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Lifer Mary Kay Tuzi Reveals How Twin Anchors Stood the Test of Time

Welcome to a special Classics Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives. Up now, Mary Kay Tuzi, who is one of three siblings who has basically run the legendary Twin Anchors since 1978.

Marc Much

You may know Twin Anchors for its ribs. You may know it for its fascinating speakeasy history. You may know it from a movie or from countless TV appearances. But many people know it simply as an Old Town neighborhood classic.

The building that houses Twin Anchors goes back to 1881 and the current family has owned it since 1978. Mary Kay Tuzi is part of that family, the middle sibling among three young adults who has run the Chicago icon since the late 70s. Now 53 with two children of her own, Tuzi sat down with Eater on Saturday after working a Friday night shift until 1 a.m.

What is your work schedule usually like?

It varies. I'm usually there Monday, Wednesdays and then one of the weekend days, I should say nights. Then the rest of the time, it just varies. There's 3 of us; my brother, my sister, and I. We split up the time.

How do you work out who does what?

It's something we've developed over the years. Everybody does some shift in the restaurant so that we all keep our hands in it. Then we all have different back office jobs that we perform. Somebody takes care of all the payroll. Somebody does the employees. Somebody does purchasing. We just divvy up that stuff. I'm in charge of a lot of the bookkeeping, insurance, media, marketing, that stuff.

When you're there during service, what do you do?

I do a little bit of everything. I'll help serve drinks, I'll help run food, I'll answer phones, take carry-outs. Basically I'm the jack of all trades. I'm managing the floor.

What is your clientele like?

We get everything. The fact that we've been here for so long, we have people come in whose parents got engaged there, all the way to the kid who just graduated from University of Iowa who got his first job in Chicago and comes in with his friends. They come in once a month to celebrate people's birthdays. It's families. We get a lot of convention business. We actually get a lot of foreign business, which is surprising.

I'm sure when you're on the floor, you talk to newer customers and ask them "how did you hear about us." What do they tell you?

A lot of them, it will be from their concierge. Or they might have looked at different travel guides. They go online and research historical places in Chicago. People in here have seen us on different TV things. There are some people that come in because "we heard you had the best ribs in the country so we wanted to come in and see." Then we get the people that come in and they know that we're a former speakeasy. Maybe they'll come in just to have a drink and see what the bar looks like. Some people come in because of the movies that were filmed there. They want to see the booth where David Duchovny sat or they want to sit at the bar where Two Face shot the detective or something.

What is the story behind Twin Anchors, beginning in the 1800s?

I don't know too much about it during the late 1800s. I do know that as far back as 1917, there was a bar where the actual bar is (now). Then the area to the east of it was a soda shop and what's the kitchen now was a school supplies store. During prohibition they just closed off the area where the bar was and made a secret entrance. As far as we could tell, my brother did some research, there are no records of any police coming and raiding the place. I have had old customers tell us that at one point, they used to have a boxing ring way in the back before it was a school supplies shop.

There was a lot of gang activity here?

There was. We know that our territory would have been Bugs Moran's territory but there's no bullet holes or anything like that in our building. We do still have the concealed doors that lead to the stairwell and there's apartments upstairs.

When did it become a restaurant and Twin Anchors specifically?

It became Twin Anchors in 1931, shortly before the end of prohibition. People knew that it was ending. Originally when Herb Aldean and Bob Walters took over the place, it was still technically during prohibition, but Herb was the harbor master at Monroe Harbor. He had access to liquor coming down from Canada. He and Bob opened up Twin Anchors and then when the business became legit, Herb sold his portion out to Bob. He first set it up just as a tavern with his wife, they lived upstairs in one of the apartments.

She would cook meals and bring them down and serve them to the guests. That's how the ribs came about. Sunday night she would cook ribs and they became popular enough that they actually took over where the school supply was and just turned that into a kitchen. The actual layout of the restaurant (then) is pretty much the way it is (now).

Twin Anchors 2

How did Sinatra become such a figure at Twin Anchors?

He started coming in probably late 50s, early 60s. He would come in with his agent and he was the one that originally heard about Twin Anchors and brought Frank in. It just became something that they did a couple times a year when he was in town.

They'd always call and say that he was coming over. They would close the restaurant down and whoever was there was allowed to finish their meal, but nobody else could come in. Sometimes he'd come in with as few as five or six people; sometimes it would be 20 people. They would just come in and have dinner and drinks and entertain themselves.

Unfortunately for us, it was all before we purchased. I would say by the early to mid 70s, he really wasn't coming in much anymore. We shipped him ribs a couple times, but our main contact with him was in 1982 before Navy Pier was redone. They used to have concerts there and the very last concert was Frank Sinatra. They asked us, and we brought 60 slabs of ribs and brought some grills down and cooked them backstage for him and his entourage.

What was that interaction like with Frank?

We very briefly got to talk to him. We got to stay backstage for the whole concert. Then as he was about to leave, he was standing by his limo surrounded by his body guards. He just thanked us at that point for the food. I didn't actually get to touch him or shake his hand or anything because there was a bodyguard there. Then there was another collection of four or five people that were just there.

How did your family purchase Twin Anchors?

