Famous in its day: London Chop House

londonchophseEXTThe London Chop House, Detroit’s 21 Club, enjoyed a ranking as one of the country’s top restaurants in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. James Beard named it as one of the ten best restaurants nationwide in 1961, the same year it won a Darnell Survey award as one of America’s Favorites. It won Holiday magazine awards repeatedly. Honors continued throughout the 1970s, and in 1980 it made Playboy’s top 25 list.

tableclothsLondonChopHouse1970s

Established following Repeal in the 1930s by the Gruber brothers, Lester (shown below, 1955) and Sam, it soon became a magnet for business executives, celebs passing through Detroit, and power elites of all stripes. Its attractions were many, including evening entertainment, a fine wine list, and fantastic concoctions from the bar. (Absinthe anyone? See 1945 drinks menu below.) Its chefs, among them Eddie Dobler, “Pancho” Velez, and Jimmy Schmidt, were known for their preparations of freshwater perch and whitefish from Michigan’s lakes and rivers as well, of course, for beef dishes aplenty.

londonchophouseDRINKSThe Grubers were adept at flattering the male ego. When a guest made a reservation, he would arrive to find his table with books of matches and a reserved sign all imprinted with his name, as well as a card with a coin in a slot reimbursing him for his phone call. Alpha types jostled for table #1, while regulars glowed with the knowledge that their suavely jacketed waiter had remembered how many ice cubes they liked in their highballs. To keep up with escalating demand, in 1952 the Grubers opened a second place across the street, the Caucus Club. The 1980s turned out to be a tough decade for the Chop House. Les Gruber sold it in 1982, chef Schmidt left, and the new owner passed away. Despite efforts to keep it afloat, it closed in 1991.

What strikes me from the vantage point of 2009, as I look at recipes and depictions of popular dishes at the Chop House, are both the food shortcuts employed and the richness of the ingredients used, characteristics which mark it as a mid-20th century American restaurant. It was typical of the times, I know, but it still surprises me that a restaurant with sky-high prices (easily running up to $50 a person for food alone in the 1970s) would bake carrots with “maple flavored” syrup, stir onion powder into mashed potatoes, and dissolve chicken bouillon granules into their watercress soup.

As for fat and cholesterol, the phrase “the better to kill you with, my dear” keeps running through my mind. Good thing those power lunchers had strong metabolisms. Either that or they needed to chop wood after a meal if they were to survive too many drinks like “the hummer” (ice cream, Kahlua, white rum), or eat too many Roqueburgers (beef patties containing Roquefort cheese, butter, and cognac) or corned beef hash topped with crumbled bacon and Parmesan cheese.

Still, even if it did shorten the lives of some auto execs I have to salute a restaurant which itself survived for over half a century.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

53 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

53 responses to “Famous in its day: London Chop House

  1. Jenna Mullins

    Mercury Retropolis, a vintage store in Harper Woods, MI, acquired a large number of HY Vogel caricatures that lined the upper walls of the London Chop House in the above picture.

  2. Anonymous

    I also have fond memories of the Chop House. I lived in Detroit from 1942 until the late 60’s. Every Saturday night we would go to the Chop House or Caucus club. I think it was the only club where you could dance and dine.
    I remember the Chef Pancho, because my husband was in the food business and when he got something special he would send it over to Pancho and he would prepare it for us on Saturday night.
    I’m 90 years old but I still remember the good times. Lil

  3. “Famous in its day: London Chop House | Restaurant-ing through history” lazezweb.com ended up being a quite pleasant blog. Keep writing and I will keep reading through! Thank you, Salvatore

  4. “Famous in its day: London Chop House | Restaurant-ing through history” really got me personally simply addicted on ur
    webpage! I personallywill certainly wind up being back significantly more often.
    Thank you ,Niamh

  5. Ricki Colarossi

    Does anyone have an old menu from the 60’s or 70’s they could post online?
    Would love to see it again.

  6. Ricki

    I loved the french fried zucchini, does anyone have the recipe?

  7. Anonymous

    My husband and I dined at the Chop House from 1965 thru 1975 with the advertising crowd almost 2 – 3 nights per week. Loved the memories and food and fun. What a great place it was.

