The love of fondue: 57 years later, Geja’s love is still the same, thank God
Geja’s Café, the Lincoln Park fondue restaurant long known as one of the city’s most romantic places to dine, celebrated fifty-seven years in June by helping diners fall in love over dinner. His liquor license account number is forty-one, if that gives you any indication of his age and place as a Chicago institution. According to Jeff Lawler, owner of Geja’s for twenty-eight years, little has changed over the decades, and that’s a good thing.
“We didn’t try to be everything to everyone,” Lawler says.
Of course, the chairs have been replaced and the colors of the tablecloths have changed. The patio has been remodeled and fireplaces have been added outside. But over the years, the menu, the music and the experience have remained almost unchanged.
John Davis opened Geja’s in 1965 as a wine and cheese bar after spending time backpacking in Europe. At the time, wine was not very popular outside of fine dining, and Davis was considered avant-garde for opening a bar with an extensive global wine list. The restaurant, originally at 1248 North Wells, had a bohemian feel and attracted writers, artists and other creatives. In 1969 Davis started Geja’s Wine Society, one of the oldest wine tasting groups in the country. It wasn’t until 1971, when Geja’s moved to its current location on Armitage, that Davis turned it into a fondue restaurant and wine bar. Since that day, Geja’s has been serving a cheese fondue course; a fondue starter of meat, seafood and vegetables; and a Belgian dark chocolate fondue for dessert.
“We’re a fondue restaurant that’s always been fondue since seventy-one,” Lawler says, “and we still have an extensive wine list, gourmet meat and cheese boards, still live music every night. »
Fondue was all the rage in the 1970s, as you may have deduced from the dust-covered fondue sets in your parents’ cupboard. The Melting Pot, the most recognizable fondue franchise, opened its first restaurant in 1975. But today, fondue is rare. Lawler, who bought Geja’s in 2015 after managing it for years, speculates that at least part of the decline in popularity stems from options wealth elsewhere.
“When you have these Michelin star restaurants opening and all the different types of restaurants in the city, there’s a lot to try,” he says. “Food has just exploded here in the last fifteen years.”
Fondue is more of a novel experience, and Lawler says it attracts young customers who have never tried it before.
“When you want an unusual meeting, a very rich meeting where you cook together, you dive together…it makes for a very rich and memorable dining experience,” he says. “Geja’s takes you to an old world place where you can relax and unwind.”
He says people also appreciate not having to make too many decisions.
“You decide what you want to drink and your protein,” he says, “the rest is decided for you, which makes the evening enjoyable.”
While it has seen an increase in younger clientele, many customers have been dining at Geja for years. A couple who dined in early July were celebrating their 33-year engagement at Geja. About fifty percent of guests dine at Geja once a year to celebrate a special occasion, and most tables are occupied by couples, staring dreamily at each other and staring at the big pots of steaming cheese.
Like most restaurants, Geja’s has suffered during the pandemic and is still suffering from staff shortages, supply issues and rising food prices. Lawler turned to home fondue kits, which were a hit even when the restaurant reopened. Geja’s provides a cheese plate, candles, fondue forks, stands, pots and all three fondue dishes, and even a Spotify playlist to create the Geja’s vibe in your dining room. At the height of the pandemic, Geja’s seated people in front of fire pits and installed vinyl walls around them, another thing that will live after COVID
“Enjoying a fireside fondue is a unique experience in town,” says Lawler.
Lawler plans to make Geja’s a unique and romantic dining destination for years to come.
“My goal is to take Geja’s to its seventy-fifth birthday and then hopefully someone else will take over and take it to a hundred,” he says. “It’s an honor to be part of Geja’s history.”
Geja’s Cafe, 340 West Armitage, gejascafe.com