Over winter break one day we stopped at Little Louie’s in Northbrook. I told my husband we should eat lunch there because our nine-year-old daughter could have something she likes and we could have something healthier.
We ordered a hot dog and fries for our daughter and chicken and avocado wraps for ourselves. After we finished the wraps, we stepped back up to the counter. “Two hot dogs, everything, fries.” Happens every time.
In Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way the narrator is overcome with memories of childhood when he bites into the fancy French equivalent of a Salerno butter cookie. Same thing happens when I bite into a Chicago hot dog.
One taste of a Vienna frank surrounded by a puffy poppy seed bun and I see myself sitting on a padded stool, a wax paper-lined mustard-yellow plastic basket on the counter in front of me. I’m dipping fries into a pool of ketchup as I stare out the window facing Kimball Avenue. It’s about 12:30 on a Saturday. I’m twelve years old and I’ve just finished two hours of dance classes at Miss Carol’s Dance Arts Studio around the corner on Bryn Mawr.
For years I ate lunch on Saturdays at Whirly’s Red Hots. Usually my best friend, Helene, was at my side. We were a couple giggle-prone preteens who talked daily for hours, yet at Whirly’s we often chewed in silence. Eating hot dogs and fries, washing them down with orange pop (soda to the rest of the country), was so pleasureable, even in a nondescript place like Whirly’s, that the few thoughts we had vanished from our minds.
There was, of course, a man called Whirly behind the counter. A wiry man of medium height and dark hair in my memory, he may have been young or he may have been older. He was friendly, but once we placed our orders I don’t recall much conversation with him. I remember hearing top 40 hits like Pacific Gas & Electric’s “Are You Ready?” so there was a juke box or a radio and also a pinball machine in the rear. I never played but it seemed to me the same guy, someone’s older brother, usually was on it.
Legendary North Side Hot Dog Stands
Whirly’s isn’t one of the famed hot dog stands mentioned in Bob Schwartz’s entertaining book about Chicago’s love affair with the hot dog, Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog. Whirly’s just happened to be the hot dog stand closest to my house and around the corner from dance school. I ate more hot dogs and fries at Whirly’s than anywhere else.
At the time I knew Fluky’s was famous–it was larger, brighter, and busier than Whirly’s–but I didn’t know Fluky’s was the granddaddy of all Chicago stands. Fluky’s dated back to 1929 on Maxwell Street, and like the West Side Jewish congregations I’ve written about, it migrated to the North Side in the sixties. I also didn’t know that Wolfy’s and Fluky’s were related by marriage. Fluky’s brother-in-law was a co-founder of Wolfy’s.
When it comes to hot dog stands, convenience is everything. Homey storefronts with funny names dot every neighborhood in the city and suburbs. But I learned in Bob Schwartz’s book that Albany Park, the neighborhood to the south of where I grew up, is famous for producing more stars in Chicago hot dog history than any other area. Hot dog stands not just in Chicago and the suburbs but around the country trace their lineage back to fifties and sixties-era Albany Park hot dog stands.
There was Maury’s Red Hots on Lawrence Avenue. After 30 years in business for himself, Maury closed his place and went to work for Weiner Takes All in Buffalo Grove. Danny Polovin worked at Maury’s and went on to establish his own hot dog stands in Boulder and Denver, Mustard’s Last Stand (unrelated to the Evanston business of the same name).
Marshall Rosenthal, who provided photos of hot dog stands for this post, attended Roosevelt High School in Albany Park and remembers he always could find a pal at Maury’s. Marshall liked The Bagel in its early days as an counter joint at Kedzie and Lawrence.
Back to the old days, Lerner’s on Kedzie, the place owned by my classmate’s father, inspired Mel Lohn to open Mel’s Hot Dogs in Tampa. Then there was Mutt and Jeff’s, which moved into the space occupied by Lerner’s and later gave birth to Stash’s in Highland Park and has family ties to Hot Dog Island on the North Shore. In his book Bob Schwartz also mentions Michael Swibesh, an Albany Parker and Von Steuben grad who owns Michael’s Hot Dogs in Evergreen, Colorado.
Bob Schwartz writes about these places like he’s writing family history. And he is. Some hot dog stands, not all, managed to escape the fate of other mom and pop businesses — the neighborhood hardwares, clothing stores and bike shops that disappeared decades ago.
Sitting at a wobbly table near the front window of Little Louie’s on a Saturday afternoon, my daughter can have the same hot dog experience I had forty odd years ago, though it doesn’t cost fifty cents anymore.
That’s okay; it’s worth it every time.
Do you have a favorite hot dog stand or a favorite hot dog stand memory?
Photo credits: My thanks to Marshall Rosenthal for use of his photographs of Chicago area hot dog stands. I took the shot of my daughter with the plain hot dog at Glenview’s Fred Hots and Fries.
Update! I know it’s hard to understand how I could write a post about Chicago hot dog stands and not mention Superdawg. When I first wrote this post, I didn’t know Superdawg co-founders Maurie and Flaurie Berman attended Von Steuben High School in Albany Park. This discovery lends further support to my theory that more hot dog stands have ties to Albany Park than to any other Chicago community. Here’s one of many articles written about the owners of Superdawg.
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