Famous in its day: The Bakery

Louis Szathmary’s restaurant, The Bakery, opened in Chicago at a time when restaurant going in that city was not a very exciting proposition. Amidst the steak and potatoes of 1963, its pâté, bouillabaisse, Wiener schnitzel, and Viennese tortes stood out as exotic. Despite its storefront location in a run-down neighborhood – and no decor to speak of — the 25-seat neighborhood restaurant became an instant success. A little more than a year after it opened it was given a distinguished dining award by Holiday magazine. Reservations became hard to get.

The first review of The Bakery described it as a table d’hôte offering a set dinner that began with pâté, possibly followed by celery soup, shredded celery root salad with handmade mayonnaise, and Filet of Pike with Sauce Louis. By 1975 the number of entree choices for the then-$12 five-course dinner had extended to ten, with Beef Wellington and Roast Duckling with Cherry Glaze [pictured] among the most popular. Even as Beef Wellington lost its fashionability in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued as a Bakery mainstay. In 1989, as the restaurant was about to close, Szathmary said that although current food writers made fun of it, “they all raved about it once, and I know 50 percent of our sales after 26 years is still beef Wellington.”

Szathmary, who claimed a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Budapest, had learned to cook in Hungary during WWII when he was conscripted into the Hungarian army. He arrived in the US in 1951, working as a chef in several institutional settings in the Northeast before moving to Chicago in 1960 to join Armour & Co. in product development. As executive chef at Armour he helped launch the company’s Continental Cuisine line of frozen entrees for the home and commercial market that came in polybags that could be immersed in boiling water and served.

Among the first eating places to serve entrees from Armour’s Continental Cuisine and American Fare lines were Holiday Inn motels and the Seagram Tower at Niagara Falls. Dishes available in the two lines included beef burgundy, chuck wagon beef stew, turkey and crabmeat tetrazzini, chow mein, shrimp creole, and barbecued pork fried rice. Only months before opening The Bakery, Chef Louis (as he was popularly known) had been training the staff of a Michigan gas-station-restaurant complex aptly named The American Way how to heat and serve Armour’s bagged entrees.

After he left Armour to concentrate on The Bakery, Chef Louis continued to praise the use of convenience foods in restaurants. He published a column titled “Use Psychology on Your Customers” in a trade magazine in 1965 in which he urged restaurant managers to be honest about the food they served. He conceded that because he knew many of his guests were suspicious of frozen foods, he did not apologize when he took them on a tour of his storage areas. Although he sometimes used frozen foods, he said he always revealed that on his menus. In a July 1968 column for the trade magazine Food Service, he insisted that the restaurant industry should welcome factory-produced food because of the shortage of help at a time when restaurant patronage was on the rise.

That column brought forth a protest from fellow Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang of the elegant Four Seasons in NYC. Lang wrote, “I would very much like to preserve the level of cooking and the niveau [peak] of gastronomy that we practice at the Four Seasons.” To this Chef Louis replied that he was simply trying to be provocative. Not much later he boasted that he had the distinction of being fired as a consultant to Restaurant Associates (owner of the Four Seasons) – as well as caterer to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

With his fingers in many pies, Chef Louis was assisted by his wife Sada and a contingent of relatives, not to mention quite of few of his compatriots from Hungary who served in The Bakery’s kitchen and dining room (one going so far as to grow his own handlebar mustache). No doubt it was his loyal staff who made it possible for him to run a restaurant while producing books and copious newspaper and magazine articles, appearing frequently on TV and radio, teaching and lecturing at colleges, and conducting sideline restaurant consulting and cooking school businesses [shown above training waiters]. Always a showman, the flamboyant Chef Louis gave talks with titles such as “The Naked Ape and the Frying Pan,” and another in which he compared his ex-wives unfavorably to a bottle of Angostura bitters that had lasted longer and never got spoiled.

In addition to The Bakery, he owned or co-owned two other restaurants managed by his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, the Kobatas. The Cave, in Old Town, opened shortly after The Bakery. Its interior of papier mache simulated the walls of a cave covered with prehistoric drawings as researched by Chef Louis. In 1970 he opened Bowl & Roll, another family-wide venture drawing in not only the Kobatas but also the mothers of both Louis and Sada, plus Louis’ brother and sister-in-law. In an opening advertisement Bowl & Roll promised a range of unusual soups such as Hungarian sour cherry soup, Scandinavian fruit soup, and kohlrabi soup.

