By Megan McKinney
While restaurants featuring sunlight streaming diagonally through the windows come and go, the legendary lunching spots are those in which patrons cannot discern night from day. The secret of the 1980’s era Cricket’s and today’s Tortoise Club is that as lunchtime drifts into evening, the passage of time is not sensed. A Cricket’s lunch could begin at 12:30 in the afternoon and go on until the first dinner seating — or longer. However, an even greater attraction to the absence of harsh light is a flattering glow, with patrons’ faces appearing as perfect at noon as they would on a ballroom dance floor eight hours later.
Legendary lunching spots also carry mysterious seating. In the glory days of Cricket’s there was an invisible line dividing the front of the room from the rest of the restaurant, a space that grew icy as it stretched back into deep Siberia and the kitchen beyond. But the intricacy of mystery extended further. The banquettes lining the front of the room were the “best,” with seating on the east side preferred to the west — and the southeast banquette, seating two or three, was the finest in the restaurant. Yet, there was an exception even here. For more than three people, the round table in the center of the southeast section trumped every table in the room.
Today, the “21”-style redchecked table cloths of Cricket’s have been replaced byRL Restaurant’s crisp white cloths. And the reassuring comfort of art-paved wood paneling, with a roaring fireplace in the bar, substitutes for corporate logos and big-boy toys dangling from the ceiling. It’s easy to imagine Holly Golightly repeating, “Nothing very bad could happen to you there.” And, although a seating hierarchy remains, every table is coveted.
Aside from the northwest corner banquette, known to the cognoscenti as table #21, tables east of the center and banquettes lining that side of the room are where the social crowd lunches. The rest of the middle area is considered excellent by business heavyweights and groups of socialites celebrating birthdays or whose number has grown too large for a banquette table.
Tables #33 and #43, just past the waiter stations, push the invisible line south to extend the high esteem of the power zone. Bill Daley, one-time commerce secretary and brother of the former mayor, sits at table #42, putting him smack in the middle of the area. Father John Costello, special assistant to the president of Loyola University, lunches nearby with topflight business or governmental officials, often with Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
Social figures who lunch at RL regularly do so at banquettes lining the north and east walls, with the best table in the house located in the southeast corner of the front area, publicly known as “the Oprah booth,” but officially table #68.
Every second Tuesday, man-about-town Bunky Cushing lunches in the Oprah spot, surrounded by Hazel Barr, Linda Heister, Myra Reilly, Mamie Walton and, when she is in town, Nancy Kelley. Sherren Leigh might be at her own table to the right of the Oprah booth.
Diagonally across the room on any day but Wednesday, Zarada Gowenlock sits with one of a rotating set of chums, including Barbara Burrell, Susan Regenstein, Dori Wilson, Katherine Harvey or Stanley Paul. But never on Wednesday, when Zarada volunteers at an animal shelter.
The north banquettes, beginning at the left of the entrance, are tables #61, #62 and #63 — all very good. Table #61 is often, but not always, the “Establishment table” — only occasionally will you see new money or over-dressing here. Table #64 in the northeast corner is excellent, as are #65, #66 and #67 on the east wall. Patrons bumped that day from #68 will be seated along this stretch.
Who sits at the north and east banquettes day after day, week after week? Brian White, Jim Kinney, Toni Canada, Cynthia Olson, Bill Zwecker and Tom Gorman are usually on the north side, with Sean Eshaghy or Mamie Walton — sometimes together — in the corner at #64. RL is Mamie’s dining room. Although she lives in an apartment across the street at The Ritz, when not at #68 or #64, she will be seated at another east banquette.
Other pampered regulars include Pete Krehbiel, Susie Forstmann Kealy, Alice Sabl, realtors Marie Campbell and Janet Owen, Rebecca Besser and Michelle Parrillo. Sugar Rautbord might be at #67 with Maureen Smith, Oak Brook’s Reute Butler at #64 or #68, and Virginia Bobins at #67 or #68. Mayor Daley and his late wife, Maggie, were always at #68; now, he and restaurateur Steve Lombardo — the Chicago power behind RL — lunch there together.
If Steve Lombardo is the force behind RL, the magic of lunch at Cricket’s was created by Tremont Hotel general manager of the ’80s Nancy Jennings, who took a going concern and turned it into the only place in town for ladies to lunch — while establishing “The Crickette’s” along the way. Today, she is Mrs. Robert Kelley of Palm Desert, California, with only a pied-à-terre presence in Chicago. But, when Nancy Kelley comes to town, it is to RL, where she is ushered directly back to coveted table #68.
Robert F. Carl