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A Fish Tale

Chicago’s most iconic seafood destination celebrates 80 glamorous years. 

The Cape Cod Room in the 1930s


The restaurant today

Sampler plate with crabcakes, oysters Rockefeller and shrimp

It’s a Chicago legend now, but when the Cape Cod Room debuted its seafood-focused menu, filled with dishes like lobster thermidor, trout amandine and Dover sole, it was considered cutting-edge. It was, after all, Dec. 6, 1933—just a day after Prohibition officially ended, when the Drake Hotel restaurant unlocked its doors for business. That bold move paid off for its creators, Chicago brothers John and Tracy Drake, who had already found success with their eponymous Magnificent Mile hotel. The Cape Cod Room, like the hotel, quickly became the place to be for visiting movie stars, politicians, heads of state and the social set.

Now, 80 years later, little has changed at the 130-seat nautical-themed restaurant, beyond its prices—and that’s exactly how its following likes it (although we’re sure they wouldn’t mind paying a vintage $2.25 price for a whole grilled baby lobster).

Wandering around the first-floor restaurant is like taking a step back in time. There’s the semiprivate Captain’s Quarters by the main entrance where President Reagan had dinner by himself, albeit with a ship’s female figurehead looking on. “I think he had the crab legs,” says General Manager Theodore Daskalopoulos.

Not far away is the bar, where numerous guests have carved their names into its wood top, including Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio in 1954. “It was a clever idea,” says Daskalopoulos.“Until, that is, people started bringing in chisels and screwdrivers.” (These days, parties of 20 or more are presented with a wooden paddle to sign, which is then displayed in the restaurant.)

Throughout the various nooks and crannies of the two-level space you’ll find tons of seaworthy antiques and accessories, including lantern-like lamps, lobster traps, copper chowder pots, mounted stuffed fish and replicas of ships. Even the flatware fits the aquatic theme, with its fish tail-shaped handle.

Then there’s the staff, some of whom have been at the restaurant for more than 30 years. “If you didn’t know a maitre d’ [at some points], you could forget about getting a table,” says Captain Ruben Ramirez, who’s been there since 1984. Ramirez, dapper in his blue blazer and striped tie, recalls visits from celebrities like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Michael Jordan, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor. “She had a ring like a flashlight,” he says.

Patrick Bredin, a 38-year veteran maitre d’ and manager of the Cape Cod Room who recently retired, remembers when Princess Diana visited and walked down the hallways outside the restaurant to talk with children who had gathered there, although her security staff didn’t want her to. Then there was the time when one of the popular six-tops was occupied by a solo diner even though Bredin had reserved it. “It was Muhammad Ali, so I didn’t challenge him,” says Bredin.

All these years later, the Cape Cod is still the type of spot where carts are used to finish dishes tableside, ice is served from a stainless-steel bowl with tongs and waiters say things like “you’re in charge” to diners, and mean it.

As for the food, it’s still worth writing, er, tweeting home about, from the garlicky shrimp DeJonghe and crabcakes to the Bookbinder soup, famously served with a side of sherry. “The Cape Cod is reminiscent of what Chicago used to be,” says Ramirez. And that’s a wonderful thing, indeed.