Heaven on Seven: “It Was A Joint”

How Chicago’s First Heaven on Seven Has Stayed Alive for 35 Years

Think back, if you will, to the American culinary scene in the early 1980s: before the names Martha, Mario, and Alton were thrown out with first-name association; before every chef offered a tasting menu; before “artisanal mayonnaise” was a thing. Hell, before the word “artisanal” was common food jargon.

An enormous amount has changed in the way we relay information about dining, and it’s not uncommon for an eatery to open, be reviewed and close within a matter of months. So then, what does it take for a restaurant to remain open for over thirty years in one of our nation’s most competitive markets?

A few months ago, Chef Jimmy Bannos’ original Heaven on Seven in Chicago turned 35, a feat often unachievable to even the most ambitious of restaurateurs. Heaven is not a trendy restaurant, there are no emersion circulators to be found, and Bannos was excited just to have a broiler when his second location opened 17 years after his first. Cooking is in his blood; he opened Heaven with his parents and brother. His daughter, nieces, and nephews work with him now and his son, Jimmy Jr., is the James Beard Award-winning chef of The Purple Pig.

But longevity is never promised. For such a diverse and food-forward city as Chicago, Heaven on Seven is a testament to how keeping the focus on the food and the clientele can keep a restaurant open and relevant despite industry challenges.

To celebrate this pretty amazing anniversary, I sat for Serious Eats with Bannos to trace back the origin of the family’s success, zeroing in on moments where things could have gone completely wrong, on decisions he wishes he could retract, and where he hopes his family history will continue into the future. And while he admits to not knowing what tomorrow may bring, he hopes all he’s learned will keep Heaven open for its 70th anniversary someday.

Photo Courtesy of Heaven on Seven

Photo Courtesy of Heaven on Seven

Heaven on Seven: It was a Joint

By Jimmy Bannos, as told to Jacqueline Raposo

The Takeover Years

My family took over Heaven on Seven on February 4th, 1980. At the time it was a Chicago take on a New York Jewish deli: the matzo balls were all frozen, the kreplach was okay at best, and the corned beef came already cured. A father and son-in-law team owned it. When we first walked in the father was smoking a cigar in the kitchen. The ash was going into the kreplach and he was like, “Eh, don’t worry about it. It adds extra flavor.” We couldn’t believe it. I looked at my dad and said, “This guy’s gotta go.” I was only a few months out of culinary school, but even then I knew I could figure out recipes and make them a thousand times better.

We started making homemade stuff out of a Jewish cookbook: matzo balls the size of my fist with chicken broth poured over them, sides of beef for our own brisket and ground beef for kreplach, and house-made pickles, all just to make what was there already better. That was the start.

We were in a 21-story office building in “the loop”, where the train line does a loop around the central business district. There weren’t many options in the area, just a few Greek families with four or five diners surrounding the district. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, a lot of the office buildings had a diner inside that would basically just feed the people who worked there, and when we bought it our space was still basically doing just that.

We were in a $4.95 price range for specials. What can you sell for $4.95? A lot of chicken and a lot of pasta. So we figured we’d put a twist on the food that we were doing. We started doing some Greek specialties and a lot of Italian stuff, like a six-ounce chicken breast pounded thin and breaded, covering a whole plate with a really great red gravy and mozzarella poured over it. People were really receptive. And then there was the Jewish food we were making from scratch, and people would come in and go, “Man, it’s so much better than the crap they made before.” So we were building a whole new clientele just from that.

The Creole Invasion

Back in 1976 a cousin was marrying a girl from Biloxi, Mississippi, and her father came up for the engagement party with marinated stuffed crabs with a southern, New Orleans-y flare to them. When we went down to the wedding we had catfish and smothered steaks and all that, and I remember being like, “My god, this is good.” I was just a kid, but years later it still clicked with me, and I was forever interested in Creole cuisine.

Around 1984, “New American” cuisine was just starting to happen, with Larry Forgione and Alice Waters leading off. I had just gotten Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook of Creole food and starting making some stuff from it. At the time we couldn’t find any Andouille sausage in Chicago, so we used a good smoked Polish sausage instead! Later my dad and I would have a good laugh about that. I started adapting recipes, doing research and experimenting, learning quickly. The cuisine fit perfectly into Heaven’s menu; a chicken étouffée would make a hundred servings at $4.95 with a profit.

