Don Roth’s Blackhawk Restaurant

When I was just over 18 years old I moved to Chicago with Bryna as my roommate.  My very first job was as a waitress at Don Roth’s Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash.  In those days, an 18 year old woman could serve and drink alcoholic beverages; an 18 year old man, even if he was fighting in a war, couldn’t!  I considered myself professional; after all I’d been a waitress for over 6 months at the Seven Dwarves restaurant out in the Southwest boondocks.  I felt I was ready for the big-time!  I was eager to be a top notch waitress in a ‘house’ as famous as the Blackhawk Restaurant!  I expected to be treated as a professional waitress.

I was sorely disappointed!  First of all, I learned that the Blackhawk had tray service.  The Seven Dwarves had been arm service.  What’s the difference?  Only about 20 lbs and a lot of balancing ability!  However, at 18 I had all the brash young confidence of a person who thought she knew everything!  Tray Service!?  Pshaw!!  It’ll take me 10 minutes to learn how to carry a tray.  Need I add it didn’t take 10 minutes?   It was at least 4 months before I was actually capable of carrying a fully loaded tray of food.  But the owners and managers of the Blackhawk were obviously well aware of the problems of women lifting 40 to 50 pounds on one arm.  That’s what the busboys were for.  And the busboys were really quite good and extremely helpful for the waitresses.

There was, however, one thing the busboys and management could not help me with – the shock of the first week of working at the Blackhawk.  They knew I had to learn to deal with it.  The Blackhawk lunches were served in the basement. I was highly insulted that the hostess limited me to two tiny, two-person tables right at the bottom of the entrance stairs.  The top of the stairs were so high that from my station (tables) I couldn’t see the entrance doors on Wabash Ave. but why should I be concerned?

The lunch service started.  In those days, the late 50’s, if you weren’t well-dressed; you were a bum.  A person would feel compelled to wear a nice dress just to empty the garbage!  So everyone who came into the Blackhawk was well-dressed.  The Blackhawk was the type of place where a man would be refused service if he didn’t wear a tie.  A woman was not allowed to wear slacks if she wanted to be served.  There were exceptions!  Movie stars and other celebrities could wear anything they wanted.

I quickly realized that the distance between my station and the kitchen was a bit far and on that score alone I understood the smallness of my station for the first few days.  I served my first cocktails to a couple of dapper men at my station.  A man and woman sat in my other table and ordered their meal immediately.  I wrote it down and went into the kitchen to give my ticket to the line cook.

You are probably wondering how, 50 years after the fact, I can remember such details.  Well, it’s quite simple!  Severe emotional stress tends to cement all kinds of details in your mind.  When I came out of the kitchen to see if the men wanted another drink, I saw the line of incoming customers!  I literally froze.

The staircase of about 35 steps going up to Wabash Avenue was just wide enough to hold 4 people abreast coming into the restaurant.  A metal railing divided the incoming and outgoing staircases.   The crowd was so anxious to get in that complete strangers would stand next to each other from the wall to the railing.   I watched the people stand 4 side by side across the stairs and all the way from the hostess’ stand near my station to the Wabash avenue doors, which as you recall, I couldn’t even see!  Later I learned that at most lunch times the line would reach about a half block along Wabash!  Thinking about it today I’d
guesstimate that the people waiting to get in numbered in the hundreds.  Thank goodness the metal railing prevented people from blocking the way out of the restaurant.  I briefly considered making a run for it!  Right up the ‘UP’ staircase!!  Down Wabash Avenue and right onto the el to take me home!

I must have stood there an absurd amount of time because the woman working the station next to mine, and an obvious ‘old-timer’, came over and put her arm around my waist, “Honey, never, ever look at them stairs!  The only thing you should ever pay attention to is your very own station and your very own customers! Now go back into the kitchen, get a drink of water and bring out the food for your one table.  I’ll check on the men and I’m here to help you if necessary.  Remember, NEVER look at those stairs!”

I took a deep breath, went into the kitchen and waited for the food for the couple I was serving.  When I had the busboy carry out my tray of food I averted my gaze from those stairs teeming with those people trying to get into the restaurant.  It took incredible will-power to not look at what was right in front of me but I got through the first day.  The second day was easier and by the end of the week I had graduated to a full station of 5 tables.  Now I knew what it felt like to be a professional waitress!

To see how the old Blackhawk looked from Wabash Avenue here’s a link:

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