I was so sad to see the news that Don Roth’s Blackhawk in Wheeling will close forever after serving dinner on New Year’s Eve. On Monday, owner Ann Roth, Don’s widow, announced the closing: “With my 90th birthday on the horizon and none of my children in a position to assume responsibility for the family business, it will be better to close Don’s last restaurant while it still is a going concern.”
According to a statement from the general manager, Bob Vorachek, who’s been with the company since 1986, the 135-seat restaurant’s closing isn’t related to the economic downturn that’s shuttered so many eateries. However, its 150-year-old farmhouse building on the Milwaukee Avenue Restaurant Row would have needed renovations if Don Roth’s were to remain open, a project its octogenarian owner didn’t want to take on. The property will be sold, but the Blackhawk name won’t go with it.
The news makes a doleful ending to the steak and seafood house’s 40th anniversary year. Forty years is a long time, as restaurants go. But this one’s history goes back even further, to the original Blackhawk on Wabash Avenue opened by Otto Roth, Don’s father, in 1920, and run by the family until 1984.
In its heyday, the original Blackhawk was known as much for its Big Band music as its food. Performers like Hal Kemp, Kay Kyser, Ish Kabibble, Jack Teagarden, Les Brown, Chico Marx, Ozzie Nelson, Perry Como and Mel Torme were regulars, and “Live! From the Blackhawk!” was broadcast nightly across the United States. In 1938, Bob Haggart of Bob Crosby and the Bobcats composed “Big Noise from Winnetka” on the spot.
Don Roth inherited the business on his father’s death in 1944. By 1952, the Big Band era was on the wane, so Roth declared, “the food’s the show,” introducing rolling roast-beef carts and the enduring signature spinning-bowl salad. Servers spin a big bowl of fresh lettuces at each table, pouring on the Blackhawk Dressing with its “21 Secret Ingredients,” gently tossing just six times so as not to bruise the tender greens, and topping each serving with anchovies or shrimp (or — my usual order — both). The bottled salad dressing is sold at many area supermarkets.
Roth went on to open several other restaurants, of which the Wheeling Blackhawk, repository of memorabilia from the earlier establishments, was the last. Ann Roth has continued the Wheeling restaurant since Don died at age 90 in 2003.
The salad will spin for a few more weeks at the Blackhawk, and through the end of November you can get it on Sundays through Thursdays with a 10-ounce prime-rib dinner for just $19.69. During December, the restaurant will open for lunch on weekdays as well as nightly dinner. Make your reservations now.
I can think of only a few places left that have such classic atmosphere and service … The Charcoal Oven in Skokie, Lawry’s The Prime Rib in River North (which also has a spinning-bowl salad), Sabatino’s in Irving Park … savor them while you may.