Vincent Starrett’s “Mermaid Tavern” in Chicago

From Dining in Chicago by John Drury, foreword by Carl Sandburg (John Day: 1931).


Meet the Literary Lights!

Robert J. Casey, newspaperman, explorer, humorist and mystery-story writer, has his nose buried deep in a German apple pancake as big as an elephant’s ear; Lew Sarett, poet, sturdy woodsman and Indian authority, is making short work of the Southern hash; Henry Justin Smith, managing editor of the Chicago Daily News and author of Deadlines and other novels of newspaper life, prefers two boiled eggs, toast, and jelly; Vincent Starrett, the handsome bibliophile and essayist, obviously likes his Southern ham with corn fritters, while Howard Vincent O’Brien, literary critic and novelist, goes in for ham and eggs; but big Gene Morgan, the columnist, swears by the corned-beef hash with poached egg.

    See them eating — the literary lights of Chicago. It is Saturday noon at Schlogl’s. They are crowded about the big round walnut table in the right-hand corner — talking, laughing, joking and shouting “Hey, Richard!” whenever the waiter is needed. Women are forbidden here. Therefore, male camaraderie prevails, the atmosphere is thick with smoke from many a cigar and pipe, everything is informal, diners take their time and tell stories, and the Hamburger steaks and Wiener Schnitzel are plentiful and appetizing.

    Other regulars who come to the “round table” — although, of course, not all at any one time — include John T. Frederick, novelist and editor of The Midland magazine; Dr. Morris Fishbein, author of Medical Follies; S. L. Huntley, writer, epicure, and creator of the popular comic strip, Mescal Ike; the drama critics: Lloyd Lewis, of the Daily News; Gail Borden, of the Times; and Fritz Blocki, of the American; Charles Layng, short-story writer and globe-trotter; Phil R. Davis, lawyer, Loophound, and sometime poet; Jack Brady, “the public-editor”; Hal O’Flaherty, foreign news editor of the Chicago Daily News; Paul Leach, political writer and author of That Man Dawes; George Schneider, lawyer and bibliophile; Le Roy T. Goble, the advertising man and connoisseur of the arts; and the Midweek magazine group: Robert D. Andrews, editor, and two of his star contributors, Sterling North and Upton Terrell.

    What the Mitre tavern in Fleet Street was to the writers of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s day, Schlogl’s is to the scribes of Chicago’s “Newspaper Row” at the present time. Also, it is one of the oldest restaurants in town, having been founded here in 1879 by Joseph Schlogl as a combined restaurant and weinstube, or wine-room. The interior is the same as on the day it was first opened, only the ornate tin ceiling, the walls and the large oil paintings depicting monks drinking wine in old cellars have become a bit musty and smoky with age — which is appropriate. The walnut tables, walnut paneling and walnut service bar are kept well-polished by Richard and his two assistant waiters, Charley and August.

    Schlogl’s had its beginnings as a literary lounge in the days when Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, Robert Herrick, Edgar Lee Masters and Maxwell Bodenheim foregathered here. Others came after them — Bart Cormack, playwright and author of The Racket; J. P. McEvoy, of The Potters fame; Pascal Covici, the publisher; Charles MacArthur, who wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht; Clarence Darrow, attorney and writer; John V. A. Weaver, author of In American; Harry Hansen, the literary critic; John Gunther, foreign news correspondent and novelist; J. U. Nicolson, author of The King of the Black Isles; the drama critics, Ashton Stevens and Charles Collins; Gene Markey, man of letters and bon vivant; Robert Morss Lovett, of the New Republic staff; James Weber Linn, columnist; Mitchell Dawson, poet and lawyer; Irwin St. John Tucker, poet and rector of Chicago’s “poet's church”; Kurt M. Stein, who writes in the German-American dialect; Edward Price Bell, dean of foreign correspondents of the Chicago Daily News; Don Lawder, now of the New Yorker; Sam Putnam, literary critic; W. A. S. Douglass, contributor to the American Mercury; Junius B. Wood, the foreign correspondent; and Horace Bridges, the essayist.

    Since we seem to be doing nothing but listing names, we might just as well go all the way and put in the names of other well-known writers who have visited and dined here — Witter Bynner, Heywood Broun, Alfred Harcourt, Donald Ogden Stewart, E. Haldeman-Julius, Paul H. De Kruif, Upton Sinclair, Bobby Edwards, William McFee, Sinclair Lewis, Konrad Bercovici, Arthur Brisbane, William Allen White, D. W. Griffith, Gilbert Seldes, Horace Liveright, Louis Untermeyer, Jay G. Sigmund, Nelson Antrim Crawford, and the English visitors — Rebecca West, Hamilton Fyfe, Ford Madox Ford, Francis Brett Young, E. O. Hoppe, and Brig. Gen. Edward L. Spears.

