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Odd Man Out

As the city funnels money into developing the north Loop, popular businesses like Ronny's Steak Palace find they no longer fit in.

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By Neal Pollack

On the last Friday in October, a group of city health inspectors showed up at Ronny's Steak Palace on Randolph. They told the restaurant's owner, Herman Munic, that someone had complained of "foul odors" in the vicinity. Along with some inspectors from the Building Department, they were checking out the entire block.

The health inspectors quickly spotted uncovered floor drains in the restaurant's basement, as well as a disconnected pipe that was leaking raw sewage. They also found cockroaches and evidence of rats. The water in the dishwasher wasn't hot enough, and food was being stored at "improper temperatures." The building inspectors discovered several instances of bad wiring, a defective fire door, expired fire extinguishers, numerous holes and cracks in the walls and ceiling, and pigeons nesting on the roof.

By two o'clock in the afternoon, only half an hour after they'd first appeared, the inspectors presented Munic with their findings: 80 code violations. Munic stood in shock for a moment. He briefly thought he might have to go to jail and asked one of his managers to call a lawyer. That wouldn't be necessary, the inspectors assured him, but there would be penalties. For now, they said, Ronny's was no longer a restaurant. The city shut the Steak Palace down.

Ronny's has been operating in the Old Heidelberg Building, on Randolph near State, for 36 years. Over the decades, Munic has decorated the restaurant in various ways. It was initially plush and comfortable, with red-velvet canopied booths and oak balustrades. In the 70s, it became less elegant and more groovy. Munic replaced the carpet with a black-and-white marble floor, installed glowing orange neon lights, and converted an upstairs banquet room into a discotheque called the AM Funk Factory.

In 1990, filmmaker John Hughes chose it as a location for his cute-urchin-in-trouble movie, Curly Sue, and commissioned Louise Moorman, a painter from Seneca, Illinois, to make eight large murals inside the porticos that line Ronny's hangarlike dining room. The murals depict an imaginary history of meat: cavemen munch on a hind shank; Mao Tse-tung shares beef chop suey with Dick and Pat Nixon; Mikhail Gorbachev treats Ron and Nancy Reagan to steak tartare. Moorman also painted jungle scenes in the stairwell leading to the AM Funk Factory, which Munic closed in March, unable to cash in on the disco revival.

For more than a decade, Munic has been hounded at every move by the city's plans to redevelop the north Loop. When it looked like something would finally be built on Block 37, Ronny's, across the street from the still-vacant lot, was to be part of the project. Then State Street was reopened to traffic, and, Munic says, "there were rumors that they were going to redo Ronny's." In 1993, the city decided that the Old Heidelberg Building was an architectural gem. It was designed in the 1930s by the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, famous for such landmarks as the Wrigley Building and the Civic Opera House. The city offered Munic a low-interest loan to update the restaurant, but he turned it down because he couldn't negotiate a long-term lease with his landlord. "We are willing to renovate," he says. Munic even had an architect draw up a scheme for a complete overhaul, but the project was put on hold until he knew the city's ultimate plans for the building. He didn't want to spend thousands of dollars if his life's work would be wiped out a few months later.

In 1959, fresh out of the army, a 21-year-old Munic went to work for Tad's Steaks, a national chain with branches in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. The company had recently set up shop on State Street, still the city's premiere shopping district. Munic started there as a counterman. He showed substantial skill both as an open-flame cook and an administrator, and soon became the manager.

Those were the salad days of cheap steak in the Loop, with operations like Tad's, Mr. Mike's, and the Flame all located within walking distance of the "Randolph Street Rialto," the glorious downtown theater district. The area boasted nearly a dozen movie palaces and vaudeville houses, including the Chicago, Loop, Michael Todd, McVickers, Monroe, Oriental, Roosevelt, Shangri-La, State Lake, United Artists, and Woods theaters. On weekends, families would come downtown to shop or take in a movie; they would often end the day at a restaurant. Munic was convinced the north Loop could easily accommodate one more steak joint.

He found the perfect location in the Old Heidelberg, which was built to resemble a structure from a traditional German village. It had a slanted roof, forest green shutters, and a stone figure of King Gambrinus, the ancient ruler who, according to legend, invented beer. In 1934, the Eitel family opened a restaurant there, encouraged by the popularity of a German place they'd operated during the 1933 World's Fair. The Old Heidelberg was fancy, but not without whimsy. Gambrinus emerged from a shuttered perch above the facade to announce the time every half hour.

