Take away the valet parking, and Ed Debevic's is as authentic a '50s diner as you might remember, right down to the bill. Yes, you can still stuff yourself for less than the price of a movie ticket. Yes, those are vintage jukeboxes, turning out the songs of "The King" and Buddy Holly. Yes, the hamburger is freshly ground, the buns are homemade, the shakes hand-dipped and served in tall steel cups. No, the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards (Remember? Diners Club was still a novelty).
The booths are aqua, the lights are cone-shaped, the waiters and waitresses suited in white rayon and good-naturedly wisecracking: In sum, Ed's resembles the set of "American Graffiti" and would've been Wally Cleaver's hangout if the setting were Mayfield, not Chicago.
"I've been told I do restaurants like producers do films," said Chicago restaurant mogul Rich Melman of his culinary fiefdom, amusingly and more officially known as Lettuce Entertain You enterprises. To date, his credits include such divergent Windy City eateries as the dramatically elegant Ambria, the classic Shaw's Crab House and the long-running R.J. Grunts, among others. And two more Melman productions are scheduled to open in the near future -- Cafe' Ba-ba-reeba, a "Miami Vice" tapas bar, and the Savoy Bar and Grill in Chicago's Continental Towers, "the Rolls-Royce of office buildings," said Melman.
But it's Ed Debevic's ("something between fast food and a typical dinner house," described manager Stephen Ottmann) that has businessmen cramming the booths at lunch and punkers and socialites vying for tables at dinner.
The idea for Ed's was three years in the making, spawned at a time when "American food was just coming into its own," recalled Melman. Together with friend and fellow restaurateur Lee Cohn, and later joined by the West Coast-based Collins Foods, Melman envisioned a concept that would match home cooking with nostalgia and fun. "To us it was macaroni and cheese, tunafish salads, Ovaltine and chocolate pudding with the skin on. Let's take that and elevate it."
Melman and Cohn are not only longtime friends, having been brought up in Chicago, but both were involved in the production of a made-for-TV film, "The Roommate," with Melman serving as a coproducer, Cohn as an investor. It was while working on the set of "The Roommate," set in 1952, that Melman developed ideas for his yet-to-be-built fantasy.
"Let me handle the decor," Melman told his associates. So together with the film's technical researcher and a group of friends, including Ottmann, Melman searched out vintage '50s furnishings, re-creating what couldn't be found and discovering a veritable treasure of relics along the way. Artists familiar with the particular sign-painting methods of the era were brought in to design personalized placards, and a team of antique dealers specializing in vintage radios and TVs was hired to track down the early-model television that now graces the bar. Other finds included two pinball machines and an entire shipment of jukeboxes, the latter discovered untouched in their cases after two decades in storage, abandoned by the company that overproduced them, said Ottmann. "We didn't want a lot of kitsch," said Melman; aside from a stray pink flamingo, Ed's is remarkably free of cliche's. Like the film, the restaurant is supposedly set in 1952.
To give the restaurant its unique character, the persona of the mythical Ed Debevic was created. Actually, Ed is "a composite of four people," acknowledged Melman, who steadfastly refuses to divulge the identities of those friends and associates responsible for bringing the fictional Ed more or less to life.
"Ed" is many things: spunky, humorous, witty and slightly irreverent. And everywhere you look in the restaurant, there are signs of the absent proprietor -- a trophy case filled with mementos from Ed's bowling days, a large American flag hung on a wall ("Ed's very patriotic," declared Ottmann), plastic plants ("Ed would never have real," laughed the manager) and witticisms espousing the man's laid-back philosophy.
Reads the menu: "If you don't like the way I do things -- buy me out." Above the mirror in the men's restroom: "No wonder you're going home alone." Near the lounges: "Places to Go in Chicago" (this, along with a collage of photos depicting the city's more famous public facilities). For the most part, said Melman, "the things that are on the menu and printed on the walls were actually said to me."