That was really an odd thing. My father, at the time, was 50 years old. I was 17 when this all happened and I'm actually three years older than my dad now. He was an insurance agent for 30 some years and had the insurance on the building and the people. They were trying to sell it. The husband had died. The wife was running it with her daughter and wanted to move down to Florida. She was like, "Phil, why don't you buy it?" He was like "okay."

No restaurant experience whatsoever. Gets himself one of his best friends to go in with them. Their partnership only lasted about a year or so and then he bought his partner out and fortunately for him, he had three able-bodied kids that were able to help him run the restaurant. We children, we kids, took it over for him. It's been a great experience and a great livelihood ever since.

You at 17 were basically, not by yourself, but a big part of running the legendary Twin Anchors.

When I graduated from college, I went to DePaul as did my brother. I worked a couple years outside the business and then it's like the old Italian thing, you get out and you get sucked back in. My dad was like, "why don't you come back in the business?" I was like "okay" and so I've been there ever since, 33 years.

Has anything changed there over the years since your family bought it?

We do a little bit of updating. We do a few changes to the menu. We joke that everything was at a glacial pace at Twin Anchors. When we purchased the restaurant, there was only one sauce. We added a second one and then 30 years later, we added a third sauce. We'll change up some of the menu items. There are maybe things that are a little more health-conscious.

For the most part, literally 70 percent of what people eat when they come in are the ribs. They like to know that it's the same quality. Even a lot of the staff is the same. We have some staff that has been there almost as long as we have.

Do you remember what it was like when you were 17 and your family bought it?

The neighborhood was very much a working class neighborhood. We were actually open at 7:00 in the morning because down the street was the old Oscar Meyer factory and they had three shifts there. When the guys would get off at 7:00, they would come up the street and have their shot and their beer. They'd go home and then guys in the afternoon would come in when they get off their shift. Then you'd have the late night regulars.

Then finally we got to the point where we became more of a restaurant with a bar than a neighborhood tavern, which is what we are now. People in the neighborhood changed. Families came in. It was still pretty rough back then.

How bad was the neighborhood then?

I remember we lived at 1800 North Larrabee and you would go maybe one or two blocks west and then after that, you didn't walk any further. You could drive through it but you didn't walk any further. You'd drive down North Avenue, where the Home Depot is right now, and that's where all the hookers were. It was a much different neighborhood.

There are a lot more recent filmings and celebrity regulars. Who are celebrities that have come in?

Bonnie Hunt was just in a week or so ago. She's the one who directed and cowrote Return to Me, which was a movie that, believe it or not, it's almost 15 years later and people still come in and they want to see where different scenes were from that movie.

I read Bill Murray too, Rod Blagojevich, John Cusack. How did it become this place that celebrities go?

I think the movies and I think that they might be looking for a different place to go. If they want to go and be seen, they don't come to Twin Anchors. If they want to go and just really enjoy a nice meal and sit at the bar, honestly we have people come in that we don't even know who they were.

We had two of the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli. We didn't even know that they were there. They just sat at the bar, had their meal, and left. Somebody was like "that was Peyton Manning." I'm like "really?"

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Will you and your family ever change Twin Anchors?

No. Twin Anchors, where it's at right now, that particular location, I can't see ever changing that. We go back and forth about expanding. It's hard. We're almost a victim of our own success because I think people come to Twin Anchors as much for the food as they do for the history. You can't duplicate the history. You could create another place that looked the same but it's not the same.

With other restaurants, it's easy for them to say "we've got this great concept that we're going to open up now in Wicker Park and then we're going to go to South Loop" or whatever. We can't really do that. My mom always called it the goose that laid the golden egg. You got to take care of that goose.

What do you think people would do if you ever closed or changed it?

I think there would be a lot of social media of people lamenting the loss of an iconic institution. I'm sure there would be people going online saying "I can't believe it's gone, I had my 21st birthday here, this was the first place I took my kids." There's so many stories associated with Twin Anchors, I think that's what people would miss. They would miss being able to pass it on to their kids. It's funny because I've been there so long now that I see people that I served them their first drink and now their kids are coming in. It's that longevity that I think would be sorely missed.

Would your kids ever take it over?

Neither one of my kids want to own this. My sister's kids are much younger; they're 11, 9, and 8. We don't know what they're going to do. My brother's kids are 28 and 26. His son is looking to possibly open up a restaurant-type thing. We're going to wait and see what happens with that. He knows as far as running Twin Anchors, none of us, my brother, my sister, and I are ready to retire yet. He needs to go and make his own mark and then Twin Anchors will always be here.

Could you even try to estimate the amount of ribs that you've sold over the years?

Over the years? Oh my gosh. If you can do the math for me, I can tell you that it averages about 1200 pounds a week.

1200 times 52 times since 1978. That's a lot of ribs. Why would you say that Twin Anchors is a classic?

Because it's timeless. It satisfies that need for nostalgia I think that we all have. Going back to the comfort in our roots and something that just never changes. There's so much change in the world, you've got so many people in restaurants and chefs that want to do something new or it doesn't even make it to 10 years. I think the idea of a classic is something that stands the test of time. We're actually more successful now than we've ever been.

Twin Anchors

1655 N Sedgwick Street, Chicago, IL 60614 312 266 1616 Visit Website