That Steak Joynt

Of all of the haunted drinking and dining spots in Chicago, there was none so haunted as That Steak Joynt, which was formerly located on North Wells Street. Before the restaurant was closed down, customers and staff members reported bizarre, supernatural experiences here for years. Owner Billy Siegel, who allowed dozens of sťances and paranormal investigations to be held in the place, always believed that the haunting was the result of two unsolved murders that took place around the turn of the last century. Both of the victims were found in what was called Piperís Alley, an open corridor that passed just outside of the restaurant. Siegel speculated that the ghosts of these past crimes had somehow found their way into his establishment.

And perhaps he was right, for the history of the building, and the surrounding neighborhood, certainly lends itself to hauntings. Regardless of the identities of the ghosts though, there was little question that while it was in operation, That Steak Joynt enjoyed a reputation for being one of the most haunted places in Chicago!

In the late 1860ís, the future location of That Steak Joynt, at 1610 North Wells, was Piperís Bakery. This large factory employed over 500 workers and even housed a school for their children to attend. It was one of the busiest bakeries in the region and shipped out bread and baked goods all over the country. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 should have brought all of that to an end but Henry Piper refused to give up. He rebuilt on the same site, making the new bakery even bigger and more magnificent than the original. He continued baking for 60 years before finally retiring and closing Piperís for good.

The building was never shuttered though and was constantly in operation with a variety of businesses from a laundry to a hardware store and in 1962, became That Steak Joynt. Like the other businesses before it, the restaurant enjoyed the exquisite architecture and design of Piperís restored bakery. The interior of the place was amazing and was filled with hand-carved art and woodwork, including an original bakery case that was used as a back bar in the new establishment. The remodeling and renovations that were done by owners Ralph Mitchell and Harold Seltzer, who added to the remaining designs from Piperís Bakery. The establishment was later owned by  Billy Siegel and Raudell Perez. 

For instance, the bakery case that had been turned into a bar had been hand-carved from black walnut by artisans who were booked passage from Europe specifically for the project. The shelving had a leaded glass window installed and in the center section was fixed a marble bust of a grinning peasant with a wine flask grasped in his hands.

The bust was a relic from the defunct Matson Steamship Line and over the years, it gained an unusual reputation of its own. According to the stories, if you looked at it long enough, the expression on the peasantís face would change -- and that wasnít all. Some even claimed that the bust had unique powers. A stockbroker boasted that the statue fed him stock tips and others claimed that it could cure a variety of ailments. Interestingly, during a later paranormal investigation of the building, a photograph was taken of the bust (using special infrared film) and two white fingers of energy appeared, seemingly being generated by the marble peasant! The photograph remains unexplained.

Other remnants from the Piper Bakery could be found throughout the building. The sculptured baroque ceiling in the lounge was from the old bakery, as was the grandfather clock that stood outside the door to the main dining room. Along the rear of a nearby alcove was another Piper bakery case, also hand carved from black walnut, that had been converted into a sideboard.

That Steak Joynt, formerly Piper's Bakery, not long after it was closed down.

Other oddities and antique pieces were scattered throughout the restaurant and had been salvaged from various homes, businesses, structures and mansions in Chicago and beyond. Suspended above the bar was a massive candle and gas fixture that once hung over the billiards table at Peale Castle in Scotland. The Wrigley Mansion in Lake Geneva provided a number of items for the lounge, including a set of leather banquettes, window shutters and a number of stained glass window valances. The foyer of the restaurant also held a number of wonderful pieces, including a mahogany stair railing that had been salvaged from Chicagoís LíAiglon Restaurant; a bronze statue with a light fixture that was fixed atop a newel post and was a signed piece from the French artist Moreau; a chandelier that was once a gas fixture from the McCormick estate; and a Second Empire mirror that was a refugee from the Thorne Mansion. Another piece from the Thorne estate was a teak and gold pedestal that stood at the top of the stairs. It supported a marble figure from the Armour Mansionís rose garden that represented ďsummerĒ. The pedestal had been used as a base for the Thorne familyís main dining room table.

