Best restaurant empire founded the same year as the Reader

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

When Rich Melman, chairman of LEYE, invested everything he had to open R.J. Grunts with his late partner Jerry Orzoff on June 10, 1971, he had no idea he'd be responsible for more than 150 restaurants over the next 40 years and win the James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding restaurateur in 2011. He just knew he had a good idea. Grunts offered the city's first salad bar, a daily macrobiotic dish, lots of vegetarian choices, and even was nonsmoking for the first few days until customers balked. No one came for the first couple of months, sparking a feeling of failure that he says recurs every time he opens a new spot. Then one Friday at 6:30 PM he arrived to find the dining room full and a few people waiting, though—given it was the pre-Internet dark ages—he has no idea why. The rest is history, and Grunts is still around, suggesting he did something right. Melman also says it was one of the first places to carry the Reader.

Runners-up: Two other Chicago restaurant institutions got their start in 1971: Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, which made its debut in Lincolnwood and now has 32 locations run by the namesake owner's sons, and Greek Islands, which has a Lombard outpost as well as the one in Greektown. —Anne Spiselman