Friday, February 25, 2005

Harry’s Hot Dogs

On the checkerboard of downtown Chicago, Harry’s Hot Dogs is one city block north and one city block west of my office. Yet until three weeks ago, I’d never stopped there to eat. No special reason, just one of those places you pass by.

In January, Neil Steinberg mentioned the place again in his column in the Sun-Times, and that reminded me that I should try it. Harry’s is at the corner of Randolph and Franklin. At another corner of that intersection is an incredibly ugly Walgreens, a box of brownish pre-cast concrete. Cater-cornered from Harry’s is a mid-sized office building dating from a dreary period in office design, occupied by the phone giant SBC. At the other corner is a parking lot.

Harry’s doesn’t have to do much to stand out at this corner, but it adds some color to the area anyway: happy yellow awnings with red letters, big picture windows and some neon signs. Harry’s takes the entire first floor of a dwarf of a building—four stories—the upper stories of which are occupied by the HQ of the Showmen’s League of America, the trade group for circuses and carnivals. That’s another blog all together, one that I will write up someday when I visit the Showmen’s memorial in the suburbs; but I will mention the small elephants, the group’s symbol, over each and every upper-story window of this building.

There’s an actual Harry. His name is Harry Heftman, and according to Steinberg’s columns, he’s 95, and has owned this hot dog restaurant since 1956. When I went in a few weeks ago, there was a small old man behind the counter, moderated stooped, wearing enormous glasses and sporting a head of thin silver hair, but no bald spots.

“Are you Harry?” I asked. He said he was. He’s in fine shape—doesn’t look a day over 80. Or 85. I ordered a hamburger, and he rung it up. He asked what I did, and I told him I edited a magazine. Easier, I think, than going into detail about writing and editing for both print and on-line products, but maybe I’m not giving Harry enough credit for keeping up with things.

He presides over a classic Chicago hot stand. It’s got the worn counter behind which everything is cooked, the hiss of fat frying, the clink of metal on iron, the smell of cooking meat. Customers sit at booth-style seats, bright blue seatbacks with brown tables and space for either two or four, or at a half-dozen stools along a long ledge, looking out the window. There’s total seating for maybe 35 customers at a time. Decoration for the brown walls has accumulated down the years. I think Harry likes the Chicago skyline, and the Cubs. Vienna Beef has provided a couple of hot dog posters. There’s a framed poster of a Boeing 747. And two of Steinberg’s columns hang on the wall, framed.

Today I had a chili dog. Truth be told, Gold Coast Dogs used to make better hot dogs, and Fast Track makes a meaner hamburger (see April 14, 2003). But Harry’s serves up pretty good grub. Harry himself doesn’t always stay behind the counter, at least he didn’t today, shuffling between it and the back room, and occasionally busing a table. He would check the grill, and have a word with one of the three or four workers. Other people would say hello to him.

As I was leaving today, I spoke to him again. I think he remembered me, which is more than I can usually manage with people I’ve only met briefly. But maybe that talent has helped keep the hot dog business going all these years.

“How often do you come in?” I asked.

“Four days a week,” he answered. “Gives me something to do.”

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