In the rush of openings at the tail end of last year was one that got a bit overlooked, but that we made a note to pay more attention to after the new year. It’s the tavern opened by the 124-year-old Chicago wine and liquor distributor House of Glunz— or maybe reopened is the proper term, since it was a tavern from the late 19th century until Prohibition. The space spent decades as a storage room and then, from the 1970s, as a room for tastings and the like, much of its original German decor "preserved" under 70s wooden paneling. Christopher Donovan, great-grandson of founder Louis Glunz, restored the room with both original fixtures and others from other historic Chicago restaurants including the Berghoff and the Red Star Inn, making it a virtual museum of Chicago restaurant history. He and his mother Barbara, who run the business today, also brought in Allen Sternwiler (The Butcher & Burger) to create a menu which pays homage in a contemporary way to House of Glunz’s combined heritage of German, French, and classic American food. We spoke with Christopher about the resurrection of The Glunz Tavern, while our man Huge Galdones took some pictures of both food and atmosphere. Check out both the interview and the slideshow below.
So tell us about the space and its history.
The space is really fantastic, it’s been in my family since the turn of the century. After Prohibition my grandfather cleared out the space and used it as storage. By the 1970s it had been renovated and served as a space for tastings and classes.
I spent the last year restoring it to what it was like in 1900. The tin ceiling is original— there were just a few parts of it that needed patching. The paneling— we took off the 70s paneling and there was the original wainscoting. The floor’s original, it’s just been sanded and stained. The big change was that we did some serious construction that you can’t see— the electrical and the plumbing is all new. But it had all the bones.
Light fixtures and artwork all came from within the building— it’s stuff that was in the attic or somewhere. We didn’t want it to look contrived, like a new bar with a bunch of old tin signs, so it’s things that have a history in our family. It’s all authentic things that we’ve owned for years.
But you also used things from other famous German businesses, like the Red Star Inn which— was it your father?— bought when it closed [in 1970]. How did that happen?
It was actually my grandfather, and that was pure sentiment! He courted my grandmother there and so when it closed, he bought some really beautiful stuff that came out of it. But it wasn’t strategic at all. Like the chairs from the Red Star Inn— those went into everybody’s homes, I grew up eating breakfast around a table with chairs from the Red Star Inn.
The chairs here are from the Berghoff, I bought those when they closed. And when the Ambassador East closed, I bought one of the bars— we salvaged it, used part of it and built the bar around it. The big gold-framed mirror on one wall also comes from there.
So let’s talk about the food. Obviously German is not the trendiest cuisine in 2013, although some are suggesting that’s changing.
But we’re not really a German restaurant. I mean, my grandfather was a wine merchant and he loved French food, too. What we’re doing is bringing back the food of the tavern’s era, which was French food, German food, classic American food— it was great comfort food, not in a simple way, but with fantastic flavor.
So we’re taking what they ate in 1900 and giving it a contemporary flavor. It’s not so heavy, and it will change with the seasons and what’s in the farmer’s market.
We wanted something that was neighborhood-oriented, at a price point that you could eat here two or three times a week. We have an amazing hamburger and it’s twelve bucks. Something like our coq au riesling or the wienerschnitzel, it’s just great comfort food. We have whitefish— that was something everybody had 50 years ago because it was the local fish.
German food in America is sort of stuck in the past, and that’s not how people eat in Germany now, that heavy food that makes you feel like, hey, I’m not running a marathon, I don’t need all that. So it’s classic dishes— wienerschnitzel is a great dish when it’s done well— but in a lighter, more contemporary way.