A Night at the Secret Airport Steakhouse That Once Rivaled the Playboy Club
O’Hare International’s Gaslight Club is a blast from the past that somehow still works
Chicago is undoubtedly a meat-and-potatoes town. Steakhouses reign supreme, from the Loop’s tourist traps and cheffy Fulton Market newcomers to Old Town throwbacks and the glitzy eateries dotting the Gold Coast’s “Viagra Triangle,” the Rust Street hub where men of a certain age canoodle with much younger dining companions over dry-aged Tomahawks.
But if there’s a place a Chicagoan would never expect to find one of the country’s most storied and, at one point, most exclusive chop shops, it’s probably O’Hare International Airport.
Enter the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport via the elevators off of Terminal 2, swing a right, head past the sprawling front desk and you’ll encounter an oversized mirror announcing “Gaslight Club: Elegant Dining & Entertainment” in illuminated, Gatsby-era lettering. Sneak past the sign and approach a dimly lit host stand, then follow the maître d’ down a hallway lined with intimate leather booths and built-in bookshelves. That hallway eventually empties into the great room, where two-tops and four-tops dressed in crisp white tablecloths cluster beneath a truly gargantuan crystal chandelier. The textured wallpaper, deep maroon and emblazoned with a gold paisley pattern, stretches up to the heavens, forming a fitting backdrop to a handful of towering Botticelli-style nudes encased in thick gilded frames. A Baby Grand perches near the back, crowned by a large black-and-white photograph of an elderly gent engulfed by a sea of scantily clad showgirls. Against the far wall, a middle-aged bartender sporting a shock of blonde curls and a fringy black leotard presides warmly over a compact five-seat bar.
“What’s your pleasure?” she coos, slapping a paper napkin down on the bartop. Nearby, an off-duty flight attendant sips Lemondrops and makes small talk with the silver-haired businessman next to her. A narrow plaque above the carved mahogany back bar boldly declares: Work is the curse of the drinking masses. A modest flatscreen wedged in the corner plays SportsCenter on mute, silently reminding the room that is still, somehow, the year 2020.
So yeah, it’s that kind of place.
The original Gaslight Club opened its doors in 1953 at 814 N. Rush Street in River North, the brainchild of local ad executive Burton Browne. One could argue that it was the first neo-speakeasy, an over-the-top homage to an illicitness it never actually had to contend with, complete with Roaring ‘20s-style decor, secret back rooms, waitresses gussied up in flapper garb, racy dance performances set to Dixieland Jazz and cocktails served in ceramic coffee mugs.
Guests even needed a special gold-plated key to gain entry, spurring a brief but significant “Key Club” craze as similar outfits popped up across mid-century America. It was a looky-no-touchy gentleman’s club, paving the way for Hugh Heffner’s Chicago-based Playboy Club (est. 1960) and, in some ways, the strip-mall breastaurants that proliferated in the 1980s and ‘90s. Browne’s concept spread like wildfire, eventually spanning 26,000 members across 13 different Gaslight Clubs in places as far reaching as Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Miami. Four called the Chicagoland area home, including a location in the tony Palmer House hotel and another in East Dundee. The O’Hare outpost, the empire’s lone survivor, has been chugging steadily along since 1973.
When I asked my mother, a former healthcare executive who frequently traveled to Chicago on business throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, if she remembered the Gaslight Club at O’Hare, I got an immediate affirmative. “Yes, many times,” she texted. “It was always fun. My initial memory is dark wood, lots of red and women dressed up.” After a beat she added, “Long legged women.”
I thought about my mother, an ardent second-wave feminist who altered the endings of my bedtime stories so that the princess lived happily ever after only after graduating from Harvard Law and insisted on calling the snowmen that littered our suburban St. Louis lawn snowpeople. How could she, of all people, recall this seemingly exploitative establishment as fun?
I soon discovered that the answer was inextricably linked to the club’s bizarrely perfect location.
Today’s Gaslight Club is no longer a members-only operation, having done away with the key business shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 temporarily tanked sales. Removing this barrier had a democratizing effect on the club’s clientele. Single women on work trips started popping in for a post-meeting martini. Groups of tourists wandered in wearing basketball shorts and T-shirts. Multi-generational families came in for special occasions and groups of foreign business people gorged themselves on thick hunks of all-American beef.
The place got a makeover in 1991, ever-so-slightly sprucing up the decor and converting the backroom from a burlesque-driven speakeasy into a private dining room. A few years ago the waitresses — yes, the servers are exclusively women, as far as I can tell — successfully lobbied for the right to wear skirts over their bikini-cut leotards. Inside, strangers laugh and chat with each other, sharing their stories with the kind of ease often reserved for actual airport bars.
A recent Tuesday evening found the restaurant a little less than half full. My partner Emily and I made our way to the bar, weaving past a few 30-something couples bent over shared shrimp cocktails and businessmen with loosened ties gripping glasses of whiskey. The piano player, a woman appearing to be in her 60s with a dark shag haircut and sequined blouse, was at her post, banging away a pleasant but unrecognizable tune. An older man, looking dapper with his slicked-back white locks and silk pocket square, sat at a table directly in front of the bench and gazed on with deep, unwavering reverence.