    You will find the autographs of all these literary notables in what has become known as “Richard’s Book” — a copy of Midwest Portraits, containing literary recollections of the Schlogl gang, written by Harry Hansen and presented by him to Richard Schneider, who waits on the “round table.” No other restaurant in the world boasts a book like this, wherein is described the restaurant itself, and the people who eat in it, and having in its end sheets the autographs of those written about.

    Naturally, the “Who’s Who” of the American literary world would not come here unless the cuisine were such as to meet the approval of fastidious men of letters. This place serves food that the most cosmopolitan of epicures would revel in. The Stewed Chicken a la Schlogl can be gotten nowhere else. Millionaires who can afford sirloins and tenderloins come here for Hamburger steak, which is fried in butter and prepared as only Chef Paul Weber, who has been here for thirty years, knows how to prepare it. The steaks and chops demand more than just this mere listing of them. There is also savory Wiener Schnitzel and Hasenpfeffer, roast young duck, and bouillabaisse. Too, the Schlogl pancake is deserving of a chapter to itself.

    When accompanied by a lady, you eat upstairs in an old dining room, where the ceiling is cracked, the wall-paper is beginning to peel in places, and warmth in winter is provided by an old coal stove. All is atmospheric and thrillingly ancient — except George Kling, who has a youthful alertness in seeing to the culinary needs of the distinguished ladies and gentlemen at his tables.

    You haven’t dined in Chicago unless you've eaten at least once in this historic restaurant. If you’re in any way literary, you are probably on your way over there by now.

Schlogl’s German-American 

37 North Wells Street 

Open for luncheon and dinner (closed on Sunday) 

A la carte only — and expensive, but worth it 

Maitre d’hotel: Richard Schneider

For a glimpse of Starrett and others at Schlogl’s, go here.

Harry Hansen’s 1923 Midwest Portraits: A Book of Memories and Friendships (New York: Harcourt, Brace) begins:

When this book began to be written the hands of the big wall clock at Schlogl’s had already advanced to half past two, and as I looked up at the great disc of the pendulum, somnolently swinging back and forth like an animated moon, I saw reflected within its highly polished surface a merry and leisurely company that gave no signs of going home. Grotesque and disproportionate the scene, distorted in this concave mirror — a strip of olive-colored ceiling above and a flare of light from cut-glass chandeliers, then a strip of brown which I identified as the paintings indigenous to a tavern, then tables and chairs, and men bent over the polished wood in all sorts of easy attitudes. They might linger here for hours, unaware that the deepening gray outdoors was brought on by something more unalterable than soot; unmindful, too, of the pounding of iron wheels high up on iron trestles, or the clanging of street cars, or the churning roar of motor trucks. They were placid and comfortable even as that old patron at the third table, un vieux, if ever there was one, who had sat in that self-same chair thirty years or so, save for the time lost in the distraction of home and business, partaking of his hasenpfeffer with paprika, etwas ganz feines, pulling lazily at his long filler havana, sampling now and then his goblet of Rüdesheimer. Thirty years — that went back almost to antiquity in Chicago, where the calendar began anno incendi, in fact this very house had remained unchanged since the day that it was reared upon smoldering embers and charred walls, and if one dug deep enough the spade would strike bricks and debris that are all that remain to tell of the great fire — as in ancient Troy. Thirty years — and he might sit there another thirty years, toying with his hasenbraten and spaetzle, pulling at his long havana, if life could be endured that long again without the Rüdesheimer.

    This, then, was a hallowed spot. One sought it, mistakenly, under another name, just off the Strand, in London, and thought it worth the journey; jaded souls, tired of insensate dining on Manhattan, imagined it near the Place du Tertre high up on the Butte; feinschmecker extolled its cuisine and dreamed for it a site near the Kürfurstendam in Berlin; the Rathusplaads had it too, they said, in Copenhagen. I had explored them all and traveled up and down their carte du jour; I had indulged in delights gustatory and olfactory, and bewailing the fact that America had no cuisine worth the name, I had come back reluctantly only to find Schlogl’s within three hundred yards of the desk where I performed my daily task. And everything was as it always was. “Good day, and how are you?” asked Richard, as I hung my hat upon the hall tree, which scrambled over the wall like an illuminated initial from an ancient Celtic script, and then: “Your order is coming right up.”

