As the first business venture from the now massive restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, R.J. Grunts is a classic Chicago restaurant. It is located in Lincoln Park literally right across from the Lincoln Park Zoo, making it a convenient location to grab some grub with the family before or after seeing animals from across the world at the zoo. The outside of the restaurant is fairly plain, minus the fun wood R.J. Grunts sign.
Once you head inside you step back a bit in time, as the restaurant is equipped with funky, kitschy, and wacky 70’s style decor, along with music from that decade as well. The interior includes a disco ball, a fake marble statue, a chandelier, a large mural of a banana, and countless black and white photographs hanging along every wall. Another part of the interior that is sure to catch your eye, and perhaps enter your stomach during the course of your meal is their salad bar. While R.J. Grunts is known for other food many customers will opt for its massive self-service salad bar boasts which boasts more than 50 ingredients daily according to the restaurant.
The menu is extremely fun, creative, and witty with cartoon characters and quotes scattered throughout. There are a ton of choices at R.J. Grunts, most American staples like milkshakes and sandwiches. However, the restaurant website says, “the burgers are arguably the best in town.” Unfortunately in my humble opinion this quote couldn’t be more wrong as the two burgers I tried are arguably among the worst I’ve had in one of the best burger cities in the US, Chicago.
During my only visit to R.J. Grunts with my brother Jonathan we tried two burgers as the waitress highly recommended getting their “famous” burgers. From the start though the service was a bit off as the waitress took over 15 minutes to come to our table. After ordering it took a little over a half hour for our burgers to arrive. Jonathan got the Green Chile Cheeseburger, which was topped with poblano chilis, cheddar, chipotle mayo, lettuce, pickles, and red onion. My brother thought the burger was just ok and I agree as the patty was overcooked and the cheese was not even melted (as can be seen from the picture below). The fries were pretty average as well, lacking seasoning and a bit undercooked.
I decided to go with the namesake burger at the restaurant, the Gruntburger. According to the menu it was created back in 1971 and is made with fried onions and blue cheese. This is probably the worst burger I’ve had in Chicago since I moved here a few years ago. There was barely any blue cheese on the burger, the fried onions were soggy, and the patty was burnt to a crisp. The waitress persuaded me to get the burger with chips instead of fries, as she said they were known for their potato chips. Half of my chips weren’t even fully cooked and were soft and soggy (there’s an undercooked and overcooked theme going on here). Personally, I like my potato chips how just about everyone else likes them, crunchy and crispy.
While I have only been to R.J. Grunts once, the fact that two awful burgers were brought out to us with subpar service doesn’t seem like just a one time fluke. It’s a shame because Lettuce Entertain You has some phenomenal restaurants in Chicago, but unfortunately their very first seems to have fallen downhill. I have no plans to go back and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, even if you are looking for food near the zoo. I would instead point you in the direction of other close by food spots like Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinders (although you’ll likely have to brave extremely long lines) or Riccardo Enoteca if you are in the mood for a bit more upscale Italian cuisine.
-Michael Averbook, Foodie Extraordinaire