Get Into The Sauce at Twin Anchors
An Old Haunt of Sinatra's, Chicago Landmark Restaurant Remains As Zesty As Ever
by Mike Thomas
Published September 23, 2007
When "The Dark Knight" Batman flick filmed in Chicago this summer, it made its mark all over town. Most famously, the old Brach's candy factory got blown to smithereens. Fortunately, Twin Anchors restaurant and tavern was spared a similar fate.
But it didn't escape unscathed.
During a day of shooting at the legendary Old Town rib valhalla and former Prohibition-era speakeasy, actor Aaron Eckhart (as the villain Two-Face) repeatedly slammed down his shot glass on Anchors' vintage Weiss-Sontag bar, leaving circular indentations. And the proprietors aren't about to buff them out.
"It's another story," says Paul Tuzi, who co-owns the place with his sisters Mary Kay Cimarusti and Gina Manrique. Their late father, a straight-talking onetime insurance broker named Phil Tuzi, bought Anchors back in 1978.
Steeped in stories and lauded by legions of loyalists for its fall-off-the-bone baby backs and secret-recipe "Zesty" sauce, the joint that used to serve Sinatra celebrated its 75th anniversary last Thursday with an invite-only charity bash benefiting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Housed in a tenant-occupied building constructed in 1881, Anchors has long been one of Chicago's most trafficked taverns, beloved by locals and out-of-towners alike. Among the most devoted patrons, it's a bastion of sorts. "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," Chicago author and Anchors veteran Bill Zehme writes in his online ode "My Anchors, My Angst" (at www.twinanchorsribs.com).
Others, too, feel the love.
"I'm an old country boy from Iowa," says 34-year-old Grant Graff on a moderately hopping Monday night, "so it's like going back to a place at home." Graff lives three houses away and has been bellying up for more than a decade. "It's a comfortable neighborhood joint," he says. "They haven't tried to get too big."
Seventy-year-old Patrick McKenna, an Anchors regular since 1956, agrees. "You're not pushed, you're not shoved, you're not insulted," he says, sipping a vodka rocks at the bar. "You're only welcomed, and I like that."
While its slow-cooked ribs draw lots of attention, they're merely part of Anchors' allure. Over the decades, true neighborhood taverns the kind where posing is scarce, where strangers converse, where at least some of the staffers know your name and your drink and maybe even your favorite song have died off in droves. Anchors, though, has managed to retain some of that old-time flavor.
As classic corner taverns go, "a large part of their character is the part that's not bricks and mortar the intangible, the atmosphere," says Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson. "So it's hard to find a place that can survive over the years with both intact, and Twin Anchors certainly is one of the few that managed to make it through."
In Anchors' early days, many of the customers were boating types from the Belmont and Monroe Harbor yacht clubs and acquaintances of co-founder and Chicago sailing man Herb Eldean, who thought up the maritime handle. His business partner, Bob Walters, eventually bought him out.
During the 1950s and 60s, as Old Town saw an exodus of aging residents and an influx of younger artists who began renovating some of the area's dilapidated dwellings, Anchors' core constituency began to shift. Later on, options traders and other monied 20somethings began settling in, blowing copious dough on dining out. Anchors benefited from their free-spending ways.
With a growing reputation came celebrity adulation. Over the years, many Hollywood players (lots with Chicago roots) have made Anchors pilgrimages Joan Cusack, David Mamet and Chris O'Donnell among them. Before his untimely death in 1998, Chris Farley was a fan. And decades back, when he lived nearby, William Peterson of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" fame frequently planted himself on a bar stool for beers and ballgames.
In 1979, while "The Blues Brothers" was filming in town, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi wandered in for dinner wearing their now-iconic costumes: dark suits and skinny ties, but no shades. Tuzi also remembers when a certain famous actor dropped his cocaine spoon on the floor beneath a booth and left without realizing it.
The restaurant's most significant brush with showbiz came in the summer of 1999, when director and former Second City member Bonnie Hunt featured Anchors prominently in her romantic dramedy "Return to Me."
Of all the notables to darken Anchors' double doors, however, Frank Sinatra has always been and will always be its most lauded luminary. During Chicago stays in the '50s, '60s and '70s, he held court and nursed his Jack Daniel's in a booth by the side exit. Thereafter, during ChicagoFest in the early '80s, he ordered up scores of slabs for his orchestra that were grilled on-site. Thanks to wall photos and jukebox tunes, his ring-a-ding-dinging spirit lives on.
But stars do not a true Chicago tavern make. Notwithstanding a valid liquor license and its prime placement on a bucolic block, comfort and familiarity have long been keys to Anchors' success. Although it's no longer the strictly local corner tap it once was, there's been no drastic aesthetic transformation. Sure, the shufflebowl machine and a small bandstand are gone. The kitchen was redone and the restroom got a face-lift. The boxy televisions gave way to flat screens and the jukebox now links to cyberspace.
Even so, on the whole, Anchors looks much like it once did. Same red Formica tables in back. Same leatheresque booths transplanted from the shuttered Henrici's restaurant on Randolph up front. Same hand-drawn "Positively No Dancing!" sign in conspicuous view at center. Same arm-worn and now movie-marred bar along the side. And, of course, there's the secret sauce.
Like an old lover who seems so glad to see you like, in fact, Twin Anchors herself it's still zesty after all these years.