Schlogl’s, where the “first state dinner” of The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) was held in January 1944, is long gone. To tell from Such Interesting People (Bobbs-Merrill, 1943), by Chicago Daily News reporter and war correspondent Robert J. Casey, it was already gone when the Hounds held that “first state dinner” there, but we have Starrett’s word for that (see John Nieminski, The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic): A History of Chicago’s Senior Scion Society 1943-1983, Chicago: Valuable Institution Press, 1983, pp. 6-9), unless it had moved to a new location. Casey, the first literary light named in the Dining in Chicago account above, claimed not to care much for Schlogl’s, in an splendid anecdote toward the end of his book:

In the old days delegations of the newspaper literati and similar odd spirits from other professions used to lunch — just why I was never able to determine— at Schlogl’s, an ancient German restaurant in Wells Street. Heavy oak chairs and tables and an ancient oak bar made up the furnishings of the place. There was about as much light as you’d expect to find in a crypt — and there were other resemblances.

    Schlogl’s was first made famous by Harry Hansen who wrote that baked owl was the specialité de la maison. I never saw any owl in Schlogl’s identifiable as such but I shall admit that would be no reason for doubting the veracity of Mr. Hansen. My argument with the management was not over the owls per se but over the condition of the chinaware. The chef, so I have been told, was excellent. The raw material brought into the kitchen was of the best. The waiters — particularly Richard, the one who took care of us — were easily the best in Chicago. But there seemed to be a house rule that they had to hire blind dishwashers.

    My protests about thumbprints on plates continued regularly to the point where I was eating nothing but canned sardines and hard-boiled eggs, both served in unbroken packages. But I gave up one day when I cracked my egg and discovered on the white albumen the blackest thumbprint I had ever looked at. I realized that a genius who could get his fingerprints inside the shell of a hard-boiled egg probably could transmit them to me through the air. And amid the cheers of all my companions I apologized to the direction and all the help.

    The old building in Wells Street was torn down and we had moved to other and possibly less interesting restaurants before I learned that people whose thumbprints you find inside eggs are not to be trusted. The prints turned out to have been made by Henry DeVries, a chemist who always ate at our table. He had spent a night treating the shell with wax and leaching a dye through the pores.

     Of those around Schlogl’s table during that era, three of the four founders of The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) are named in Dining in Chicago: Vincent Starrett, Charles Collins (proprietor quite a few years of the Chicago Tribune’s “Line o’ Type or Two” column), and Horace Bridges (president of the Chicago Ethical Culture Society, a notoriously oxymoronical concept). The fourth founder, Stanley Pargellis, had not yet arrived in Chicago to serve as head of the Newberry Library, from 1942 on.

    Christopher Morley headed for Schlogl’s whenever he came to Chicago, and Vincent Starrett mentioned that in a Gourmet article, “Dining With Morley and Other Games,” included in the Starrett collection Memorable Meals edited by Peter Ruber (Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, 1995): “In Chicago he liked to lunch or dine at Schlogl’s (our Mermaid Tavern in the twenties and thirties), on whose printed menu always appeared the startling line, ‘Owls to order.’ It was the proprietor’s little joke, of course; but Morley never failed to exploit it. He demanded owls, and whatever he got he called owl. For the most part we all took whatever Richard, our literary waiter, brought us, and were well pleased. ‘What,’ as Horace Liveright, the publisher, once asked rhetorically, ‘is the particular charm of this not too particular place?’ It was the company, of course.”

    Morley mentioned Schlogl’s himself in his slender but elegant book Old Loopy: A Love Letter for Chicago, published there in 1935 by Ben Abramson’s Argus Book Shop. “She [Chicago] was nearly ruined, intellectually, when Henry Mencken (solemnly, naively, not intending any joke) insisted that she was the Literary Capital of America. Absurd, of course, for literature has no capitals; it happens in the mind. But Chicago took him seriously. This was the annunciation so long awaited; and Schlogl’s Restaruant was its manger (or salle à manger).”

    Harry Hansen was in New York by the time of that first state dinner, working at the World-Telegram now, and attending the BSI’s March 31, 1944, “Trilogy Dinner” at the Murray Hill Hotel held as a publication party for Edgar W. Smith’s Profile by Gaslight, Ellery Queen’s The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, Christopher Morley’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Textbook of Friendship. And, in his news of that occasion, we may reflect if Hansen didn’t have a point when he said: “I wonder whether any succeeding generations will have the fun that Morley, Starrett, David Randall, Edgar Smith and their associates have had. They did the spadework.” (Irregular Proceedings of the Mid ‘Forties, pp. 60-61)

    Richard Schneider, “the literary waiter,” eventually retired to the Seattle area where his children were, and reportedly died there in 1967. Since then “Richard’s Book” — the heavily inscribed copy of Midwest Portraits its author Harry Hansen had given him (at one point having it rebound, it had been so often handled at Schlogl’s lunch-times) — has not been heard of. I feel about it almost the way Casper Gutman felt about the Maltese Falcon, and any word about its or his descendants’ whereabouts would be extremely welcome.

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