November 10, 2006

Chicago's famous political eating locations of past and present

So the midterms are over…sigh, and as wonderful as it is that the Senate’s first socialist is a U of C College graduate, I have a feeling that anything I would have said has been stated three times over in The Times, the Tribune, and The Post. Instead, I thought I would devote this article to something fully underrated in the sphere of political influence: eating. Although our city may be filled with amazing restaurants, only a handful can claim to be hotbeds of political activity and necessary campaign stops for savvy politicians.

For breakfast the choices are many, but if you are up north I have to endorse Ann Sathers. Founded in 1945 by the namesake, this North Side chain now is owned by Tom Tunney. Not only do all four locations serve up cinnamon rolls with a solid omelet, but Mr. Tunney is also the only openly gay alderman in Chicago history. Representing the 44th Ward, Tunney has quickly become one of the most popular aldermen in the city-—perhaps because he famously brings a few boxes of those cinnamon rolls to his early morning meetings.

For a breakfast with a bit more muscle, the place to go is over on Jackson. Self-proclaimed “Best Breakfast Place on The Planet,” Lou Mitchell’s has been serving up milk duds and donut holes for over 70 years. A favorite of many of the city’s best and brightest, the bar stools are the place for an individual looking to get in and out, while hotshots from the federal complex just a few blocks away dine at the tables. Although ownership has recently changed hands, the omelet is still one of the best in the city. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled as you polish off your complimentary post-meal ice cream.

On to lunch. In case you haven’t noticed it so far, none of these places are what we would call “good for the waistline,” and this next one surely is not a place for those with a small appetite. Recently home to a Daley fundraiser, Manny’s has been serving up piles of corned beef and potato pancakes since 1942. To say that this near South Side deli is a political mainstay would be an understatement. If there is a big name politician in Chicago, there is a good chance he is grabbing a bite to eat at Manny’s. Pictures of famous visitors grace the walls (most recently photographed: the joint stop by Mayor Daley, John Edwards, and Barack Obama), in addition to photos of what the neighborhood looked like way back in the day. It is still owned by the same family who started the place, so be sure to say hello to Kenny Raskin (Manny’s son and founder Jack’s grandson) as he walks back and forth from the back to the front register. Gino, perhaps the most recognizable non-family-member in the cafeteria-style deli, has been working the slicer for years and usually serves up his sandwiches with a witty comment or a bit of life advice. Although the restaurant has become more touristy over the past few years, you can still catch a few cadets from the nearby police and fire academies at lunch time. Prices have gone up recently (a corned beef will cost you around 10 bucks, depending on whether you get a pancake and a pop) but be sure to bring enough greenbacks, as the place only takes cash. Also, do not make the rookie mistake of paying in the cafeteria line. You pay as you walk out the door, after you eat.

Now, as wonderful as it is to talk about restaurants that actually exist, there are many locations that are no longer with us. We can never forget the rite of passage that was associated with standing at the Berghoff and literally rubbing shoulders with the powerhouses of Chicago politics. And a political restaurant obituary would have to include the infamous Counsellors Row Restaurant, where Committeeman John D’Arco Sr. and Ald. Fred Roti held court with mob-friendly politicians. It was here that the federal government had their table wired and utilized lawyer Bob Cooley to catch bribery, case fixing, and deal greasing in process. Despite the passing of these great establishments, there is surely a similar flavor of clout in some of today’s eateries. It is with this bit of history in mind that we pull up a chair, grab a bite to eat, and drink in the power.