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Cityquette... by Roe Conn

Lombardo_RalliJagged Little Corner

If Chicago truly is a city of sinners and saints, Rush Street is it's allegory.

There was a time in this town when dining alfresco meant you were buying dinner for a guy named “Al Fresco.” In a city known for wind and notorious for cold, outdoor dining has become curiously popular. Perhaps it was the advent of the propane space heater or just our desire not to be outdone by New York and LA, but whatever the reason, Chicagoans have now taken to the streets... at least for lunch and dinner. 

Chicago’s weather trends would seem to make the outdoor dining experience less than ideal. But we are a brave and sturdy breed not known for admitting when we’re cold. The local “alfres-can” knows two basic rules: (1) Leather never goes out of style, and (2) there is no such thing as too many layers.  

If outdoor dining is your thing, the obtuse corner of State and Bellevue is your place. Spring’s thawing waters may keep the immediate lakefront colder, but in the Viagra Triangle, heaters, awnings, and umbrellas replicate Miami’s Lincoln Road in the land thereof.  

Those who palmed a $20 to the hostess for a prime corner seat may not realize it, but they are sitting on hallowed ground. No Chicago street has spawned more exultant success nor hosted such spectacular failure.

In the Mad Men era of the ’60s, the main attraction was Mister Kelly’s. Skinny-tied men and their bouffant-coifed dates sipped whiskey sours while taking in unknown opening acts like Woody Allen, George Carlin, and Joan Rivers, who opened for legends like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington.

By the disco-dominated 1970s, Faces was the place to be seen. The pulsing 100 beats-per-minute spilled onto the street where Chicago’s first rope lines formed. Rayon-clad men and women vied for admittance, static-clinging to their last shred of sartorial dignity.

The downturn of the early ’80s changed Rush Street. Arcades, fast food, and theme restaurants brought with them hustlers, break-dancers, and more guys trying to sell you gold than in a Fox News Channel commercial break.

But then came Gibsons. On the very site of Mister Kelly’s glory, the all-business Steve Lombardo partnered with the aggressively elegant Hugo Ralli to build an institution that would embody all of the excess yet to come.

Piña colada-serving fern bars didn’t stand a chance against the 48-ounce porterhouse, swimming pool-sized martinis, and masterful—almost dizzying—choreography of the service. It was the reset Rush Street and the city needed, a return to the muscular roots of Chicago’s night-life: BIG steaks, BIGGER drinks, and BIGGEST attitude in the city of BIG shoulders.

Imitators followed, only to be swallowed up by an expanding conglomerate that would make the Monopoly Man blush. It’s like the Gibsons guys own Boardwalk and Park Place, but instead of hotels, they bought outdoor seating.

So, the next time you brave the elements to dine on our jagged little corner at the Chicago intersection of desire and determination, imagine the history, listen for the echoes... and dress in layers.