An Appreciation of the Zestiest Place Ever
by BILL ZEHME
Published May 5, 1999
Frank Sinatra loved the Twin Anchors®. Of course, he once made a movie with Gene Kelly called Anchors Aweigh in which they danced as men in sailor suits. He never dared to dance at the Anchors, though. Not even Frank. He saw the sign like we all see the sign, the one on the archway between the bar and the backroom that declares: POSITIVELY NO DANCING! Sinatra understood that was the law and he respected it. Me, I think I have danced once or twice there with a blond lady, while Sinatra sang on the jukebox—only because I was given permission, and only because nobody else was in the place. (You can dance, if you are lucky, only when the receipts of the night are being tallied and nobody cares what you do, as long as you get the hell out sooner than later.) Like Sinatra, I have closed the Anchors more than a few times. It is one of my favorite things to do, by the way.
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. I like to tell people—only if I deem them worthy of admittance—that it reminds me of a wondrous wood-paneled basement rec-room, circa 1965, where everything smells good and sounds happy and feels reassuring. The smell, of course, is all about the baby-backs and the Zesty sauce (ambrosia, that elixir). And much like the Zesty, there is a fine redness spilt onto the room—the booths, the tables, the stools, and the rosy cheek-blushes on the faces of certain regulars. I know Sinatra loved the red warmth of the place as well. When he started coming in, during the 60s, at the behest of his friend, the Chicago construction magnate Jack McHugh, his group would take over a long series of tables in the back, along the wall on the right, beyond the men’s room. (Sinatra, by the way, in case you didn’t know, loved doing bathroom business in urinals full of ice; he came to the right place, because melting ice at the Anchors, I will tell you, has always been one of my most primal thrills in all of life—like a rite of passage in the realm of male swagger.) Now, there are pictures of him above the tables where he would sit; you can also see a photograph of him, installed on the right side of the bar, handing over an autographed Anchors menu to a happy fan. (As for the photographic installations on the left and right sides of the bar, well, it makes me blush—not that my pride doesn’t soar to see the jacket of my Sinatra book and other humbling images of humble self on display in the best place I know, but still.) Anyway, Frank loved the night and he loved Chicago and he loved hiding out in a neighborhood joint (i.e., rib-joint) and he knew only the best of life and so, naturally, he loved this place.
Somehow I started hearing about Sinatra’s love for the Anchors in the late 70s, not long after he had stopped coming in (his years were advancing and it was easier to sit in the Pump Room, below his Ambassador East hotel room, before retiring for the night after a concert—although often he’d send over for delivery of the baby-backs to chew in accompaniment with his eternal Jack Daniel’s till dawn). My best friend since forever, Chris Pallotto, and I had heard about the Sinatra/Anchors legend and, as we were just out of college and looking for romance in this big-shouldered city, we figured it would be worth following Frank’s lead—never a bad instinct—and find this place near that Old Town church with the lighted clock-tower. And so our lives changed for then and always. We made a pact that this was such a perfect place, such a glorious hideaway with all that Sinatra on the jukebox (chock full of vinyl forty-fives back then), that we were thereafter forbidden to even consider bringing a female person here, so as to keep it sacred club for boy’s life and boy’s lessons. (This policy lasted not long, alas—there was no better place to take a girl, it turned out.) But this was the very place where we would listen to Frank sing while discussing our problems with the Opposite Sex and asking ourselves always: What Would Frank Do? And so I will tell you that I would not have thought of writing The Way You Wear Your Hat if not for my young years of whining about swell or scary broads at the Anchors.
Besides whining to each other back then, Pallotto and I regularly whined to the proprietor, the pater familias behind the bar, the patriarch of this new and last Anchors regime—a very large man with a very large heart with very little patience for this couple of mopes who loved him, the Honorable and now, alas, Late Phil Tuzi. Phil—the Toots Shorr of Old Town. He was that, anyway, for my money. Speaking of which: Pallotto, then a dental school student and part-time waiter at a lesser rib-joint now long gone, loved to over-tip (as did Sinatra, and eventually, me too). But we were punks and Phil would chastise Pallotto for showing up the regulars with his youthful largesse—often 60% over the bill, the beautiful moron. Still, that is what the lasting whiffs of Sinatra’s presence could do to a guy.
But, Phil. We loved Phil. He liked to talk of real estate deals and of Florida, to which he eventually disappeared and where he eventually left the mortal plane. He was a gorgeous bowling ball of a man, with a moustache and appendages. And with great late-night wisdom to gruffly dispense our way. He was the kind of guy who would knock your heads together and tell you to wake up and to smell the coffee and to shut up and to get on with it. All guys need a barkeep like that, especially in the formative years. Not all guys were fortunate enough to have that particular guy do the job for them. We were. When Pallotto and I speak of Phil, we always chuckle long and hard and appreciatively. He taught us to be men. Like Sinatra. On the jukebox. Except Phil was behind the bar, giving the tips back.
With his fine offspring, the ones who rule the roost now, we like to say that Phil never bought us a round. Which is true. But, then again, he gave the tips back. But if you do the math, I guess he never did buy us a round. Still, he is a hero. (And the lovely next generation has been more than kind.)
Anyway, there is no warmer bar stool in the city than the ones here. Former Chicagoan Bonnie Hunt knew that and brought David Duchovney and Minnie Driver and Carroll O’Connor into the place so as to re-name it O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant, for the 2000 film Return to Me—it’s now on cable a lot and women really like it, enough said. The film production shut down the place Monday through Thursday all that summer before, and we regulars got more than annoyed, but if it would be a tribute to this astonishing place, then, okay. And then the film was released, and there was this gorgeous joint (slightly altered) on film, and there came the credits. And the words Twin Anchors® never appeared in the thank-you department. And how could that be? I know Bonnie Hunt and she is good people. Oversight? Even though most of the film was shot on these hallowed premises? It remains a mystery to this day. Except for the fact that I alluded to earlier. This place is an open-secret, but necessary to protect. Maybe Bonnie Hunt understands what must be understood. With the Twin Anchors®, you have to earn it.
Ring-a-ding-ding. And shhhhhhhhhhhhhh………
(Whatever you ever told us—dammit—you were right.)
Try the Zesty.
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