Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The History of the "Original" Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash Avenue in Chicago's Loop.

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, the same year Prohibition began, until his son Don Roth closed it 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.
Looking South on Wabash from Randolph at Don Roth's Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash at Randolph in 1979.
Classical musicians played from the balcony as diners ate. He hired Carlton Coon, Joe Sanders, and their Kansas City Nighthawks for their bandstand.

With Prohibition in place, Otto searched for a way to attract more customers. In 1926, he abandoned the classical music format and installed a dance floor and stage. The shows featured popular dance orchestras.

 "Live! From the Blackhawk!" was aired live on WGN Radio, 720AM on the radio dial; a 50,000 Watt 'Clear Station' that reached 38 states at night. "Live! From the Blackhawk!" became so popular that entertainers like Louis Prima, Glenn Miller, Perry Como, Kay Kyser, Chico Marx, Ozzie Nelson, Doris Day, and in 1929, a 4-year-old Mel Tormé entertained dinners and the dancers alike. The radio show became famous and Western Union put a telegraph machine on the bandstand to field song requests from across the country. 
Menu Cover
Otto Roth had become one of the first restaurateurs to mix dinner and dancing. Otto was known as a savvy promoter, attracting female shoppers for a "dainty lunch," executives dining with clients and sweltering Chicagoans to enjoy "cooled air."
In 1944, Otto died suddenly, and his son Don, who was working as a booking agent, took over. "We were a hearty restaurant," said Don, "But we knew that we had to replace the big bands with something revolutionary if we were to survive." During Don's reign, he did away with the stage and live music, preferring to "Made Food the Show."

Don's tableside theatrics featured prime rib and later, roast beef, served from food carts rolled through the dining room. His signature spinning salad bowl, set on ice and surrounded by 21 ingredients, including their secret "Spinning Bowl" dressing, which he later bottled and sold via local grocery stores. His signatures of the restaurant included a 15-shrimp cocktail and Boston scrod.

The Real Blackhawk Restaurant's Famous Spinning Bowl Salad Recipe.

The restaurant was also the first to have art exhibits in the 1940s, a salad bar, and one of the first restaurants to have black and white waiters working alongside each other, claims Ann Roth, Don's wife.
NOTE: The Tip Top Inn Restaurant in Chicago's Pullman Building at 79 E. Adams Street, employed negroes as waiters, sometime in the late 1890s, and later negro woman for their more reasonabley priced Black Cat Inn Restaurant, but the waitstaff was not integrated.
“He was a very imaginative person and was extremely creative. My husband, Don, loved the business, and he was a very, very charismatic person," said Ann.

The original Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash Avenue closed in 1984.


The restaurant, a legend to several generations, was named for the U.S. Army's Blackhawk infantry division, which in turn was named for Black Hawk, 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. 

On January 10, 1952, when a statewide horse-meat scandal erupted, civic authorities closed the Blackhawk Restaurant. Roth challenged the charges in court, where a jury found the restaurant not guilty. Upon reopening, business exploded. 
Don Roth prepares the spinning salad bowl for diners including
actor Buster Keaton (at the right).
The secret recipe spinning bowl salad dressing was so popular Don Roth bottled it.
Don Roth opened several other restaurants on Michigan Avenue, on Pearson Street, and on Wabash Avenue north of the Chicago River, but they were all short-lived.

"Don Roth's Blackhawk" in Wheeling, Illinois, which opened in 1969 and ran 40 years before closing in 2009. Much of the original Blackhawk Restaurant's memorabilia became part of the Wheeling location.

Don Roth, one of the creators of Taste of Chicago, also was involved in national and local restaurant organizations, often serving in leadership roles. Don Roth died on November 21, 2003. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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