auf wiedersehen

Posted on March 01 2006

Yesterday, the owners of the 107-year-old Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago turned off the lights and closed the doors for the very last time. Herman Berghoff, 70-year-old grandson of the founder, wants to retire and lease the building to his daughter for her catering business.

I was curious about the opera, so I got season tickets last year. I would take the train in early, so I could eat at the Berghoff before the performance. Since I went alone, I was always able to squeeze past the line and get a table for one in some eclectic little corner. While waiting for my dinner, I would attempt to sketch my surroundings. Even drawing the steins, the signs, and the stained glass, I never could capture the glowing warmth and rich laughter that seasoned the honey-panelled walls.

My great-grandparents were German, and so my grandmother. While my grandfather was Dutch, the earliest memories of my Chicago childhood are colored by German accents, games of pinochle, and the smell of cheeze blintzes frying in the iron skillet. So I tend to think of myself as German.

I remember one visit to the Berghoff, and while it wasn’t my first time there, it was the most important. After a disasterous first semester at a small college, I decided I wanted to go to art school. I put my best work in my portfolio, and my father and I drove to the American Academy of Art. My work was to be reviewed by Irving Shapiro, who was not only an excellent watercolorist, but also the president of the school. If you got the nod from him, you were in. At the time, it really seemed to be a desperate situation. I really didn’t know what I’d do if I didn’t get accepted.

My father and I celebrated at the Berghoff. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, with the winter sunset blinding through the windows. I remember all the wood and the old Chicago ambience of the place seemed to be very grown-up, like a place in old black-and-white movies where adults went to discuss very important things. My father told me once that he wished my grandfather was still alive, because he related to kids better once they got older, and not so well when they were little. I think that was true of my dad, also, at the time. It was a little awkward, just the two of us. But I feel that for the first time it was less like a father sitting with his child, and more like a father sitting with his son.

So the Berghoff Restaurant is closed. The barkers will auction everything off Saturday, and soon nothing but memories will remain. I’ll still have my memories, but they are doubly sad since I said goodbye to my father, who passed away from an unexpected heart attack only one month ago.
berghoff memorial