By Jennifer Pesole & Christina Welky
The holiday season is in the air and people are frantically running around to finish their Christmas shopping. This is a time not only just for gift giving, but it is also a time when many people get together to go out to dinner.
Society has an assumption that restaurants have a difficult time thriving in an industry where a new restaurant is only around the corner. However, Tian Luo and Philip B. Stark concluded in 2014, that only 17 percent of independently owned restaurant startups closed in their first year of business, compared with 19 percent for every other service-providing startups.
Chicago is home to 10 of the oldest restaurants and the oldest, Daley’s Restaurant, dates back to 1892. Unfortunately, the reporters were not allowed to incorporate this restaurant into the list due to Hyde Park’s crime rate. Therefore, this list dates back to The Berghoff, which opened in 1898.
Chicago independent food critic Michael Nagrant, a previous writer for the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye, was asked which of the restaurants had the greatest historical presence. Nagrant states, “I love that The Berghoff has a Chicago liquor license number one. I love that the Beatles once visited Margie’s. The family behind Italian Village is extraordinary and the second generation built an incredible wine cellar.”
1. The Berghoff, 17 W. Adams St., 1898
Herman Berghoff opened the 100 percent family-owned German restaurant in 1898. Berghoff came to New York at 17 and took over a brewery, where he made a signature lager that became very popular. He attempted to get a liquor license in the city of Chicago, but experienced difficulties. Instead, he opened The Berghoff as a café. He sold beer for a nickel and they came with a free sandwich on the side.
When the Prohibition took place, Berghoff used this time to expand the food service and brew “near beer.” The Prohibition was in effect for fourteen years and helped the restaurant become known for authentic German cuisine.
In 2006, the restaurant closed for a year but was reopened with three different sections: The Berghoff Bar, Restaurant, and Café.
Today, The Berghoff is known for its authentic German cuisine and stays popular due to tradition.
Nagrant was also asked if he thought the German food was close to being authentic at The Berghoff. “There are a lot of classic dishes, but it’s also a German restaurant shaped by American culture,” he said. “Authenticity doesn’t really exist anyway. Even in Germany, the classic dishes vary region to region and restaurant to restaurant.”
2. The Walnut Room, 111 N. State St., 1905
The Walnut Room opened in 1905 as part of the Macy’s Store on State Street in downtown Chicago. It was the first restaurant to open inside a department store and offers an elegant dining experience for shoppers, especially during the holiday season.
The restaurant is busiest during the holidays. People are attracted to the enormous Christmas tree that stands in the middle of the restaurant and it is a tradition to eat under it.
The Walnut Room is most famous for its Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, but it also boasts a menu of soups and unique holiday desserts.
3. Pompei, 1531 W. Taylor St., 1909
Luigi Davino opened Pompei in 1909 near Our Lady of Pompeii Church. After he got married, his family lived above the bakery, making only bread and cheese pizza while taking care of five children. Joseph DiPofi, the grandson of current owner Ralph Davino, said that Davino opened the first full restaurant in the early 1980s.
Today, the menu has expanded using only fresh and best-quality ingredients. The building rests in between the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus, making it a popular lunch spot for students.
Pompei serves homemade pizza, pasta, and salad dressings, among other items. A unique menu item is the strudels. According to DiPofi, “That’s what we’re known for having that’s all our own, and you don’t see anywhere else.”
DiPofi also said that the restaurant has been kept going for so long because of its tradition. “There are a lot of loyal customers that have been coming here with their parents and their grandparents,” he said. “There’s definitely a strong tradition with people coming back.”
4. Green Door Tavern, 678 N. Orleans St., 1921
Green Door Tavern was built in 1872 following the Chicago fire. It is one of the last remaining wooden buildings erected before a fire ordinance was set to prevent another fire.
In 1921, Vito Giacomo opened the restaurant and it was later renamed to the Green Door Tavern. The name refers to the green painted door, which indicated the presence of a speakeasy during the Prohibition era.
5. Margie’s Candies, 1960 N. Western Ave., 1921
Margie’s Candies is a candy and ice cream parlor that opened in 1921 by Peter George Poulos. The shop was later renamed by Poulos’ son, who named it after his wife Margie Michaels. In 1936, they had a son, Peter George, who grew up in the shop and now owns it.
Many famous figures have visited Margie’s Candies over the years, including Al Capone and The Beatles.
6. Dinkel’s Bakery, 3329 N Lincoln Ave., 1922
In 1922, Joseph K. Dinkel and his wife Antonie opened a small bakeshop called Dinkel’s Bakery. As the bakery’s popularity grew, the couple expanded the location, and their son took over the business in the early 1970s.
In 2008, Luke Karl took over the bakery with his wife and worked alongside his father-in-law, Norman Jr. Today, the bakery is family owned in its fourth generation.
7. Lou Mitchell’s, 565 W. Jackson Blvd., 1923
Lou Mitchell’s opened in 1923 by “Uncle” Lou Mitchell. He started the restaurant as a diner known for its signature coffee, burgers, and lunch specials.
Daniella Schultz has been a manager of Lou Mitchell’s for six years. Schultz states, “politicians do all their campaigning here and the building is the first stop on the Historic Route 66 vacation tour. Employees have worked here for 10 to 30 years and many celebrities such as Reba McEntire, Brian Urlacher, and Michael Scranton have dined in Lou Mitchell’s. The restaurant recently shut down in February to film an episode of Chicago Fire.”
In 1958, the restaurant added a tradition that it is now uniquely famous for donut holes and boxes of Milk Duds. These are offered as sweet treats to customers on their way in as part of the Greek hospitality.
Today, customers travel from all over the world to try Uncle Lou’s signature diner food and the diner has received much recognition.
8. Italian Village, 71 W. Monroe St., 1927
Alfredo Capitanini opened the family-owned Italian Village in 1927 as Chicago’s first Italian restaurant, boasting prime service and traditional values. It was designed to give customers a tour of Italy as they pass through the restaurant, with authentic themes and decor.
In 1955, the family’s next generation opened La Cantina in the lower level of the building, which offers a historic view of Italy and fine wines. They also opened The Florentine Room, which was later renamed to Vivere.
Today, each operates as its own restaurant with varying menus and themes. Italian Village is also known for its decadent wine cellar containing 35,000 bottles. Each of the three restaurants offers a unique experience for guests.
9. Orange Garden, 1942 W Irving Park Rd., 1924/1932
Rumors say that the Chinese restaurant opened in 1924. However, the general manager states Orange Garden actually opened in 1932. Today, the restaurant still serves Cantonese food at reasonable prices and is known for having the oldest working neon sign in Chicago, according to Peter Bella.
Additionally, the reporters asked Michael Nagrant which one of Chicago’s oldest restaurants was his favorite. Nagrant states, “Orange Garden because they have the best sesame chicken in Chicago and big, fat, old style mini-burrito sized egg rolls. They still have real plum sauce and prepared mustard on the tables at the restaurant, not the plastic takeout packets.”
10. Gene & Georgetti, 500 N Franklin St., 1941
In 1941, Gene Michelotti and Alfredo Federighi opened the first steakhouse in Chicago called Gene & Georgetti. Federighi was nicknamed “Georgetti” after the famous Italian cyclist. The restaurant is located in River North and has a reputation for excellence.
Timeline: Chicago’s 10 Oldest Restaurants