But first we started talking about his old neighborhood. If you’re going to understand the Duck Inn, one of the most deeply rooted and personal restaurant concepts to open in Chicago in ages, you have to start with Bridgeport itself.
Michael Gebert: So, the Duck Inn, here we are. Tell me about the original Duck Inn.
Kevin Hickey: I’ll tell you what I know, because as far as I know there’s only one person left that I can talk to who was ever there, and that’s my Aunt Mary. She came in for dinner last Saturday, and her husband was the little boy in the photograph that’s on the back of our menu.
My great-grandfather, James Hickey, in the Depression, he was the third generation in the family business. They had a trucking and car business that had sort of become a funeral business. And he died, and he was pretty young, and they had seven kids. So when he died my great-grandmother Grace lost the business—she couldn’t run it because she didn’t have the license. So she sold it and the only thing she knew how to do was cook. So they owned property at 35th and Ashland, and she opened a bus stop diner and called it the Duck Inn.
She ran it for somewhere from five to ten years. And she made the money back—she made enough money to put my grandfather, who was the oldest, through school and to get the license—and she bought the business back. Then she sold the restaurant to a new bicycle shop called Kozy’s, and that was where they started. They were at 35th and Ashland until the 80s—I bought all my bikes there as a kid.
It was just a simple diner, you can tell by the one photograph, the signs on the wall say “Hamburger Sandwich, 5 cents” and “Spaghetti Dinner” and “Tom-Tom Tamales.” But it was always a family story about how Grandma Grace had a restaurant called the Duck Inn, and it stuck in my mind that someday I would open a place called the Duck Inn. And a lot of things about this location lent themselves to naming it the Duck Inn, everything from the fact that we’re two blocks from where my great-grandmother lived, to being on the river and there’s a lot of wildlife along the river. I’ve seen everything from ducks, geese, coyotes, possums, foxes, everything along the river.
There’s the whole family connection—not just my family living in this neighborhood for five, six generations, and I live a block away now, but the family that owned this bar lived in it for somewhere around 85 years. Those glass doors that go into the dining room, those weren’t there ten years ago—that was a wall. Everything after that was their home.
What was this called?
It was always some reference to the family name which was Gembara. So it was Gembara’s Lounge, then it became Herman’s, and at some point it morphed into the Gem-Bar. That was after me, in the last 15 years. But it was always owned by that family, going back to 1916 or 1918. They opened pre-Prohibition, because there’s a trap door behind the bar. The owner, his name wasn’t Herman, it was Eugene, but they called him Herman the German because he killed a lot of Germans in the war or something.
There’s a great picture in this book on Bridgeport history of one of the daughters holding, like, an unexploded artillery shell in the backyard. Where our patio is now. So now I’m going to have to call it the Bomb Shelter or something, because that picture is so awesome—she’s eight years old and cradling this artillery shell like it’s a teddy bear or something.
So what was this area, this little strip right above the river?
The location, this whole area down to the next block, was known as Lee’s Place, which apparently was a farm that supplied all the vegetables to Fort Dearborn. The owner, Lee, was a soldier who was killed in the Fort Dearborn Massacre [in 1812]. Later this section of Bridgeport was known as Hardscrabble. There was a footbridge at the end of Eleanor Street at Ashland, and all the tugs and barges that were bringing cattle to the stockyards had to portage around, basically had to unload here and reload on the other side, so that was the original “bridge port.”
The street wouldn’t have been Eleanor then. It’s been a street for a very long time, but my whole time, growing up on the street, it was really not recognized by the city as a street, so we had no curbs, we had no sewer—we had cinder in our front parkway and the alleys, so wiping out on your bike as a kid was absolute torture.
It was very industrial. We had a wrecking company across the street, we had Holsum Bread at the end of the street, we had semis going up and down the street all day and night. It was rough. It was more like an alley or a throughway for trucks up until the Depression, when the WPA put in gravel to make it a shortcut to . . . there used to be a massive coal pile, probably five or six stories high, on the river. My grandfather used to have the job at one point of just shoveling coal with a wheelbarrow there, all day long.
