Online Exhibition - Touring Chicago's Culinary History

Online Exhibition - Touring Chicago's Culinary History

Sunday, Aug 2, 2020


Welcome to the Chicago History Museum’s historical menu collection. We invite you to come with us back in time, through Chicago’s restaurant history. From the first fine dining establishment to open in the new city in 1835 to the recent contributions to world cuisine, learn about the origins of Chicago’s status as one of the top food cities of the world.  

Chicago’s introduction to fine dining

Opened in 1835, just two years after Chicago was incorporated as a town (and two years before it was incorporated as a city), the Lake House Hotel on Kinzie was the city’s first fine dining establishment. Featuring such amenities as menu cards, napkins, and toothpicks, many felt the restaurant was too hoity toity for a rough and tumble town like Chicago and it was difficult to convince the average Chicagoan that fine dining was worthwhile. (Kraig, 1997) In fact, the sheriff shut down a Chicago branch of New York’s famed Delmonico restaurant after just a few months because “practical-minded Chicagoans refused to pay high prices for food.” (Duis, 2006)

Rebuilding after the great fire

After the great fire of 1871, only five restaurants remained in the city directory and despite the best efforts of the city’s elite, its dining scene was dismal. (Kraig, 1997) A Chicago Tribune reporter described Chicago as “probably the worst off in this one essential of any great American city” (Duis, 2006). However, by the late 1870s, the city was entering its first golden age of dining. Establishments like the Palmer House Hotel, which had burned to the ground just 13 days after its initial opening, were determined to rebuild a better city than the one they had before.

Early restaurant issues

Not everything was so sunny for early restaurant owners. City restaurant licensing did not exist until 1906, and cholera was a consistent problem across the city. During its worst year, 1891, the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 persons ("1900 Flow of Chicago River Reversed", 1997). Therefore, the average restaurant-goer had to determine for themselves, rather than looking to a government agency, whether it was safe to eat at a particular restaurant. This issue is highlighted in this menu from New York Kitchen in 1887.

The emergence of star chefs and foodie culture

The 1893 World’s Fair brought sophisticated travelers from across the world to Chicago, and Chicago wanted to show off its new gastronomic culture. Chicagoans had developed a taste for oysters and seafood, and restaurateurs who could provide the freshest catch were in high demand.   One of the most famous chefs and restauranteurs at the time was Charles Rector. Known as the “great oyster maven”, Rector opened his own restaurant after gaining a reputation at the famed Boston Oyster House. It was said, “If there's any fish you want, go to (Charles) Rector, and he'll get it.” (Kraig, 1997)

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