Which Restaurants Rake It In?

These are not the best of times for Chicago restaurateurs. Most are struggling to attract customers by adjusting their menus and lowering prices. Even so, some spots are doing millions of dollars worth of business In fact, eight Chicago-area establishments wound up on Restaurants & Institutions magazine’s 1990 list of the nation’s 100 highest-grossing restaurants. The top grossing Chicago-area restaurant was a fish house: Bob Chinn’s Crab House in Wheeling, which was number 18 on the list with $10.8 million in sales. The crab house boasts that it flies in more than 18,000 pounds of fresh seafood weekly. Tops within Chicago city limits was that sportsman’s paradise known as Ditka’s, number 27 on the list with $9.22 million in sales. Ditka’s just eclipsed the Berghoff, which checked in at number 28 with $9.2 million. Harry Caray’s, another sports-theme restaurant, was considerably farther down the list at number, 51, with $7.1 million. From there it’s back to the suburbs, to a glorified pancake house called the Omega in Niles, which came in at number 70 with $6.5 million. Chicagoans do like their ribs, which is why Carson’s on LaSalle Street can be found at number 87 with $5.9 million in sales. Then came Knickers, a Des Plaines diner that did a hefty $5.7 million last year. And another beloved Chicago spot, Leona’s flagship Sheffield Avenue restaurant, sneaked onto the list at number 98 with $5.6 million.

The Chicago-area winners seem to share at least a few things in common: most seat reasonably large numbers of people and feature straightforward food at reasonable prices. No Lettuce Entertain You or Levy Organization restaurants appear on the list, because it is their policy not to report grosses. None of the really fine dining spots show up either; according to Restaurants & Institutions associate editor Monica Kass, there’s been a general decline in business at expensive restaurants. Jimmy Rittenberg, owner and operator of Ditka’s, says the key to operating a top-grossing restaurant is to go for a broad cross section of the populace and give them what they want. He mentions reasonable prices and constant promotion as necessities. “Location is important too,” adds Rittenberg, who is in the process of opening a nightclub-restaurant called Les Violins at the site of the former Chevy’s in River North.

Tijuana Yacht Club Goes Under

Speaking of restaurant lists, you can add the Tijuana Yacht Club and Surf Bar to the list of restaurants whose time has gone. Tijuana was operated by Heartthrob Enterprises, a restaurant-nightclub concern that has made its mark by coming up with highly marketable concepts. But Tijuana, a kitschy south-of-the-border experience, appears to have been done in by the success of another Heartthrob operation, the Baja Beach Club at North Pier. “People really wanted to be at Baja,” concedes Heartthrob honcho Larry Spatz. Spatz had tried to keep both places hopping by running a shuttle bus between them, but that didnt do the trick. Anyway, he says, businesses in the building at 516 N. Clark, where the Tijuana Yacht Club was anchored, wanted a restaurant better suited to a business address. When Spatz opened the place, he was criticized for putting up an unsightly rusty corrugated-metal entrance canopy with a huge marlin on top.

Ravinia Goes Droll

They’re trying the light touch in the marketing department at the Ravinia Festival, which opens its 55th season in Highland Park on June 22. The outdoor arts festival is using advertising inspired by the comic drawings in the New Yorker. Yes, the New Yorker. “We are rather taken with the New Yorker style,” says Ravinia spokeswoman Charlis McMillan. “It gives a light touch to a serious endeavor.” The current Ravinia advertising shows a couple of New Yorker-type cartoon characters engaging in the time-honored tradition of picnicking on the Ravinia lawn, while two squirrels mimic their activities in a tree above. Ravinia used a similar style in several 1984 ads that ran in the New Yorker. Meanwhile Zarin Mehta, the festival’s new executive director, is settling into his job. But don’t look for any big changes right away: “I’m going to sit back and learn a lot,” says Mehta.

Dateline London: Logan’s Brief Run

The London debut of Chicago playwright John Logan ended prematurely last week with the closing of his early play Never the Sinner on the West End. The production, starring British actor Joss Ackland and Chicagoan Denis O’Hare, opened in late March to some favorable notices, but seems to have got caught in a serious West End business slump. (A front page Variety story labeled the situation “deadly.”) London-based producer Brian Kirk said another problem was the hard-to-find theater where Never the Sinner was housed.

Malkovich’s Big Mistake

Elsewhere in London, John Malkovich made his British theatrical debut last Tuesday in Lanford Wilson’s highly charged drama Burn This. Sources indicated that Malkovich has been wanting to play London for some time. Interviewed for London’s weekly entertainment magazine Time Out, in the wake of his divorce from fellow Steppenwolf Glenne Headly, Malkovich cast a nostalgic look back to Chicago. “I no longer have any roots,” said the actor. “You know leaving Steppenwolf was probably a huge mistake, but I did, and so that’s really that. I mean, I can go back and work there when I want, but it’s not really the same.”

Kisses Allowed on CTA

It’s a go for Gran Fury’s graphic bus poster depicting homosexual kissing: the poster, part of the Art Against AIDS public art campaign, will start going on CTA buses this weekend. Late last week, after some CTA executives developed last-minute worries about Fury’s piece, the board voted in favor of displaying the posters with no disclaimer. “We had many conversations back and forth with various CTA board members,” says Annie Philbin of Art Against AIDS. “We’re delighted that the images are going up. But some people over at the CTA aren’t happy about that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.