Somewhere around the 90s my dad and a lot of other people lobbied the city and got curbs put in and got it paved nicely. I don’t know when it became Eleanor, it was Eleanor when my dad moved in in ’62. But it was named for the first Mayor Daley’s wife, Eleanor “Sis” Daley—her brother, Tom Guilfoyle, was our neighbor my whole childhood. I never knew it was named for her until an article came out about the park that’s coming in at the end of the street—we’re getting a spectacular park with boat launches and bike paths designed by Jeanne Gang, and that’s going to be Eleanor Park.
I guess the neighborhood has evolved a little from coal pile to hip nightspots, then.
It’s been a long evolution. But it’s a great neighborhood in a lot of ways—it has a lot of history, and a lot of the people who made that history have stayed and gone on to be very successful. Or they came back, like myself. I was gone from the neighborhood from, probably, 17 when I went to college, and I didn’t move back until I was 38 years old. I lived all over the world, and all over Chicago, before deciding to come back.
Also, the location. When I first started this project two or three years ago, when I was looking for investors, they’d be, “Where is it? Oh, that’s so far away.” It’s not. I can get to Bottlefork, at 441 N. Clark, in ten minutes. You can’t get from Logan Square to River North in ten minutes. We knew that growing up, take the Bridgeport expressway, which is Canal street, and you’re downtown in seconds.
And you’ve got Chinatown right next to us, Greektown, Little Italy—all that had a big effect on me growing up as far as how I cook and the flavors I look for. I’ve been classified as modern American, new American, which is great because to me, what American is about these days is Chinese, Greek, Italian—all those things I grew up with.
You were interested in food from a young age?
I was cooking at home from a very young age. My mom worked when she and my dad split up—she worked in politics and it’s not that she was a bad cook. She doesn’t cook ever. So she’d leave money for my sister, who was older, and me and say, “Order pizza, order Chinese, whatever you want.” So my sister would say “Cook us something” and then she’d pocket the money. So I’d tear through the cabinets and make things, it started with doctoring cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli with granulated garlic and dried oregano.
It’s interesting that you say you had those influences so early, because I think people often think of Bridgeport as having been this isolated Irish enclave that kept Chinatown at bay…]
Yeah. Though Chinatown kind of carved itself out of Bridgeport. There’s just one Italian restaurant in Chinatown, Bertucci’s. Which is a great old tavern-restaurant which is fun to hang out in, and that’s right in Chinatown. That’s “da udder side,” as they say here—the other side of Halsted. Or as Mayor Daley said to me, that’s “New Bridgeport.” That was annexed 100 years ago—it was originally called Germantown. It had a huge German population, Lithuanian population . . .
You know, I made a movie about the last Lithuanian restaurant, Healthy Foods, when it was closing…
I tried to buy that place! I’m related to the owner, by marriage. There are still places like that that have been around forever, like Ricobene’s—though up until the 80s or 90s or something, it was just a window. You got your food and you could sit on the curb or a stoop, or you took it home.
And now it’s like the commissary for city workers.
I always call it the safest restaurant in Chicago, because everyone in there is armed. My wife gives me a hard time when she sees it on the debit card, “why’d you go to Ricobene’s?” Because there’s nothing open on my way home at 1 AM. It’s still like an initiation for my guys—go have the breaded steak sandwich and they’re like … “OHHH MY GAWD.”
And then Bridgeport Bakery is a great staple: we buy their croissants to make our apple-parsnip Brown Betty. The thing I love about them, when I was originally going to get the croissants, I told my chef Aaron to go buy their day-old ones. And they said, what day-old croissants? We don’t have anything left over, why would we make it if we’re not going to sell it? I guess there’s a reason they’ve been in business for 80 years.
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