Thursday, June 10, 2021

Chicago Places #1: White Castle No. 16.


     Like everybody, I'm getting out more now that the Plague has dialed back. I've been visiting areas of the city I'm not very familiar with, encountering new places—well, new to me anyway. I thought I would share a few that caught my interest. 

    I was parking on South Wabash Avenue last week, when I spied this distinctive little structure across Cermak Road. No need to wonder what it is—a sign of good branding—one of the darling early White Castle outlets. A bit of research found that it is "White Castle #16"—the 16th White Castle build in Chicago, in 1930, and "the best- surviving example in Chicago of the buildings built by the White Castle System of Eating Houses, Inc." according to the Commission of Chicago Landmarks recommendation for landmark status, granted in 2011.
     The report also claims that the crenelated design was "inspired by Chicago's Water Tower," though I have trouble believing that. White Castle began in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921—its centennial was in March, alas, overshadowed by COVID. I imagine 19th century Chicago landmarks were not foremost on everybody's mind in Kansas 100 years ago, or today for that matter.  I would guess the architecture was inspired by the second word in the chain's name. (the "White" was cleanliness, the "Castle" for stability). It is possible Chicago's castellated monstrosity was the model, but I'd insist on seeing documentation on that one.
     White Castle was the first fast food chain, and the white glazed brick of its building was intended to overcome the queasy reputation of meat in general and hamburgers in particular."When the word 'hamburger' is mentioned, one immediately thinks of the circus," said Billy Ingram, a founding partner. That, or a "dirty, dingy, ill-lighted hole-in-the-wall, down in the lower districts of the city."
     No more. Thus the "System" part of the name, conveying efficiency, cleanliness, order, health.
     Which is ironic, because to me White Castle was emotionally decadent, late night, outlaw. McDonald's is childhood and your parents. White Castle is rock and roll.
     Even after the chain got started, hamburgers struck some as regional cuisine, confined to the beef-producing Midwest. "The hamburger is distinctly popular only in states west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains," a Wichita paper suggested in 1925.
     But success spread, and even though White Castle's lunch was eaten—sorry—by newcomer McDonald's, the chain survived as an exotic urban niche. In fact, while the 1930 White Castle was not in business—it's incorporated, cleverly, into a longtime restaurant called Chef Luciano's Kitchen—there was as modern, if not nearly as charming, White Castle outlet directly across the intersection of Cermak and Wabash. I was tempted to pop in for a slider or three. But I had just had lunch, at the Ming Hin at 1234 S. Michigan. Some other time then.

14 comments:

  1. White Castle went on to inspire (my home town) Naperville-based Prince Castle, who took on a cup salesman named Ray Kroc to sell their shake multi-mixers. The Prince Castle original architecture was effectively White Castle's only w/gray brick. But Kroc used the "Prince" family name for his sales outfit, took credit for the multi-mixer (patented by Earl Prince) and tried to get Prince and his partner to franchise their "system." They said no, didn't trust him. So next he takes the mult-mixer to the McDonald's Bros. store in San Bernardino and the rest, as they say, is history. Kroc ended up owning the "Prince Castle" name, so Prince had to change his local chain name to Cock Robin. Thus, Kroc ends up owning TWO family names not his own and effectively put both families out of business. Not a good record, methinks. btw Kroc grew up about three blocks from my pad here in Oak Park. That house is now closer to a Culver's than a McD's, ironic b/c Culver's is, like Prince Castle was, family-owned, regional and sources ingredients locally. Petersen's Ice Cream in Oak Park bought the Cock Robin ice cream recipes so that legacy remains to some degree.

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  2. Fun memories of White Castles. Back in the early '70's they were often the place to go after "calling it a night". I can't remember a burger and fries ever tasting as good, even when we smart-asses would order extra flys.

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  3. Yeah, there was a Prince Castle where I grew up, with the gray brick...or maybe it was only stucco. Stucco...boy, how the Prince family got stucco! [smirk] And when I was my teens, it suddenly became Cock Robin. Good shakes and good ice cream.

    Oh, the irony of seeing that location at Cermak and Wabash! Fifty years ago (1971) I was working at an auto parts warehouse at 2211 S. State...it's now a patch of grass, surrounded by a high fence. Right next to the State and Cermak 'L' stop. At lunchtime, we never went to that White Castle. Didn't even know it was there. By 1971, it may not have even been operating anymore. We always ate at some hole-in-the-wall dive (also part of that same patch of grass) next to our workplace, on the southeast corner of State and Cermak. Or at a rickety card table, inside our enclosed truck dock.