Paul invited me down to New Orleans for a long weekend, and by the time I came home from that trip I’d eaten with the best. The chefs down there started hooking me up with where to buy the best sausage or spices or turtle meat, and I decided I wanted more New Orleans specials regularly on my menu.

I started doing gumbo every day, and people loved it. We started getting people from outside of the building who had heard about this Jewish deli also doing southern food. We did a Mardi Gras menu, then specials for Fat Tuesday. Then people were coming in and asking for the “New Orleans specials”; they wanted to see more of them. Within days I put a new menu on, and we never looked back.

Of course, prices started to inch up, since I was serving soft shell crabs – “whales”, that are 7 inches from tip to tip, fatty, and when you fry them up just fantastic – which were 15 bucks a pound, and stellar. So the prices had to inch up to match, and we could charge $6.95!* People stopped eating the kreplach and started eating the gumbo. New Orleans soups started replacing matzo balls — the change started from what the customers were ordering.

Then Food & Wine did a piece on “where the critics eat,” and they included our local Chicago Sun Times critic James Ward. He passed away in 2009, but he was there for a long time, and then on our ABC Channel 7. We didn’t know him personally but evidently he liked us, because in that piece he said we were the place to eat. Then he did a piece on us for Channel 7 and we got to know him better, and then other local TV stations and food critics starting coming in.

It Was a Joint

Everyone loved the family aspect of it. We were really friendly, and we started building relationships that we still have 35 years later. We had fifteen seats at that counter, and about seven relationships that started there between customers turned into marriages. Those marriages turned into wedding rehearsals, kids’ parties and baptisms; it’s crazy, thinking of the evolution of people’s lives there over such a long period of time. It’s just nuts.

One reason why I think it worked is because our restaurant broke down class barriers. I’d have a Supreme Court judge sitting at the counter having a bowl of red beans talking sports to a guy from Streets and Sanitation eating gumbo. It was a magical cocktail of people; everybody let their guard down. It was a joint. Everyone has their favorite joint, and ours was that for so many people.

From the late eighties on, we served 600-800 people in 120 seats from 10:30am to 2pm. We would have a line down the hall. My mom would bring 2-ounce plastic cup shots of gumbo to people who were waiting, and so everyone loved my mom. She’d even sneak some of our regulars through a side door. Even if they only had an hour for lunch, patrons would know that by the time their cup of soup would be done, their entrée would be up, and they could get back to work.

The Second and Third Coming of Heaven

In 1997 I partnered with Rich Melman and opened the second Heaven on Michigan Avenue. I thought it was a really good idea at the time, but 18 years later I wish I’d never done it.

In the early nineties we’d started doing a dinner at the original Heaven on the third Friday of each month, serving 200 or 250 people between 5:30 and 9pm. It was insane. Then we started dinners called “Let Jimmy Feed You”, where you’d have 7 courses with an amuse for $35. People would go out of their frigen minds! I’d play with dishes, mixing it up: seared diver scallops, Jamaican jerk oxtail on top of mashed potatoes, things infused with Caribbean spices, “Italian Creole”. Some things would transfer to the day menu and, at the price of now $8.95 including soup and salad, you weren’t going to get that value or variety anywhere else. That was the impetus for opening the second place, and then the third, getting to expand those special events on a regular basis when we had bigger space and a larger support staff.

But multiples are interesting. For 17 years we had been doing this unbelievable New Orleans-style food. And then we opened up a flashier place with a larger kitchen. We could do more, but it wasn’t a joint. People were like, “Oh, the gumbo’s not the same.” “The turtle soup’s not the same.” I would be making it, so it was the same thing, but people were saying that it was the second best gumbo in the city. The engine of the machine was the same as the original restaurant, but getting our customers to believe that and accept everything new we were trying to do there was a push.

I resolved to accept that, but it was hard to do. If you do two different concepts, you hope your name is good enough that people will give you a chance. But doing the same thing again depleted my original customer base; my restaurants were only a mile apart, and so a lot of people who would cross the river to go to the original could now go to one closer. And then in the early 2000s, new restaurants came in the area and made the competition different. I sold it 11 years ago now.

