by smmmarti guide
July 9, 2003
R.J.’s successful formula included a full-range salad bar which satisfied the needs born of burgeoning nutritional awareness in the masses. Theirs wasn’t the sort of spread that offered canned peaches and cottage cheese, attempting to pass them off as diet food. This salad bar had four varieties of lettuce, including spinach, (arugula was still a bit too exotic) and everything fresh and exciting, from artichokes and hearts of palm, to sunflower seeds and sesame sticks.
The people loved it! Yet they wouldn’t have been content to simply graze a table of vegetables regardless of how many trips were allowed. So R.J.’s offered some of the city’s best burgers made with a choice of ingredients and wonderfully seasoned curly fries. The portions were huge, the prices were moderate and young couples were pleased on all fronts; she for indulging in a hearty serving of vitamin-packed, complexion-coddling fresh, raw foods, and he for the man-sized burger cooked to his liking. Together, the enjoyed the camaraderie of other like-minded hipsters who hung out happily before or after dinner in the dimly-lit bar watching Chicago sports teams strut their stuff.
As one of the early patrons who helped to support Rick Melman’s estimable restaurant career, I knew Melman was on to something key in the industry even then. He was able to tap into the zeitgeist and give ‘em what they want in the form of delectable food in entertaining surroundings and effectively used the purchasing power of the largest mass of proletariat patrons in history to build a dining empire. Lettuce Entertain You now hosts dozens of restaurants all over the country.
As his patrons aged, moved up the corporate ladder developed more sophisticated tastes, so did Lettuce Entertain You’s expand its repertoire. R.J. Grunt’s might have gone the way of salad bars in general; either totally defunct, or left languishing as a remnant of a by-gone era of dining relegated to back road supper clubs. But thirty years later it’s still going strong and still packing ‘em into the tiny Lincoln Park corner bar/diner. In keeping with the times they’ve added "wraps" to the menu but still offer those terrific burgers, chicken wings, ribs and curly fries.
Everything old is new again eventually and the trend toward "raw" foods may just be the stick in the arm that R.J.’s needs to keep going for another thirty years. What started as an establishment-busting rebel is now a staid institution itself. Take a look at those black and whites lining the walls of the restaurant -- photos of the first cadre of waitresses, circa 1971. The hairdos truly drive home the point of how long R.J.’s has endured. That’s quite an accomplishment itself.
From journal Chicago Summer Classics