In the mid-1970s The Bakery’s reputation began to sag somewhat along with “continental cuisine” generally. Critic John Hess, in 1974, questioned the high regard that Holiday magazine bestowed on The Bakery and declared its Beef Wellington “the quintessence of the pretentious gourmet plague.” Patrons sent letters to Chicago newspapers saying the Roast Duckling was as “tough as an auto tire,” and charging that the restaurant’s acclaim was based on “mass hysteria” whipped up by Chef Louis himself. Chicagoans were sharply divided into lovers and haters. For two years in the 1970s readers polled by Chicago Magazine voted The Bakery as one of both the city’s 10 favorite and 10 least favorite restaurants. Still, in 1977 Cornell University named it one of the country’s six great restaurants, and, despite its loudly banging front door, too-brisk service, lack of decor, and awkward layout, its loyal patrons stuck by it and it remained profitable to the end.

At the 1989 closing Chef Louis said that the restaurant business had changed so much he could not have successfully created a restaurant such as The Bakery then, partly because of the public’s growing preference for lighter food. He declared he was proud that he “never served one kiwi fruit.”

Chef Louis stayed busy in retirement and donated his vast cookbook and culinary arts collection to libraries at the University of Iowa and Johnson & Wales University.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

23 Comments

Filed under food, guides & reviews, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

23 responses to “Famous in its day: The Bakery

  1. Phyllis Clark Droszcz

    During this pandemic I have been scanning old pictures. Look what I found, our Xmas dinner at The Bakery back in 1977. We worked for Quasar/Panasonic in Franklin Park (eventually became Matsushita Ins. Co.) I had to look up the restaurant and low and behold this great article came up. I can’t believe I have a picture of Chef Louis with his wine glass as someone mentioned above. Also one of one of the waiters in a tux. I think we went there for the Beef Wellington, which was the first time I had it and have loved it ever since. I was going to attach a picture of Chef Louis, but can’t find where I can attach it. Too bad, it’s a great picture.

  2. William bohleber

    I was a little boy when I was at the Bakery. My parents & grand mom got a table in the kitchen & we had the opportunity to share shots with the chef — my self only being ten I had a Kittie cocktail.

  3. Ed Papalia

    It was The Best!!

  4. Mark Verhyden

    I remember eating there in in ’67 or so. My Dad was an executive at Caterpillar in Peoria. In those days Peoria had nothing in the fine dining category. So he and Mom used to take us up to Chicago for fine dining. To this day I still remember the Beef Wellington. Absolutely awesome.

  5. Joel Leisch

    Joel,
    As a graduate student at Northwestern, 1967-8 I dined at the Bakery at least once a month always with a date. My dates were always impressed that as a student I could afford such a wonderful restaurant. The price was right and the beef wellington out of this world.

  6. Barry Haber

    Always went to the bakery when I hit Chicago in the 70’s. The beef Wellington was my favorite. Years later I went on to be the ceo of Cuisinart for 20 years. Never forgot this and was just explaining to my daughter who will try to make it in the next several days. BH

  7. JV

    I worked for Szathmary in the early 70s as a ‘bus girl.’ They had only waiters (who all wore tuxes) and so the bus girls set and cleared tables and helped the waiters carry food. We wore a crisp white pinafore over a black skirt and blouse… very European, and I was charmed. The staff were mostly from Europe and all characters themselves. They were very warm, kind and old school, scolding you like a loving parent if you made a mistake. They taught me how to drink coffee through a sugar cube… the Hungarian way, and the restaurant had a huge communal lunch for the whole staff before the evening service which was a lot of fun. Szathmary himself was a total charmer… kind, generous and a grand character himself. Unfortunately he was also ‘old school’ back then when it came to women. As a young girl in my early 20s I looked to him as a father figure, yet he often made off color jokes to me privately, signed my copy of “American Gastronomy” with a suggestive cartoon, and even goosed me once. As girls did back then, I brushed it off and tried to avoid being near him. That was the way it was in those days. I accepted it and didn’t let it spoil my time working there, I loved every minute of it.

