It is nice when a tradition carries on. Traditions make a community feel solid. The Berghoff, located at 17 West Adams Street, was first opened in 1898. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 it was issued Chicago liquor license number 1. It is still going strong today. Anyone new to town should put the Berghoff on their short list of places to visit.
A sense of history is present from the moment you walk in. No effort has been made to make the interior trendy, as was done with atrocious taste at Hotel Allegro. Unlike some bars that have been around decades the Berghoff is also well-maintained. Authentic murals grace woodwork above the bar. Be sure to view liquor license number 1. It is on the wall opposite the bar next to a vintage safe. The physical bar itself is the same one that was used to open in 1898.
For the full experience a Berghoff Beer is in order. The bar offers selections from different manufacturers. But on this occasion leave your usual preference behind and embrace a uniquely Chicago experience. People have been enjoying this brand in this building for many decades. In keeping with surroundings the original, called Traditional Ale, is a good bet. But they also offer Dark, Hefe-Weizen and IPA. There is a Pale Ale on the menu. But it is not currently being served.
Excellent appetizers are available. The Bavarian Pretzel is a popular option. If you order one, however, it helps to know what you are in for. It is maybe eight or nine inches wide and comes hanging from a hook on a large stand. If you are looking for something a little more sophisticated the stuffed mushrooms also make a great snack.
Those looking for a souvenir can purchase a Berghoff emblem pint glass for eight dollars. The logo is done out in black, white and red and makes a handsome presentation. Your server can add the purchase to your bill before settling up.
Clientele on a recent visit presented an interesting mix. There were several old-school Chicago types who seemed like they had been coming there for years. There were tourists. There were workers from nearby corporate and government offices. A couple of policemen were having sandwiches.
The only downside of a visit to Berghoff is the staff. That is not to say they do a bad job. They are friendly and complete your order in a timely manner. But long time Chicagoans will remember the old world servers in uniform who formerly worked there. They have been replaced by waitstaff that really are not any different from the majority of other establishments in town. In management’s defense it could be difficult to find old-school types willing to wear formal uniforms in today’s market. For better or worse we live in a world that is far more casual than it was thirty years ago.
After a tenuous period the Berghoff appears to be on solid footing. Transition from one family generation to the next seems to have involved some questionable decisions, or at the very least turbulence. Herman and Jan Berghoff announced in 2005 that the operation was closing. This would allow daughter Carlyn to convert it into a catering business. But then not long after it was announced the operation would reopen. Some say this was a union-busting move. Others have suggested it might be an estate planning strategy. After all William Wrigley sold the Cubs in 1981 to pay a $40 million dollar estate tax. It also might have been plain old poor decision-making on the part of Carlyn Berghoff. If she really thought transforming something very successful into a catering business was wise that is certainly the case. Wherever truth lies the operation was sold last year from a retiring Carlyn to brother Peter. The fact that it is remaining a family asset suggests the Berghoff tradition will be with us for some years to come.
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For more Practical Chicago photos of the Berghoff Bar click here.