Touring Chicago's Culinary History

Chicago History Museum

Get a glimpse into the past with the Chicago History Museum's historic menu collection 

Welcome to the Chicago History Museum’s historical menu collection. We invite you to come with us back in time, through Chicago’s restaurant history. From the first fine dining establishment to open in the new city in 1835 to the recent contributions to world cuisine, learn about the origins of Chicago’s status as one of the top food cities of the world. 
Chicago’s introduction to fine dining
Opened in 1835, just two years after Chicago was incorporated as a town (and two years before it was incorporated as a city), the Lake House Hotel on Kinzie was the city’s first fine dining establishment. Featuring such amenities as menu cards, napkins, and toothpicks, many felt the restaurant was too hoity toity for a rough and tumble town like Chicago and it was difficult to convince the average Chicagoan that fine dining was worthwhile. (Kraig, 1997) In fact, the sheriff shut down a Chicago branch of New York’s famed Delmonico restaurant after just a few months because “practical-minded Chicagoans refused to pay high prices for food.” (Duis, 2006)
Rebuilding after the great fire
After the great fire of 1871, only five restaurants remained in the city directory and despite the best efforts of the city’s elite, its dining scene was dismal. (Kraig, 1997) A Chicago Tribune reporter described Chicago as “probably the worst off in this one essential of any great American city” (Duis, 2006). However, by the late 1870s, the city was entering its first golden age of dining. Establishments like the Palmer House Hotel, which had burned to the ground just 13 days after its initial opening, were determined to rebuild a better city than the one they had before.
Early restaurant issues
Not everything was so sunny for early restaurant owners. City restaurant licensing did not exist until 1906, and cholera was a consistent problem across the city. During its worst year, 1891, the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 persons ("1900 Flow of Chicago River Reversed", 1997). Therefore, the average restaurant-goer had to determine for themselves, rather than looking to a government agency, whether it was safe to eat at a particular restaurant. This issue is highlighted in this menu from New York Kitchen in 1887.
The emergence of star chefs and foodie culture 
The 1893 World’s Fair brought sophisticated travelers from across the world to Chicago, and Chicago wanted to show off its new gastronomic culture. Chicagoans had developed a taste for oysters and seafood, and restaurateurs who could provide the freshest catch were in high demand.   One of the most famous chefs and restauranteurs at the time was Charles Rector. Known as the “great oyster maven”, Rector opened his own restaurant after gaining a reputation at the famed Boston Oyster House. It was said, “If there's any fish you want, go to (Charles) Rector, and he'll get it.” (Kraig, 1997)
All-in-one entertainment venues
Many restaurants added cabaret facilities when the fad hit Chicago in 1913. A couple could spend an entire day or evening “on the town” in just one restaurant. Places like Winter Garden featured afternoon tea dances scored by an orchestra and shows featuring vaudeville stars. Tea dances in particular became popular in the 1880s and continued this popularity through the 1920s. 
Dining out during Prohibition
One of the highlights of pre-Prohibition dining was the cocktail list. In fact, many “restaurants” offered free food with the purchase of alcohol. This had the effect of making eating out a gendered and not very family-friendly activity. Where unaccompanied women or families were allowed to eat, separate dining areas were created. During Prohibition, in order for restaurants to stay afloat, menus began to feature many, many different juices and ice creams (as this Plows menu shows) to make up for the lack of alcohol. This allowed women and children to dine out publicly and effectively phased out (public) male-only establishments. 
Chicago gangster culture
It would be difficult to talk about Chicago’s restaurant and nightlife scene without mentioning the city’s infamous gangsters. In particular, the Chez Paree was a highly popular supper club in Streeterville from the 1930s-1960s. The restaurant/club had mob connections and gambling was conducted in the back room, called the Key Club. (Samors & Bronsky, 2011)
Wartime Sacrifices
When World War II began, it was not only the soldiers who sacrificed. Life at home was diminished with strict rules and regulations imposed on every aspect of daily life, from the clothing people wore to what they ate. Menus from this period are full of interesting details about life during the war- certain foods were rationed, and it is clear that there  was, or there was believed to be, a large problem with restaurants selling food from the black market because many of the menus explicitly state that they do not.
Escapism in WWII and Beyond
When American servicemen returned home from World War II, they brought with them stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific. This newfound interest, and a need to escape drudgery and horrors of WWII, led to the establishment of tiki bars across the country, including in Chicago, during the 1940s and 1950s, and all the way into the 1960s.
Celebrity Hangouts and Hotspots
Before air travel was commonly used, Chicago was a stopover point for celebrities traveling by train between New York and Los Angeles. Restaurants vied to have their booths filled by these traveling dignitaries, and there were certain spots where a celebrity sighting was all but guaranteed. The Pump Room is perhaps the most well-known of these, but Fritzel’s and the Edgewater Beach Hotel hosted some of the most notable celebrities of their day, from Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Chicago's Lasting Contributions to Global Cuisine 
Chicago has made countless contributions to global food culture, from the obvious (deep dish pizza) to the less-so (chicken a la king). But few know that the popular Greek specialty, flaming saganaki, was created in Chicago. Though the fried cheese dish is a staple of Greek cuisine, flambéing it tableside in brandy is a touch created by Parthenon owner Chris Liakouras. 
Thank you!
Thank you for joining us on this brief tour through Chicago's restaurant and dining history. We hope to bring you more in this series, including a look at Chicago's immigrant populations' contributions to the dining scene and a look back at some of the city's most famous tiki bars, so if you liked this, let us know by emailing
Credits: Story

Created by Jorie Braunold, with assistance from Ellen Keith, Sarah Yarrito, and Peter Alter of the Chicago History Museum.

1900 Flow of Chicago River Reversed. (1997, August). Retrieved July 11, 2017, from
Duis, P. (2006). Challenging Chicago coping with everyday life, 1837-1920. Urbana: University of of Illinois Press.
Duis, P. (2006). Challenging Chicago coping with everyday life, 1837-1920. Urbana: University of of Illinois Press.
Kraig, B. (1997, July 16). Glazing [sic] Through Chicago's Food History. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 11, 2017, from
Samors, N., & Bronsky, E. (2011). Chicago's Classic Restaurants: Past, Present and Future (1st ed.). Chicago, IL: Chicago's Books Press.

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