Thursday, July 11, 2019

Pump Room Restaurant, famous for catering to Mid-20th Century's biggest celebrities.

Back in the 1930s, when people regularly traveled across the country via train, they usually had a 10-hour layover in Chicago. In later years, when celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Phyllis Diller ended up in Chicago, they made a night of it; and dining at the famous Pump Room inside the Ambassador East hotel was an essential part of that.
Booth One at the Pump Room, Chicago.
The Pump Room opened on October 1, 1938, by Ernie Byfield. At the restaurant, the biggest stars of the day had the ultimate social-status symbol waiting for them -- Booth Number One. Ernie Byfield, a famous hotelier, and restaurateur who would personally pick up celebrities at the train station. “This was the place where all the VIPs were,” says Rich Melman, who owned the restaurant in the 1970s and 1980s and ran it until June of 2019. 
Ambassador East Hotel - Pump Room, Chicago. 
“If they didn’t want to be seen, they wouldn’t go to the Pump Room.” Amenities included reserved seating in a cream-colored leather booth in the corner famously referred to as Booth One. The banquette was reserved only for the crème de la crème. Even if the wait for the restaurant was long, Booth One would remain vacant until a VIP worthy of it — such as Sammy Davis Jr. or Marlene Dietrich —arrived.
Liz Taylor at the Pump Room, Chicago. (1960)
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood at the Pump Room in Chicago.
The table’s occupants also received access to a rotary phone connected directly to the booth so they could make and receive calls as they dined. “There was a private number that you could call to reach Booth One,” Melman says. “That wasn’t given out very often. But celebrities knew it.” Movie star Joan Crawford, who preferred to be left alone while dining, would place a call and then wrap the long cord across the table as a sort of caution tape to others in the restaurant. Those who preferred face-to-face attention over a ringing phone would unplug it from the wall jack. “The phone was part of a big game,” Melman says. “Often people would pay what was considered big money in those days to be paged at the Pump Room.”
Carole Lombard and Clark Gable - between trains 1930s - in the Pump Room, Chicago. 
While the hotel and restaurant have cycled through multiple owners and face-lifts — and celebrities no longer have to layover in Chicago — Booth One has stayed alive. The last iteration of the Pump Room, a nostalgic restaurant that once drew celebrities, closed in 2017. After a substantial refurbishment, the Pump Room has been revived and renamed Booth One, complete with a rotary phone installed in its VIP booth. If a guest chooses, he or she could still use it while dining on beef Wellington and cheesecake — although Melman says, diners usually prefer to use their cell phones.

“We are trying to resurrect something that disappeared in Chicago for a while,” Melman says. “It’s the type of room that needs a lot of hand-holding, and for a time it didn’t get the attention it needed. It lost some of its luster.

After almost two and a half years in Gold Coast, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ "Booth One" restaurant, inside the 285-room Ambassador Chicago Hotel, closed at the end of June 2019. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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