Chicago’s Pump Room Restaurant Jumping Once Again

By Ross Everett

The venerable Pump Room Restaurant in Chicago is once again a beacon of civilized living. Famously memorialized in the Frank Sinatra song ‘Chicago’, the ‘jumping Pump Room’ was one of the first true fine dining establishments to open in the Windy City at the end of Prohibition. Almost immediately, it became a favorite of celebrities including the biggest stars in entertainment history–Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr, Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe is just a very small list of the icons that made it a regular hangout. In the later part of the 20th century, however, it sort of fell off the map as a new wave of gourmet restaurants in the Windy City led by Charlie Trotter reduced it to a historical footnote.

The Pump Room opened in’38 under the ownership and management of Ernie Blyfield. He took the name from an 18th century London pub favored by celebrities and nobility, including Queen Anne. The original pub got its name from the hot drinks pumped into the cocktails of its stylish clientele.

The Chicago Pump Room was an immediate hit, and for a time its Booth #1 may have been the most sought after table at any dining establishment in the country. In addition to Sinatra, who frequently held court with Jilly Rizzo and a number of other associates in Booth 1, it was occupied at various times by Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence, Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Liza Minnelli may have been the youngest Booth 1 regular, taken there many times during her childhood by her mother Judy Garland.

After Blyfield’s death in’50, the Pump Room lived on as a Chicago hot spot and welcomed a new era of big names including Mel Brooks, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Eddie Murphy. One of the most famous stories surrounding the club involves former Genesis drummer Phil Collins, who was refused entry for not wearing a jacket. This inspired the title of his next album ‘No Jacket Required’ which has sold over– million copies worldwide and established Collins as a solo superstar. Following its release, the Pump Room sent Collins an apology–and an appropriate jacket for him to wear on his next visit.

The Pump Room experienced a revitalization in the late’90’s when it was purchased by a large restaurant management group. They spent a lot of money to renovate the facility, overhaul the menu and hire a top flight staff. While the Pump Room’s golden era trade mark flaming food served on a sword was a tragedy of city fire codes, the menu is now on par with any in the city serving a sophisticated interpretation of classic American cuisine. In addition to the revamped cuisine, the Pump Room upgraded its wine offering and expanded the bar area.

Current Executive Chef Nick Sutton has continued the restaurant’s tradition of excellence. The big draw of the Pump Room, however, remains the amazing sense of history that the dining room offers. The realization that a who’s who of civilized American culture from Bogart and Clark Gable to Sinatra and Jackie Gleason broke bread in the room is a pretty amazing vibe. The good news is that the Pump Room again offers the quality of food and service worthy of such icons, and is a victory for culinary excellence amid the national infestation of mediocre chain restaurants.

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