There was a time when the “Wild, Wild West” was much more than a thoroughly annoying Will Smith song. (Quick: name one Will Smith song that doesn’t stick in your head, for the wrong reasons. Can’t do it, can you?) But the Wild West, for most non rapping sit-com/cheesy action movie stars meant frontier living, sleeping with whomever you wanted to, and not showering for days. You know, kind of like the parking lot at a Phish concert.
For others, the Wild West is best summed up by an obscure yet ridiculously great 1969 movie musical called, “Paint Your Wagon”. Haven’t seen it yet? Well, my friend, go ahead and add it to your Netflix list without haste, buy a cheap and perhaps lethal bottle of whiskey (Kessler, anyone?), and get ready for the surreal experience of hearing Clint Eastwood sing a song about talking to the trees, and those very same trees not listening to him. (One can easily trace Clint going nuts in “Grand Torino” to being blown off by trees.) You’ll also witness the surreal sight of Lee Marvin stomping around drunk singing a song entitled, “Whoop Ti Ay”. You must see this genuinely odd film to believe it, and I promise you, songs like “There’s A Coach Coming In” – which, sadly, has nothing to do with the long forgotten Craig T. Nelson show – will soon be on your iPod.
Then there’s Mel Brooks’ classic “Blazing Saddles” which many consider the ultimate Western comedy. Only Mel Brooks (with a brilliant assist from co-writer Richard Pryor) could make a classic western out of fart jokes, racism, and Dom Delouise as a gay choreographer. Forget “Young Frankenstein”, its way past time that Mel adapts this movie for the stage.
I certainly learned some of what I know about the Wild West – as well as an inordinate number of show-tunes – from both movies. But for most of my younger years, the vast majority of my western education came in the form of a traditional, gold-rush era cheeseburger called “the Motherload," mozzarella sticks wrapped in authentic, frontier-style won-tons, and an awe-inspiring salad bar which no doubt the miners ate from as they were staking their claim in 1800’s California. Who needs beans when you’ve got a light balsamic, right?
Many Jews (and a few goyum, but they’re not reading this so let’s ignore them) raised in Chicago or the north shore in the 1980’s & 1990’s know exactly what I’m talking about: the legendary Claim Company restaurant, a dining staple for Chicagoland restaurant-goers for about 25 years. First located on Clark Street near Belden, and later in both Northbrook court and the 900 N. Michigan Avenue building, I frequented the Claim Company seemingly hundreds of times with family and friends. And I wasn’t alone. Heading to Claim Company was a staple of all kinds of get-togethers: dinners with mom & dad, high school dates, and mini summer camp-reunions to name a few. With a large menu – originally displayed on gold-miner pans – Claim Company was the ideal restaurant for a kid, teenager, and young adult. The burgers were huge, the appetizers were old-school (just try finding potato skins at your local favorite restaurant these days), and the environment was unpretentious without veering into the cheesy “hey, let’s put as much vintage crap on the walls as we can find” décor which mars other similar restaurants.
As has been well documented in this blog, I tend to be a sucker for nostalgia. So when Claim Company closed its’ doors back in the late 1990’s, I was genuinely saddened. Sure, I lost about 40 pounds from no longer eating weekly “Motherloads” – Claim’s signature cheeseburger, which is usually served with a huge slice of cheese, fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, a tangy and delicious concoction called “claim sauce”, and other condiments which could give even the most healthy individual an instant stroke. But I was also heartbroken. After all, I’ve long insisted to anyone who’d listen that the fajita was actually invented by the Claim Company, despite having zero proof of this. (A lack of actual facts has never stopped me from making outrageous and unverified statements, which is a major reason I could someday host a show on FOX “News.” Hello, “Hannity & Shanoff!”)
Sure, I’ve found other, comparable restaurants in the years since Claim Company was closed, but none could hold a candle to that once-great dining experience. So imagine my surprise when one of my oldest friends – and a frequent Claim Company Companion (which is also my least favorite Marc Cohn song) – called to tell me that Claim Company would re-open at Northbrook Court after a 12 year absence. I was rightfully thrilled, and celebrated by purchasing pants two sizes larger. No, I’m not kidding.
Let me state right now that I have no vested stake in the Claim Company, lest this seem like some paid advertisement. But having been there twice since it reopened, I can safely say that anyone in their 20’s or older with fond memories of the restaurant won’t be disappointed. Two of its’ original managers are apparently in control of this new Claim Company, and they have faithfully replicated the original menu, with only a few concessions to a more healthy society. To that end, let me state that I am both equally thrilled and appalled by the addition of veggie and turkey variations of the “Motherload.” I expected this would be like replacing Five Alive with prune juice, but a taste of the turkey “Motherload” proved nearly as flavorful as the traditional beef variation. On a completely unrelated note, I’d like to promise you that I’ll never again use the phrase “traditional beef variation” for myriad reasons, but primarily because I’m not entirely sure what it means.
Semantics aside, my return trips to the Claim Company – both within its’ first week – did not disappoint. The bar area is a great place to catch a game & have a burger, the milkshake was just as thick and delicious as it was back when Pearl Jam was relevant, and from what I was told by my dining companion, the salad bar as top notch as a salad bar can possibly be. So next time you find yourself trapped at Northbrook Court, clamoring for not only a great meal, but also a need to relive a restaurant from your formative years, you’ll know where to go. Friends of mine in our (ahem, mid) 30’s from the Latin/Parker/north shore set who grew up with the Claim Company will no doubt be thrilled, and hopefully an entire new generation of Motherload eaters (also a phrase I ought not to use again) will soon make the Claim Company part of their adolescence; not to mention their authentic introduction to the wild, wild west.