  8. In 1961 I was the String bass player in the Living room of the Caucus Club with Bobby Laurel and Ben Appling on Drums. In the back room was the great piano player, Matt Michaels. We also worked the Chop House across the street and we have great “Gruber” stories to tell. In 1963 Matt was offered the job of Musical Director of the new Playaboy Club down the street and he left the Caucus Club to take it and hired me and Art Mardigian on drums where we stayed until 1970.

  9. Bobby L. Cloin

    I had the pleasure of enjoying the London Chop House from 1969 until 1985 when I moved to Florida. Jose Reyes was such a great person I remember when I would arrive before I could get to the bar my Chivas Regal with a splash would be waiting along with his great smile and warm greeting. Henry Tesorero was my waiter many times and I remember Jose Acevedo such a classy gentlemen. I will be in Detroit this summer and can’t wait to go through those front doors again. I have so many fond memories of the Chop House and the people I met. Bobby Cloin

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  11. Arthur Calloway

    It’s Great! to hear the London Chop House may be re-born. As a young man I worked my way from dishwasher to eventually run the Caucus Club kitchen … I worked in the restaurants from the age of 15 til I was almost 50 years old. (1970-2003)

  12. The Chop House was THE place to be on a Saturday night. People would get dressed up to dine and dance to the music of Mel Ball. I was lucky to be a third generation Chop House customer, with my Hy Vogel picture on the wall with my father and grandfather. I was sad to see it close and I hope the new Chop House can capture some of that magic for a new generation of Detroiter’s.

  13. Paula Gold

    My dear sweet uncle, Henry Tesorero, worked at the London Chop when I was growing up. Not sure of the time period but I believe he was a waiter and maitre d’ at some point. I remember him talking of a not so pleasant experience with Frank Sinatra. Does anyone remember my uncle? Never had the opportunity to visit the London Chop House but was very excited to hear it is reopening! No doubt I will be there in the near future. Paula Gold

  14. C R McVeigh

    I was a customer of the London Chop House for many years. Every Saturday I would have lunch there across from “The General” and “The Counselor”. We all ate at the exact same tables every Saturday. Though I never knew their names, the General once asked me to come outside and tell me if I like the color on his new Rolls Royce — a vibrant orangey rust color. What’s not to like? The Counselor once proudly showed off his new Christmas argyle socks — lifted his leg almost table high. As a very young engineer in the auto biz, it was my one luxury every week. The Chop was the best. The Firehouse Clam Chowder is something I long for. I’ve never, ever found a recipe that comes close. Is there any way to get it?

    • Mike Houlihan is a chef in Detroit somewhere — he can give it to you, I have since lost the recipe, I was executive chef there from 85 to 90, thanks grant brown

  15. Would especially like to talk with dydan about jose reyes. But would love to talk to anyone who knew him he was a dear friend.

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  18. Donna

    My husband gave me my diamond engagement ring at the London Chop House in 1970. We were so impressed with the personalized matches and the wonderful service and delicious food. I was a buyer at the JL Hudson Company and he was from St. Catharines ON. We are still happily married after 40 years and we have often thought of returning but I was disappointed to find it had closed as has the JL Hudson Company.
    The happy memories will live on always in our hearts!

  19. Nick Givas

    My dad (George Givas) worked at the London Chop House for many years. I remember going downtown, meeting up with him, sitting down for a Gold Brick Sundae, and then going to a Tiger game, sometimes even getting Mr. Gruber’s seats right behind the Tiger Dugout. My dad passed away a year ago, but he had many great stories.

    • Christopher Petrides

      My dad also worked at the Chophouse from 1960 to 1974. He tells a lot of stories about it. He knew George Givas well and was sad to hear he passed away. He still has some menus and always talks about the famous people who came in.

    • Sorry to hear about your dad, Georgie was a favorite of mine we worked together from 85 to 90

  20. Ben Woolf

    My grandfather, Al Woolf, was one of the owners of the Chop House and Caucus Club. If anyone is looking for history of the place my Dad and his cousin, daughter of Lester Gruber, are still around and would be happy to talk to you I’m sure. Thanks for posting some great history for the younger generations.

  21. Brian Psenski

    Wow! I love all the history and following of the London Chop house. I will be working with the owners if the building and be reopening the chop house by the end if the year. I would love to speak with anyone about the chop house so that I may keep the integrity and nostalgia alive. Please email me bpsenski@fishbonesusa.com

  22. judy

    my dad was a waiter at the London Chop house when I was very young I thought all children had a lobster bib and a silver spoon

  23. bob

    Wasn’t there a piano player there at one time?