The Old Heidelberg closed in the early 60s and was briefly replaced by an unsuccessful venture called the Prime Rib. When Munic moved into the space, he needed a name for the restaurant. One of his partners had always wanted a son, but he continued to have daughters. Eventually the partner realized that no son was forthcoming, so he gave his favorite name to the restaurant instead. There has never been, and will never be, a Ronny. Nevertheless, in 1963 Munic installed an enormous neon sign that extended over Randolph and announced the coming of Ronny's Steak Palace.

Ronny's evolved into a miniature empire. Though today Munic's down to just two spots, he's operated as many as eight at once, including restaurants in Des Plaines, Arlington Heights, and Wheeling. He's always been prominent downtown. A few years after opening Ronny's Steak Palace, he unveiled Ronny's II at 150 N. State; that one burned down in a 1974 fire. That same year he started Ronny's III in the South Loop at 340 S. Wabash, where it remains to this day. Ronny's II was finally reopened in 1985 at 20 S. State, where it stayed for seven years; it was severely damaged by the 1992 Loop flood and was subsequently replaced by a Toys "R" Us. Meanwhile, Ronny's III had grown to include five separate restaurants in a single food court, serving up steaks, hot dogs, and Chinese, Mexican, and Italian foods. It also had a low-rent dance hall in its basement. Gradually the food court closed, leaving only steak and dancing, and the ethnic outlets were moved to 220 S. State, where they operated for a year and a half under the name Carlos and Ronny's. That place was fronted by a bar, and was especially popular with employees of CNA Insurance, which is headquartered in the area. "Many a data-processing career was ruined by that place," says one former regular.

By that time, the original Ronny's Steak Palace had become legendary. "My god, during prom days, this place was packed with people," Munic says. "Kids with their tuxedos and their flowers. They would pull up with their limos, because this was their spot. And Sundays used to be so busy! Easter Sundays, you couldn't walk side to side. They used to close down Randolph Street from one end to the other and let people walk down the middle of the street. They had six movie theaters around here in a three-block area. And they'd come here for their dinner, in droves and droves, dressed to the nines in their Easter clothes. We used to have a kiddie disco upstairs, on Easter Sunday only. It was wonderful. We let 'em in free and would give 'em pop and stuffed animals. People still call me sometimes: 'Are you having your disco?'

"At Christmastime we have people who come in after shopping. You see so many of these people who used to be kids coming here with their parents, and they bring their own babies in here, sometimes their grandbabies. It's a name. It's been an institution for so many years. Everybody knows Ronny's."

The food at Ronny's is dished out cafeteria-style. Ordinarily, a ten-ounce sirloin goes for $7.99, and a one-pound T-bone fetches two dollars more. A full slab of ribs costs $12.99, a half slab $7.99. Other items include chop steak, barbecued chicken, and the "King of Steak," a 22-ounce T-bone for $12.99. All entrees include a salad, a baked or mashed potato, and garlic bread. Side items, such as pickles, cost anywhere from 50 cents to two dollars. In 1964, Munic divided the front room and opened Ronny's Snack Shop on one side of the Steak Palace. The two operations remain separate but equal; they continue to share a dining room. The Snack Shop started out serving hot dogs, corned beef sandwiches, and french fries; later it added pizza, burritos, tacos, gyros, calzones, chili, and teriyaki chicken wraps. Nothing at the Snack Shop, except for whole pizzas, costs more than four dollars.

Six times a year, Munic runs a special promotion at the Steak Palace, offering sirloin, salad, garlic bread, and a baked or mashed potato for $2.99, the same price he charged 30 years ago. The promotion usually runs Monday through Thursday. "We put a couple of guys on the street passing out pluggers," he says. "That's about the only advertising we do. The phone starts ringing. As many people as you see moving through the line, you see just as many moving through the carryout. It really destroys the check average."

The most recent promotion began October 26. From 10 AM to the end of the lunch rush, Munic was behind the grill, tongs in his left hand, making sure that everything was going according to his "system." Big promotions, Munic explains, require prior planning. "You gotta stay within the system," he says. "Once you fall behind in this place, there's no catching up."

Munic's system more or less consists of doing everything himself, even though he has 50 employees. "It's do as I do. Not as I tell you to do. It works better that way. I even go downstairs and wash the dishes. I can out-dishwash anybody. I'm the best dishwasher in the house. I'm the best busboy. The best baker. I know exactly what to order and when. I can check out this whole place in 20 minutes and give you an exact count of everything we have. Every steak, every beer, every piece of cheesecake."

Before 11 AM, Munic dished out all of Ronny's breakfast specials. A "Super Breakfast" consists of two eggs, French toast, hash browns, and steak or ham for $3.99. An omelette with hash browns and steak or ham is 50 cents less. French toast with steak or ham comes to three dollars.

