Having to fly out of Moline four or five times a year usually means a connection through Chicago. These days when I do fly, I nearly always take United Airlines as I'm trying to get my point totals up to be able to go on a vacation with my wife somewhere far, far away in a year or two. Inside Terminal 1 on the C Concourse at O'Hare International Airport between Gates C-24 and C-26 on the far north side is the Berghoff Cafe (see map). If I'm ever laid over for any significant amount of time, I always try to get to the Berghoff Cafe for a sandwich and a couple beers. On a recent trip back from New York City, I deplaned at C-23 - a very short walk to the Berghoff Cafe.
The Berghoff Cafe is part of the Berghoff Group of restaurants and catering. I've written about the Berghoff in the past, primarily this entry, just before they closed the original Berghoff in 2006. The back story behind the closing is that Herman Berghoff, the grandson of the original owner of Berghoff, also named Herman, and his wife, Jan, wanted to retire from the restaurant business. The only Berghoff involved in the business was their daughter, Carlyn, who owned and operated the Berghoff catering business. She wanted to continue to concentrate on that part of the business and not run the restaurant. The Berghoff family announced in late 2005 that the restaurant would close on February 28, 2006. Like thousands of other people, we went into Chicago for one last meal at Berghoff and waited in a long line that stretched for a good 100 yards down Adams Street during a typically cold Chicago winter.
The original Berghoff was one of the very few Chicago area restaurants that had unionized waiters. The numbers of restaurants that had union waiters had dwindled to around 10 by the time the Berghoff had closed. Some of the waiters at The Berghoff had worked there for over 40 years. I've heard stories from more than one person that the intent of the Berghoff family was to close the main restaurant under the guise of Herman and Jan Berghoff retiring, but it was more to force the union waiters out. I'm not saying that is true - it's just what I've heard from a couple three people.
Carlyn Berghoff had converted the main dining room into her new catering venture and called it "The Century Room". In April of 2006, she reopened the Berghoff Cafe in the basement of the building offering a lunch menu of sandwiches, paninis, salads and soups. Shortly thereafter, Carlyn Berghoff reopened the historic bar (it holds Chicago Liquor License No. 1 - pictured right) and renamed it 17 West at The Berghoff. And in June of 2006, she quietly reopened the original Berghoff with a smaller and slightly different menu than what her father, grandfather and great-grandfather offered before. This immediately brought on some skeptism from people who really wondered why the closing took place to begin with and angered many - including me - who thought the Berghoff was gone for good and waited for hours for one last meal.
Carlyn Berghoff explained that she was a perfectionist and she had never actually run a restaurant before and the team she had in place had also never really run a restaurant. She wanted to make sure that everything was right before they reopened. And presumably without unionized waiters.
Through all of this, the Berghoff Cafe at O'Hare stayed open. I don't quite remember when the Berghoff Cafe opened at O'Hare, but it had to be more than 10 years ago. They open at 5:30 a.m. for the early morning flyers and stay open until at least 9:30 p.m. - and even longer for some people who are delayed by weather. The menu at Berghoff Cafe at O'Hare is somewhat similar to the one in downtown Chicago - sandwiches, paninis and so on.
There's two parts of the Berghoff Cafe, the part where you order your food at the kitchen counter (left), and the bar area where you can dine and get a beer. There was a short line to order, but a full house in the bar area when I got there just before 2 p.m. after my flight from New York.
I always seem to get the same thing at the Berghoff Cafe - the reuben sandwich. They take fresh corned beef brisket out of a steam tray, cut it thin on a rotary meat slicer, then pile the meat high on thick rye bread before topping it with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and 1000 Island dressing. Then they take it over to the panini press and warm it up for about a minute giving the sandwich nice charred lines on the top and bottom while melting the cheese.
It had been awhile since had been to the Berghoff Cafe at O'Hare and one thing that they added to the ordering line was beer. In the past, you could get your sandwich, but then you had to go to the bar and get a beer. That meant two charges on your credit card for one meal. But now, they have three Berghoff beers on tap including their Lager and Dark beers, as well as their seasonal Oktoberfest beer. I took an Oktoberfest as they placed my sandwich in a styrofoam container. I found a place to sit at one of the communal tables they have in the not-so-large bar area.
The sandwiches at the Berghoff Cafe are always great. First of all, they're pretty good sized so it's always good to have a healthy appetite when you go. Secondly, the combination of the very tasty corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and dressing on the homemade rye bread is absolutely mouth-watering. The bread is a little charred on the outside, but everything is melted together in a fashion that each bite is a gooey pleasure. It's definitely a four napkin sandwich. A large dill pickle spear comes with the sandwich and you can also get chips and some other sides to go along with it, if you want. The sandwich, itself, runs $9.45 and, in my estimation and opinion, is worth every cent. It's much better than getting food at a lot of the other food outlets they have to offer at O'Hare. Unfortunately, a lot of other travelers know that, too. And that's why it's always full at the Berghoff Cafe.
So, if you're flying United through O'Hare - as many people seem to do now that they merged with Continental Airlines - with a layover of an hour or more, it's with my high recommendation to take a walk to the Berghoff Cafe and get a sandwich and a beer. Even if you're on the B concourse of Terminal 1, it's worth the walk through the tunnel connecting the two. They also have a shuttle between Concourse C and Concourse F where most of the regional jets arrive and depart. As I said, it's much better than the fast food alternatives that proliferate Terminal 1 and is much better than many of the sit down places in the same terminal. The only bitch I'd have is that I just wish it was a little bigger in the bar area.