My lunch date approaches the table with a warm smile and an extended hand. But instead of taking the other side of the roomy, lacquered wood booth, Carlyn Berghoff sits down next to me.
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17 West Adams Street
(312) 427-3170 ?
“I have to be able to see the door,” she says, slightly apologetically. “When my dad and I used to eat lunch here growing up, he always had to sit facing the door, to keep an eye on things. I guess he passed it on to me.”
Among other things the 49-year-old inherited is, of course, The Berghoff, the 45,000-square-foot restaurant/bar/cafe/event space we’re sitting in. The restaurant, which occupies nearly an entire block of Adams Street between State and Dearborn, is tightly woven into Chicago’s historical and culinary fabrics.
The place breathes Chicago history — renovations revealed ashes from the Great Chicago Fire under the floorboards — and as we settle in for a lunchtime interview, there’s so much I want to know.
I want to know what it’s like to be the first woman owner in the restaurant’s 112-year history. I want to know about all the famous politicians and movie stars who have eaten here. And I want to know what in the name of everything holy they put in the creamed spinach that makes you dream about it.
But on this blustery winter afternoon, all Carlyn Berghoff wants to talk about is her kids.
Sixteen-year-old Lindsay, a junior coxswain at New Trier High School, is looking at colleges where she can row. Sara, 13, who was diagnosed last year with celiac, is the inspiration behind the menu’snew gluten-free items. And 10-year-old Todd just talked the family into getting another dog.
And then there’s the story of the family’s eight-day rafting trip to the Grand Canyon last year. “We’re not camping people,” Berghoff says. “And after eight days, we’re still not camping people. But we know a lot more about each other now.”
Family is a big deal for Berghoff; I learn thisquickly. The restaurant is in its fourth generation of family ownership. Berghoff took the reins from her brother in 2006, who took over for their father before that, and his uncles before him. The Berghoff legacy begins with Carlyn’s great-grandfather, Herman Berghoff, who started selling beer at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago before opening the saloon at the corner of Adams and State.
And it was a sense of family responsibility that drove Berghoff to take over the restaurant, if somewhat reluctantly. For years, she’d been running a successful catering company and was in no hurry to take on the task of restaurant management.
But in the end, family won. “I couldn’t see it go to somebody else,” she says. “I grew up here.” She remembers tasting the desserts, picking from the candy counter that once stood behind the bar, and a recurring nightmare about being cooked in one of the massive silver soup pots.
The restaurant closed for about a year in 2006 and when it reopened under Carlyn’s direction, there were some changes.
The updated menu is friendlier to special diets (and picky kids) than the meat-heavy German dishes that dominated the menu for decades.There are more fish and vegetarian options and smaller portions.A small tractor icons on the menu signify locally sourced foods and there are several gluten-free options. A kids menu includes standard kids fare (macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, chicken nuggets) but its chicken schnitzel is a nice introduction to German food for picky eaters. And for a more casual, on-the-go lunch, try the downstairs cafeteria-stye cafe.
“Our goal was to modernize without losing what’s made the Berghoff what it’s been over the years,” Berghoff says.
Meals still start with a basket of the classic rye bread Herman Berghoff served, baked fresh on site every day. (The restaurant also makes its own desserts, brews its own beer and does its own butchering). The event space is a favorite for weddings and reunions. We’re having lunch a few days before Christmas and kids are crowding around the massive fir tree, looking for the pickle hidden in its branches, an old German tradition.
“There’s nothing I like more than watching three, four, five generations of a family eat here together,” Berghoff says.
And whether or not it’s a nod to me and Chicago Parent, when dessert comes around, Berghoff orders the kid’s special, a dollop of ice cream topped with a chocolate-dipped cherry. “I haven’t tried it yet,” she says. “And we all know, if the kids aren’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
The Berghoff is located at 17 W Adams Street in Chicago, (312) 427-3170, theberghoff.com