Monday, September 24, 2018

For nearly 65 years the "Original" Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash Avenue in Chicago served their famous "spinning-bowl" salad -- with their secret dressing!

The Blackhawk restaurant satisfied diners' sophisticated palates and music lovers from the moment Otto Roth opened the doors at 139 North Wabash Avenue on December 27, 1920, until his son Don Roth closed them 64 years later. Father and son were savvy innovators, tapping into diners' desires and setting trends before the word "trendsetter" became part of America's vernacular. 
By 1926, Otto Roth had become one of the first restaurateurs to mix dinner and dancing. He put in a dance floor and settled Carlton Coon, Joe Sanders, and their Kansas City Nighthawks on the bandstand. Shows were broadcast live over WGN radio and were so popular-other entertainers included Louis Prima, Glenn Miller, Perry Como, and a 4-year-old Mel Torme that Western Union put a ticker tape on the bandstand to field requests from across the country. 
When Otto Roth died in 1944, Don Roth nurtured the restaurant for another 40 years, transitioning in 1952 from the dinner-and-dancing concept to a restaurant where they "Made Food the Show."
He used the spinning salad bowls, with their famous "Spinning Bowl Dressing," and rolling roast beef carts as a new way to provide tableside entertainment for his guests. 
Don Roth prepares the spinning salad bowl for diners including
actor Buster Keaton (at the right).
"We were a hearty restaurant," said Roth, "But we knew that we had to replace the big bands with something revolutionary if we were to survive." Food carts of prime rib rolled through the dining room, a 15-shrimp cocktail and Boston scrod were on the menu. The star? A spinning salad bowl. The tableside theatrics featured a salad bowl set on ice and surrounded by 21 ingredients, including their secret dressing.
Roth opened several other restaurants (on Pearson Street and on Wabash Avenue north of the Chicago River) plus Don Roth's Blackhawk in Wheeling. The original Blackhawk restaurant closed in 1984. 

Much of its memorabilia became part of the Wheeling location, which ran 30 years before closing in 2009. Don Roth, one of the creators of Taste of Chicago, also was involved in national and local restaurant organizations, often serving in leadership roles. He died on November 21, 2003. 

The restaurant, a legend to several generations, was named for the U.S. Army's Blackhawk infantry division, which in turn was named for the chief of the Fox and Sauk tribes in Illinois. The restaurant proved just as resilient. A stink bomb was tossed into the restaurant on opening night, which cleared the restaurant until "a lake breeze supplied a new atmosphere," according to news reports, sending guests back into The Blackhawk to continue celebrating. And when a statewide horse-meat scandal erupted, civic authorities closed the restaurant. Roth challenged the charges in court, where a jury found the restaurant innocent. Upon reopening, business went up. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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