    That area was nothing like it is today. Few retail stores, of any kind. No eateries. No high-rise apartment towers, except for those round ones that were (and still are) kitty-corner from where we worked. Very industrialized, and very sketchy. We NEVER ventured east of the 'L' tracks. I'm sure it was because we were so afraid of the few black folks who still lived in that neighborhood. Everything was either a raggedy tenement, a warehouse, an abandoned warehouse, a crumbling ruin, or a vacant lot. I wasn't yet into White Castle, either. They were unknown on the Far North Side, where I was still living in '71 (East Rogers Park). But being so close to all those sliders, and never partaking, was like pushing a peanut across the desert with your nose and being unaware of the oasis you were crawling past. Hard to believe it's been fifty years.

    You're still a lucky dog, Mr. S--Cleveland and Akron lost all their White Castle outlets on Christmas Eve of 2014. I went to the closest one, just off I-90, for one last pig-out. We're now forced to drive to either Detroit or Columbus to get a slider fix. The frozen ones that the supermarkets sell don't count. They're not the same. And they don't have any grilled onions. But I still buy them and eat them anyway. Food that I love...even if some of it might be thought of as slop by some people...is the only vice I have left.

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    1. I still go to White Castle's when I need a break from eating healthy, but I think they started downhill when they adopted the term "slider" for their product. Slider used to be what we cognoscenti called the little burgers. Then talking about the "crave" was cringe inducing, plus expanding their menu into such things as jalapeƱo burgers and waffle buns was a big turn-off for me. But, as I said, the tiny packets of grease topped with a smattering of incinerated onions and a more or less wholesome pickle, are what I go for from time time or "crave," as much as I hate to use that word.

      john

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    2. Saved the soft-drink cups, and the cardboard packaging from the sliders I ate, on the last day of Cleveland's White Castles (12-24-14). They had "THE CRAVE IS A POWERFUL THING" all over them...which I hated. But, hey, a souvenir is what it is. Finally pitched them last month. And now, after typing all that, I'm trying to ignore "my crave"...

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  4. Ha here was a Cock Robin in Wheaton when I was a kid. No clue about the history of it. Thanks!

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    1. Here is a link to a documentary Vimeo on the history of Cock Robin. I had no clue before seeing it and I grew up in Naperville, loved our Cock Robin ice cream and burgers. https://vimeo.com/8851050

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  5. Maybe in 1921, when White Castle began, folks in the nation were so captivated by the 50th anniversary of the Chicago fire that pictures of the Water Tower were ubiquitous, thus "inspiring" #16 and all the rest. Uh, probably not! ;)

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  6. I frequented the White Castle on 95th and Cicero on late Sunday nights in the early 70’s. I’d drop off my girlfriend, now my wife, at her home in Oak Lawn before heading back to north side. I’d get 6 sliders and a coffee to fortify me on the drive down the Dan Ryan to the Stevenson to LSD while listening to gospel stations (Bruce Springsteen has song about that)on my AM radio in my rolling death trap ’68 Mustang. Those sliders and those times were great.

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  7. Cock Robin had the best ice cream, and especially shakes, in town. Everything else there was liable to make you sick.

    I know a lot of people like White Castle's food, but ugh. Hamburger meat that never actually touches the grill? WC plays that up like it's something to be proud of.

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  8. Some White Castle History. The first White Castle to open in Chicago was in 1929 It was located at 79th and Essex. I lived at 7950. We had lived near Wrigley but moved to the South Side in 1952 or 53. We moved to Wisconsin in 1957. I looked at Google Maps the spot is just an empty patch

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  9. There was a Cock Robin in Skokie in the 1960's. I remember the ice cream served as squares. Seemed weird. For us prepubescent boys, so did the name.

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    1. Yup...the former Prince Castle was on the east side of Skokie Blvd. Just north of Oakton. The Skokie Swift tracks were right across the street. Always thought the new name was stupid. My mother did, too. Even though she swore a lot, she refused to use the c-word, and she kept on calling those joints by their former name.

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    2. Indeed, that name! Earl Prince invented the square scoop creating just the kind of novelty that sold cones. It worked. He also invented the first ice cream freezer with a glass top so you could see the product. Doc at Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/8851050

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