The entryway to what was called the Edwardian Room had pockets that housed French doors in which had been fitted Lalique glass from a mansion in Lombard, Illinois. Inset in the ceiling overhead was another relic from LíAiglon, a stained glass skylight. The Wine Room featured hand carved wine racks from China that were designed to hold 287 bottles of wine. Nearby was the original Piper Bakery safe, still in place and still bearing un-retouched paintings of a clipper ship and other decorative scrolls and designs.

Along the walls of the staircase leading to the upper dining room were hung portraits of William and Catharine Devine. Devine was a milk merchant who came to Chicago from Ireland in 1864 to work for his brother. He started his own operation two years later and quickly made his fortune. The two portraits were purchased from Al Morlock of Victorian House Antiques in Chicago. They had come from the contents of the Devine house on East Huron Street but Morlock said that the portrait of Catharine Devine began to make him quite uneasy a short time after he purchased it to re-sell in his business. It became so bad that he even considered destroying the portrait but instead, sold it to Warren Black, the interior designer for That Steak Joynt. Black bought the portrait but confessed that he too felt uncomfortable around it. Soon after it was hung next to that of William Devine on the staircase, restaurant customers began to complain of feeling a cold area on the stairs between the paintings. Some also reported that they had seen the woman smile slightly when the painting was reflected in the mirror at the bottom of the steps. When looked at directly though, the smile would vanish. Many others said that were unnerved by Catharineís eyes as her portrait watched them on the staircase. Like an old spooky movie, they stated that her eyes would follow them no matter where they walked.

During the 1980ís, sťances were regularly held in the restaurant by prominent local medium Robert Dubeil. During one widely reported session, Dubeil and his circle made contact with what they claimed were three spirits haunting the place. One of them was said to be the architect who designed the building, the second was a female customer from the original bakery and the third would not reveal his identity. It could only be discovered that he had some connection with the building in the 1800ís. Could this have been one of the murder victims that Billy Siegel believed was haunting the restaurant? The sťance was attended that night by a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, Celeste Busk, and strangely, she became violently ill during the session.

The attempts to discover the identity of the ghosts did not reveal much information unfortunately and did even less to explain the amount of activity that was plaguing the place. The late Raudell Perez reported on many occasions that he had a difficult time getting employees to work at night in the restaurant, especially janitors and cleaning crews. No one wanted to be in the building after hours, thanks to reports of singing sounds and the numerous claims of apparitions that had been seen. One night, a janitor became so frightened by what he saw that he ran out of the restaurant, leaving the door unlocked and his paycheck uncollected. He never returned.

Perez was not really surprised by this, or the other incidents, because he had experienced plenty of them for himself over the years. He and some of the waiters had spotted shadowy figures on numerous occasions. One evening, he was sitting in the bar and looked up to see two people walking up the staircase to the second floor. The restaurant had long been closed and he couldnít imagine who would still be there. He climbed off his stool and hurried up to the second floor, close enough behind that he saw the figures just disappearing around a corner. Raudell dashed up to the upper story and did a quick search of the premises -- only to find that no one was there! There was no other exit to the restaurant and yet he could find no one else on the floor. Concerned that they may have slipped past him, he returned downstairs and looked around. He questioned a couple of the night workers and they had not seen anyone out of place. Whoever the figures had been, Raudell realized, they had been from beyond this world!

But not all of the encounters in the place were so benevolent. A few of them were very frightening and even bordered on violent at times. In May 1991, a staff member was locking the front door at the end of the day when he felt a hand grip his shoulder and pull him backwards. When he spun around to see who was there, the foyer was empty and there was no one else around. One of the bartenders had a similar experience as he was going upstairs one day. He started up the staircase and felt a hand grip the back of his shirt and pull him back down the steps. As he stumbled, he nearly pitched over backward. Regaining his balance, he searched for the culprit but there was no one around. On several occasions, women who used the restroom would also have close encounters. Not only did they often hear the sound of someone entering the room when no one was visible (the sound of hard-sold shoes would be unmistakable, as well as the rustle of clothing) but sometimes the doors to the stalls would jam shut and would refuse to open -- as if someone were forcing them closed on the other side!