"I want ham with mine," said a female customer with whom Munic appeared to be flirting.

"You want ham?"

"I'm terribly sorry. I forgot to tell you that."

"It's OK."

"I have strange tastes in food. I like burnt popcorn, too."

"Burnt popcorn?"

"Yes. You like that?"

"No, I don't like anything burnt. You want me to burn the ham too?"

"No. But it's very sweet of you to think of me."

Munic moved up and down the line. He made sure there were enough candied apples for sale, and then he established the division of labor. He and a cook named Guillermo were in charge of the meat. Another guy named Charlie, who was wearing a red chef's hat, handled the potatoes and garlic bread. Next to Charlie, somebody had to keep the cooler stocked with salads and dressing. Munic commissioned two people to make the salads, and another was assigned drink duty. Two cashiers rounded off the team. Later two more people would come in to package take-out orders.

At 11, the breakfast sign came down, and a pair of elderly men walked in. They ordered by holding up the promotional flyer. Munic, who was at the grill, tongs in hand, acknowledged their requests.

"How do you want it done, gentlemen?"

"Well done," said one.

"Medium rare," said his friend.

A man behind them ordered breakfast.

"Breakfast is done," Munic said. "We've got a 2.99 steak special. You get salad, baked potato, garlic bread with that."

"Good deal," nodded one of the elderly men.

An employee brought out an enormous platter of bloody steaks from the basement, and the rush was on. Munic alternately faced the grill, his customers, and his employees. But more often than not, he appeared to be talking to himself in a kind of restaurant Spanglish that he's developed over the years.

"Both of 'em well done? Corn on the cob? Grilled onions? Help you please? Where my cebollas here? Papas, please. Papas! You take drinks, and you take salads. I want drinks up here constantly and salads ready. Constantly. We're gonna need French and blue cheese. Lots. Keep the salads going constantly. We're gonna need lids, lids, lids. Where's Derek? Arrrgh! Orders to go, step up to the cashier. You don't have to wait in line. Next please! Get me two Italians! Barbecue chicken, OK. Next please. Step down please. We're open until one o'clock in the morning. Take your tray, sir. Can I help you, ma'am? How do you want it cooked, ma'am? How do you want it cooked, ma'am? Ma'am? Pay attention! How do you want it cooked?"

At 11:35, Munic's system faltered, and he told Charlie to come off line and help bus tables. He then retreated to the basement, where he grabbed a hose and frantically rinsed dishes: Ronny's was out of plates.

"Platos! Platos!" Guillermo cried.

"There's no such thing as a breakdown," Munic said defiantly, stacking five dozen plates on a dumbwaiter to be lifted upstairs. He never once let go of his tongs.

The noon rush brought other crises. The line of customers blocked the sidewalk and snaked down Randolph to State. Some patrons stumbled through their drink orders and held up the crowd. These people drove Munic crazy. The best customers at Ronny's, he explained, should say only one of three things: medium, medium-well, or well-done. Anything else screws up the system.

"Three dollars!" one woman exclaimed. "I couldn't get a burger and french fries for that at McDonald's!"

"Or you could come here for a big juicy steak," said a man standing next to her. "I saw the sign three weeks ago, and I said, 'I'm going to Ronny's.'"

At 1:50, Munic had enough: the plate supply dried up for the fifth time that day. He shouted at a cashier to call their plate distributor.

"Herman, how many dozen you want?"

"Six dozen. Right away. Tell him!"

"He says he can get 'em before 9:30 in the morning."

"He can't get 'em today?"

"Before 9:30!" the cashier cried frantically. "Lunch is almost over!"

"I'm getting killed!" Munic shouted as he jumped into the line and grabbed the phone. "I'm getting killed here!" he screamed. "Mercy! Mercy! If you've ever done anything in your life right, do it now! Get me those damn platters!"

He hung up, tongs still in hand, and barked orders to the troops. "C'mon! Don't take two guys to do six drinks! I need some plates here! Urrgh!"

The rush ended 15 minutes later. Munic stacked the corn cobs neatly, arranged the garlic bread, and remembered that he had an appointment in half an hour.

"We did seven hundred steaks," he said. "Seven hundred. Did you see that? And not one complaint. Nobody gave their steak back. Nobody."

Sales increased as the week went on. On Thursday, Ronny's served lunch to nearly 1,500 people. The promotion was a huge success, as usual. The next day, the city lowered the boom.

According to Terry Levin, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, on Thursday, October 29, "someone" complained to Mayor Daley that a sewage smell was emanating from the area on Randolph Street near the Oriental Theatre. Daley ordered his Dumpster Task Force to the scene.

