Food tells a story — from where the ingredients are from to where a chef learned how to prepare them. The name of the restaurant speaks to us before we even sit down for a meal. It intrigues, excites and, as it turns out, also has a story to tell. These are a few secrets behind some of Chicago's iconic restaurant and bar names.
Many know the story of how Lettuce Entertain You’s burger chain came to be. If you need a refresher, the first one occupies the former private dining room that housed the chef’s table of Tru. The 300-sq.-ft. space was transformed into a burger shop in 2010. The name comes from another Lettuce chef, Jean Joho of Everest, whose thick French accent turns the word hamburger into “mburger.” And hence the M Burger name was born (pictured at top).
“Our team had just returned from Italy and we were writing down beautiful Italian words as name inspiration for the restaurant, but the problem was that no one could pronounce any of them!” says Donnie Madia, One Off Hospitality’s managing partner. “I went home from our brainstorm session and began looking through a book about the Velvet Underground that Terry [Alexander] had given me for my birthday, and there she was in all her beauty: Nico. Not only does she have an Italian name, Nico represents everything we wanted our restaurant to become. She was staggeringly beautiful, wonderfully intelligent and socially magnetic.”
Supposed hermaphrodite Lottie Zagorski “ruled the tavern with an iron fist” since 1934, according to owner Mark Domitrovich. For over 30 years, the former grocery acted as a place of anonymity for mobsters, political figures and anyone else seeking a secluded escape. The basement bar hosted horse betting, strip teasing and all-night poker extravaganzas — hence Zagorski became a well-known individual among city figures, acting as an intermediary for both sides of the law.
“We have a lot of history in our names,” says chef-owner Jason Hammel. “In the ‘90s my wife, Amalea, was in a band called Tallulah, named after the actress Tallulah Bankhead, who brings new limits to the tag ‘free spirit,’ Lula is the last sweet syllable of that name. We loved the way it sounded in the air. The singsongy-ness of it. Like it almost tastes good to say it out loud. We loved how it inferred something, maybe a mystery woman, maybe a place, a nickname, an acronym. We loved that it could be anything it wanted to be.”
The Division Street tavern sat empty for nearly 45 years after the owner was shot and killed during an armed robbery. After his passing, the owner’s wife Mary Kafka shuttered the bar where it would remain untouched until 2015, when Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality earned her blessing to reopen the bar. Out of respect for Kafka, much of the original fixture and feelings of the former watering hole remained intact, including the mahogany bar. They also honored her by naming the project after 92-year-old who remains a fixture of the neighborhood.
This new West Loop steakhouse is named after legendary cattle tradesman Gustavus Franklin Swift, who was considered an industry pioneer of the 19th century. The name was also supposed to pay tribute to another legendary meatpacker, Philip Armour of Armour & Company. However, after Armour-Eckrich Meats, a company with nearly 150 years in the meat business in the Chicago area, got word, the restaurant changed its name from Armour & Swift to Swift & Sons out of respect for the long-standing business.