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Putting on the Ritz—at Al's Italian Beef

Recalling my grandmother's era of mink-clad glamour


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For a few years in the late 80s, my family had a tradition of going downtown to look at the Christmas lights on the night after Thanksgiving. My mother loves Christmas as only a Jewish woman raised on Miracle on 34th Street can. Some years, we ventured into the Loop for a quick circuit around the Marshall Field's windows, but mostly we stuck to the Magnificent Mile. The white lights in the trees, the crowds on the sidewalks (even after dark!), the river at one end, the Drake Hotel and the lake at the other—it was a trip into the glamorous other world of adults, where my parents went on those nights they came home smelling of cold and cigarette smoke.

THE FOOD ISSUE: Where Chicago Eats

In the years after my grandpa died, my grandma always went with us. She felt about downtown the way I did, I think, even though her version was far more elegant than mine: trips to Field's to look around the 28 Shop—but never to buy anything—and lunch in the Walnut Room, or nights out at swanky places where you danced after dinner. She was of the generation of women who never left the house without a protective coat of lipstick, but a trip downtown on a Friday night meant the mink.

Back in the 60s, the mink had been a stole. By the 80s, it had progressed to a coat, her first major solo purchase after Grandpa died. It was a bomber jacket, technically, meant to fit tightly at the waist and wrists, but the fur made it bulge. Her monogram was embroidered on the lining in gold thread. Joan Collins probably wore something like it at some point on Dynasty, though Grandma was not Joan Collins-like at all.

I'm sure she had high expectations for dinner as we headed south on the Kennedy into the city that first year she came downtown with us. (The drive itself was exciting, too: the taillights from the millions of other cars and the progression of billboards, lit up for the night.) Someplace nice, with tablecloths and food more interesting than yesterday's dutiful turkey, maybe a glass of Chablis, someplace worthy of the mink.

My father, in those days, still wore suits to work, but that didn't mean he liked them. He and my grandfather, his father-in-law, hadn't always gotten along, but that was their bond. That and sneaking out for Italian beef sandwiches and fries. Grandma never knew; she ate cottage cheese for lunch every day for 20 years. This was before ladies exercised.

Grandma's mental map of downtown was based on department stores. My dad's—and probably Grandpa's, too—was centered on the best junk food. And so my dad knew: North Michigan Avenue was pretty close to the Al's Italian Beef on West Ontario.


Grandma was surprised when she saw where we were going. The neon signs, the menu written in plastic letters above the counter where you placed your order—after 30 years in Chicago, she'd never visited a place like this. That was Grandpa's secret high-fat, high-cholesterol life.

We sat down at the table to wait for our food. She kept her coat on because the place was drafty from people going in and out. Or maybe she didn't want it dangling on the floor. My father had laughed when he learned she'd never had an Italian beef. She let him order her one, wet, because that's the way he said you were supposed to have it.

She ate that entire Italian beef sandwich. She ate it with the utmost care and delicacy, because she was raised to have good table manners and because she didn't want any of the juice to drip down into the cuffs of her mink. And she liked it. Or she said she did. I don't know if she ever ate another Italian beef or if she relegated it to the category of strange foods you eat when you're traveling because everything is an adventure, like couscous in Israel or pigs' feet in Hong Kong, or one of the many comic stories of the cruelty of her son-in-law.

Later that night (or what I remember as that night; I like to think my father appreciated what a good sport she'd been), we drove north through the city to Lutz on Montrose for cake and coffee and hot chocolate. I don't know whose idea it was, or how they found it. But it was the right place for Grandma and her mink, with the old-fashioned script sign and the little round tables and the cushy upholstered chairs and the faded carpet and wallpaper. And also how the hot chocolate came in a coffeepot and how there was real whipped cream you spooned out of a bowl. It was elegant. It was gracious. It was the right sort of glamour for both old ladies and their ten-year-old granddaughters.

During a particularly sad time of my adulthood, I went back there. My sadness polluted everything. The place was dingy, the cake was dry, and I was drinking coffee instead of hot chocolate. And, of course, I had missed the whole spirit of the thing, the aftermath of a strange and improbable (albeit very mild) adventure. Most of those sorts of meals in my later life took place at Denny's or Steak 'n Shake.

But I have the mink now; I inherited it after Grandma died because I am the only grandchild who still lives in a cold climate. It just hangs in my closet. But it needs to go out, I think, to someplace ever so slightly glamorous and just strange enough to warrant a slice of cake and hot chocolate afterward, the sort of night out where I wouldn't have to try too hard to imagine Grandma riding in the car next to me.

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