The task force was created in the spring of 1994 to inspect overflowing garbage in alleys; it consists of inspectors from the city's departments of Health, Sanitation, and Building. When it was first unleashed, the task force shut down several high-profile restaurants in the Loop, including Ronny's Steak Palace, where it found evidence of rats. The crackdown led Mayor Daley to utter one of his best malapropisms: "If a rat is on your sandwich, you hope to know it before. If a mouse is on your salad, it's common sense."

Since then, the task force has ordered more than 150 closings, though for the most part its activities have been off the public radar. "After the 30th time we did it, people stopped running stories," says Levin, "so I just stopped sending out press releases." The Ronny's closing this October was noteworthy enough to warrant new coverage, he says. There were newspaper stories, and the closing was also mentioned on TV.

That weekend Munic spent thousands on renovations and had workers at the restaurant around the clock. He called the Health Department first thing Monday morning, and they sent over inspectors immediately. The violations had been corrected. Ronny's was open again.

The results of the new inspection were presented to Mayor Daley the next day, Tuesday, November 3. Levin says Daley then told inspectors they'd better check out the Ronny's on Wabash as well. At Ronny's III, Levin says, inspectors found a "geyser" of sewage spurting up through a basement floor drain every time someone flushed a toilet upstairs. They closed the restaurant immediately. When Mayor Daley heard about the geyser, he ordered every restaurant in the Loop checked for any code violations. As of last week, the task force had handed out numerous tickets and closed down one restaurant for 24 hours because its dishwasher temperature wasn't hot enough.

Two days before the first Ronny's was closed, the city sold part of Block 36, at the northwest corner of State and Randolph, for $3.6 million to the School of the Art Institute. The school announced that it plans to spend $50 million on student housing, 40,000 square feet of retail space, and a new home for the Film Center. Herman Munic learned about the sale in the newspaper almost a week later. The Tribune included this paragraph in its story: "The Art Institute is negotiating to buy the Old Heidelberg Building, 16 W. Randolph St., which adjoins the city property it is acquiring. Plans call for saving the facade of the distinctive low-rise building, but razing the remainder. Ronny's Steak Palace, the Heidelberg's current occupant and a fixture on Randolph, will leave."

Robert Mars, executive vice president for administrative affairs at the Art Institute, says that during Block 36 negotiations the city recommended that the school also purchase the Old Heidelberg Building. "It was not in our initial plan," Mars says, "but we frankly think acquisition makes a great deal of sense." The Art Institute development will fit nicely into other plans for the district, including a "premium food market" on the northeast corner of State and Randolph and a new home for the Joffrey Ballet one block over on Lake Street.

The Block 36 announcement also came just before the long-awaited reopening of the Oriental Theatre, right next door to Ronny's. The city had spent more than $13.5 million to help Livent Inc. renovate the Oriental, even acquiring the adjacent Oliver Building in order to expand the stage of the theater.

On Wednesday, November 4, the same day Ronny's III was shut down, the city filed a court action requiring Munic to repair 17 "hazardous and dangerous" code violations at Ronny's Steak Palace. The neon sign hanging out onto Randolph was held in place by "rotting and loose wood." Munic says Livent officials had complained that the sign didn't look good next to the Oriental's new marquee, though theater spokespeople denied this. By Sunday, November 8, the opening night of the musical Ragtime, the sign was gone.

The statue of King Gambrinus still stands over the entrance to Ronny's Steak Palace. Soon after building inspectors charged that it was "improperly secured," the figure was refastened to its perch.

"It was the worst week of my life," says Munic. He intends to keep the restaurant open at least until the end of the year, perhaps a few months after that. He wants to make sure his employees get their Christmas bonuses. Then, he says, Ronny's will be gone.

"I was embarrassed and humiliated beyond belief. The way they handled this was unnecessary. Sure, there were violations. Over the years, things do get deteriorated. It's an old building. But to come in here with papers at 1:30 and say they were shutting me down at 2? My employees were terrified. Why'd they have to do that? I guess they just want to get rid of anything old."

Munic heads down the food line, past the homemade lemonade with the fresh-cut fruit, the salads smothered with electric-pink dressing, the mounds of beef piling up on the grill. He picks up his tongs and turns to face his customers. "Can I help you, ma'am?"

Later, after business slows down, Munic opens a letter from the city's Law Department. "I don't want to look like I'm beefing with anybody, because they're just gonna shut me down again," he says. "I just want to do my work, run my time out, and look for a new career." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Nathan Mandell.

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