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Richard Melman Looks Back at R.J. Grunts

Pop artist Peter Max loved RJ Grunts so much he made a limited edition poster for the Chicago restaurant.

Richard Melman goes into the Chefs Hall of Fame tonight.

He will be inducted as Industry Leader of the Year by the Chicago Culinary Museum in ceremonies at the Castle, 632 N. Dearborn. Good venue.

Melman is the king of today’s highly acclaimed contemporary dining scene in Chicago.

As the founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), Melman brought an accessible and entertaining dining experience to a generation of Chicagoans.

Last week he told me Lettuce had opened 175 restaurants since 1971. The early ones had names that looked like they came out of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” : Fritz That’s It!; The Great Gritzbe Flying Food Show, and Jonathan Livingston Seafood. Now that generation is taking their children to Lettuce restaurants.

R.J. Grunts, 2056 N. Lincoln Park West [(773) 929-5363] was first. It may be Melman’s most beloved property. It is home. It his his sense of place.

Melman met his wife Martha at Grunts, and his oldest son R.J. is named after the restaurant.

“Restaurants don’t get tired,” Melman said in an extended conversation last week at Summer House, the California-styled restaurant LEYE is opening at 1952 N. Halsted. “Restaurant owners get tired. The key is to stay flexible. It used to be you could four or five years in a restaurant and stay current. Today it is hard to go five months.

“You need to go along with change. We haven’t made gigantic changes at Grunts, but there is always something. Years ago we changed the salad bar. Sometimes the change isn’t noticeable to the public. Grunts is also in the right location, the right price points and the right menu. It’s still a big hamburger place. Hamburgers were in style in the 1950s, they are in style in 2013. The salad bar is a perceived value. People like to customize their food. There is something value driven about taking as much as you want.”

In 1971 R.J. Grunts was on the north cusp of Chicago’s hippie neighborhood. Second City and the Earl of Old Town were in full swing. Head shops were abundant in Piper’s Alley.

And at Grunts, you always got more buck for the bong.

“When we started we had six items for lunch and six items for dinner,” Melman recalled. “They were all items I knew how to cook. But we had a menu that started at nine o’clock at night. That was for the kids that were high. And everybody was smoking dope in those days. That started the turn around with that restaurant.

“And the crazy looking menu we have today was even wilder.”

Chicago artist Rick Rogers designed the RJ Grunts menu like a R. Crumb “Keep on Truckin’ cartoon.

The menu design is still used today, along with the 1970s soundtrack.

The restaurant still plays ‘70 nuggets like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and Chicago’s “Questions 67 or 68.” The music is sort of loud, but that age group can’t hear much anymore.

Melman is superstituous (Stevie Wonder, 1972).

Grunts, which still serves a glass of sangria for $8, almost closed in 1997. The restaurant was losing money. Melman’s partners told him that from a business standpoint Grunts was not working. Prices had not been raised to match the times.

“We made the closing announcement,” Melman said. “It wasn’t a gimmick. And for the last two weeks I worked there every day. It was very sad, because if that hadn’t worked I probably wouldn’t be in the restaurant business. I started it with my best friend (Jerry Orzoff, the “J” in R.J.) who passed away in 1981. When you announce a place like that is closing, people start coming.”

After talking to regular customers, Melman was so moved he could not close Grunts.

He removed it from the LEYE chain. “I said whatever it loses, I’d put the money in,” he said. “And that’s what I did.” Grunts returned to the LEYE fold a couple years ago.

Of course, the dining landscape in Chicago has changed dramatically since 1971.

Who thought you would need to buy a ticket to eat in a fancy restaurant?

“The guy’s (progressive chef Grant Achatz) a genius,” Melman said with a sly smile. “I wish I thought of that.” Melman continued, “When I started out it wasn’t a preferred profession to be a ‘server’. We hired kids at Grunts that were real bright. A good percentage of our kids had college degrees. We had one girl who was in law school another one in pre-med.

“In 1971 the restaurant business wasn’t a career like it is today. There’s more awareness about food and travel. It forces restauranteurs to ratchet it up. It is for the good of the customer. Everything has become more important; the food, the service, the surroundings, the marketing.

“Customers are certainly more outspoken. The answer is not to be defensive when people don’t like something. You thought your mother was a great cook? I thought my mother was a great cook. That happens. There is no such thing as a restaurant that everybody likes and that’s okay. That makes me try that much harder. I don’t mind it. ”

Richard Melman at the Summer House

It was surprising to see Melman on site at the Summer House doing, well, grunt work, after all these years. Melman’s sons R.J. and Jerrod have taken over much of the spotlight in ventures such as the popular Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar, Paris Club, and of course R.J. Grunts.

And his wife came up with the Summer House name. “When we did the original Bub City that was our sixth choice for a name,” he said. “It is hard to pick a name and going through the process of getting it approved is hard. We literally had a list of 100 names for Summer House and we couldn’t agree. I kept pushing for Santa Monica. People didn’t like that. They said, ‘What if we do place somewhere else in California?’ If you’re in Malibu, you don’t want a place called Santa Monica.’ We were going to call it The Beach House, but my wife said Summer House.”

Melman is even involved with his kids LEYE ventures. “I’m the most paranoid in a healthy way in that I have the most experience,” he said. “I think I’m good to have around as a coach. If we duplicated this (Summer House), I wouldn’t be around so much. But the first time we’re doing anything I’m very involved. I’m really not the head of a big company. Kevin Brown is our president and there’s an executive committee.

“I’m sort of the daydreamer.”