The Good Life

The Pump Room, Chicago

By William Rice | From Winston Churchill, Autumn 93
The Pump Room, Chicago

Walking from the lobby of Chicago's Ambassador East Hotel alongthe passageway that leads to the Pump Room, you pass the Wall of Fame--long rows of photographs of celebrities who dined here over almost six decades. It's fun to spot the young Judy Garland, Kirk Douglas, Janet Leigh with then-husband Tony Curtis and so many others. But one photo in particular will delight any cigar lover.

It's a close-up shot of the famed mime Marcel Marceau holding a beautiful, freshly lit Havana cigar and smiling broadly.

Chances are you, too, will be smiling broadly (and, if you wish, smoking a cigar) at the end of your meal in one of America's truly memorable dining rooms.

From the reception and bar area, two steps take you into a sunken dining area. Here booths with banquette seating frame the exterior while massive oak pillars march down the center. A quartet of chandeliers and streamers of bronze-and-gold fabric (which provide a tentlike effect) hang from the high ceiling, and small spotlights illuminate lavish displays of exotic flowers. The waiters wear red hunting coats. It's an ambience that suits both the glitterati of show business and the residents of Chicago's elegant Gold Coast, for whom the Pump Room is the neighborhood eatery.

The room's theatricality is no accident. Ernie Byfield, the fast-talking hotelier who created the restaurant in 1939, based the concept on the original Pump Room in Bath, England, where 250 years ago aristocrats, commoners and actors mingled socially for the first time.

In this latter-day Pump Room, the jazz piano playing discreetly near the small dance floor helps conjure memories of the Hollywood supper clubs that were settings for so many 1930s and '40s movies. Cast Adolphe Menjou as the maître d'. Seat William Powell and Myrna Loy in Booth One .... This reverie is likely to fade, however, as hunger pulls you back to the present.

Some people come here to drink and talk or dance--and never eat. This is a mistake. The food here is good, much better than it ever was at those supper clubs of yore. As with Stars in San Francisco, large portions of nostalgia are served up, but the restaurant isn't buried in the past. Executive chef Andrew Selvaggio prepares herb-seared salmon, penne and seafood in a lemon grass broth or a four-grain rice and noodle pilaf, to compete with his cutting-edge chef colleagues at Tuttaposto, Gordon and other local restaurants that feature contemporary cuisine. But he doesn't have to dust off an old recipe file to prepare prime rib of beef with horseradish cream or crispy roast duck with cherry chutney. He cooks both every night, and cooks them so well they always sell out.

The careful renditions of shrimp cocktail, the signature spinach, based Pump Room salad, and baked Alaska--the Rodney Dangerfield of ice-cream desserts--make it clear why these dishes are enshrined in the culinary hall of fame. There are others of the same ilk you should not hesitate to order: Caesar salad, rosemary-and-sage roast chicken, creamed spinach, corned beef hash (for breakfast or lunch), and the chicken club sandwich.

During a recent visit, a dinner of notably flavorful duck ravioli with spinach and pistachios followed by a magnificent prime shell steak, which had been lightly smoked before being broiled, made it clear why the celebrities in the photos are smiling. (Side orders of buttermilk-fried onions plus garlic or horseradish-whipped red potatoes were equally classy.)

There's a wide choice of wine available, with France and California dominating the list. The restaurant has received the Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence for its selection. On a recent visit, nine wines were poured by the glass including Roederer Estate sparkling wine, 1992 Murphy-Goode Fumé Blanc, 1991 Rosemont Estate Shiraz and 1990 Chapoutier Côte de Rhône. As with the food, the wine prices are moderate.

A good number of those who come to the Pump Room in the early evening or for Sunday brunch are families or couples celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. But such is the magic of the place that these celebrations do not infringe on the privacy of other diners.

As a coda to the meal, cigar smokers are welcome to indulge at tables in the bar area, where a list of more than 70 spirits and digestifs is available. There's a cigar humidor, too. Most recently it contained Royal Jamaica, Dunhill and Partagas cigars of varying sizes.

-- William Rice

William Rice is the food and wine columnist of the Chicago Tribune.

Pump Room
13301 North State Parkway (in the Ambassador East Hotel)
Phone: (312) 266-0360
Lunch: $25 to $35 without wine
Dinner: $30 to $45 without wine

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