For generations downtown dining was defined by the three Bs: Berghoff, Binyon's, and the Blackhawk. Today only Berghoff remains intact. Binyon's, sold a decade ago, is a shadow of its once wonderful self, and the Blackhawk is long gone (though its proprietor, 82-year-old Don Roth, still operates an eponymous spot in Wheeling, featuring great prime rib and a legendary "spinning salad bowl").
But two scions of the Blackhawk and Binyon families, true to their restaurant genes, continue to feed Chicago very well--each in his own way. Doug Roth, 41--whose grandfather Otto founded the Blackhawk on Wabash 75 years ago as a merry palace of big bands, dancing, and dining--runs a pair of the classiest dining spots in town: Bistro 110 and the Blackhawk Lodge. Jack Binyon, 50--whose granddad Hal won the old South Plymouth Court eatery in a backgammon game more than 60 years ago--now gives grand diner fare at Stanley's Kitchen & Tap and similar grub at Melvin B's Truck Stop, best known for the greatest people-watching terrace in the Rush Street area.
Doug worked several years for his father Don--who took over the Blackhawk in 1944--but wasn't much interested in the business at first. "I wanted to be a doctor," he says with a sheepish grin. He went to work for United Airlines before plunging into the family enterprise in the early 80s, when his father tried opening additional Blackhawks, including one on Pearson where Bistro 110 now stands.
"But I wanted more independence--to go off on my own," Roth says. His overseas experiences convinced him that an authentic Parisian bistro would be the way to go, even though he now acknowledges that "85 percent of the people didn't know what a bistro was." He brought the idea to the Levy brothers--a virtual restaurant and real estate conglomerate--and together they opened Bistro 110 in l987.
The place was a winner right from the start, with its smart but casual decor, lively atmosphere, and wood-burning oven turning out aromatic roasted meats and veggies and full heads of garlic you can spread on your bread. The kitchen is now led by Rene Bajeux, who deftly combines classic bistro fare with contemporary flourishes, as in his semolina-based tart bearing onion confit ($5.95) or a recent special of pan-roasted oysters mated with leeks, wild mushrooms, and bacon in a chardonnay broth ($7.95). Giant grilled scallops--done just a shade too long for my taste--were embellished with a delightful garlic cream sauce and accompanied by roasted tomato, sweet peppers, and spinach ($17.95). A traditional steak au poivre, encrusted with peppercorns, was served perfectly rare as requested and enhanced further by a satiny cognac cream sauce ($18.95), accompanied by a heady, garlic-strewn potato cake.
Roth and the Levys went on to open the Blackhawk Lodge in 1991, with a setting that's a wonderfully detailed take on a North Woods lodge. Antlers serve as coat hangers, and odd little bits of memorabilia and yellowing photos are placed strategically throughout the restaurant. There's even a screened-in front porch.
The current chef, Scott Birch, creates a modern cuisine that's rooted in American ingredients, but he avoids the flamboyance of many of his contemporaries. It doesn't exactly complete the hunting-lodge theme but it's not a bad fit. His Maine crab griddle cakes are beautifully crisp and tasty in themselves, but are enhanced by a lemon-chive mayonnaise with capers ($9.25). He uses grits like Italians use polenta, notably in a lush mix with spicy tasso ham and wild mushrooms ($5.25). Rack of lamb, roasted perfectly pink, gets an ancho chili sauce with tomato that is smooth and not overly hot ($20.95). Seared tuna--sushi-rare in the center--goes Asian with wasabi-spiked potatoes and shiitake mushrooms in soy-ginger sauce ($17.95). I'd return for any of these dishes any day. The place is consistent.
"My dad used to say a lot of great restaurants go out of business because they aren't consistent and a lot of average restaurants stay in business because they are," says Roth.
Consistency also was a virtue of the original Binyon's. Jack Binyon still puts it high on his list--along with "huge servings and low prices." But unlike Doug Roth, Binyon always knew he'd be in the family business. "I started at age 12 and never considered anything else," he says. His grandfather's lucky backgammon betting had turned the family's fortunes by winning the title to a nondescript place named the German Restaurant. His father, Hal Jr., perfected the South Loop stube in the late 30s, but its name was changed to Plymouth Rock once the war broke out. Soon it was simply called Binyon's. Jack did everything except cook. His brother Hal III was the kitchen-oriented son; both went to Cornell University's hotel school to steep themselves in the trade.
Binyon's was sold in l986. Jack's father, now 87, retired to Florida. His brother stayed on six years, then went into the travel business. Jack bought a horse-breeding farm, which he still maintains. Then, in 1992, he corralled some friends, and they took over the terraced State Street restaurant known as Melvin's. Jack added his last initial and dubbed it a truck stop.
What you get is good bar food--excellent renditions of southern fried, Cajun, or Buffalo-style chicken tenders, with appropriate sauces ($4.95). We had plump, crispy crab cakes ($4.95), a fine burger ($5.95), and rich quesadillas ($4.95). There's also a popular Buffalo-style chicken breast sandwich ($5.95) with a peppery bite. The back ribs ($11.95) are the most popular item--the falling-off-the-bone kind, with a slightly sweet sauce. The summer menu is more expansive and even features curried goat.
In the fall of 1993 Papa Milano's Lincoln Park restaurant--once Jim McMahon's, once the Hacienda del Sol--became available, and Jack brought in friends Don Kruse and Jeff Kalish to fulfill his vision of a neighborhood diner and saloon. "We were going to name it Mary's, after my mother, but Stanley Carothers, the old Binyon's chef, had just died. Stanley's was the perfect name."
A sign on the exterior promises meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and home cooking. With not a bit more advertising, the place has taken off. The reason's easy to grasp--a good bar attracts a lot of neighborhood people who'll stay for that fine comfort food, earmarked by chef Jerry Pelikan's grand home-style gravies. The meat loaf ($5.95), smothered pork chop ($6.95), chicken-fried steak ($8.95), and chicken-fried chicken ($6.95), all flavorful in themselves, are elevated by their individual gravies. The fried catfish is as good as you can get ($6.95), and there is a fine vegetarian lasagna ($5.95). Don't miss the crayfish cake starter ($4.95).
Bistro 110 is at 110 E. Pearson (266-3110), the Blackhawk Lodge at 41 E. Superior (280-4080), Melvin B's Truck Stop at 1114 N. State (751-9897), and Stanley's Kitchen & Tap at 1970 N. Lincoln (642-0007).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/ Nathan Mandell.