Undoubtedly, the most frightening occurrence in the restaurantís history took place one night when a female server was clearing tables in the upstairs lounge. She had just stacked several dishes and had placed them in a wash tub when she felt a rough hand savagely grab her around the wrist! Startled, she turned to see who was holding her and realized that no one was there. The pressure on her wrist was intense and she could even see her own skin starting to redden from the hold the hand had on her and yet the hand itself remained unseen. Then, the invisible assailant began dragging her away from the table and towards the staircase. She struggled but the force was so powerful that she only managed to try and fight back as she was tugged along against her will. Finally, she began to scream as loudly as she could and her shrill cries brought Raudell Perez and one of the waiters upstairs to see what was going on.

When they arrived, they found the server lying on the floor. One of the heels on her shoes had snapped off as she was dragged across floor and she had painful-looking red welts on her arm -- welts that looked strangely like human fingers! Immediately thinking that the server had been attacked by an intruder, Perez snatched a large steak knife from the tub of dirty dishes and searched the second floor. However, the place was empty. The server then explained to him that it had not been an intruder but rather she had been assaulted by an invisible being of some kind. She was visibly shaken and upset and Perez had no reason not to believe her story. He sent her home for the night but she did not return the next day and later quit working for the restaurant.

Even though the sťances that had been held in the restaurant never really produced any clues or solid answers as to reasons behind the haunting, Billy Siegel granted permission to author Dale Kaczmarek and members of the Ghost Research Society to spend the night inside of That Steak Joynt on two occasions in 1991 and 1994. On both occasions, they remained in the building from closing time until dawn. In 1991, they were joined by reporter Celeste Busk and for the second investigation, by Janet Davies of WLS Television.

The restaurant was divided into several sections that were manned by investigators using cameras, tape recorders and other electronic devices. Although paranormal investigations involve hours of drudgery and waiting around for anything to happen, occasionally they can pay off, especially in very active locations like That Steak Joynt. The 1991 investigation resulted in some exciting and often chilling happenings, including a glowing red light that was seen by several witnesses; the detection of some magnetic disturbances in the building that shouldnít have existed; and a glowing, candle-light image that was seen by several witnesses.

Some of the photos obtained that night were nothing short of amazing. The first, mentioned earlier in connection with the marble bust of the grinning peasant, was actually an energy that was sensed by a psychic who accompanied the investigation team. The strange fingers of light that she divined were verified by a 35mm camera, adding stock to the psychicís additional observations. Other photographs revealed a white, crescent-shaped light near the womenís restroom but most unusual were the almost identical photos that were taken with two different cameras in a dining room. In each of the photographs, a monk-like figure in what appears to be a robe is superimposed over a table. His upper torso and lower extremities can be plainly seen but the middle of the manís body is missing, as if he is inserted into the table itself!

The later 1994 investigation was just as eventful, at least in terms of strange experiences and reports. While filming with a video camera on the first floor, one of the Ghost Research Society members managed to capture a door that led into the kitchen actually opening under its own power. Moments after this occurred, the team conducted airflow tests of the doorway and discovered that there was indeed a draft that blew through the area -- however, the door actually opened against the draft! This could only mean that the door had to be physically pushed open. What could not be explained is how this could happen when there was no one present who could have pushed it.

The investigators also documented flickering lights, cold spots, phantom footsteps, the sound of something being dragged across the floor in an empty room and a dim figure that was seen sitting at a downstairs dining room table. When the team members tried to approach the figure for a closer look, it vanished. There was no one else around the area and the researchers were convinced that it had not been a trick of the light. Who it might have been remains a mystery.

After That Steak Joynt closed down, the building on North Wells remained empty for a number of years, although it is currently open again as the Adobo Grill, serving upscale Mexican food. If there have been any strange happenings in the old bakery since it has re-opened, I have not heard about them. If there are any new happenings, are they being kept secret? Or did the years of silence serve to quiet the haunting for good? No one knows, or at least no one is talking, so only the future will reveal if the spirits are still restless here. The mysteries of the place certainly still have yet to be revealedÖ

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.