Elaine's in New York. La Coupole in Paris. The Pump Room in Chicago. What does it take to be an institution? In business school, I was taught that you never move forward with the business that you want. You move forward with the business for which there is demand.
Perhaps it is this way of thinking that has meant sudden death for the institution, which I define as a place that stands the test of time, becoming legend for its vibe, usually due to the personal taste of one or two individuals.
Looking at the Chicago restaurant market, businesses seem geared towards the amusement park perspective: opening for a few years to give people a "ride-like" experience. And one can see the rash of eateries trying to capitalize on the convivial, shared plates trend and/or themed establishments created by a management group. One off Hospitality (The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Big Star, avec, Nico Osteria) really paved the way with true vision with avec in 2003. The Boka Group (Boka, also 2003, Fish & GT Oyster, Balena, Perennial Virant) and Element Collective (Nellcote, Leghorn, Kinmont) followed suit.
All of these are great restaurants and I have enjoyed the experience at every single one of them, often going back several times. They are the backbone of what has made Chicago a culinary capital. In fact, many of these chefs and restaurants have participated on The Dinner Party. But what happened to the making of an institution? The Pump Room has closed. The Checkerboard Lounge - not a restaurant, but it sure was an institution - is gone. The Berghoff is now a shadow of itself. Will Chicago ever have another legendary institution?
In the podcast below, I speak with life-long, fifth-generation Chicagoan, Keene Addington, the former owner and creator of the Flat Top Grill restaurant chain, who also spent years working with the Melman and Levy restaurant groups. In 2012, Keene and his wife Megan, started The Tortoise Club, which has the initial makings of an institution. The two began the restaurant after a year-long journey driving around the country. At the end of the year, they decided to create a place where they wanted to hang out, a second home filled with private rooms that are at once stately and cozy: The Tortoise Club was born.
Steeped in Chicago history - they bought the walls of The Pump Room, literally, and installed them at The Tortoise Club - and predicated on the classic clubs of the 50s and 60s in which Sinatra and Martin drank for hours, the Tortoise Club is built on personal attention. Taking people's coats and remembering drink orders and personal preferences are important features to the Addingtons. The Tortoise Club is a place where one lingers in a voluptuous booth or at a swank table while listening to Jazz over American fare.
Pulsating a Mad Men-type vibe, The Tortoise Club could even bring back the concept of a three martini lunch or dinner. Not surprisingly, celebrity sightings emerge periodically, as advertising and TV execs flock here for lunch.
Time, of course, is the ultimate determinant of what makes an institution. As we mourn the loss of places like Cricket's, The Pump Room, and the diminished Bergoff, it will be interesting to see what stands the test of time in the ever-growing Chicago restaurant arena. Until then, enjoy this podcast and join the debate (are chains automatically disqualified? I say yes.) with Keene and Megan Addington on the making of an institution, while they acknowledge some Chicago's greatest places over the decades and the building blocks of what it takes to be a legend.