As I once noted on WBEZ Radio while being interviewed about the state of urban decay in Chicago, my wife calls me an “alley cat.” When I’m restless in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, I’ll walk through the alleys of downtown Chicago. It’s all perfectly safe for me because I’m huge and scary looking. But more importantly, it’s where you can find some wonderful architectural gems.
One group of those gems is in the form of Saint Hubert’s heads.
They’re not technically in an alley, but South Federal Street in The Loop exists in a twilight between backstreet and back alley. It’s certainly not a main thoroughfare, unless you drive a limo for a member of the Union League Club, or are looking for a place to stash a TV news truck.
Saint Hubert’s heads are above the doors at 314 South Federal Street. The building is in a style reminiscent of an olde English chapel with vaulted, leaded glass windows and stone tracery. It was built for a posh business restaurant called Saint Hubert’s Grill.
The history of Saint Hubert’s Grill is muddy. Very muddy. So far, we’ve found three different stories about it, so feel free to believe whichever one you want. All are corroborated by newspaper articles of their era.
All three stories agree on two things — First, that Saint Hubert’s was the place to see and be seen in Chicago, filled with high-powered businessmen by day and socialites by night. And second — It was renowned for its mutton chops. By some accounts, the “regular” size chop was five inches thick, and weighed 48 ounces.
The first story of Saint Hubert’s Grill history (sometimes called Saint Hubert’s English Chophouse), is that it was located on the top floor of the Great Northern Hotel on West Quincy Street. We have this from newspaper articles going back to 1909. It was destroyed by a fire in the small hours of January 28, 1911. The blaze started in the kitchen and forced hundreds of guests of the Great Northern and neighboring Majestic Hotel out onto the streets in the pajamas. Two firemen were killed when the roof collapsed. The restaurant then reopened in its present location on Federal Street.
The second Saint Hubert’s history we found indicates that it was founded by Thomas Mckenzie — a sea captain who didn’t get along with the people at the Union League Club. He apparently quit the club, and in the late 1880’s opened “St. Hubert’s Old English Grill” right next door to spite them. Unlike the Union League Club, his place was open to anyone. For the price of a very expensive meal, restaurant patrons could experience the plush and welcoming atmosphere the people next door had to pay through the nose for.
According to a 1943 Chicago Tribune article, “St. Hubert’s specializes in ‘genuine English food served in a genuine English atmosphere.’ The waiters wear red coats… English prints, piped, mugs and china fill St. Hubert’s… one document [is] framed in a choice spot. It is an original poster rallying volunteers to Gen. Washington.”
The third history we found of Saint Hubert’s has it founded by an Englishman with the last name of Abson, in the year 1877. It started as a quaint little family restaurant and patrons could watch the owners peeling vegetables and making the meal right in front of them.
One day one of the restaurant’s regular customers overheard some mobsters talking about how they planned to take over the place and turn it into a private club for themselves, complete with a gambling parlor in the dining room. He was so outraged that he ran right over to the restaurant and bought the place from the owners before they could sell it to the mob.
This version of the story also includes one interesting detail — The restaurant is named after Saint Hubert because he is the patron saint of hunters. Accordingly, all of the entrees are meat dishes. No fish.
Famous people who ate at Saint Hubert’s include King Edward VIII when he was still the Prince of Wales; famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, who had his wedding breakfast here; and Sir Thomas Lipton, the Scotch baron who gave us Lipton tea.
In addition to famous people, the restaurant was the home to a famous group. The Adventurer’s Club got its start here, founded by an Associated Press correspondent assigned to President Roosevelt as he toured the world.
in 1953, this is the place where the
Los Angeles Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated winning the National League pennant over the Chicago Cubs.
We couldn’t nail down an exact date the new building was built. City records put it at 1917, but we found a book that lists its actual construction date as 1887. That’s the same date mentioned in one of the histories above, and works with a second.
Whatever became of the restaurant, we can’t say. The restaurant’s end is as confused as its beginning. Digging through newspaper archives, it appears its demise was not chronicled by the local press. A Trib article in 1958 noted, “the posh St. Hubert’s Grill, which closed not long ago.” There are other Tribune articles that list it in business at least until 1996, but that appears to be someone else using the name at a hotel on Lake Shore Drive.
The restaurant also appears to have died in the 1920’s. From “In the Wake of the News” — a Tribune article published December 1, 1928 — a reader shared his memories of St. Hubert’s Grill circa 1903:
“On what is now Federal street [sic], back of the present Union League Club, once was St. Hubert’s grill. You were met at the door by a real English butler and escorted to big chairs before an open fire. There you enjoyed your B-4 cocktail while you waited for a 4 inch thick mutton chop trimmed with bacon and kidneys, broiled, say 20 minutes, and rare, with a big, fat baked potato. And ‘atmosphere’ — ask any prominent Chicagoan who was here 25 years ago.”
But in 1903, according to half a dozen newspaper articles (contradicted by half a dozen others), the restaurant wasn’t next to the Union League Club, it was high atop a hotel blocks away.
These days the building’s facade is in terrible shape. Parts of it are missing, and it looks abandoned. But word on the street is that the inside is actually in pristine shape. We hear the building was annexed by the Union League Club next door and is used as a dining room. If anyone wants to provide corroboration for that, we’d love to hear from you.
Though Saint Hubert’s Grill is long gone, the heads remain — watching silently the mixture of lawyers and vagrants who use this short-cut between the federal courthouse and the L.