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Lovers, family, first dates dip into Geja's

European-style fondue cafe a destination spot for 50 years

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Geja's Cafe

Remarkable: Geja's will be 50 in a couple of years. It opened on Wells Street in 1965, moved to the basement space of an old grocery store on Armitage Avenue in 1971, and there it's remained. (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

A month ago I ate at Geja's Cafe in Lincoln Park for the first time. The morning after I smelled like Geja's. The afternoon after I also smelled like Geja's.

It's not a horrible smell, just strong and faintly musty, a little like a movie theater concession stand. Geja's, in case you have not been east of Logan Square since 1970, is a surprisingly durable and dedicated fondue restaurant, although dedicated fondue experience would be closer to the truth.

Geja's will be 50 in a couple of years. It opened on Wells Street in 1965, moved to the basement space of an old grocery store on Armitage Avenue in 1971, and there it's remained, wooden and cozy and largely unchanged since the Nixon administration. I doubt there is a dry cleaning service in Chicago that has not been visited by clothing that was inside Geja's.

"Back in the '90s, I met a boy and we started going on dates, and Geja's was involved," Renee Greene, a manager at Stanley's Kitchen & Tap across the street, told me. "I caught him cheating because of Geja's. He came to me one night smelling like Geja's, which is a great restaurant, but it does have a certain smell, a special-occasion place, but with this very specific odor about it, you know? That's not the kind of restaurant where you hang out with the boys!"

The smell comes from the oil.

As you would expect, Geja's offers a cheese fondue (terrific) and a chocolate fondue (OK), but the centerpiece of most meals is meat and vegetables. A large cast iron pot is placed on your table and, depending on what you order, a silver platter of raw meats, shellfish and vegetables (about $50 a person) is placed alongside it. As the oil heats, you skewer your food, insert it into the oil and leave it submerged for a minute or two. Tables are bolted to the floor and walls. Children under 10 are not allowed in because of the oil. The servers explain in quick, practiced voices how to cook in the oil and how to avoid being burned. Still, I managed to burn myself twice: The first time the oil popped and leaped and stung my arm; the second time I stupidly allowed a shrimp to slide off the iron skewer and plop into the burning oil, which splashed upward.

When I asked John Davis, owner and founder of Geja's, who now lives in Park City, Utah, if anyone has ever been burned, he said no, in the almost 50 years the restaurant has been open not one person has been burned.

Not one. Incredible. I was the first.

Davis, who was in his late 20s when he started Geja's, told me, "OK, there was a guy, a European with a thick accent romancing a girl, and to show her how suave he is, he poured his wine into the oil. And it splashed up. Fortunately, by the time it came down, it had cooled off! But it got all over his clothes and his date's clothes, but I'll tell you, this guy, this guy didn't miss a beat, didn't blink, just kept up his shtick."

Remarkable!

Jeff Lawler, however, a managing partner at Geja's who has been with the restaurant since the early '90s, told me some jerk threw an ice cube into a pot of oil last year, which is not wise. Also, Geja's keeps burn cream in the back room (just to be safe), and, of course, people have been burned but never badly.

He told me a story about a couple who were arguing. The man threw his cellphone at the woman, hitting her in the head. (This was about 15 years ago, when cellphones were the size of small shoes.) The woman grabbed the pot of burning oil and threw it at the man, hitting him and the man next to him and an unrelated bystander. A tussle ensued on the sidewalk. The cops came, though Lawler said no one was seriously hurt or scarred.

After their more than five decades in business, I would have expected worse. Though, let it be said: As extraordinary as that story is, any fondue restaurant still open and successful in 2012 is even more extraordinary. Particularly a fondue restaurant so cramped and low-ceilinged it could be a Hobbit home. Plus, Geja's is dark, so dark your server requires a penlight to show you what's what on your meat plate.

The point is, you really have to want to go to Geja's. You don't go on a whim. It's too expensive, too romantic; your meats come with eight dipping sauces, which is either goofy or fun depending on your disposition. Also, parking is lousy. And, you know, fondue.

"The '60s and '70s were big fondue years," said Mary Myers, a server at the restaurant since 1980. "By the time I started, people had already put their fondue pots away on the top shelf of their coat closets."

Asked how the restaurant started, Davis said: "After college, I had gone to Europe, and we had a little French car and put 10,000 miles on it in four months, going to every country but Norway and Portugal. So when I returned, we opened Geja's in Old Town, a little wine and cheese cafe mostly, very European. (Eventually) Old Town started to go down the tubes. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and there were riots, drugs came into the neighborhood, gangs. There was a murder. By '69, even my relatives wouldn't come around the place.

"We moved to Armitage, and I realized the place was three times the size of the old place, and processed cheese wouldn't cut it. We introduced the hot-oil fondues, and through trial and error settled on the right combination of cooking and food, which is pretty much what we still have now."

The distinctive cloistered look of the restaurant is courtesy of a Chicago artist/jewelry-maker/restaurant designer named Phil Rowe (who at 77 remains a self-described Chicago artist/sculptor/interior designer). "After Phil was done with the place, I loved it," Davis said, "but my secretary told me, 'Oh, John, it looks like a whorehouse in there.'"

A classy whorehouse, with a lived-in permanence. "You get a feel of serenity when you walk in now," said Janice Koch, who has lived next door for decades. "You're not rushed or pushed. It's all just … consistent."

Incredibly, ventilation was once worse. Lawler installed $80,000 of air conditioning in 2004, which helped remove the fog of smoke that often settled over tables. As for business: It is fully booked many weekends, though for that it owes as much to Groupon, which sold 11,000 coupons for Geja's last year alone, as it does to the restaurant's reputation. Indeed, it's been a destination spot for philanders, lovers, parents, first dates and men of a certain criminal bent. Lawler heard stories about how Geja's was once the meeting spot for "the seven or eight people who actually control Chicago."

Davis told me it's still a cool place for high school students, "though that's just what I've heard, and I'm not in high school now, so I couldn't say firsthand."

He mentioned a couple that came from Minnesota. They had their first date at Geja's, got engaged at Geja's, had rehearsal dinner at Geja's. After they had a baby, they brought the baby, but Davis wouldn't let the baby in because of the oil. The couple was despondent, until the husband asked if there was a coat check. There was. Could they check the baby? Actually, yes. The coat check woman was herself a new mom, and after dinner, the baby was retrieved.

"But I don't know if they brought a claim check," Davis said.

Geja's Cafe

340 W. Armitage Ave., 773-281-9101
Established:
1965
Known for:
Fondue

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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