  24. Lill

    Does any one remember what the dinner plate looked like? It is just a question that we are trying to find an answer to ……Lill

  25. I worked for many years at the Caucus Club under my nickname, Shelley. It was a pleasure to work during the highlight of the years that the London Chop House and Caucus Club had. If the walls could talk. Jose Acevedo and I are living in Oracle, AZ now. He was the General Manager of both places for many years. The experience feels like many lifetimes ago.

    • I bet you have some stories!

      • We sure do have stories! It was a culture all of it’s own that has long since gone from the way we live now.

      • I’d love to hear your take on why a restaurant like that is a thing of the past.

      • I have tried to encapsulate the main differences I have observed through the years. I could really write a book on it.

        Culture and Restaurants

        Service = anticipation of a need. This element is lacking in today’s restaurant environment. Once people chose service as a profession and approached it that way. Waiters would begin their professions as bus boys and learn from the masters of service that waiter’s once were. Elements of service and attention to detail have mostly been lost. Service begins at the front door and sets the stage for the ambiance that prevails throughout the dining experience. There are distinct differences between eating and dining.

        Restaurateurs, true gourmands, created an ambiance in the front of the house while letting the chefs mostly create the menu and run the kitchen (back of the house). Restaurateurs essentially created the whole theme and menu direction. Now chefs run their own restaurants with food as their focal point. Lawyers and other business professions began buying restaurants and thinking they could run a restaurant like they run a social function in their living room. The “bottom line” became the only consideration.

        Managers running restaurants are mostly college grads with intellectual knowledge with some waitress/waiter experience but not being trained with the depth of knowledge of service one receives after learning from the “bottom up”.

        Customers are not the same. They would rather eat than dine and most don’t know the difference.

      • Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

    • Lisa

      My grandfather worked @ the London Chophouse in the 50’s (Gilbert Cook) I have heard wonderful things about it. I wish there were more pictures out there and shared stories :)

    • Michael B. Woolf

      Ann,
      Al (Albert J.) and Bertha were my parents.
      I just discovered this site and article. I would love to talk to you and Jose.
      Please, please respond.
      ~Michael

  26. Tony

    I lived and worked in Detroit from 75-82…and loved the ‘Chopper”. A big time hang out for car guys and a lot of folks like me in the advertising biz. Jose was a one of a kind and really did make the best margaritas…on a hot summer night they were fabulous!

    The Caucus Club was a sensational place as well…not as glamorous as its sister across the street but just as good. In fact the two restaurants were connected to each other by a tunnel that ran under Congress Street.

  27. My best friend in college was the daughter of the man who was the head bartender at the Chop House for over 40 years. Shortly after we graduated, he died very suddenly. He was buried in his beloved bartender’s uniform and his funeral was like a Who’s Who of Detroit. Politicians and sports figures made a point to pay their respects to him.

    I think of him often and I still think he died too soon. He always talked about writing a book about his experiences and said he would title it “If Bar Rails Could Talk”.

    His name was Jose Reyes and he made the best damn margaritas in the world. He had a secret recipe that he never shared with anyone. He invented the Hummer and was responsible for giving a very young Barbara Streisand something to help her hoarse and sore throat on her first visit to Detroit to perform. His backyard pool parties were legendary – complete with mariachi bands! He was one hell of a man and the Chop House would not have been the hip place it was in its heyday without Jose’s unique presence.

    • Maria Elena Rodriguez

      Good afternoon Dydan,

      I am finalizing a book that I wrote for Arcadia Books about the Mexicans who settled in Detroit. It’s a labor of love and I am thrilled to have the permission of Laura to print a photo of Mr. Reyes. Your comments totally encapsulate his persona and I would love with your permission to reprint the above comments as part of the caption under his photo. Please let me know if this is doable. My best,
      Maria Elena

      • Dydan Waters

        Hi Maria,
        Sorry it took so long to see this comment! By all means quote me. Jose was a kind, sweet soul and I’ll always have a special place in my heart for him and his family.

    • Jami

      This man is my father. How can I get in touch with someone from his family? I understand this is probably a shock to some people. He passed away when I was six and I know very little of him.

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