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The Last Supper Club in Chicago

A look back at supper club guru George Badonsky, who passed away last month, and the death of Chicago supper clubs.

Gregg Rizzo

Presence is a long-standing characteristic of a traditional supper club. There's always a guy or family that works the room with swagger. They greet you for the Friday Night Fish Fry and seat you with warm hearts to hear cool live music.

George Badonsky was that guy.

Mr. Badonsky ran the last real supper club in Chicago. He had the confidence to call it George's, just like the timeless Smoky's supper club in Madison, Wi., named after late owner Smoky Schmock, or Cliff Bell's in downtown Detroit, Mi.

Mr. Badonsky died on Dec. 14, 2014 in Stevensvile, MI where he had lived since leaving Chicago in 1992. He was 78. The restauranteur died in the kitchen of his home.

George's opened in 1978 at 230 W. Kinzie in the shadow of the Merchandise Mart. The supper club hit stride in 1985, reopening after a devastating 1984 fire. The legacy of a good supper club generally includes a fire. George's closed for good in 1991.

I can still see Mr. Badonsky bobbing and weaving between the tight aisles of the 220-seat room. He wore wrinkled sport shirts and creased jeans. He had the salt and pepper beard of a seafaring captain. Mr. Badonsky was not afraid of high tides. He smiled most of the time, mostly when his club was full.

Mr. Badonsky blended his Northern Italian cuisine at George's with a brash booking policy that included female impersonator Charles Pierce, rhythm and blues singer Bill Withers and Chicago soul legend Jerry Butler. While on stage comic Judy Tenuta once burned my Chicago Sun-Times review of her previous night's performance. A good supper club holds all kinds of memories.

Mr. Badonsky kept in touch with me periodically and was enamored with the fact I had written a book about Midwest supper clubs. He said that's what he was doing at George's.

"Here, you have the conflict of getting serious food out to people, yet you have another attraction bringing people to the room," Mr. Badonsky told me in 1988. "I mean, you can hear, ‘What's pasta?' which you would never hear if we were purely a restaurant." Mr. Badonsky liked to point out that George's was Chicago's first modern Northern Italian restaurant, preceding Avanzare.

The dim, evocative lighting of George's was also very supper clubby. In a 2007 Q&A with Shore magazine in Western Michigan, Mr. Badonsky reflected, "George's was all about the lighting, a good bar, an innovative menu and the extraordinary talent we booked."

George's echoed the vibrant Chicago supper club scene of the 1940s and 50s in dignity and spirit. The Chez Paree opened in 1932 at what is now 610 N. Fairbanks Ct. and closed in 1960. Their diverse booking policy included Sammy Davis, Jr., gospel great Mahalia Jackson and New Orleans jazz singer Louis Prima.

South side supper clubs included the world famous Club De Lisa (5521 S. State in its 1941-58 incarnation) where house musician Herman "Sonny" Poole Blunt—the future Sun Ra—believed people would be healthier if they ate more purple food.

The supper club scene thrived in the 1960s and early 1970s closer to the future George's at Mister Kelly's, 1028 N. Rush (now the site of Gibson's Steakhouse) and the London House, 360 N. Michigan that featured jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis and Dave Brubeck. On a smaller scale in 1961 jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal operated his Club Alhambra at 1321 S. Michigan Ave., and even recorded a live album there for Chess Records. Mr. Badonsky booked Jamal for a 1988 gig. Supper clubs are loyal that way.

Most restaurant people didn't realize that Mr. Badonsky's roots were in music. Between 1959 and 1963 he worked in sales for Prestige Records (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron) and between 1963 and 1968 he was Midwest sales manager for the Jazz catalog at Atlantic Records.

Mr. Badonsky also co-produced the 1966 Shadows of Knight hit "Gloria" and the H.P. Lovecraft regional hit "The White Ship." He promoted the American Breed's 1968 smash "Bend Me, Shape Me". During the 1960s he lived above Mother Blues on Wells Street and ran with effervescent night people like Lorraine Blue and Richard Harding who went on to bring acts like Bruce  Springsteen and Bob Marley into his Quiet Knight club.

The bullshit of the music business took its toll on Mr. Badonsky and by 1968 he was out of the game. "I don't have contempt for the people in the business," he told me in 1988. "I feel sorry for the people. Because they're in a business that is morally and intellectually taxing. Because there are no truths. Where are the loyalties? Where's the equity?"

He found lasting truth through the connections of food.

In 1969 Mr. Badonsky opened his first restaurant, The Brewery, an upscale hamburger stand in the 3100 block of North Broadway. Tango was next, serving grouper and swordfish in the Belmont Hotel and establishing one of the city's first wine bars. He was presenting 15 jug wines by the glass as early as 1972. Next, in 1976 at Le Bastille, 21 W. Superior, he navigated a transition between the previous owner's Paris street food and his own French country food while hosting annual wine-carrying waiter races. In 1984 he had the moxie to reopen Maxim's, a terminally upscale Parisian supper club that was launched in 1963 on Astor Street by architect Bertrand Goldberg and operated by his wife Nancy.

Mr. Badonsky's colorful imprint was on all his operations, yet another characteristic of the American supper club—a deep personal touch.

The old George's is now Gilt Bar, and a few other restaurants have come and gone in that space since George's closed. But every time I walk by 230 W. Kinzie I think of Mr. Badonsky's keen vision. Supper clubs are about sense of place and George's was quite a place.

Chicago journalist Dave Hoekstra is the host of "Nocturnal Journal" at 9 p.m. Saturdays on WGN-AM (720). His book of oral histories on soul food and civil rights is due in October on Chicago Review Press.

Gilt Bar

230 West Kinzie Street, , IL 60654 (312) 464-9544 Visit Website