By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
From the shockingly priced cup of hot chocolate Tom Cruise drinks in the soigné Palm Court of The Drake Hotel in Risky Business ($4 in 1983) to the cheap eats Jim Belushi steals from Fluky’s hot dog joint in Curly Sue, Chicago’s restaurants have played an important supporting role in some memorable movies. As with so many character actors, however, they’re too quickly forgotten. And, sadly, most have disappeared altogether.
“My brother and I have come to dine!” declares John Belushi, playing “Joliet” Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers, when he and his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) arrive at Rush Street’s Chez Paul. “We seek a full meal and all the compliments of the house,” Belushi tells the maître d’ (a former Blues Brothers band member known as Mr. Fabulous, now suited up as formal host). The brothers find themselves a table, whistle loudly for service, and proceed to guzzle Champagne and throw shrimp into each other’s mouth. When an uptight diner sitting nearby asks that his party be moved, explaining to Mr. Fabulous that the Blues Brothers smell bad, Belushi leans toward him and says in his most lascivious tone, “I want to buy your women.”
It’s a toe-curling comic scene, throbbing with the discomfort of outrageous behavior in a genteel place; and it was especially fun for Chicagoans who knew Chez Paul as a destination for seamless Continental meals. The movie’s next restaurant scene is at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale. The Blues Brothers go to Maxwell Street, home of Chicago blues and Polish sausage sandwiches, sit at the counter of Nate’s Deli (called Soul Food Cafe in the movie), and place their order with waitress Aretha Franklin. “We got two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants,” Aretha tells the cook, another ex-member of the band they’re trying to recruit. Matt “Guitar” Murphy recognizes exactly who they are by what they order—toasted white bread, dry (for Elwood), and four fried chickens and a Coke (for Jake). Matt steps out into the dining room, where he and the brothers compare notes about the pepper steak at Joliet prison, the cabbage rolls at the Terre Haute federal pen, and the oatmeal at the Cook County Jail. The scene closes with Aretha’s rafter-rocking rendition of “Think.”
Chez Paul has become private office space, and Nate’s Deli, once renowned for kosher-style corned beef as well as chitlins, is gone with the rest of Maxwell Street. But there are plenty of places that remain almost exactly as they were on screen. You can still go cruising for a date at Mother’s, on Division Street, where Rob Lowe and Demi Moore meet and court in About Last Night … (the film version of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago). The movie faithfully depicts the mid ’80s meat-market hustle of the Gold Coast watering hole, but it predated today’s karaoke and thong contests.
A hostess at the Pump Room of the Omni Ambassador East hotel assured us that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to film a scene of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint having dinner just so Hitch, a longtime patron of movie stars’ favorite Chicago restaurant, would have a good excuse to eat there all week. It’s a nice tale, but by the time the characters get to the hotel in North by Northwest, the plot is moving so fast that sitting down to eat seems impossible.
In Only the Lonely, John Candy does actually eat at the Pump Room, where he orders a dinner of shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, and prime rib. That’s our kind of meal, but when we tried to replicate it we discovered to our chagrin that the menu now features such delicacies as truffled sweetbreads and prosciutto fig risotto festooned with microgreens, which is decidedly not for us.
One movie restaurant you will not find if you go looking for it in Chicago is Stan Mikita’s donut shop, Garth and Wayne’s hangout in Wayne’s World. Another elusive location is Groundhog Day’s Tip Top Café, where Bill Murray learns to predict precisely when the waiter will drop his tray and boasts to Andie MacDowell that he can pig out on pastries and pancakes and smoke all the cigarettes he wants. Although set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the movie was filmed in Woodstock, a cozy village northwest of Chicago. The café is now vacant (its last incarnation a German-American restaurant called Rainault’s), the building for sale. A local firefighter we met on the town square pointed out a small wall plaque that says simply, “The ‘Tip Top Café’ Groundhog Day Movie 1992.” He told us he would like to buy the building and reopen the Tip Top Café as an ice cream parlor.
Paul Tuzi, proprietor of Twin Anchors, in Chicago’s Old Town, explained that his neighborhood bar, known citywide for ribs, became O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant in Return to Me because writer-director-costar Bonnie Hunt used to eat there when she was part of Second City. With some bemusement, Tuzi tells how the film crew totally reconfigured the tavern for the melodrama, in which David Duchovny falls in love with Minnie Driver. “They moved booths, they rearranged the kitchen and dining room, and they brought in prop food,” Tuzi laughs, noting that the featured dish in the movie was chicken Vesuvio, a Chicagoland specialty that isn’t on the Twin Anchors menu. “They did leave one thing just as it was,” he says, pointing to a sign above the dining room: “Positively No Dancing.”
The most delicious meal we had while tracking movie locations was at Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli, where the magnificent corned beef sandwiches are a legacy of its beginnings some 60 years ago near Maxwell Street. Carvers at the old market’s delis defined what has since become a Chicago signature: warm meat sliced ridiculously thin and heaped impossibly high on rye. At Manny’s, the spiced meat is served with crisp potato pancakes and a barrage of wisecracks from sandwich men who love to heckle customers. Manny’s was used as a location for the Matt Dillon movie The Big Town, about a hick gambler who comes to the city. “It was supposed to take place in the 1950s,” proprietor Ken Raskin told us. “So they changed the posted prices. Lunch was a dollar, breakfast forty-five cents.” Raskin recalled that the characters in the movie ate meatloaf, but when it was time for a real meal break, the crew was required to take lunch from the studio-hired catering trucks. “Matt Dillon, though, he was the star,” Raskin reported with moviegoer awe. “He ate a Manny’s sandwich.”