they all ordered sandwiches.

You could just sense that people felt they were losing a good and long-time friend. I overheard more than one talking about Christmas traditions involving a train trip to Chicago, the Marshall Field's windows and lunch at the Berghoff. First, Chicago lost Marshall Field's and now this. Christmas just won't be the same.

One gentleman, evidently a regular, asked for more ice in his mixed drink, and was a bit surprised when the bartender returned with a whole scoopful.

The bartenders and waiters wore long black slacks, white shirts, black ties, and black vests. They all had long white aprons on, old world style. This is probably the way they have always dressed at the Berghoff.

Another man walked in and said, "I came to belly up one more time." A grandfather had two grandchildren in tow so at least they would have the opportunity to visit.

The whole inside of the bar has dark paneling. There were murals along the top of the bar with the Berghoff coat of arms. A checkerboard of black and white tiles are along the floor. On the walls were framed old newspaper articles about the Berghoff and an oversized column by Chicago's Mike Royko.

The bar had a carving station where you could see a white hatted chef carve your order. A corned beef or roast beef sandwich set you back $4.50 (plus the 10% sales tax). They were piled high and served with a large pickle. I had the corned beef.

One bad bit of news, or should I say worse bit of news, was that the bartender said that that the great old sign would be taken down. It is a classic, not one of those plastic backlit ones you see today. He said that they had sold three cases of steins the day after the announcement and he wasn't even sure if there were any left at all.

People continued to come in and I overheard that the line had started at 10 AM and it still wasn't getting any shorter.

I got up from my stool which was immediately occupied. It was a precarious trip through the restaurant to where I was told I could find any souvenirs that might remain. Every table was occupied, and as soon as a group finished, it was immediately cleaned, and reocuppied. Waiters were every where carrying trays of food to the tables. This was sort of a controlled bedlam.

The souvenirs were being sold in a very small room by the kitchen; very poor site selection with the crowd wanting to buy momentos and the food being carried through it. The bartender was right. There was hardly anything left. I had my eye on an expensive refrigerator magnet, but I decided not to buy it when I found out there was actually a line to buy the souvenirs.

That was my clue to leave, which I did. The line was still to the street corner, but now there were two street performers playing to those waiting.

Goodbye to The Berghoff. We'll miss you.

Keep on Down that Two Lane Highway. --RoadDog