Sunday, January 01, 2006

Hello, I Must Be Going

It's always hard to tell if new year's days are endings or beginnings. Maybe I'm the only one who suffers from sappiness trying to look forward, but instead end up borne back ceaselessly into the past (OK, I'm not the only one). For no matter how you hope for something, anything, the future, things like this happen, and it hurts:

Chicago Eyes Are Misty as a Landmark Is Saying Farewell

Murray Wolbach III is a third-generation commercial real estate developer who lunches several times a week at the Berghoff, the 107-year-old Loop landmark where little but the light bulbs have changed since his grandfather's day.

The fact that his own family career streak ended with Mr. Wolbach, however, hardly seems to have prepared him for the news this week that the storied restaurant would close Feb. 28 when its third-generation owner, Herman Berghoff, retires without passing it on to his children.

"The wonderful thing about places like this is you don't have to worry about them - it's been around 100 years, you think it'll be around 100 more," Mr. Wolbach, 60 and known as Trip, said as he forked the flaky crust of Herman's Chicken Pot Pie. "It's something you could always rely on. I'll probably die of starvation now."

It seemed all Chicagoland was lamenting the coming loss this week, as hungry hordes lined up outside the famed neon sign for up to an hour in hopes of one last Wiener schnitzel or sauerbraten (though regulars like Mr. Wolbach, as always, sneaked in through the back of the bar to get a table). The Berghoff is - was? - the city's oldest restaurant, at once a tourist's staple and native's standby.

I ate at the Berghoff once, years ago, after a game at Wrigley, and it seemed so right even though it's not a terrific dining experience. It's a historical experience, the sense you've been where others have been, that things last, that businesses owned by families (not out to gouge the world like the Waltons, say) can survive from generation to generation serving patrons for generation to generation. Heck, that's one of the charms of baseball, thinking about how the love of it can be passed down from parent to child. How there are places and routines outside the family that add to the family and thereby make it larger and nobler.

So although I'm not from Chicago, and not really a big German cuisine fan (partially because it's always big), the Berghoff closing makes me horribly sad. It's just one more step till all downtowns are every downtown, which is wonderful if you want to be comfortable but terrible if you want to feel one town is different from another. And once all our public spaces become the same, what does that make us, people who know only corporate versions of flair-driven fun? For Christmas I phone ordered my dad and stepmom a gift certificate at their favorite restaurant in New Jersey and was sort of shocked by the East Coast-ness of the woman taking the order joking, "George and Louise? Why do you want to get a gift certificate for them?" in that easy-going wise-ass way nobody really does on the West Coast (except maybe at a place like Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, which has been around only since 1912), that made my heart briefly pang for my old New Jersey home. Because we should belong someplace, not every place.

Instead we will be left with the Berghoff Cafe O'Hare, just one mall-like stop on the way from place to place, an echo of something, a shadow as Plato might have had it, a memory of when we knew better who we were and why we are and a Berghoff Dark meant something beyond the roasted quality of the malt in a beer, at least in the timbre of voice our parents' used to order them.


Blogger Ironicus Maximus said...

I am from Chicago and I have (over) eaten there many times while wondering what famous (for Chicago or otherwise) person had once sat where I was sitting. It all started when they put lights in Wrigley. Damn their eyes!

6:15 AM  

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