CHICAGO (CBS) — Lawry’s The Prime Rib will be closing its location on Ontario Street just off the Magnificent Mile at the end of the year.
The last day of service at Lawry’s The Prime Rib, 100 E. Ontario St., will be Thursday, Dec. 31. The location has been in operation for 46 years.
The steakhouse was founded in Beverly Hills, California by brothers-in-law Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp in 1938, but it has also had a home in the McCormick Mansion on Ontario Street since 1974.
“Lawry’s longtime master carvers and brown gown servers have served endless amounts of its signature Prime Rib from antique silver carts, Yorkshire Pudding, and Spinning Bowl Salad to its valued Chicago guests over the last 46 years,” Lawry’s said in a news release.
From birthdays to anniversaries, loyal customers say they will miss coming to Lawry’s immensely. And for the family that owns the restaurant, it is just as heartbreaking.
The Chicago location is part of Lawry’s president and chief executive officer Ryan Wilson’s fondest memories.
“Just remember coming into the city – my first time in Chicago, my first time to Lawry’s – and the immediate warmth I felt for from our coworkers,” Wilson told CBS 2’s Steven Graves. “It’s like they had known me all my life.”
The decision to close was not an easy one. But an expiring lease, mixed in with the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest in recent months in Chicago, was a sign to make change.
“I think it’s been a long closure. I think it’s been compounded by all the very disturbing social unrest and protest in the city,” Wilson said, “and that’s impacted our business, but I think that one also just has really impacted my concern for the safety of our coworkers.”
Wilson said while the lights will go dim on Ontario Street, things might come back at another home in Chicago down the line.
“I want to be part of dining culture, so I want to give back, and it’s a key piece of our strategy to give back to Chicago, but not right now,” Wilson said.
Wilson called Chicago “the best food city in the country.”
“I’m always going to have an eye on Chicago and I’m always going to spend some time there,” he said.
Wilson said he made the announcement of Lawry’s closing so early to give people the time to visit, and staff the time to really process it.
Lawry’s The Prime Rib still operates a location in Beverly Hills, and also has locations in Dallas and Las Vegas. Lawry’s Restaurants also operates other eateries in Southern California, including the Tam O’Shanter in Los Angeles, which dates back to 1922; Five Crowns and the SideDoor in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach, California; and Lawry’s Carvery in Costa Mesa, California.
There are also Lawry’s locations in Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore.
In Chicago, the mansion that houses Lawry’s at Ontario and Rush streets was commissioned in 1889 by L. Hamilton McCormick – nephew of McCormick Reaper inventor and International Harvester founder Cyrus McCormick and a cousin of famed Chicago Tribune publisher “Col.” Robert R. McCormick, for whom McCormick Place is named.
The Italian Renaissance-style home was built at the northeast corner of Rush and Ontario streets from designs by the firm of Cowles and Ohrenstein. It was constructed with bricks individually wrapped in straw and imported from Belgium, according to Lawry’s.
“When the new mansion was unveiled, its massive fireplaces, splendid wood-work and central majestic winding staircase were the talk of the city,” Lawry’s recalled in a 2014 edition of its A La Cart newsletter.
L. Hamilton McCormick and his wife, Constance, held high-society soirees at the mansion around the time of the turn of the last century. The fourth-floor ballroom – which accommodated 400 people and was the largest ever built in a private home at the time – hosted foreign dignitaries such as the Duke of Kent and the Prince of Wales, Lawry’s said.
McCormick died in 1934, and the family leased the house. First, the house was leased to artist and Chez Pierre restaurant owner Peter Nuytens, who turned the ballroom into a members’ only nightclub called the Continental Casino that had some unique features. Lawry’s newsletter noted that when they came in, guests received long tobacco pipes that they puffed upon as they walked through incense-filled rooms.
“What was once the mansion’s library became a vast wine room decorated with Chinese grillwork and eerily lit red and green,” Lawry’s said. “A huge Buddha, majestically seated in a gold lined cupboard, formally a bookcase, cast his serene gaze upon the revelers.”
In 1937, the mansion was taken over by restaurateur Fredrik A. Chramer to become the Kungsholm restaurant, which served Scandinavian cuisine, Lawry’s said. The Kungsholm was done up in royal blue, pink, and gold and served up a Smorgasbord that was considered “the height of fine dining,” the restaurant said.
In 1940, Chramer also opened the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera puppet theater in the ballroom, where productions of recorded operas were performed using costumed marionettes. The marionettes were operated by puppeteers on rolling stools under the floor, according to Lawry’s.
As historical documents note, Chramer had seen a touring miniature opera production created by Ernest Wolff, and struck a deal with Wolff to bring the puppet opera to the Kungsholm. Wolff later parted ways with Chramer and the Kungsholm, but the puppet theater became renowned.
A fire destroyed the puppet theater in 1947, but it was rebuilt with 208 seats a few years later and continued on even after Chramer died in 1960 and the Fred Harvey restaurant chain took over the Kungsholm, Lawry’s said in A La Cart.
The puppet operas continued on until 1971 at the restaurant, and the marionette opera tradition continued on afterward in the Chicago area as onetime Kungsholm artistic director William Fosser opened Opera in Focus – which has been closed for the COVID-19 pandemic since March, but continues to operate in Rolling Meadows. Some of the Kungsholm puppets were also acquired by the Museum of Science and Industry.
Meanwhile, the Fred Harvey chain turned the Kungsholm restaurant into a new restaurant called Shipwreck Kelly’s and rechristened the theater as a stage venue with human actors called the New Theater at the Kungsholm. Both were out of business by 1972, but at that time, then-Lawry’s chief executive officer Richard N. Frank was looking for a new Lawry’s The Prime Rib Chicago location and acquired the lease, Lawry’s said.
The building was in disrepair by then, but Frank worked with Hutchason, Butkus Associated Architects to restore it to its former glory with the feel of an English manor house, Lawry’s said.
Lawry’s opened for business in the mansion in May 1974 and has been an icon of the Chicago dining scene ever since. In just one of the times CBS 2 paid a visit, then-Executive Chef Hans Aeschbacher taught CBS 2’s Bob Wallace how to cook and carve a turkey for Thanksgiving in 1983.
As Lawry’s now winds down, it plans to host a variety of celebrations in the coming months – including private mansion tours, intimate special occasions, and holiday celebrations.