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Free Lunch, Nickel Beer, Priceless History

Posted by lizgaribay on September 5, 2011

Saloon. It’s one of my favorite words in the English language. The way the words roll off my tongue and through my lips forms, what to me is, the aural epitome of history. Saloon. Suh-looooooon. Coupled with the repeated verbalization, I often find myself envisioning what a Chicago saloon may have looked like during the early 1800s. Swinging doors would lead you into a simple and bare room where you’d have to be careful not to run into anyone of the numerous spittoons that were tucked away amidst the dirty wooden floors. Inside you’d find rough men on stools drinking an English-type ale or some decent whiskey, maybe even some mulled wine, but that’s about it.

With my affinity for tavern history, I am absurdly lucky to live in Chicago. It’s truly one of the most historic tavern cities in the U.S. But the beauty of studying tavern history is that you also have the opportunity to learn about a city’s history as a whole. The two are like salt and pepper, peanut butter and jelly, pretzels and beer. Sure, they’re okay on their own, but they are simply magical when they come together. It’s just one of those things that makes sense when you experience them as one. Saloons were simple places at the time when Chicago was just getting started. But the beer and brewery revolution that begun in the 1850s changed the look and operations of most taverns across the country. I eluded to a bit of this in a previous post, Tied To Beer History, but the affect of beer and brewing on the world, will be something that repeatedly comes up here. Immigrants, especially the German, established so many breweries that would ultimately change the course of our history. From city politics to laws and licensing; from barware and novelty items to ice manufacturing and distribution; from the process of pasteurization to railroad industry; from the formation of unions to overall city affairs – these are just a few of the bits and pieces that either came to be or were seriously effected because of beer and the thirst for it.

Some of the city’s earliest saloons were originally mom and pop owned places that did their best to stay above the competition. As the brewing industry brewed, competition became even more fierce and saloon owners and tavern keeps did their best to come up with gimmicks to attract customers. In 1871 (just after the fire), a saloon owner by the name of Joe Chesterfield Mackin created a crazy concept – the free lunch. As long as you drank, food was yours. Brilliant. And although you may have never heard of Joe, you probably have heard of another individual who helped perfect the free lunch – Herman Joseph Berghoff.

Berghoff left his native Dortmund, Germany and arrived in Brooklyn, NY and later in 1870. A bit later he found himself in Ft. Wayne, Indiana and in 1887, he and his three brothers began brewing Berghoff Beer, a Dortmunder style lager. Wanting to expand beyond Indiana, Herman set his eyes on the World’s Columbian Exposition happening in Chicago in 1893. He sold his brew and received kudos from many of the 20 million fair goers that attended the event. Inspired by the success, Herman permanently moved to Chicago and opened the Berghoff Cafe on State and Adams in 1898. By offering free lunch, he sold his nickel beer by the dozens, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As the bar tried to keep up with demand, Berghoff eventually expanded into a full-fledged restaurant that focused on, what else, German cuisine. Success was still his and expand even more, he did. The Berghoff was not only a modern, full-service restaurant, but it also had a three full working kitchens, bakery, butcher shop and a woodworking shop all on site and housed amongst four floors. During Prohibition, the restaurant prevailed due mostly in part because of the focus on food and not booze. But still, Berghoff created a line of near beer and soda pop called Bergo Pop.

Today the bar and restaurant are run by the fourth generation Berghoff family and the beer aspect of the company grew so large that the suds are now brewed in Wisconsin. Yet the Berghoff name, restaurant, and beer remain deeply intertwined within the fabric of Chicago history. I’m a big fan for that reason and my fandemonium grows each time I visit only because I feel like I’ve taken a quick trip back in time.

I chose the Berghoff for September because of its ties to various timely histories. And as I sit and write this on this Labor Day eve, I’m a bit astounded at how much I’m surrounded by all things German. Coincidence? My ridiculously loyal Rottweiler is laying by my side as I sip my deliciously cold Bitburger beer. I’m writing in an amazingly beautiful room constructed by a man who was influenced by his German heritage and created the room because he was inspired by King Ludwig’s Bavarian castles. And although the Deutsch is ever present I still feel remarkably connected to 1800s Chicago. I’ll spend many a nights sitting in a tavern this month thinking about this particular aspect of the city’s saloon past, and the closest I’ll get to the real deal will be to visit the Berghoff. Guess I’ll be seeing ya there!