While on the UI Chicago campus this week, we had the distinct pleasure of visiting the current Special Collections and University Archives exhibit at the library: “The Food’s The Story.” The compact exhibit space features the nearly 90-year history of the Blackhawk restaurants, a family-owned Chicago business that spanned generations. The Blackhawk story highlights the innovative nature of food and entertainment in the Windy City.
Original owner Otto Roth transformed the first Blackhawk restaurant (est. 1920) again and again to adjust to the ever-changing tastes of the American restaurant-goer. To compete with the speakeasies and backroom bars during Prohibition, swing bands and dance performances entertained guests and the music was broadcast nationally as “Live! From the Blackhawk!” Though the Blackhawk was named for the U.S. 86th Infantry “Blackhawk” Division, in later years Roth leaned on the Native American connotations of the name to bring in guests. Actor Basil F. Heath entertained children at the restaurants as his TV and film character Chief White Eagle. Roth was a genius at utilizing advertising to bring in new clientele. The exhibit features many examples of efforts to drum up business ranging from advertising a sophisticated luncheon spot for women shoppers in the 1930s and the development of a signature “spinning salad bowl” that waiters built at the table to a special American Airlines menu featuring not only the spinning salad but also meat cut straight from a loin on a trolley pushed down the aisle. Airline service used to be very different apparently!
The original Blackhawk finally closed in 1984 after a 64-year run, and a second location, Don’s Blackhawk restaurant in Wheeling, Illinois (est. 1969), shut its doors in 2009. As UIP anticipates the release of our extraordinary Chicago Food Encyclopedia, “The Food’s The Story” exhibit reminded us that Chicago’s food history is chock full of fascinating and fun stories to explore.