Jim Gallios is as Chicago as the Wabash el, in whose shadows he's been feeding much of the city for the past 46 years. Feeding it real food: steaks, prime rib, multiethnic specials, and some of the best barbecued ribs this side of 39th Street. Harry Truman once drank bourbon after hours at his joint; HUD secretary Henry Cisneros just flew back to Washington with a batch of his Canadian back ribs; Bill Veeck spent so much time eating and drinking at the end of the bar that they enshrined the seat.
Back in 1949, when Jim was operating a Loop parking lot, his brothers Peter and Nick bought a small German bar-restaurant at 23 E. Adams for $23,000. They had run a cafe on the northwest side for a few years, and, much to Jim's surprise, their new place, Miller's Tap, prospered--staying open almost around the clock and attracting everyone from theatergoers to cops and street cleaners to the top-line entertainers who worked the Palmer House's Empire Room.
Jimmy Durante used to come in after his late show "just to talk to people," says Gallios. "He never ate much--just some poached eggs or some fruit. But he was always sociable. Guy Lombardo, on the other hand, almost got into a fistfight."
The Tap kept expanding eastward, adding to its original odd mix of German, British, and Tiffany decor; nobody remembers exactly when it became Miller's Pub. In 1963 the brothers opened the Wabash Inn on the southwest corner of Wabash and Adams, self-service by day, wait staff at night, featuring ribs grilled over a huge open pit visible from the street. By the mid-70s their empire also included a glorified coffee shop on Wabash named Vannie's, after the fourth and youngest brother.
Disaster in the name of progress struck in 1989, when the entire Adams Street frontage was demolished, closing down Miller's Pub and the Wabash Inn. The solution was to move the pub's original trappings to Vannie's, and in 1991 the present Miller's Pub opened--a rambling, bilevel spot as polyglot in its decoration as the old.
Always multicultural, Miller's Pub (134 S. Wabash; 645-5377) is still the place for everything from American diner food to Polish cabbage rolls to Italianate pastas to Bismarck herring, Buffalo wings, and kosher corned beef to the egg-lemon soup and oreganati chicken of the brothers' ancestral Greece--all at modest prices. You can get dinner for eight bucks--or $22.95 for three double lamb chops spritzed with lemon and oregano that would fetch $30 at fancier places.
"We just wanted to have something for everybody's taste," says Gallios, now 73, stocky, with thick glasses and a shock of white hair. "We grew up a block or so from the Chicago Stadium, where it was mostly Irish then--with the Italians right near and the old Greek Town a few blocks away."
Miller's was one of the first sports bars, with multiple TV sets and a crowd whose cheers often splashed past the room dividers into the bustling restaurant. They didn't know to call it a sports bar, but then that might have embarrassed Veeck or any of the scores of athletes and sportswriters who hung out there, and still do.
It's still a place for everybody satisfied with something short of a metaphysical mealtime experience: breakfasters, early-morning boozers, a massive lunch crowd, pretheater and postsymphony audiences, and political, sports, media, and entertainment celebs. They're all in the photo gallery, most pictured with Gallios, the photos inscribed.
He shows me an autographed portrait of Henry Cisneros. "He loved the ribs the first time he was here. So I packed some for his flight back. Then he wanted something to help him stay neat, so I threw in a couple of our linen napkins."
I point out that Cisneros may not survive in his job.
"So maybe I shouldn't nail the picture on the wall."
The pub is open until 3:30 AM, one of the very few late-night places in the dismal corridors of today's Loop. "But it's not the same," Gallios says. "At dinner sometimes 70 percent of the people are from out of town. The Loop is a very different place than when we started."
It was close to 5 AM back in 1952, the last year of Truman's presidency, when Gallios heard rapping on the window. He'd been tending bar all night, imbibing with an occasional customer, and was "resting" in a booth. The rapper was Lieutenant Ed Egan of the Chicago Police Department, Truman's regular in-town bodyguard and an old friend of Gallios's. The pair were out on a stroll.
Gallios let them in and was introduced to the president, who first asked only for some orange juice, then decided on a shot of Jack Daniels. "It's good for the heart," he said, then told the history of the distillery. When Truman offered to pay, Gallios refused.
"You're a bad businessman," said the president. "Always take the money."
"No, Mr. President," said Gallios. "I'm a good businessman. We're all breaking the law--just ask the lieutenant. If I sell you booze at this hour he could arrest us. But I can give it away legally."
No one since has accused Gallios of being a bad businessman. In fact, he just opened a replacement for the Wabash Inn right down the street, on the northeast corner of Monroe and Wabash.
The Wabash Grill (39 S. Wabash; 443-9000) is a throwback to the great cafeterias that have all but disappeared from the Loop, though the decor is space-age glass and stainless steel. It's a full-scale pizzeria and rib joint, with rotisserie chicken, gyros, and a wide range of sandwiches to boot.
There's a well-textured, smoky half slab of ribs with a zesty sauce ($9.50) and a wonderfully gooey pizza with a crackling thin crust topped with spinach and sausage ($8.25). Pizza is also sold by the slice. The corned beef was lean and juicy ($4.50), almost as good as Manny's, and the crisped gyros ($3.95) was as good as anybody's. The onion rings ($1.95) were gigantic, and I would have liked the hefty steakburger ($3.95) more if it hadn't been well-done. The fish sandwich ($4.25) was decent, but would have been better with Miller's own tartar sauce instead of the prepackaged brand.
There are two levels for dining here, including a secluded area away from the bustle. "We get businessmen here, you know," says Gallios. The place has a wine and beer license--no hard stuff--and it closes by 8 PM.
"We don't want it competing with the bar at Miller's."
A very good businessman indeed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.