Watch Our Collection of 13 Great Chicago Food Movies

Here’s a time-killer before a three-day weekend if we’ve ever posted one. It’s a collection of 13 videos which capture the essence of the Chicago food scene over the years on film, from feature films to documentaries to TV commercials, from the very highest of the high end (yes, there’s Alinea in there) to delis, barbecue and hot dog joints. Check them out in our slideshow— each one links to a YouTube clip or something similar— and if you can think of great ones we’ve left out, especially from unsung amateur videomakers, put the link in the comments… because like anything from the movies, we’re leaving it open for a sequel.

How did your grandparents or great-grandparents have a good time in Chicago? This Technicolor travel short from the much-parodied “TravelTalks” series by James Fitzpatrick gives you a glimpse of legendary Chicago nightspots like the Pump Room, the College Inn, Eitel’s Old Heidelberg and more… just a few years before rock ’n’ roll would destroy them all. Watch it here.
Before Bonnie and Clyde and way before Quentin Tarantino, Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty made this absurdist gangster-movie-slash-pretentious-French-New-Wave art film about a nightclub performer on the run. The main distinction now is the crisp black and white photography of genuine Hefner-era Chicago nightspots like the Gate of Horn, Mike Fish’s and Chez Paree, some of which can be glimpsed in the trailer here.
The most consequential figure ever in the Chicago restaurant biz, much as we hate to admit it, is surely Ray Kroc, and no TV commercial better captured the middle-American appeal of McDonald’s than the one that Chicago agency Needham, Harper & Steers used to introduce the “You deserve a break today” campaign. Needham (later absorbed into DDB) kept the business for over a decade before Leo Burnett convinced McDonald’s that they’d been so successful at getting moms to stop cooking that they no longer even thought of it as a break— and “You deserve the default choice” didn’t have the same ring. Bonus: try to spot Anson Williams (Potsie from Happy Days) and Robert Ridgely (the Colonel from Boogie Nights) in the ensemble when you watch it here.
Chicago artist and filmmaker Tom Palazzolo made a number of films capturing working class Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s, most famously about the racial troubles in Marquette Park, but our favorite (understandably) has always been this portrait of deli owner Jerry Meyers, for whom “character” barely begins to describe how he berates and cajoles his customers at his Grand Avenue deli. Watch it here.
At least one Greek restaurant in New York claimed to be the model for this sketch (better known by its constant refrain of “Chee’borger! Chee’borger!”), but considering it was written by ex-Chicago adman Don (Father Guido Sarducci) Novello, Chicagoans have always known that it was a dead-on depiction of Lower Wacker’s legendary Billy Goat Tavern, and a prime example of how the Chicagoans on SNL brought a unique working class ethnic Chicago sensibility to national TV for the first time. Watch it here.
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd would go on to bring us the greatest cinematic tribute to the low-rent charm of Daley-era Chicago in The Blues Brothers. Hollywood built an exact duplicate of Maxwell Street’s Nate’s Deli on a soundstage for Aretha Franklin’s electrifying performance of “Think”… well, exact except for the fact that it’s changed from a Jewish deli to a soul food restaurant. Watch it here (unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good copy online). 
For musical numbers with soul, though, for many years all you had to do was watch late night TV and wait for one of the indelibly cheap, super-funky commercials from south side grocery chain Moo & Oink. There’s a treasury of their work at YouTube, but here’s the base model.
By now it’s been filmed a hundred times and is a standard stop for any food TV show visiting Chicago— not to mention a star of its own show on TruTV. But no one’s surpassed the original take from Ira Glass’s This American Life when it comes to depicting and analyzing the racial, often racist carnival that takes place late nights at The Wiener’s Circle in Lincoln Park, one of the places where races mingle in a segregated city— and often leave you wishing they hadn’t. He did it first for the radio program, then again for the short-lived Showtime TV series; see that here.
A little more hopeful view of race relations through food is in our own James Beard Award-nominated video about Chicago’s unique style of barbecue— and the role it played in the African-American community, from cheap food in the Depression to a source for economic empowerment in the civil rights era, featuring interviews with old time barbecue men like James Lemons of Lem’s (left). Watch it here.
Cryptically arty videos are becoming one of the things restaurants do when they open or introduce new menus, and not surprisingly, Grant Achatz and the team behind Alinea and Next were both pioneers and masters of the form. Their videos have ranged all over in tone (and mysteriousness), but one of the best is one of the most straightforward— three minutes that show a day in the life of Alinea, Koyaanisqatsi style. See it here.
Tribune food writer Kevin Pang set out to expand his brand into video with a subject of wide appeal— cheeseburgers. By the end, though, he frankly admitted that he was sick of his somewhat narrow subject, which is why we enjoyed the final episode best of all, combining a visit to a classic Chicago burger haunt on the South Side (Illinois Bar & Grill) with Chicago-style goofy humor that suggests that if the writing thing doesn’t work out, he could always take over for Svengoolie. (We should point out that as far as writing working out goes, he did win a James Beard Award for the series.) See it here.
We have no idea who this YouTube user named “Rockapollogear” is— and that’s the point. He’s just some guy with a pocket camera documenting his life, but when his wife makes him take her shopping for Polish foodstuffs for Christmas, he comes back with a great, funny picture of ethnic Chicago. Go ahead and skip straight to part II and part III, which is especially poignant for its scenes of the charming Pasieka Bakery, which has since burned down.
Compared to the frenzy of the Alinea video above, we love the zen calm of this kitchen video, from a series of music videos for a performer named Owen, all shot in interesting spaces of one kind of another. While the usual dance of chefs and servers takes place, Owen just sits in a corner, playing his guitar in a single take. See it here.
Watch Our Collection of 13 Great Chicago Food Movies