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Bob Chinn, Pioneering Suburban Restaurant Owner, Dies at 99

Bob Chinn’s Crab House helped make Wheeling’s Restaurant Row

A fish tank with a sign taped to the front with a picture of an old man in a shirt printed with fish.
A tribute to Bob Chinn on the lobster tank near the hostess stand at Bob Chinn’s Crab House in Wheeling.
Aimee Levitt/Eater Chicago

Bob Chinn, who owned the enormous and enormously profitable seafood restaurant that bore his name in Wheeling for nearly 40 years, died on Friday, April 15, the restaurant posted on its Facebook site. The Minnesota native and son of Chinese immigrants was 99.

Chinn opened Bob Chinn’s Crab House in December 1982, with his daughter, Marilyn Chinn LeTourneau. It was his 14th restaurant and would be his longest lasting. Previously, Chinn was what he called a “serial entrepreneur,” dating back to the 1950s, when he opened the first of a series of restaurants and catering businesses. Gradually, he began to learn the North Shore market. Chinn and Jean Banchet’s Le Francois, which opened in 1973, transformed Milwaukee Avenue into Wheeling’s Restaurant Row, making the northwestern suburb one of the hottest dining epicenters in the country.

Within a few years of opening, Bob Chinn’s was one of the most popular — and one of the loudest (the Tribune clocked the dining room at 87 decibels in 1987) — restaurants in Chicago, renowned for its crab legs, garlic rolls, and mai tais. After a remodel in 1987, the dining room expanded from a 300-person capacity to 630 (it now seats 736). Even then, waits could sometimes be as long as two hours on a Saturday night (Chinn’s did not take reservations for parties smaller than 10), and on more than one occasion, Chinn, told the Tribune in 1993, he had to lock the doors so he wouldn’t violate the Wheeling fire code.

By 1999, it was the top-grossing independent restaurant in the nation, according to Food Industry News, taking in $25 million per year. It’s been a fixture on similar lists ever since: in 2020, it ranked 30th on Restaurant Business Online’s list, one of 18 Chicago-area restaurants on the 100-item list, but, aside from Gibsons in Rosemont, the only one in the suburbs. What made it remarkable, though, was that the average check was roughly a third to a half that of the other Chicago area entries, and it served more than 625,000 meals per year. (By contrast, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, & Stone Crab served 252,500.)

Chinn’s children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews worked at the restaurant in various capacities, but Chinn himself was a regular presence in the dining room into his 90s, chatting with customers and communicating with staffers through walkie-talkies. Even when he began spending winters in Honolulu, he kept in touch through regular phone calls and faxes. In 2012, he told Forbes, “If I stop, the restaurant will collapse in a few years.”

The Crab House was modeled, according to various sources, either after fresh seafood restaurants in Hong Kong or Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, which Chinn had long admired. But unlike Hong Kong or Miami, Chicago had no access to fresh seafood. Chinn solved that problem by getting up early every morning and driving to O’Hare to pick up shipments that had been flown in from the coasts, some of which were still alive. (He invested in special tanks in the restaurant basement to hold the crabs and lobsters.)

He kept costs low by buying in volume from wholesalers — he had a separate business in Honolulu to scout the fish markets — and by using only the cheapest dishes and silverware. Until the 2010s, the menu was handwritten every day and photocopied, a nod to the restaurant’s earliest days when, according to a 1993 Tribune profile, Chinn had neglected to plan a menu in time. Given that Chinn and LeTourneau had been planning the restaurant for four years, and given Chinn’s obsessive attention to detail, this seems unlikely, but it added to the restaurant’s seafood-shack charm.

Despite the success of the Crab House, Chinn never tried to duplicate it. He did license a spinoff, Bob Chinn’s Chicago Crabhouse, which opened in 2002 at 315 N. LaSalle (the current home of River Roast), but he wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations, and it dropped the Chinn’s name soon thereafter. A nephew, Stanley, opened Chinn’s 34th Street Fishery in 1995 in suburban Lisle; it closed in 2020. Another nephew, Jimmy, in 2001 attempted to open Jimmy Chinn’s Crab and Chop House in suburban Lombard, but after Bob Chinn filed a lawsuit that alleged that Jimmy was cashing on in the Chinn name without permission, the restaurant never opened.

Bob Chinn was born on March 2, 1923, in Duluth, Minnesota. His parents, Chinn-Wai and Yung-Shee-Ong, were Chinese immigrants; Bob was the third of seven children. In 1931, the family moved to Chicago and settled in Lakeview. Chinn-Wai worked in the restaurant business, managing the Oriental Gardens supper club in the Loop, and then, in 1940, he opened the New Wilson Village restaurant in Uptown.

Chinn dropped out of Lake View High School after seven months and joined his father in the restaurant business: his first job was delivering Chinese food. “I drove my father and uncles crazy,” he told the Sun-Times in 1999. “I said, ‘Why don’t we try it this way? Why don’t we try it that way?’ I was a teenage kid. I tried to re-create their recipes.”

Accounts of Chinn’s ascension from delivery boy to restaurateur vary. According to the 1999 account in the Sun-Times, he bought a restaurant in Miami Beach with his father in 1946, which quickly failed. But in 1993, he’d told the Tribune that, after he got out of the Army after World War II, he’d started off in restaurant supply sales. In both versions of the story, the New Wilson burned down in 1955, and Chinn salvaged the equipment and opened a Chinese takeout joint in Evanston called Golden Pagoda. Later, he moved to Wilmette and then Northbrook, and got into the catering business, specializing in luaus. His biggest project before Bob Chinn’s Crab House was the Kahala Terrace, a Polynesian restaurant in Northbrook that he ran with his brother Walter.

Chinn married his wife Jean in 1954; she died in 2016. They had three children, two of whom survive him; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. There will be a public celebration of his life; details will be announced on Facebook.

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