“He’s local,” Carolyn, the bartender, leaned in to tell me, nodding toward the pianist’s admirer with a coy smile. “He comes in here to sing about two or three times a week, has been for years. He’s not an employee.”
The least controversial thing I can tell you about the Gaslight Club is that the food is really, really good.
“Are you happy? You going to eat here with me?” Carolyn asked, menus in hand. She had just finished making us our drinks: a Basil Hayden’s Old Fashioned for me, magenta-hued and tempered by muddled Maraschino cherries, and a markedly boozy French 75 for Emily.
“OK, I’m going to make you a little table like this,” she continued, pointing to the man at the corner of the bar. A rectangular cloth napkin stretched out before him on the bartop, silverware neatly framing his salad plate like the lunch service he probably got earlier that day on his long haul flight.
“We have great food. Shareable things, too. The couple that just left, they had a wedge. She had ranch and he had the bleu. We share it onto two plates so you each get a full quarter. They’ll do it in the back so you don’t even have to mess with it. It’s just a suggestion.”
The wedge was classic steakhouse fodder. An avalanche of fatty dressing spilling out over a bright green, nutritionless mass, all crunch and tang and velvety cream disguised as a salad. Done poorly, you’re faced with a cold, lifeless soup. But done well, it’s like nothing else, both refreshing and comforting.
“And the lamb,” Carolyn proceeded, previewing the mains. “We have a full rack which is so good. They cook it whole on the grill with olive oil, then he slices through each lollipop before it’s served so it’s easy to eat. Goes really nice with our spinach. We’ve got a great steak, of course. Nice light angel hair caprese, made to order with nice-sized shrimp, fresh mozzarella. There’s a lot of nice choices.”
We went with the wedge, of course, bleu cheese for me and homemade Italian for Emily, followed by a hefty nine-ounce Black Angus Filet Mignon with French Fries and the roasted duck breast served atop a bed of wild rice and asparagus, all finished with a spicy plum sauce. The prices were high, but between airport inflation and standard steakhouse protocol, that was expected.
“And would you like to have some warm, delicious baked bread?” asked Carolyn with a twinkle in her eye. “I ask because so many people don’t want it these days. I call it the evil queen.”
From the moment the wedge landed in front of me I knew we were in for a treat. It was masterfully assembled: just the right amounts of dressing, lettuce, ripe chopped tomato and real crumbled bacon. The steak was equally ideal, each bite more luscious than the last and perfectly complemented by the salty snap of the thick-cut fries. That warm bread delivered, too, smothered in soft salted butter. The duck glistened beneath a drizzle of silky plum sauce, crispy skin contrasting with tender flesh. I can’t remember the last time I cleaned my plate so quickly.
The second thing I can tell you about the Gaslight Club is that it’s much more wholesome than it lets on.
“You like it? It’s a little different, huh?” Carolyn rasped with a knowing grin. By the time I ordered my after-dinner drink — a ridiculously underpriced $14 pour of Balvenie’s hard-to-find 15 Year Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask — the local gentleman with the pocket square had joined the pianist on her bench, the two crooning Sinatra in unison to the dwindling crowd’s delight.
“It used to be so much fun, years ago,” she continued. “They redid stuff back in ’91 but the wallpaper is the same.”
What’s changed? “Well, life. That’s the best answer I can give you. Everything has a heyday. I worked for Hilton for eight years over there, and I’ve been with this guy for 33. Long time, 41 years in the building. If you would have said to me when I started here, ‘Oh, you’ll be here in 30 years,’ I’d be like, ‘You’re crazy!’ But what are you gonna do?”
Sure, the bartenders swear like sailors, the uniforms leave little to the imagination and the booze flows freer than Jay-Z in his prime, but those truisms are hardly the main draw. The real reason April, a 50-something United Airlines flight attendant from Houston, prefers getting her Lemondrops from Carolyn as opposed to joining her colleagues at some hip West Loop bar is because Carolyn has been serving them up with a big grin and a script of off-color jokes for the last three decades. And because John, a traveling salesman and longtime Gaslight devotee, is probably already stationed at the bar with a glass of Pinot and some friendly banter about America’s latest political fiasco.
Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Emily and I learned all about Carolyn’s first job as a retail clerk at a now-defunct dress-shop chain. John told us about the difficulties of breaking into the burgeoning cannabis industry before sneaking us back into the former speakeasy-turned-dining room and spinning tall tales about the old days and all the deals that would go down back there. April patiently let us barrage her with all the questions we ever wanted to ask about the life of a flight attendant (yes, they do have assigned bunks above the luggage area; no, compression socks generally don’t do much for you) and entertained us with stories about the beloved Jeep Wrangler she tricked out all by herself then sold for three times what she had spent. The laughs came easy and no one took themselves too seriously. We were all just there to have fun.
There aren’t many places in the world where any wayward traveler can show up and instantly feel not only comfortable, but welcome. And despite its “overrated and oversexed” appearance, as one disgruntled 2012 TripAdvisor reviewer put it, the Gaslight Club provdes just that.