Hail Frank & Mary’s--A Chicago lunch tavern

SHARE Hail Frank & Mary’s--A Chicago lunch tavern

Mary Stark (D. Hoekstra photo)Mary Stark is uncomfortable in the small kitchen of Frank and Mary’s, one of the last neighborhood lunch taverns on the north side.

She is rolling dough for her German plum tarts. Stark is also attending to her stuffed peppers and noodles which is part of “Mary’s Choice” unveiled every Tuesday afternoon at Frank and Mary’s, 2905 N. Elston Ave.

She moves slow through a maze of food memories.

It is not easy for Mary to get around. She had two hips replaced in 2011 and 2012. She now needs each of her knees replaced. But she pushes on, making comfort food for uncomfortable times.

Frank, 64 and Mary Stark, 69, are brother and sister who have had their bar for 41 years. They grew up at Belmont and Broadway. “It was a more innocent time then,” Mary says after a Tuesday lunch. “People cared for each other. If they saw something in the neighborhood they would do something. It’s sad we don’t have that anymore.”

The outside of Frank and Mary’s is only identified by an Old Style sign that dances against the winds of change. The most colorful point of identification is the Wood World store just south of the workingman’s tavern. Slow down. You will log quality time at Frank and Mary’s.

In the 1970s and 80s Frank and Mary’s was a popular lunch spot for workers along the Elston Avenue corridor. There was the Hammond Organ Company. Advanced Transportation had three buildings and three shifts on Western Avenue. Air King made fans at Belmont and Rockwell. They now sit in the past tense.

The 35-seat bar dates back to the 1930s and was open during Prohibition. In the early 1940s the tavern was called Jeanette’s. 1951 it was called Earl’s. It was Sam’s Saloon in the 1970s. People have always been on a first name basis at this location.

Earl’s (courtesy of Frank & Mary’s)

Frank and Mary’s is really not about drinking. It is about Mary’s homemade cooking. Frank works the bar and makes sure David Allan Coe is stocked on the jukebox. The bar remains popular with cops, city workers and utility workers on the go. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. The bar is open from 10:30 a.m.-midnight six days a week, open on Sunday for Bears games; [(773) 463-8179]

Here is Mary’s starting lineup:

Monday: Fabulous chicken or pork chops ($7.50 each).

Tuesday: “Mary’s Choice” (Stuffed peppers with mashed potatoes and vegetable or pot roast with mashed potatoes and vegetable on the day of my visit; $8-$9).

Wednesday: Meat loaf with side of pork or chicken cacciatore or chicken divan ($7.50.).

Thursday: Corn beef and cabbage ($9) or spaghetti with meatball and Italian sausage. ($7.50)

Friday: Perch, ($7.50) or pork roast and goulash. (8.50.)

The ample and hearty portions remind me of the late great Busy Bee diner in Wicker Park, without pierogies. “We have customers from the Busy Bee,” Mary says. “They say the same thing about big portions. I have people who ask, ‘Why do you like meat loaf?’ Is it because I’ve been making it for 40 years?’ It reminds you of your childhood. With mashed potatoes. Vegetables. I use fresh ingredients. I use pork and beef. Parsley and onions. I don’t use tomato sauce. There are a thousand ways to make meat loaf and none of them are wrong. I think about my menu a week before because that’s when I do my meat order. I order every week. The only question I have is what do I do different on Tuesdays. I don’t want to be the same every day.”

The only major change Frank and Mary made to their tavern was to expose the original tin ceiling, which dates back to the building’s pre-bar origins in the 1890s. Frank says, “You know how everything was in the ‘70s to save the energy. I took the ceiling down and put in central air.

Frank and Mary.

The spirit of Mary’s mother Elizabeth watches over the kitchen. Mary was born in Hungary and Frank was born in Horben, Germany.

The family moved from Germany to Chicago in 1956 where Frank, Sr. found work as a welder. “My mother’s recipes are in my head,” Mary explains. “Old ethnic. I’m going back to my mother and grandmother. A pinch of this, a pinch of that. I watch a lot of the Food Network, too and depending on who is cooking that day I get ideas. I’m not scared to mention Paula Deen. I actually like her. I think she got a bad rap. The sponsors especially over did it.”

Mary shoots straight, with a deep sweet smile.

My friend Tony Mata told me about Frank and Mary’s. A former chef at the Silver Palm, Tony has good taste. “I’ve been a regular since I moved into the neighborhood,” he says over a can of beer at the bar. “When I was scouting new neighborhoods I had to make sure the local dive bar was up to my standards. $2 Old Style in cans and lunch every day pretty much sold me. So I moved. There is no better meat loaf than Mary’s. But I eat here every day. I’ve made it through the whole menu.”

Tony & Frank: Old Stylin’

Mary’s mother had the idea for the tavern. “She had a couple thousand dollars burning a hole in her pocket,” Mary says. ‘My brother was a bartender at the Black Pearl (a Chinese restaurant with a Hawaiian theme at Diversey and Broadway). I was married at the time to a musician and part-time bartender at the German Club on Sunnyside and Lincoln Avenue. Mother said since both of them were tending bars, why not own a bar? I was working downtown for Standard Oil. The three of us started the place and it didn’t take long for a little bit of a family feud to happen.”

Today, Mary’s son Fred Feichtel , 49, works as an auditor for the state of Illinois. Frank has a daughter Elizabeth Stark, 26, who is a short story writer and teaches at Elmhurst and Triton colleges.

Frank and Mary say their kids have no interest in their quaint business. “Everything is for sale,” Mary points out. “Frank and I are getting older. It is a lot of hard work. I can’t walk. There’s nothing wrong with new ideas. And I’d give anybody my meat loaf recipe.”

She leans over and whispers, “People say when I’m not here and Frank makes it (meat loaf), it is not the same. When I was home recovering (from hip replacement surgery), he goes ‘Why does my meat loaf not taste the same as yours?” I said, ‘Frank, I’ve told you a thousand times how I make it but you don’t listen. You’re a typical man who only hears what he wants to hear.”

Huh?

Corn beef and cabbage used to be the most popular item on the Frank and Mary’s menu. “There were times where I would make anywhere from 40 to 50 pounds a week,” she says. “All of a sudden pasta became popular. Now it changes with no rhyme or reason.”

Gonzo lunches make me sleepy so I had the chicken salad sandwich ($4.50) washed down with a can of Dr. Pepper. Mary made the sandwich with celery, a little bit of green pepper, fresh parsley and a pinch of red onion. “And good mayonnaise,” she says. “Don’t overdo the mayonnaise. Just enough to bind it.”

After bonding with Frank and Mary, I wondered why the tavern isn’t called Mary and Frank’s. “I’d like to know that too,” she answers with a laugh. “I must not have been there the day they decided.”

Yet, every time food is served at Frank and Mary’s, she is present with all the comforts of home.

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