Like all large cities, Chicago had many great restaurants. One of my favorites was located in the Hotel Harrison. It was called The Cart. It was special to me for several reasons – one of them being that it was the place my dad took mom on their first date.
Mom and dad were working for competitors and had met at the Chicago Gift Show. Dad said that it was love at first sight. Mom said she needed to see the show a couple of times before she knew for sure. But dad’s taking her to The Cart for dinner did help soften her attitude.
The restaurant was a Chicago landmark. It’s signature dish was roast beef – served from a very large silver domed serving cart – sliced to each diner’s exact order.
The roast beef was available in three sizes – “Regular”, “Queen-Size” and “Fit For A King.” Each was accompanied by a huge baked potato and served with the house salad. The Cart had a unique dressing for this salad. It was a creamed Roquefort with just a hint of anchovy. It’s the only place I have ever found it – and it was as wonderful as the roast beef.
When dad took mom there on their date the wait staff consisted entirely of women. My parents’ waitress that night was a lady named Stella. Her career there lasted for nearly thirty years and dad always requested her whenever he dined at the restaurant. A dinner at The Cart was always on his agenda when he was in Chicago.
Dad introduced me to this wonderful restaurant when he came to Chicago for the Lamp Show at the Palmer House. It was the spring of my first year in school. I welcomed a break from the dorm cafeteria whose output only vaguely resembled food.
I was anxious to see dad as well as try one of his favorite places. It was on this visit that I found out that The Cart was the site of my parents’ first date. And I didn’t hear it from dad – I heard it from Stella.
She came over to our table – without a note pad – and dad introduced her to me. She looked at me and said, “You know that I’m the reason that you’re having dinner here tonight.” I didn’t quite know what to say or where she was going with this comment. She said, “It was my wonderful service and our fantastic roast beef that was the reason your folks got married.”
Without missing a beat or waiting for me to say anything she said, “Your usual Mr. D? An Old Fashioned, easy ice and two maraschino cherries, orange slice – the Queen medium rare, regular baked, and the salad with the house dressing?” Dad smiled and nodded at her. I said, “Make that two – except for the Old Fashioned.”
By the way, though dad had patronized the restaurant for almost twenty years – he only came in twice a year – when the shows were in town. Stella had an amazing memory and a wonderful winning way. She made you feel happy that you had chosen to dine with her.
I believe that the reason Stella remembered dad so well was that he always treated the wait staff wherever he ate with respect for them as professionals – rather than looking down on them as the hired help. He was outgoing and genuinely a nice guy and would take time to chat.
I went to The Cart many times over many years. It was only a once or twice a year experience but, like dad I always requested Stella. When I started going there by myself I had a small family of my own – that being my Irish Setter, Finney. So one night when Stella was asking if I wanted the “Queen” medium rare I changed to the larger size. Stella looked at me and said, “What are you trying to do – put on weight?” I explained that I would take the leftover roast beef home for my dog.
She left and put my order in with the carver at the cart and returned with my salad and my dinner shortly thereafter. As soon as I saw the immense amount of beef on my plate I realized that Finney was going to be one very happy Irish Setter.
I finished dinner and asked if Stella would please wrap my unfinished beef so I could take it home. She returned with my check, my leftover meal and a shopping bag full of neatly wrapped packages that she had assembled in the kitchen – the remains of other diners’ unfinished dinners. She looked at me and said, “I hope Finney enjoys his dinner!” Stella was a dog lover. And she did the same thing every time that I returned to dine with her after that.
The south end of the Loop began a long period of decline before it was finally rejuvenated. But by that time, the seedy neighborhood had exacted its toll on the businesses that were located there – and that included The Cart.
I went there one night for dinner only to discover that it had been transformed into an Indian restaurant. I remember a feeling of incredible sadness that this Chicago icon had passed into the pages of the history books.
I miss The Cart and I miss Stella. They both provided some wonderful and warm memories. And, if Stella was right – and I think that she may have been – The Cart and she are the only reasons that I am here to share this story with you.