Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Restaurant Goes Dark. A Street Goes Dead

For over a century, the Berghoff, Chicago's oldest restaurant anchored Adams street in the heart of the Loop. It's post-fire, 1870's buildings outlived all its neighbors, seeing William LeBaron Jenney's Fair Department Store replaced by an Destefano/Bofill office block, and Burnham and Root landmarks supplanted by Mies van Der Rohe's Federal Center. Through it all, the Berghoff endured, through Prohibition, through the Depression, through the transformation of the Loop from one of the world's most vital commercial centers to an also-ran to the glitz of North Michigan Avenue. And just as the Loop has start to come back, with more and more of its vintage buildings converted to residential, the Berghoff family decided to pack it all in.

At least one of their black-jacket, white-shirted waiters, most of whom who had been at the restaurant for decades, saw it coming. I remember having lunch at the Berghoff not that long ago and overhearing him bemoaning to a diner at a nearby table how management was becoming increasingly remote from day-to-day operations. "I give it about a year," I remember him saying. He wound being a pretty good prophet. I should have seen the handwriting on the wall that day, as well, when my classic German pot roast with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach came to my table adulterated by a "julienne of vegetables."

While thousands mourned the loss of the Berghoff - and stood in long lines to get in for one last meal before the final closing on February 28th - others shed no tears. Mayor Daley talked about the inevitably of change. Other's said they didn't like the waiters' attitude, the food had long since grown tired and ordinary; it was overpriced tourist trap.

To me, however, it was a marvelous place. The food may not have been spectacular or cutting edge, but it never disappointed. And the place was real. Not a Disneyfied, sanitized, lobotomized recreation of an idealized past reimagined cookie-cutter style for fast-track franchising, but the real thing, lovingly passed down from generation to generation: the stained glass windows, simple wooden chairs and tables, the murals of the 1893 Chicago's Columbian Exposition banding the walls of the main dining room. It was unique, and its closing shut us off forever from a part of our history that will now only be accessible in books and fading photographs and memories.

On Adams, the effect is chilling. The Berghoff's tall sign was the street's key signature, and the inviting glow from the lights of the restaurant spilled out to warm the sidewalks and domesticate the often harsh, unsettled streetscape.

Ultimately, buildings - even the great ones - are only as good as the sense of life they nurture within. Even unexceptional structures - such as those of Berghoff - can often do this especially well. Now, with just a flick of a switch, a warm familial presence has turned cold and lifeless as a corpse. Adams street looks abandoned, depopulated, almost ghostly. Don't let them kid you: it's a major tear in Chicago's urban fabric.

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