Noble Lineage

Chelsea Leu

The name White Castle brings to mind myriad associations–nickel meals, greasy sliders, and Harold and Kumar. But whenever you think of White Castle, it’s hard not to picture one of the actual restaurants. Since the chain was founded in the 1920s, the company has relied on its trademark design to make it more recognizable among consumers. Each branch, the company dictates, has to look quite literally like a castle–Chicago’s Water Tower castle, to be precise–complete with turrets, crenellated walls, and white porcelain brick. Effectively, the buildings themselves became wordless advertisements, glistening roadside invitations to come in and eat.

White Castle #16, at Wabash and Cermak, was built in 1929. Weathering the Depression and the eight decades that followed, the porcelain structure slowly lost its sheen. But, in 2010, after its current owner was awarded a $280,000 grant from the city to rehabilitate this Chicago artifact, the White Castle’s façade was returned to its former gleaming white glory. In September, the site was deemed so important that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks awarded White Castle #16 the “2011 Chicago Landmark Award for Preservation Excellence.”

While the building itself is gaining preservation notoriety, the food won’t be receiving any awards for historical accuracy. In fact, the former White Castle now houses two separate but related restaurants–Gourmet Chicken and Chef Luciano, both owned and operated by father and son team Dave and Rocky Gupta. The two restaurants occupy the same enclosed space, though each has its own special fare. Chef Luciano (Dave’s alter ego) serves Italian staples with, as their menu says, “Cajun, Jamaican, African and Indian” accents. Gourmet Chicken, on the other hand, serves fried and roasted chicken, fried okra, and incongruously, Indian dishes, such as curry chicken and naan.

Rocky can constantly be seen in the kitchen, moving between the two sides of the restaurant, while Dave makes appearances on the customers’ side of the counter, his friendly face crinkling with a smile as he wishes visitors an enjoyable meal. One wall of the brightly lit space is painted a bright vermilion, while the rest are covered with framed newspaper clippings and photographs of happy customers. Racks of homemade and hand-labeled bottles of hot sauce, lemonade, and ginger beer flank the ordering counter–a flavorful spread that seems a far cry from what the eighty-year-old building originally offered.

Gourmet Chicken and Chef Luciano aren’t devoid of their own history. Here the workers all wear the same black T-shirts, proclaiming that Gourmet Chicken has been “proudly serving the South Side” since 1982 but the legacy of White Castle still (quite literally) surrounds them.

The Guptas are conscious of this legacy. To celebrate the completion of the renovation last November, they offered their take on White Castle’s famous Depression-era five-cent burger deal–a two-piece roast chicken dinner with rice pilaf for a nickel. But their mission of bringing gourmet yet affordable food to Chicago seems in direct contrast to the assembly line-produced fast food of White Castle. As a chef, Dave sees bringing tasty, nutritious, and affordable food to his customers as a life mission. This belief was the driving force behind his decision to switch from fried to roasted chicken dishes in 1988. Though some scoffed that roasted chicken wouldn’t sell, Dave firmly believed that “if you give people choices, they will make the right choice.”  Gourmet Chicken and Chef Luciano, then, occupy a unique niche–neither fast-food chain nor pricey fine dining, but  a simple, two-part eatery where the staff look after their customers.

Still miss that quick-and-dirty White Castle fare? While the former White Castle #16 no longer serves Chicagoans, a modern-day, functional White Castle is visible just across the street–a testament to the chain’s power as a cultural icon and, perhaps, the unchanging tastes of the American palate. According to White Castle Inc., the chain “is more than a company. It’s an experience that transcends time, space and sometimes, rational thought.” Though it may sound like hyperbole, it seems as if this mantra still rings true in White Castle #16, even though its royal burger days are done.

49 E. Cermark Rd. Monday-Saturday, 10:30am-8pm. (312)326-0026.