Mr. Beef is dead. In the obit his son says his father was grateful to the dumb TV show that made the Chicago delicacy he served for forty-five years out of a humble building near the mouth of a highway known to people all over the country. Business was way up since that show hit the air.
I haven’t gone in a few years but was a regular when I drove a cab. Mr. Beef has two key requirements for a cabbie: a parking lot and easy access to a latrine. I loved the sandwich too. Got the combo, dipped, with giardiniera. It’s not a beautiful dish and there’s no way to eat it without making a mess but maybe that’s proof of its worth.
I assume the son will keep the place running but it’s one of those businesses that are from a different time. I always think about the children’s book where a little house stood with an old woman living inside who refused to move as skyscrapers grew all around. Can’t remember what it’s called. I don’t have a drawing of Mr. Beef but here’s one of another anomalous business a couple blocks away.
I think it’s still there. Though the coffeeshop turned into a gourmet chicken shack for a time. Don’t know what’s served there now. I tracked the buildings and business going up, down, or vanishing closer when I was zipping all over the city. Now I mostly watch changes closer to home. I still miss the Hamburger Heaven Express—”closed do to fire” according to the particle board covering the blown out windows—sitting forgotten at the end of my block. Joanie’s Resale Shop on Halsted, emptied out after she died. I used to buy gaudy frames from her and never spent more than five dollars for a single one.
What TV shows make out of places like this rarely catches much of their charm. The one based on Mr. Beef features a sous chef. No Italian beef joint ever had a sous chef. That’s when I switched the channel. There is a whole tradition of chefs turning fast-food staples into fine-dining. The place I go for brunch every Sunday is like that. You can order Spam and Italian beef and hot dogs but they’ll set you back quite a bit more than Mr. Beef. But they do accept credit cards.
The Duck Inn was opened by Kevin Hickey nearly nine years ago where the Gem Bar used to be. It sits just past where the bridge on Loomis Street passes over the place where the river and the sanitary canal meet. There’s a park just west of there where I did a few paintings some years ago. It’s at the end of my block. Where it dead-ends into water.
Last Monday I went to the restaurant when it was closed and Kevin and I talked for three hours about his childhood, spent largely within a couple blocks of where we now sat. I found out the building a Thai restaurant where I sometimes get to-go used to house his family’s funeral home business and that his father grew up in an apartment where that restaurant now sits. The Gem Bar was run by a family whose relations ran a bank on Archer Avenue that was closed recently for massive fraud and embezzlement. The guy who ran it committed suicide and our former alderman—a descendent of Old Man Daley, who lived in the family house on Lowe Ave—just got out of jail for accepting one of their phony loans. Phony, only in the sense it never needed to be paid back.
Kevin had many stories in and out of the restaurant racket, though none about Mr. Beef. His obit appeared a day after Kevin and I recorded.
Read a review of a pretty great verite look at the admissions process at a Prague art school.