Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, perhaps the single most influential company in Chicago restaurant history, celebrates its 40th anniversary on Friday, June 10, at the place that started it all, R.J. Grunts in Lincoln Park. Burgers will be $1.50 in tribute to the original 1971 price, and a DJ will spin ’70s tunes all day and into the wee hours (Grunts is now open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays).
As the story goes, “Spring, nineteen seventy. A bizarre funk hung over the Windy City. Two men, a flower child named Crazy Alice and an abnormal recipe for ‘killer chili’ were headed for a date with destiny. ‘Let It Be’ was #1 on the charts, Frank Zappa ruled the universe and humans were wearing strange clothes….”
Rich Melman was dishing up deli fare in his dad’s restaurant and chafing under a lack of control. Jerry Orzoff was speculating on Michigan Avenue real estate. The two came together and launched R.J. Grunts on June 10, 1971 — the first in a chain of restaurants that would change Chicago’s perception of eating out: Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
Grunts, intended to feed hippies with the munchies, introduced the salad bar to Chicago. It played rock music. It didn’t take reservations. It was casual and fun.
Other offbeat places followed: Fritz That’s It! … Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show … Jonathan Livingston Seafood … Lawrence of Oregano. . . . The restaurants had innovative promotions, such as signs that taunted passersby to steal them and bring them in for a discount, and a a passport that got you a free dinner if you visited enough of the eateries. Ultimately, they launched the city’s first restaurant frequent-dining club.
In 1976, the partners took on the establishment — taking over the famed Pump Room, which had opened on the Gold Coast in 1938 (no longer under Lettuce management, The Pump Room is currently under renovation).
Orzoff died in 1981, but Melman went on expanding. LEYE first popularized risotto in Chicago with opening of Scoozi! in River North and introduced Spanish tapas with Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! in Lincoln Park, both in 1986. The company has continued to grow and innovate a mix of casual, ethnic and fine dining spots. The latest is the newly opened Tokio Pub in Schaumburg, a pan-Asian small-plates concept patterned after a Japanese izakaya.
According to Melman, the company concentrated on creating a variety of different concepts all in one city instead of launching a national chain of replicated restaurants because he didn’t like to travel. Today, LEYE owns, licenses or manages more than 60 establishments in seven states, with the vast majority in the Chicago area.
Lettuce Entertain You restaurants also include:
- Antico Posto, Italian, Oak Brook
- Ben Pao, Chinese, River North
- Big Bowl, Chinese and Thai, multiple locations
- Di Pescara, Italian, Northbrook
- Everest, French, Loop
- foodlife, eclectic, Magnificent Mile
- Frankie’s Fifth Floor Pizzeria, pizza, Magnificent Mile
- Frankie’s Scaloppine, Italian, Magnificent Mile
- Hub 51, lounge, River North
- Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Snow Crab, steaks and seafood, River North
- L2O, contemporary seafood, Lincoln Park
- L. Woods Tap & Pine Lodge, American, Lincolnwood
- M Burger, burgers, River North and Streeterville
- Maggiano’s Little Italy, Italian, multiple locations
- Magic Pan Crepe Stand, French, Northbrook
- Mity Nice, American, Magnificent Mile
- Mon Ami Gabi, French, Lincoln Park and Oak Brook
- Nacional 27, Latin, River North
- Osteria Via Stato, Italian, River North
- Paris Club, gastropub, River North
- Petterino’s, American, Loop
- Pizzeria Via Stato, pizza, River North
- Reel Club, seafood, Oak Brook
- Shaw’s Crab House, seafood, River North and Schaumburg
- Tru, contemporary American, Streeterville
- Wildfire, American, multiple locations
- Wow Bao, Chinese, multiple locations