In searching for a '50s feel, said Ottmann, it was determined that signs would prevail in the dining rooms. And at Ed Debevic's they serve a dual function, adding authentic detail and serving as surrogate menus. "What's on the walls, we sell," said Ottmann, pointing to the Orange Crush logo, the Dad's Root Beer placard, the doughnuts, cows (advertising ice cold milk) and chili suspended from above. "Buys of the week" -- discounted foods items -- are routinely advertised on hanging placards.
In devising the actual menu, Melman relied not on restaurant consultants, but on childhood memories, or those of his associates. "I'd lived the '50s," said the restaurateur, who saw to it that "wets" -- French fries with gravy -- and "Hortense's meatloaf" found a place on the menu. Recipes were developed through trial and error. Old cookbooks were gleaned for ideas (Ottmann noted that a number of the dessert selections, such as peanut butter pie, were culled from Amish publications: "I think that's their only vice") and nouvelle-trained chefs from a number of Melman's restaurants, including the Pump Room, Une Grand Cafe and Ambria, were brought in to assist with the execution.
"I took any chef we had that had a sense of cooking for their family," laughed Melman. Thus the recipes for gravy, meatloaf, French fries and Ed's extraordinarily light and fluffy grilled cheese sandwich were perfected, and at least one recipe (a scoop of ice cream served with a dusting of malt powder and known as "Dusty Ed") removed. "We're constantly adding to the menu, said Melman. "The heart and soul of that food" is in its quality, quick delivery and inexpensiveness. Daily specials, Ottmann pointed out, are mimeographed, not photocopied, "just like you used to get in school."
Ed's has its own specially brewed Augsburger beer, and while the bar is full service, the mixed drinks listed on the menu feature such relics as 7 & 7s, Tom Collins and Side Car Cocktails. And the menu offers Black Cows, ice cream sodas, and Green River soft drinks, in addition to a modern concession of Diet Coke.
If the food and facade are a '50s throwback, so too is the staff. "We auditioned, rather than hired" waiters and waitresses, said Melman. Indeed, a number of them are aspiring actors, actresses or musicians. "We even have comedians from Second City," boasted Ottmann, who says a new recruit's schedule consists of "one week of training, 40 hours of coaching." Not only do they have to act and dress '50s, he added, but they have to serve food efficiently. "Can they pull that off?" he might ask of potential employes. "If the food's bad and the service is slow, then no one's going to laugh."
Nothing appears to have been overlooked in the restaurant. Even the restrooms are outfitted with vending machines, the likes of which most of us haven't seen since our last drive along the New Jersey Turnpike.
The original Ed Debevic's was launched by Cohn in Phoenix, "with paper plates and a limited menu," but it wasn't until Melman brought the concept to the Midwest and upgraded it that the restaurant caught on. "Chicago's Ed's was a bit more sophisticated, with blue-plate specials and a bit more service," recalled Ottmann.
Ed's has enjoyed substantial local support, not only from the estimated 15,000 patrons who dine there each week, but from the media as well. Diners seated at the counter are offered complimentary copies of the Chicago Tribune, and every Saturday night local radio station WLS broadcasts live from its very own booth in a corner of the restaurant -- and not without a lot of plugs for its host.
Moreover, and just this week, Ed Debevic's hosted the debut of nine "Refrigerettes," in a promotional spoof on the National Football League's cheerleaders and, more specifically, Chicago Bears star William (The Refrigerator) Perry. Melman figured these cheerleaders -- all of whom weigh at least 200 pounds -- "would be the type of woman Ed would get."
Plans are currently under way to open at least three more Ed Debevic's, one in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, and two in the Los Angeles area. Melman said he'll have to adapt the menu and decor to the various sites, but hopes to retain the warmth and exuberance that has popularized his Chicago establishment. "I'd like to keep it real. Does that mean we can open 10, or only five?" Added Ottmann, "We want this to be here 20 to 30 years from now."
Regardless, both men agree that whenever there's a question of taste or principle or change, the bottom line remains: Would Ed do it?