Researching sandwiches (and then making and eating them) is what I do in my spare time. It’s a hobby, and if you suspect that it’s mainly an excuse to eat a lot of sandwiches, you would not be far off the mark. However, it’s interesting and occasionally I run across an intriguing clue, the sandwich equivalent of a rabbit pulling a watch from its waistcoat pocket—one cannot help but follow where it leads.
A few months ago, perusing scans of vintage Chicago menus from the John W. Shleppey collection at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library, I found one such clue: menus from two different Chicago restaurants in the 1950s both offering nearly identical sandwiches called Bal Tabarin.
Down the Rabbit Hole
As it turns out, both restaurants were in the same hotel: Sherman House. For nearly 150 years, this hotel had stood (in one form or another) at the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark in downtown Chicago. The fourth, final, grandest iteration of the Sherman House was built at the site in 1911. Its startling amenities included a Georgian manor on its roof, reserved for only the most important guests: presidents, senators, famous explorers and entertainers. Its grandest banquet room could seat up to 2,000 guests.
The dining level on the second floor, called the “College Inn,” boasted a famed bar where jazz greats of the day came to drink, a small ice rink where figure skaters entertained diners, the Well of the Sea room known for flying in seafood daily from both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and the Porterhouse Room, known for its steaks. All were served by a single kitchen, and by the 1950s, that kitchen was turning out the Bal Tabarin, their signature sandwich.
But whence the name Bal Tabarin? Among the Sherman House’s most alluring and well-used features was a chameleonic ballroom featuring a “keyboard of light” or “color organ” called a Clavilux, designed by Thomas Wilfred and installed in 1929. The Clavilux allowed a single, centrally-located operator to quickly change the decor of the space by projecting different sets of lumia onto the walls from twenty-seven locations around the room. This ballroom, where many a Saturday night up to six-hundred people could be found dancing until the wee hours, was called Bal Tabarin.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Bal Tabarin was not an uncommon name for American nightclubs of the time, as it was borrowed from the name of a classic Parisian hotspot. By the time the fourth version of the Sherman House was built, cabaret culture in Paris was in full swing. The opulent Moulin Rouge had opened in 1889 and since then had hosted many of the greatest performers of the time on its stage, as well as hosting literal royalty in its audience. It was the height of La Belle Époque, Paris was the nightlife capital of the world, and famed French composer and orchestra conductor Auguste Bosc wanted to be part of it. In 1904, he opened his own cabaret and named it Bal Tabarin.
Tabarin is a word for buffoon deriving from a sixteenth-century French comic performer. Bal of course means “Ball,” the type of lavish dance party thrown by princes in fairy tales. Thus, the name Bal Tabarin means “Fool’s Ball,” a spectacular if incautious name for a nightclub, endorsing a type of reckless revelry. Many in the United States agreed, or at least desired the notoriety that came along with the name, and nightclubs called Bal Tabarin opened in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and of course in the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago.
In 1914, World War I put an end to the Belle Époque in France. After the war, however, the popularity of cabarets boomed across Europe, especially in Germany. So, when the Germans invaded and occupied France near the beginning of World War II, Bal Tabarin, like many of Paris’ cabarets, remained open, a popular haunt among officers of the occupying army. Dancer Florence Waren, secretly Jewish herself, performed on its stage at night while helping the French Resistance hide other Jews fleeing the Nazis by day. After the occupation ended, and eventually the war, Bal Tabarin passed into the hands of the Moulin Rouge’s owners, who closed it for good in 1954.
A Looking Glass House
Chicago’s Bal Tabarin outlasted Paris’ for nearly twenty years before the Sherman House Hotel shut down in 1973. The building stood empty at Randolph and Clark until it was demolished in 1980 to make way for the new James R. Thompson Center, a gleaming, postmodern dome of glass, hosting offices for the State of Illinois. At the base of the Thompson Center’s seventeen-story skylit atrium is a food court that in the spring of 2022 hosts five restaurants, down from well over a dozen in pre-pandemic times. None of these eateries, to my knowledge, has ever served a sandwich called Bal Tabarin. In Chicago, the cabaret’s namesake ballroom and sandwich have slipped unnoticed into obscurity.
But let us for a moment be the Freegans of culinary history, dumpster-diving this sandwich out of edible oblivion to judge whether it deserves to live on, if only in our kitchens. It has certainly found a place in mine. The Bal Tabarin sandwich marries elements of the classic Club to the earthy and dry character of a deli rye bread (though caraway seeds do not enhance the flavor of this sandwich, so I use a seedless rye). The chopped hard-boiled egg and the Thousand Island dressing combine to make a sort of simple, slightly sweet egg salad complemented by the lettuce and tomato. It is a marvelously balanced sandwich as is, though you could pile on the turkey or chicken to give it more of a deli sandwich feel.
Making the Bal Tabarin Sandwich
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Servings: one sandwich
- 2 slices unseeded rye bread (suggestion: S. Rosen’s Marble Rye)
- 2 slices bacon, cooked warm and crisp
- 2 oz. sliced chicken or turkey, briefly warmed in oven (I use Boar’s Head Rotisserie Chicken)
- 1 hard-boiled egg
- sliced tomato
- iceberg lettuce
- Thousand Island dressing (Russian dressing might work with a spicier meat)
- salt and pepper
- Butter one slice of bread and arrange the warm sliced chicken or turkey in an even layer on it. Place the bacon atop the fowl.
2. Place 2-3 slices of tomato over the bacon. Season with salt and pepper
3. Spread a generous amount of Thousand Island dressing over the other slice of rye bread; mash the hard-boiled egg with a fork as if making egg salad and distribute evenly over the Thousand Island dressing.
4. Place a leaf of iceberg lettuce, folded over to match the size and shape of the bread, atop the dressing and egg mixture, then combine the halves to make a sandwich; slice in half at a jaunty angle and enjoy a bite of sandwich— and Chicago—history.