Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The state of deli food in Chicago—or, rather, the lack of deli food in Chicago—is a common topic of conversation among food enthusiasts. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s there were healthy deli scenes in Rogers Park and other parts of town, but when it comes to vintage places still going today—the local equivalents of Katz's in New York or Schwartz's in Montreal—the conversation tends to start and stop with Manny's in the South Loop, in the area once known as "Jew Town," which dates to circa 1949.
So what does that make Frances' Deli in Lincoln Park, with its "Since 1938" sign—chopped liver? Or just the vintage deli that's hiding in plain sight on Clark Street?
Co-owner Steve Gelman says that no less an expert publication than the Chicago Reader once dubbed Frances' part of the triumvirate of classic steam-table cafeterias, along with Manny's and Valois in Hyde Park. Which points to one issue about both Manny's and Frances'—neither one is, strictly speaking, a deli, in the sense that got Brendan Sodikoff so much tsouris when he opened Dillman's. That is, they don't sell meat by the pound and other things by the pint container. Manny's is a Jewish cafeteria, and that's what Frances' was too, for many years, before evolving into kind of a deli-coffeeshop-diner hybrid.
"For me the word deli just gives you an image of what kind of food you sell," Gelman says. "I know some people think of a deli as a takeout counter where you get pounds of corned beef and pounds of potato salad. The reason we don't really think it's a diner is because it's Jewish food, it's more Reubens and brisket and corned beef and pastrami. Matzoh balls, blintzes."
No one actually knows the Frances the diner was named after; Gelman says a few people have claimed to identify her, but "I haven't gotten anything that's 100 percent sure. My father and a partner purchased it in 1967, and before that, it was two brothers. That's as far back as I can go." The partner died, and Gelman's family took it over. "I was going to school and started in it as a dishwasher, and then fell into business with my brothers." In 1988 they moved it from the original location, at the corner of Clark and Fullerton, to the current location two blocks up the street, dotted with vintage knickknacks and equally vintage newspaper clippings.
As the neighborhood changed, the steam table with its heavy dishes like beef stew and meat loaf had less appeal. "Before we never had salads—we didn't even have that many sandwiches," Gelman says. "The neighborhood is pretty young now. They don't want the heavy dinners; they want sandwiches and breakfast and stuff like that. But we do still have a brisket dinner, a turkey dinner." Though the notion that people today want lighter food doesn't entirely jibe with other additions to the menu, which are more in line with modern excess—like the Fatty Melt, an over-the-top take on the classic patty melt, which places a patty and grilled onions between two entire grilled cheese sandwiches, one with tomato, one with bacon. (Obviously, it's Jewish but not kosher.)
But even with additions like that, and a look that you could mistake for any denomination of breakfast cafe at first glance, you can still feel the heritage of classic Jewish comfort food radiating from the menu. They may not know who Frances was, but Steve and his brothers are still connected to the restaurant's past through their father, Sid, who's 99 this year. "I followed him into the restaurant business after graduated, which he didn't think was such a great idea for me. But it was here, so I just went here from school—I mean, we were all working here anyway." Steve Gelman laughs, "It was the lure of the lights saying, follow Sid!"