I was going out to dinner with a friend the other day, trying to figure out where to eat. And I started to pine for a place I dearly love in the Chicago suburbs nearby where I grew up, called Charlie Beinlich's. It's not that there isn't a Charlie Beinlich's in Los Angeles, it's that there isn't a place I know of that's even close to it. And so I must do without -- but always go there when I return to Chicago. I've wrote about the place earlier in the year when I was last there, but realized that it deserves more than just a description of lunch -- though for Beinlich's that a fine starting point.
Beinlich's (or to put it properly and in full, Beinlich's Food and Tap) is even a bit odd for Chicago, though it's very Midwestern, and so there are places that are at least somewhat similar. But Beinlich's is idiosyncratic. It began life as a truck stop probably at least 60 years ago, probably longer. (That alone, a 60+ year old restaurant is uncommon.) Indeed, it's the kind of place that reinforces the cliche that if you want to find the best food in a town, follow where the trucks go to. (I don't know if the cliche is true, but it sure holds at Beinlich's.) They actually close for two weeks in the height of summer, during August, so that they can go fishing. Really -- there's a sign they put out front that pretty much says, "Gone fishing." For that matter, they're also closed on Sunday, the busiest day of the week for more restaurants. But like their August closing for fishing, they want their Sunday's off. Monday's too -- they want their two-day weekend. And they don't take credit cards. And Beinlich's being Beinlich's, they don't even list their phone number on their website. Hey, they've been there for over 60 years. People know them, there's not much of a reason to call. But if you do and want take-out, they're in the phone book, look them up. Or you probably wrote their number down decades ago, it hasn't changed.
The place isn't in Chicago proper, but the northern suburbs, in Northbook on Skokie Highway, not from the the oft-mentioned here Chicago Botanic Gardens and Ravinia Music Festival. Next door to the town where I grew up, in Glencoe.
Beinlich's is basically a pine log cabin, with mounted fish covering the wall, lots of electric beer displays, and a wall-to-wall oak bar, along with maybe 20 tables at most. There is a sign when you enter that says, "Food is served for the convenience of our alcohol-drinking patrons" -- in other words, if you're going to eat here, please get a beer. There are no menus, just a small sign in the corner, but that's all they need because there are only about 10 items they make.
Mainly, they make burgers and cheeseburgers -- thick, juicy, rich, fresh and meaty -- which you can get regular with chips, or deluxe with French fries and coleslaw. (And the fries are piping hot, and taste like little baked potatoes.) If you're a non-conformist, though, there's barbecued beef, a ham-and-cheese sandwich, grilled cheese, and they eventually added a chicken wrap, as lighter fare, and egg salad. Honestly, small as the menu is, I can't be accurate with everything since I've only gotten a burger deluxe there for the past probably 40 years. They're that good. (I think once, decades ago, I may have gotten a barbecued beef, but I can't swear to it.
The two sides -- and hey, this is Beinlich's, they only need two sides, they're that good -- are shrimp cocktail (which my dad loved), and stunning chili. Okay, my dad loved that, too. As for me, it may well be the best chili I've had. I don't put any onions or cheddar cheese on, but just take it straight. Though I do like their oyster crackers, and dump a bit of red pepper flakes on.
(Decades ago, after my dad had quadruple bypass surgery, he cut down on meat. So my mother -- a quiet, demure, small Midwestern lady, who used the telephone like Heiffetz played the violin -- called to ask if they could make a vegetarian chili. They said to call in the morning before we came in, say how many bowls we'd want, and if they hadn't made the chili that day -- something they did 2-3 times a week -- they'd put those bowls aside before adding the meat. Much as I love the Beinlich's chili -- and I said it may be my favorite -- I loved their meatless chili even more. It was lighter, and the flavors came through more, without having the meat predominate. Anyway, a couple of years ago, after my mother passed away, my dad and I were going to head to Beinlich's, so I decide to take on the responsibility and called ahead to ask about getting the meatless chili. Sorry, he said -- but disappointed as I was, I loved and preferred his reason. "We only did that for your mom.")
Beinlich's even still has some staff who I remember from when I first went there when I was eight years old, though at this point it may be down to Andy, who began as a waiter, and is either the general manager at this point, or a part-owner now. But there are about 3-4 "new" guys which at Beinlich's means they've been there for probably 20 years. There are also now a couple of actually-recent servers. And the waiters, bartenders, and bus boys have always, for over half a century, always and only been men. But the last time I was in they had, for a very first time -- a young woman busing tables.
Lunch usually isn't a big problem, though the place is always full. But if you show up for dinner too late -- like much past 6:30, the tiny waiting area and tiny enclosed porch is going to be jammed. That's more of a problem than you think -- remember, this is Chicago. If you get there too late at night in the winter, you're going to be standing outside in sub-freezing weather. But people will do just that. But ultimately, it's not a huge problem, because Beinlich's is fast. They zip you your food, and when you're done -- whoosh, it's gone. But somehow magically, you never feel rushed. It helps that everyone who works there, even when they're in a bit of a hurry, has always been Midwest friendly, and will give you time and chat if you need to. And if you want to linger a bit, that's okay. But because there's so much movement around, and a long line, people tend to be polite to others and empty their table.
No, there isn't anything like Charlie Beinlich's in Los Angeles. Or most anywhere.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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