  8. Awesome article. I worked for Louis in the mid-1980s. Louis was a character straight out of the old-school. So many fond memories of Louis.

  9. Jean Salkeld

    I found a Chef Louis recipe for a whole tenderloin beef in the Chicago Daily News on December 10, 1975 (p. 54). It is NEVER FAIL. The title of the article was “Roasting beef, a chef’s way”. I refer to it as ‘my Xmas beef’ and have fixed it every Xmas since 1975. It is a simple recipe, but the first 3 steps require getting the beef to room temperature before the next step. In the article he states: “Just about every ‘expert’ has called me ‘crazy’ for suggesting this method – until they try it”. It is so-o tender, you can cut it with a fork. Maybe it is in one of his cookbooks.

  10. Felix Conde

    Around 1984, my first visit and with my father, Felix E. Conde, from Cuba and coming through PR in business trip for the NEOCON . . . Was a magnificent experience, full of great personalities, best ambiance, incredible place for food & drinks. Always remember as a best place after a hard working day!!!

  11. Bob

    I started going to the Bakery in the early 1970s. I loved every visit to the restaurant. The pate, Beef Wellington and Chocolate Eclairs were the best. It was a very fun place and and great place to eat!
    I miss it!

  12. Peggy Sieber

    Sorry for my bourgeois tastes, but my all-time favorite meal was Chef Louis’ Beef Wellington! We lived in Arlington Heights, IL. during the mid seventies and The Bakery was always our special occasion destination. Never have I been able to find a beef entree that compares!

  13. Ahhh, chef Louis – I remember him in his New Balance tennis shoes, stopping at every table. He carried a wine glass in his back pocket, and because they only had a pouring license, he got to sample about 20 wines a night. Awesome chef.

    • william allen

      Hello! my name is William Allen and i was born and raised in the Chicago area. I am a retired ACF certified CEC and CCE and apprenticed under Chef Louis for two years in the early 70’s.

  14. David Persin

    Are their any chefs around that worked for chef loui? Need to find his beef Wellington!

    • I don’t know but you could contact the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales and they might be able to give you a lead.

    • Anonymous

      Hello! my name is William Allen (retired ACF certified CEC, CCE). I was born and raised in the Chicago area and apprenticed under Chef Louis for two years in the early 70’s.

    • Linda Federoff

      I was a loyal patron of the Bakery from 1972 until I moved out of state in 1983. Loved the Beef Wellington and while discussing my love for it to Chef Louis one evening, he offered to sell me his cookbooks. I bought the Chef’s Secret Cookbook and the Chef’s New Secret Cookbook. I make the same 5 course meal we always got there, starting with liver pate and pickles on bread, celery root salad, soup, Beef Wellington with Red Wine Currant Sauce, pan roasted potatoes and some sort of vegetable. It’s definitely a lot of work, but since I only make it once a year, a real treat for my family and friends. By far, the best Wellington I’ve ever had, nothing to compare. You can google the books themselves or Chef Louis and should be able to find his cookbooks for resale. I bought them for a friend last year on eBay!

  15. Robert Wohlfeil

    Had dinner once at the Bakery, in 1984. The meal was great, Beef Wellington. Chef came to our table and offered a tray full of cordials.. We found him to be entertaining and engaging… We stayed in touch. Chef had a speaking engagement in Grand Rapids. I was able to offer him a room at my hotel, The Marriott, in Grand Rapids.. He spent the evening and left me a special note about his stay..He was truly a gentleman and I enjoyed my short time with him..He was one of a dying breed.. I still think of him..

  16. Sandra Hunter

    Worked in the area near the Bakery. Interesting ‘restauranting through history” era. Remember going to R.J. Grunts opening day. Located on Lincoln Park and Armitage touted the first salad bar as a side to charbroiled burgers with multiple toppings or as a main course. The salad bar 15 plus items was literally soup to nuts. That started ‘Lettuce Entertain You’ food group.
    Thanks for the memories. I can still taste the blue cheese and smoked bacon with lettuce tomato onion on my medium rare burger…humm.

  17. silverside

    I remember going here as a I child and just loving it! I think I still have an old autograph book somewhere (remember those?) where Chef Louis signed his name.

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