A framed half-finished crossword puzzle dated November 25, 2000, hangs above the host stand at Bistro Ultra, the restaurant where Pete Rudiger was employed at the time of his death. "He was sitting at the bar with the reservation book, working on this puzzle, like he always did," says Juan Hurtado, who owns the bistro. "He had called me at 11 AM to tell me to bring him some M&M's, and when I got to the restaurant he was lying right here on the floor, dead from a heart attack."
Rudiger, best known for his now-defunct namesake, Rudi's Wine Bar, was born and raised in Wisconsin, then moved to Chicago as a young adult to pursue a passion for wine. In the early 70s he was the wine buyer for Schaefer's liquors in Skokie, and in the late 70s he opened a short-lived wine retail shop in the Century Mall. In the early 80s he began to import hard-to-find wines under the name Orange Imports.
"I'd known Rudi for 15 years, since I was a hostess at Terczak's [on Halsted] and he was a regular," says Siobhan Rice, one of "Rudi's babies," the term he affectionately used to refer to his all-female waitstaff. "Even back in the 80s when there weren't any wine bars, Rudi always said he was going to open his own," she recalls. "It was his dream." So in 1993, when his friend Robert "Whitey" Wingerter offered to back him, he jumped at the opportunity. "He did everything there," says Hurtado, who manned the kitchen at Rudi's until 1997.
"Rudi was a front-of-the-house guy," says Rice, recalling him in his most common attire: a baseball jersey and Gold's Gym sweatpants. "He was a host, a charmer, a bullshitter. Customers would be disappointed if they came in and he wasn't there." But in 1997, Rudi was suddenly gone. "For the first four years Rudi's was a madhouse, and then things started changing," says Rice. "Nobody really knows the story about Whitey and Rudi, but there was a big falling-out." (Wingerter didn't return calls.) "We heard different stories from each of them, but we know it revolved around money issues," says Rice. "They started bickering, and then there wasn't a lot of love in the restaurant. Then Whitey asked Rudi to leave."
In its heyday Rudi's Wine Bar drew high-profile customers like William Kennedy Smith, Miriam Santos, Ethan Hawke, and the band Third Eye Blind, who always asked for the same table in a private corner. There was also a steady neighborhood crowd. "Rudi gave the royal treatment to celebrities and regulars, but he could also rub people the wrong way," says Rice. "Some people didn't appreciate the over-the-top way he acted, but overall, you could have a really shitty day and look terrible and Rudi would make you feel like a million bucks."
Rudiger practically lived at the restaurant, so when his sister and brother-in-law opened an antique shop next door (which they ran long-distance from Colorado), he moved into the shop's damp, windowless basement. "He was in his element down there. It was just like a wine cellar," Rice says. Rudi was single and didn't have much family in town, so he spent most holidays at the restaurant when it was closed. "Every Thanksgiving, he'd have us all come [over] in the late afternoon for a toast, and everyone showed up even though we all had families of our own."
Rudiger lived hard. "He was a smoker and a drinker--gin, gin, gin," says Rice. A Beefeater martini was his drink of choice, but he didn't shy away from the esoteric wines he stocked in the bar. "He had an incredible palate," says longtime friend Patrick Fegan, director of the Chicago Wine School. "It's funny to talk about that now that he's gone, because he always felt cheated, like nobody in the wine world ever gave him the credit he deserved."
"Rudi was the kind of guy who never caught a break," says Hurtado. And while his luck seemed to take an upturn when the wine bar opened, it was only five years before he fell out with Whitey. In 1997 Hurtado left Rudi's to open Bistro Ultra, and in late 1999 he hired Rudi the same day Whitey fired him. Despite his relatively low spirits, Rudiger managed to boost business at Bistro Ultra during the year he worked the front of the house there, trying to establish a presence similar to the one he'd had at Rudi's. He also worked on menu ideas, developed a unique wine list, and brought on an entirely female waitstaff, as he'd done at Rudi's, convincing Hurtado it was good for business.
"Rudi's was never the same after he left," says Rice. "And even though his regular drinking buddies came over to the bistro with him, the atmosphere was too different. It wasn't a cozy dive like Rudi's."
"We were like family there--none of us can believe he's really gone," she says. "We keep thinking he's just on a trip and will be back any day now."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.