“Hot steaks and cool jazz”
While Evanston can be considered a college town, it is not one in the same way that other notable Illinois college towns are like DeKalb, Champagne-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Charleston, and even Macomb. Northwestern University students tend to be far more book-oriented and are often considered much lamer than those at other state or Big 10 (really 11) universities. I find this reflective of Evanston’s culture, which is at times very liberal with social issues but very conservative with drinking and having fun of any kind. Thankfully, the Clean Plate Club has done a magnificent job of bringing a bit of entertainment to what was once a very droll town by opening a variety of restaurants and bars, including the Davis Street Fish Market and Merle’s #1 Barbeque, that rivals that of Wolfgang Puck and Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You chain. A particular standout in the Clean Plate Club is Pete Miller’s Seafood & Prime Steak, which has helped Evanston overcome its reputation of being boring while fitting in extraordinarily well with Evanston’s casual good taste.
Contrary to popular belief, Pete Miller’s is located in on Sherman Avenue in beautiful downtown Evanston, not Chicago’s North Side, and is not to be confused with Miller’s Pub in the Loop. To get there, one can drive and either pray to the god of street parking for a miracle spot or just bite the bullet and pay for the valet, or one can take the Purple Line El to the Davis Street stop two blocks away. A lone, old-fashioned lamppost stands upon a cobblestone sidewalk in front of the entrance to the blue-painted, wooden façade of Pete Miller’s. Once inside, you’ll come to a three-way intersection. Here, you can wait for a table in the dining room area, take a seat in the main bar or head to the billiards room to have a game of pool. The bathrooms are also located here, just next to the lobster tank. The dining area is filled with low-slung wooden tables topped with white tablecloths and votive candles in crystal holders, and is situated on the west end of the room next to the windows facing out onto Sherman Avenue and in front of the stage. A combination of white shades and thick wood-slatted blinds shield you from the sun during the day and are raised at night to take in the people-watching of those going to and from places like the Keg and one of the most recent incarnations of the Bar Louie chain. In this area, one can dine on an impressive variety of seafood, steaks and chops, including Beef Wellington, rib-eye, t-bone, filet mignon, prime rib, “Pop’s Cut” (a 16-ounce, bone-in filet), and a 48-ounce Porterhouse. They also serve garlic mashed potatoes – spanking gorgeous. Though largely ignored, even the burgers at Pete Miller’s are quite good as they are made with prime beef. For those of you not aware, take note: “prime” is the highest rating of meat there is in the US, and the vast majority of it is only available in fine restaurants. Grocery stores and even butcher shops rarely have access to prime beef, so you need to know where to get it if you really want the good stuff. While a meal at Pete Miller’s may seem a bit pricey, it’s worth every penny and the cocktails are no more expensive than Bar Louie across the street. Lunch is no longer available.
Dark velvet, tassled curtains hang behind the stage where an excellent variety of jazz bands play nightly except Sundays. At a certain point in the evening, the white tablecloths come off and the band plays on when the dining room transforms into a funky, smoky lounge. Bands begin playing at 8:30 p.m., and range from local jazz trios to Chicago jazz legends, many of which also play at Chicago’s Green Mill and Pops for Champagne like the Sabertooth Quintet and the Bobby Broom Trio who was broadcast live from Pete Miller’s on New Year’s Eve 2001 on National Public Radio’s “Toast of a Nation” program that was also simulcast as part of Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years Eve celebration in Times Square.
Pete Miller’s also hosts an annual celebration of music, barbeque and jambalaya known as the “Jump and Verve Jazz Festival.” While this festival draws large crowds, many are quite surprised that it no longer serves as a fundraiser for Evanston’s BEHIV (Better Existence with HIV) charity, especially as the former owner and founder of the Clean Plate Club, Steve Prescott, died from AIDS. However, in an attempt to set the record straight, the manager of the festival, Scott Anderson, e-mailed me to say, “BEHIV was the beneficiary for a couple of years but the reality is that the event did not really bring them much money. The cost of producing the event for Pete Miller’s and the cost to BEHIV in terms of their time and energy was not worth it to either party… In regards to our community contributions, we donate thousands of meals and dollars to not-for-profit and charitable organizations every year. In fact, we have a partnership with City of Hope, a cancer research agency, where we donate all proceeds of merchandise sold. This year our owners received the Small Business Persons of the Year Award by the Evanston Chamber of Commerce for their contributions to the Evanston community, both economically and charitably.” Thanks, Scott, for clearing this oft misunderstood change of direction concerning the Jump and Verve Jazz Festival and thank you Pete Miller’s for giving back to the community.
Adjacent to the dining area and on the east end of the room is an elevated, wooden bar area with brass railings and additional seating. Next to that is an additional dining area located at the south end of the room. Hanging from a white drop-ceiling, fans swirl above with old-fashioned, tassled lights (Pete Miller’s loves its tassles). One can have a seat at the bar or at one of the wooden cocktail tables. An American flag hangs on the beige-painted north wall next to a smattering of old photographs of Evanston street scenes, opposite the exposed brick south wall. A photo of “Pete,” the canine mascot of Pete Miller’s used to grace the walls until it was stolen recently by a misaligned patron. A free Porterhouse, garlic mashed potatoes and a glass of wine have been offered for any information leading to the return of Pete.
Once you are completely sated and have had your fill of the band, get up and stretch your legs by heading into the carpeted, wood-paneled billiards room and have a game of stick in “the only billiards room in Evanston.” Here, five antique oak, regulation-sized pool tables with antique parlor stools with cue notches and wall-mounted brass scorekeepers stand opposite the bar along the east wall. A few TVs or a seat by the windows can help pass the time between shots (either of the alcohol or billiards variety). While not a sports bar, Pete Miller’s did have an interesting year-long promotion entitled “Sweet 16” in 2001 that honored the Bears’ triumphant Super Bowl victory in 1986, 16 years earlier. For $16.16 during games, patrons in the Billiards Room would receive a 16-ounce ribeye steak and a 16-ounce beer. The first 16 people requesting the deal received the promotion for free.
Pete Miller’s attracts an older crowd, businessmen after work, parents during Northwestern events, and those looking to celebrate special occasions. Most college students head instead to Tommy Nevin’s, Keg or Coach’s in search of drink specials of which Pete Miller’s has none (although they never charge a cover). The result is a quietly sophisticated atmosphere, with steaks, jazz and billiards to compliment the classic feel of the place. Pete Miller’s also serves a fine variety of ales, including Prescott’s Lager (named after founder Steve Prescott), as well as single-malt Scotch, bourbon, whiskey, port, and cigars that will satisfy the enthusiast of any of these vices. Pipes are also permitted. If that doesn’t do much for you, try Pete’s 10-ounce martini and all will be just fine. Instead of just having “Pete Miller’s” on the outside, they should follow the example set by their sibling establishment, Tommy Nevin’s Pub, and have “Steaks, Jazz, Cocktails, Pool” to denote all that they excel at.
In case you were wondering, there actually was a Pete Miller. His name was actually Harold “Pete” Miller and he was a WWII veteran and, “As colorful as a character can be,” according to the Pete Miller’s website. Apparently, the old sod had a penchant for jazz, a great steak, a friendly game of billiards, and a good, honest drink. The establishment was named after him as good ol’ Pete was both a friend and mentor to the ownership. Pete passed away in 1994 after 74 years on this fine orb, and the restaurant and bar offer a great legacy for the man.
Overall, Pete Miller’s has become an Evanston institution by offering the best steaks, jazz and billiards club in town. The place has also added seafood to their list of specialties with the recent arrival of Chef Sandy Beckett. As a result, the place even gives some of the best steakhouses, seafood joints and jazz clubs a little further south a run for their money, making Pete Miller’s one of the best in all of Chicagoland. Think of it as a modern-day supper club, Evanston-style, and one hell of an improvement over the Bennigan’s that used to be located in its place. Morton’s and Green Mill, eat your hearts out! Those farther out may appreciate that a new location of Pete Miller’s has recently opened in Wheeling, giving people a choice beyond Bob Chinn’s for seafood. For more information, check out Pete Miller’s Seafood & Prime Steak website. Cheers, Lovey.