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 White Castle #16 is not in business — the building is incorporated, cleverly, into a longtime restaurant called Chef Luciano's Kitchen — there is a 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.