Wednesday, June 9, 2021

R.J. Grunts at 50: cheating time with burgers

Rich Melman, front, and his family at R.J. Grunts in 2006.

     Allison Hall sounds like a girl’s name, but is not in fact a person. It’s a building, a residence hall on the south campus at Northwestern University. All-female, when I attended school there in the late 1970s. But in the basement, food service was provided. Undergraduates from nearby dorms would troop over for our cold cheeseburgers and slices of bland pizza and all the chocolate milk we could drink, which was a lot.
     Except on Sundays. On Sundays, the food service at Allison and across campus shut down, I’m not sure why. So cafeteria workers could thank the Lord, perhaps. Or to force students from under the wing of academia, out into the mean streets of Evanston to forage for ourselves. Part of the education.
     Or not. I seem to recall a lot of big coffee cups filled with several servings of Quaker Apple & Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal. Though we did also grab cheeseburgers at The Hut or, if we were feeling celebratory, head over to brunch at Fritz That’s It.
     Another odd name. Fritz was the second restaurant begun by Rich Melman, who would go on to a legendary career as the most popular Chicago restaurateur with his Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Fritz was food as fun, and offered something new and exciting: a salad bar. The one at Fritz had not only the usual bowls of iceberg lettuce and mounds of shredded cheese, but cream cheese with chocolate chips, and graham crackers to spread it on. Decadence.
     Plus caviar. I can still see my 18-year-old self, piling a Ritz cracker with the salty black caviar from the salad bar at Fritz and just staring at it, held six inches from my nose, marveling, agog that I, Neil Steinberg, a schmendrick with a bowl haircut from Berea, Ohio, was now gorging on caviar on the periphery of a major metropolis with my similarly blessed pals, skyrockets one and all, fuses lit, about to go whizzing toward unimaginable greatness.
     Restaurants are little stages upon which we live our little lives. And one of the incalculable losses of COVID-19, along with the 600,000 dead and the jobs vanished, weddings scrubbed and the trips not taken are all the meals, communal and solitary, savored and wolfed down, luxe and modest, that we did not eat in all the restaurants that were shuttered, some permanently.

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  1. Wildwife? Now that's an intriguing restaurant concept! It makes Wildfire sound tame.

  2. I wish there were a way to convey how unfunny typos are. They're embarrassing, and represent both human error and overtaxed editing. It's fixed now, thanks for pointing it out.

    1. Ah, but it's in the Sun-Times hardcopy. He has quirky names for his restaurants and I have to admit, I read it and didn't think nothing of it. But great column on RJ Grunts. Great place. And if I ever open a restaurant I think Wildwife could be an interesting name.

  3. If it's any consolation, I missed "Wildwife" too. What leapt out at me was "schmendrick," which I know will come in handy someday soon when speaking of myself.


  4. Yeah, LEYE brought lots of swell places to Chicago, many of which we've enjoyed. RJ Grunts, many times. Being a cheapskate, "the meal-in-itself salad bar" seemed like such a deal that it took me years to realize that, given the respective prices, I could essentially get an awesome sandwich for about $3, if I was ordering the salad bar, anyway. Of course, if I did that, I couldn't eat nearly as much salad stuff. Such a dilemma for a fellow schmendrick!

    "...their menus, which are goofy in a Grateful Dead meets Robert Crumb cartoonish fashion." Fine description.


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