Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal …
Anchors Aweigh at Sinatra’s favorite Chicago joint
The WISCH LIST
Jan. 16, 2010
One of the things I love most about living in Chicago is that so much history lives right there with you.
For example, just around the corner from my apartment is a hardware store that once was a billiards hall where John Dillinger was known to have shot pool.
When he wasn’t shooting a Tommy gun.
Down the street closer to Wrigley Field, sits an old hotel where showgirl Violet Valli put a bullet in Chicago Cub shortstop Billy Jurges in 1932 during an incident that’s believed to have formed the basis for parts of Bernard Malamud’s famous novel, “The Natural.”
And a few miles farther to the south, I once worked in a Loop skyscraper where during Prohibition Al Capone reportedly ran a speakeasy out of a restaurant on the building’s domed top floor.
Yes, as a history buff, Chicago is definitely my kind of town.
And as he once told us in song, it was Frank Sinatra’s too. Although, Ol’ Blue Eyes might have had different reasons beyond the city’s history.
Like its ribs. Specifically, the kind you find at Twin Anchors.
Sinatra may have never crooned about the rib joint in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, but ever since I moved to the city 4½ years ago plenty of others have sung the praises of the cozy restaurant where the Chairman of the Board was a regular patron from the early 1950s well into the 1970s.
And as an aforementioned sucker for Windy City history, not to mention a great rack of ribs – “The best in the city,” more than one friend told me about Twin Anchors – I decided this week to finally visit Sinatra’s favorite Chicago haunt.
And scare up an appetite.
Established in 1932, Twin Anchors (1655 N. Sedgwick St.) is tucked beneath a green-and-white striped awning on a quiet corner just a few blocks off bustling North Avenue. As one of the oldest restaurants in Chicago, the building is filled with character (during Prohibition it, too, was a speakeasy known as “Tante Lee Soft Drinks” that provided refreshments with a bit more of a bite than a Nehi) and with characters (Jason Alexander, Chris Farley and Joan Cusack are among the celebrities whose autographed menus hang on the walls).
Chicago author Bill Zehme once wrote about Twin Anchors, “I love no place quite like I love this place. It is everything Chicago is supposed to be: Familiar, old, neighborhoody, friendly, and kind of an open secret, but one that requires some protecting.”
Some time during the early 1950s, Sinatra made his first visit to Twin Anchors, and after tasting the establishment’s baby-back pork ribs bathed in its zesty barbeque sauce, he kept coming back.
Whenever Sinatra did, legend has it that once his party was seated in the back of the restaurant near the pair of wooden anchors mounted on the wall, Sinatra would post one of his bodyguards at the pay phone to keep patrons from calling friends and causing a mob scene.
On Monday night, I entered Twin Anchors as a mob of one when I popped open the front door, shook off the January cold and snagged a seat at the bar beside a framed photo of Sinatra himself, clad in a fedora, a pinky ring and a big smile.
These days, first-person accounts of Sinatra – who passed away in 1998 at the age of 82 – are hard to come by at Twin Anchors, as the last waitress to serve the legend retired a decade ago. But, from his tunes softly wafting above the bar to the restaurant’s dimly lit, Sinatra-smooth vibe, Ol’ Blue Eyes’ presence can definitely be felt.
And his favorite rack of ribs, of course, can still be ordered.
So, naturally, I did it (my way: with the zesty sauce and a baked potato). What I received in return was a platter with enough ribs to make “Sue” the T-Rex at Field Museum envious.
And after just one bite into meat so tender that it didn’t fall off the bone, the bone fell off it, I instantly understood why Sinatra returned to Twin Anchors for so many encores.
It may indeed have the best babyback ribs in the city. I can’t say for sure. But I can tell you the restaurant’s backstory is as good as it gets.
That’s just me being frank.