Friday, July 3, 2009

chicago: no. 2 King's on 5th

Several years ago, my mother told me my great-grandfather had a restaurant in Chicago. I thought perhaps I’d come by this restauranting we do honestly. No one is still alive who knew what kind of restaurant he owned, or what kind of food he served. Since my great-grandfather was originally from Stockholm, we wondered if there was a variation on a smorgasbord, or if the Friday night special was Swedish meatballs.

We did know the restaurant was named King’s. And we did know that it was “across from the newspaper”, the newspaper presumably the Chicago Tribune. We knew that it had been offered as a morgue when in 1915 the ill-fated and poorly designed steamer The Eastland capsized in the Chicago River and over 800 people died. We knew that the building was somewhere across the river from the now-famous Merchandise Mart. We knew that the restaurant itself had gone under when the Depression hit Chicago hard. We knew that my great-grandfather had died shortly thereafter, and my great-grandmother had come to live with my mother’s family in Evanston.

What we didn’t know was that the restaurant had been across from the first penny daily called The Daily News that was regarded as the best broadsheet in the city until the Tribune absorbed it in the mid-sixties. We didn’t know that Charles Henry Weegman, once President of the Chicago Federal League Baseball Club, came to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair from Richmond, Indiana, and was so inspired and impressed by the city, he came back to live and started out as a coffee boy at King’s. He went onto start his own restaurant chain of lunch counters that thrived in the city. We didn’t know that King’s was the newpaperman’s haunt all during it’s life, and we didn’t know that the Chicago Press Club, one of the official founders Mark Twain, took the floor above King’s for a year while they looked for more permanent digs. We didn’t know that the building that had once housed King’s, long gone now and replaced by a monolith, had been at the corner of Wacker and 5th, and that 5th Avenue in Chicago is now called Wells Street. We didn’t know anything about my great-grandfather’s business partner, Charlie King. And we still don’t. We can only guess that he is the mysterious man in a handful of photos that my mother found in a dresser drawer. A man with a mustache, looking out from beneath his eyebrows, looming next to my great-grandfather, jaunty porkpies shading their heads, a palm tree in the background.


No comments: