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Imagine a cafeteria that seated more than 1200 patrons at once. One that had marble floors and an orchestra playing. One that sold fresh flowers and souvenirs. One where the grand lobby was a meeting place for friends, and where flappers paraded around in their new finery to see and be seen. That was the Ontra Cafeteria, one of the largest restaurants in the country at the time.
The description of the opening says, "In a day, the new Ontra achieved prestige equal to that of the two downtown Ontras, which they were years in acquiring. Surely the new Ontra is filling a long-felt want. Already its commodious lobby has become Uptown Chicago's great central place for appointments -- please feel welcome to use this accommodation at all times." Thousands of people showed up for the grand opening. It was described as "a gala event."
Another ad read, "Why go to Atlantic City when you can sit here?"
The Ontra's great success was due primarily to the throngs of people who came to Uptown in the 1920s, when its many glittering movie palaces showed daily matinées and the Loren Miller Store and others catered to stylish shoppers. According to historian Perry Duis, "Her business was in a logical location because it served the needs of those living in over 90 apartment hotels, as well as hundreds of leased-space apartment buildings. Most of the over 400,000 Uptown residents were singles or childless couples who worked during the day, frequented the theaters, clubs and dance halls at night, and took the majority of their meals outside of their living quarters."
We're not sure when Uptown's Ontra Cafeteria closed its doors. The Great Depression changed Uptown forever, because for many, there was no longer much money for entertainment, theaters, restaurants or shopping.
We are left with some of the beautiful buildings built here in the 1920s -- the Sheridan Plaza, the Uptown Broadway Building, the ICA/GreenRise building, the Uptown Theater ... the list goes on and on. But there's nothing left of the once-grand Ontra Cafeteria.
What's currently at the site where the glittering restaurant that could seat 1200 patrons once stood? The McDonald's at Wilson and Sheridan.