Then we opened a third place by Wrigley Field. To be honest, I really thought the area needed something different than just chicken wings and quesadillas, so I hit them with our full menu. Looking back, I wish we’d just done po’ boys and gumbo, things you could get for under $12 while standing at a long bar. Actually, looking back I probably just wouldn’t have opened there to begin with. The people who are the mainstays of the area – who live just blocks away from Wrigley Field – hate baseball season. They hate the Cubs. During the season there’s such an influx of people getting drunk and peeing on their lawn, and so they don’t stay local to eat, and they’re the ones who would have been our regulars; the baseball people wanted bar food. I had a very reasonable 25-year lease, but I just sold it in January. I always joke that I switched back to being a Sox fan after opening that location.

Heaven Today

A lot of cuisines seem to go in and out of vogue and, lucky for us, Southern food is hot again. We were such an institution that our business never suffered very much, but now we’re free to make some changes, so I think we’re on the cusp of exploding again. Since Valentine’s Day weekend we’ve been open for dinner Thursday through Saturday. Our customers have been driving us crazy for years asking us to do it, and after closing Wrigley we finally have the time. Every weekend it builds more and more. It’s the same menu as we have at lunch, but we run specials of things I’m playing with.

I don’t change the staples on our menu; what’s made us successful more than anything is that you can rely on our consistency, and so the gumbo you get today is the same gumbo you got 30 years ago. But I’m in the kitchen almost every day, tweaking and playing, and swinging with the times. The “pimento cheese” sauce for a play on a hushpuppy dish has $80 worth of five kinds of cheddar cheese in it. Our breading has always been a blend of flour and cornstarch, but now I’ve added Wondra flour and rice flour, which gives our fried food an impeccably crunchy coating. I didn’t know about rice flour thirty years ago; that’s what my son, Jimmy, and the younger generation have taught me.

We were getting the young crowd in here 35 years ago, and we’re still getting the young crowd in here now. We push a lot through social media – we’re constantly posting pictures and counting down to Fat Tuesday – and it’s special to see young people coming in here for the first time, having found this old-school joint.

The Long Game

Looking back, as a restaurateur I feel blessed. I’ve always thought of the restaurant as my kitchen table, and so it feels like people have been “in my house” every day for the past 35 years. We had people at our anniversary party that have been coming here since we started. It was unbelievable to see their facial expressions and hear how passionate they were about how this restaurant tracks their life. One guy talked about how he started coming in with his friends when they were in law school, then they were state attorneys, and now some of them are judges. There were these four brothers who were traders, very heavy hitters, and they’d come in all hyped up at 10:30 in the morning, high from making so much money. Back then we all saw growth, and it was awesome. They got into “remember when…” mode.

And there were many remembrances of my mom. There was this one guy who said, “You know, I brought your mom a Christmas present every year because she was always so warm and made me feel like part of the family.” I watched my grandchild running up and down the hallway with my son, and had incredible deja vu, thinking back to me doing that with Jimmy. Customers could see the progression of their lives at these tables, and so could we. It’s really wild. To me, shit, what else can you ask for?

Regrets and Family Legacies

My one big regret is that I never cooked a day in any restaurant in New Orleans, other than for benefits with friends down there. If I had known that I was going to cook New Orleans food, I would have gone down there to cook for a few years after culinary school. So I made sure Jimmy knew that he needed to go work at other places, so that he could grow stronger and see what other people are doing. He needed to go to Europe. He needed to see what other doors could be opened. It was hell for him, going into kitchens like Del Posto in New York, since everyone knew he was my kid and they gave it to him harder because of that. But he persevered because he’s grounded and works hard; when he won the James Beard Award I couldn’t have been more proud.

When I think about the future, I think about setting my legacy. Jimmy is successful at Purple Pig, but he came in and helped me work Fat Tuesday because he still has one foot in the door at Heaven. My daughter has a successful company, but she’s so good at making this place feel like home for our customers that she’ll still wait tables sometimes, so she still has one foot in here, too. My brother’s son, Andrew, gets it, and he’s helping me streamline some of our production and is always coming at me with new ideas. My nephew Anthony gets it too; he understands hospitality and hard work. I’m building the future for the fourth generation and I feel great about it; a lot of people aren’t so lucky to be able to pass something like this on.

I’m only 57, so I have at least 15 more years of 16-hour days to go in me (as long as no one’s trying to tell me where to be). But I feel very lucky, because working with the younger generation gives me so much energy. And they know, too, that a lot of people in this business don’t have this sense of family. We all eat, drink and sleep this. I love serving people and I love dining. I love going out to eat. What a luxury this still is.

*This is equivalent to around $10.40 today

 

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