Thursday, October 22, 2009

The History Of Chicago's Pump Room Restaurant

By Ross Everett

One of the few restaurants in the country to be immortalized in a Sinatra song, the Pump Room in Chicago is now a hot spot once again. The Pump Room was one of the first quality restaurants to open in Chicago after the end of Prohibition, and soon became a Windy City icon. In addition to Sinatra (who sang the praises of the place in the classic song Chicago), the place was a favorite hangout of a lot of famous people including Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis and numerous others. The Pump Room, named after a spa in Bath, England, remained open long after the giants that once graced its premises had left. Unfortunately, time took its toll on the legendary establishment, and its culinary fare was soon surpassed by the fine dining scene exploding in Chicago and characterized by uber-chef Charlie Trotter.

Ernie Blyfield opened the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel in late 1938. He took the name from an 18th century London pub favored by celebrities and nobility, including Queen Anne. The original pub got its name from the hot drinks pumped into the cocktails of its stylish clientele.

The Chicago Pump Room was an immediate hit, and for a time its Booth #1 may have been the most sought after table at any dining establishment in the country. In addition to Sinatra, who frequently held court with Jilly Rizzo and a number of other associates in Booth 1, it was occupied at various times by Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence, Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Liza Minnelli may have been the youngest Booth 1 regular, taken there many times during her childhood by her mother Judy Garland.

Blyfield died in 1950, but the Pump Room remained a Chicago hot spot and hosted a new era of superstars including Mel Brooks, Beverly Sills, Paul Newman, Robert Redford. More recently, Michael J. Fox, Eddie Murphy and Mick Jagger have made appearances. A funny story involves former Genesis drummer Phil Collins, who was refused entry for not wearing a jacket. The incident was commemorated in the title of his next solo album No Jacket Required which has since sold over 14 million copies worldwide and launched Collins into solo superstardom. Following its release, the Pump Room sent Collins an apology"and an appropriate jacket so that the incident wouldnt be repeated.

Since being purchased by the Dallas Restaurant Group in the late 1990s, things are hopping again, however. With the extremely talented chef Martial Noguier at the helm (who has worked in the kitchen of a number of Frances most renown chefs), and a $2 million dollar restoration of the facilities, the Pump Room is back among the rarefied heights of Chicagos best restaurants. Though the flaming food served on a sword that was the Pump Room trademark during its golden era is sadly absent (due to city fire codes), the menu is now up to snuff serving Noguiers sophisticated interpretation of classic American cuisine. In addition to the revamped cuisine, the Pump Room upgraded its wine offering and expanded the bar area.

The Pump Rooms stature has been maintained by current executive chef Nick Sutton. The star of the place, however, is still the almost palpable sense of history that the dining room offers. Considering that the giants of civilized culture"from Bogey all the way to the Chairman himself"have held court in that room, it is a pretty intoxicating aura. Fortunately, the Pump Room is once again worthy of such legends, and its renaissance is a victory for culinary civility in a world too often overwhelmed with Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters.

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