Great Hotels and Dining Rooms – The Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel

The Pump Room – 1950s…

Cruising The Past – Social and Travel History – THE PUMP ROOM – History of The Pump Room and Ambassador East Hotel Chicago.

The Pump Room – 1960s…

When Ernie Byfield opened The Pump Room in The Ambassador East Hotel on October 1, 1938, he undoubtedly had little idea that he was beginning an enterprise that would still be thriving to this day. Today, The Pump Room remains a magnet for movie stars and celebrities as well as a highly-acclaimed restaurant and Chicago landmark.

A 1977 view of the Pump Room at the Ambassador East.

One of the few restaurants in the country to be immortalized in a Sinatra song, the Pump Room in Chicago is now a hot spot once again. The Pump Room was one of the first quality restaurants to open in Chicago after the end of Prohibition, and soon became a Windy City icon. In addition to Sinatra (who sang the praises of the place in the classic song Chicago), the place was a favorite hangout of a lot of famous people including Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis and numerous others.

Patrons arriving and leaving at The Pump Room – 1940s…

The `Pump Room’ where king crab meat is served on flaming swords.

The Pump Room, named after a spa in Bath, England, remained open long after the giants that once graced its premises had left. Unfortunately, time took its toll on the legendary establishment, and its culinary fare was soon surpassed by the fine dining scene exploding in Chicago and characterized by uber-chef Charlie Trotter.

The Pump Room – 1940s…

In 1938, Mr. Byfield was inspired by a place called the Pump Room that dominated the scene in 18th century England. Located in the resort city of Bath, The Pump Room was a place where Queen Anne and other stylish Londoners converged to revel in the social life at night after a long day. The Pump Room was named after the hot water drinks “pumped” into its patrons’ cocktails.

The Chicago Pump Room was an immediate hit, and for a time its Booth #1 may have been the most sought after table at any dining establishment in the country. In addition to Sinatra, who frequently held court with Jilly Rizzo and a number of other associates in Booth 1, it was occupied at various times by Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence, Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Liza Minnelli may have been the youngest Booth 1 regular, taken there many times during her childhood by her mother Judy Garland.

Byfield’s Pump Room was a success from the day it opened. Chicago’s socialites perched themselves along the large room’s western wall to observe the celebrities who made their appearances along the east side of the room. Those guests seated in Booth One, perhaps the more renowned table in the country, attracted the most attention.  Famed actress Gertrude Lawrence, who was starring in a play in Chicago at the same time as The Pump Room’s debut, established its reputation. Miss Lawrence staged a nightly gathering in Booth One during the play’s entire 90-day run. From that moment on, The Pump Room became the place to see and be seen.

Lucius Beebe (the society columnist who coined “cafe society”) featured The Pump Room in his New York column along with magazine stories.  Stars, celebrities, etc. lunched regularly at The Pump Room for the short layover en-route by train between New York and Hollywood or San Francisco.  They would overnight on the 20th Century Limited or The Broadway Limited from New York to Chicago – then dine at The Pump Room – and continue West on the Super Chief, The Chief, the Golden State, Cities of Los Angeles or San Francisco and the California Zephyr.

John Barrymore roared for champagne; Bette Davis could be found curled up on the piano bench; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall celebrated their wedding in Booth One, as did Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. Liza Minelli grew up in Booth One and has fond memories of dining there with her mother, Judy Garland. Ms. Garland immortalized the restaurant in the lyrics to “Chicago”, with the words “we’ll eat at The Pump Room/Ambassador East, to say the least”. And of course, Frank Sinatra held court in Booth One countless times.

Photos: Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher,  Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan in The Pump Room.

After Byfield’s death in 1950, The Pump Room held on to its allure as a place for stargazing. A new generation of luminaries took up residence in Booth One. Mel Brooks personally greeted each guest; Paul Newman and Robert Redford lunched on ham sandwiches and pilsners every day during the shooting of “The Sting”. Michael J. Fox, Eddie Murphy and Jim Belushi have all continued the tables’ famous tradition.

Opera star Beverly Sills has added some high notes to the room, while a few rock and roll legends like David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Olivia Newton-John and Mick Jagger, have added some of their own. A little known drummer was refused entry when he failed to pass the dress code and titled his solo album, “No Jacket Required” after the incident. His name- Phil Collins. (He was sent a new jacket by way of apology.)

Ed Sullivan in The Pump Room.

The Pump Room experienced a revitalization in the late 1990’s when it was purchased by a large restaurant management group. They spent a lot of money to renovate the facility, overhaul the menu and hire a top flight staff. While the Pump Room’s golden era trade mark flaming food served on a sword was a tragedy of city fire codes, the menu is now on par with any in the city serving a sophisticated interpretation of classic American cuisine. In addition to the revamped cuisine, the Pump Room upgraded its wine offering and expanded the bar area.

Current Executive Chef Nick Sutton has continued the restaurant’s tradition of excellence. The big draw of the Pump Room, however, remains the amazing sense of history that the dining room offers. The realization that a who’s who of civilized American culture from Bogart and Clark Gable to Sinatra and Jackie Gleason broke bread in the room is a pretty amazing vibe. The good news is that the Pump Room again offers the quality of food and service worthy of such icons, and is a victory for culinary excellence amid the national infestation of mediocre chain restaurants.



About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

Leave a Reply